Bacon's Rebellion

After the restoration of Charles II to the throne at the end of the English Civil War, Parliament passed the Navigation Acts of 1660-63. The tobacco planters in Virginia were no longer able to sell to customers in France, and Dutch ships were prohibited from trading with Virginia.

Mercantilism was based on the assumption that the mother country should receive most of the benefits from the colonies. The Puritans had passed their own Navigation Act of 1651, requiring that imports to England be transported in English ships in order to eliminate Dutch competition in colonial trade.

The barriers to trade triggered three separate Anglo-Dutch wars, in which the Dutch expanded their foothold in North America and then lost it. In 1655, the Dutch seized the Swedish colony at what today is Wilmington, Delaware. In 1664, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, England forced the Dutch to cede New Amsterdam (which was renamed New York). In 1667, Dutch raiders burned six tobacco ships in the James River. In 1673, during the Third Anglo-Dutch war, Virginia was threatened with a Dutch invasion.

Throughout the 1660's, tobacco prices were painfully low and Virginia planters struggled economically. The House of Burgesses passed the first official codes to establish perpetual slavery for blacks, but the costs of producing tobacco remained too high compared to the prices paid for the annual crops. Governor William Berkeley co-opted the gentry on the Council, and avoided calling a new election for the House of Burgesses between 1661-1676. As a result, there was no political outlet for the unhappy planters. Not surprisingly, the frustrations were vented in other ways.

Nathaniel Bacon As described by Warren Billings, "Loss of the Dutch trade, war with the Netherlands, the breakdown of peace with the Indians, and the revival of proprietary land grants compounded Berkeley's troubles."1

Nathaniel Bacon led "Bacon's Rebellion" in 1676, in which the House or Burgesses and Governor Berkeley were threatened at gunpoint and the colonial capital of Jamestown was burned.

Berkeley had refused to react to the claims that the Indians were committing murders and thefts on the frontier. The colonial governor was making a good profit from trading with the Indians, and was not willing to disrupt that business by triggering open war. Nathaniel Bacon triggered the civil war (one century before the American Revolution...) by demanding a military commission that would authorize him to attack the Susquehannock Indians.

When Bacon threatened to act without authorization, Berkeley declared him a rebel. The response was a public wave of support for Bacon, frightening Berkeley enough to trigger him to finally schedule an election for a new House of Burgesses. Bacon was elected, and Berkeley let him take his seat on the Council briefly. Bacon quickly left Jamestown, rallied a mob, and attacked innocent Occaneechi, Tutelo, and Saponi Indians. He pillaged their trading base at modern-day Clarksville at the confluence of the Dan and the Roanoke (Staunton) River, then marched back to the capital. The House of Burgesses, intimidated by the mob, passed legislation demanded by Bacon.

Berkeley fled to John Custis' plantation on the Eastern Shore, Arlington. Berkeley managed to seize the ship sent by Bacon to capture him, returned to Jamestown - but was forced to retreat again, while Bacon's forces captured and then burned the town.

Bacon died of a "bloody flux" before he and Berkeley met in battle. His forces dissolved without his charismatic leadership, and the General Assembly quickly repealed most of the liberal laws it had passed.

Berkeley's response was very harsh, hanging nearly two dozen men and seizing their estates to compensate his allies whose plantations had been plundered by Bacon's rebels. Charles II is reported to have been surprised at Berkeley's repression, saying "That old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I have done here for the murder of my father." Charles recalled Berkeley to England, where the governor died.

Was Bacon's Rebellion the First American Revolution for Liberty?

Bacon claimed to be a champion for those who lived on the frontier and were exposed to the threat of harm by Indians. Some who have chronicled Bacon's Rebellion present him as a revolutionary seeking liberty, fighting a benevolent despot who had turned into a tyrant and who, at the end, was a cruel reactionary.



1. Billings, Warren M., Sir William Berkeley, in Virtual Jamestown - Interpretive Essays, (last checked January 22, 2006)

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