by midtowng | 11/25/2007 12:15:00 AM
Class Struggle: conflict between social or economic classes (especially between the capitalist and proletariat classes)

A century before the Declaration of Independence, America was undergoing a revolution. However, this revolution was not based on a desire for independence from England. This revolution was all about fighting class and racial oppression.

Society in the Virginia Colony of the 1670's was beginning to resemble society of England. The Tidewater Gentry made up only about 5% of the population of the colony, but owned nearly all the best land. The lower classes were pushed into the interior country were indian attacks were frequent and the land was rocky.
What's more, the lower class in Virginia had also been the lower class in Britain. Britain began criminalizing poverty nearly two centuries earlier and began forceably deporting its homeless and poor to wilderness colonies in 1597, a majority of whom died in the first few years.

Adding to the tensions were falling tobacco prices and high, regressive taxes on small farmers to pay for fort construction. Berkeley managed to get some relief from the taxes for his personal friends, but not for the colony in general. There were natural disasters such as hailstorms, hurricanes, and droughts that year.

But the overarching political background was the legacy of the English Civil War. The victory by Parliament in that war was also a victory by the upper class.


William Berkeley was already 70-years old during Bacon's Rebellion. He had fought for the King during the Civil War and had been forced into retirement in Virginia by the defeat.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Berkeley was in a unique position and found himself appointed governor of the Virginia Colony.
Berkeley was a playwright and scholar, and a favorite of the King.

Nathaniel Bacon, 40 years younger than Berkeley, was Berkeley's cousin through marriage. After acquiring some Tidewater Land, he was appointed to the governing council in 1675.

Trouble with the locals

The troubles began with a dispute between the Doeg Indians and plantation owner Thomas Mathews. It seems Mathews didn't always pay for goods he purchased. The Doegs attacked the plantation and several were killed.
Bacon organized a large group of settlers for a retaliatory raid...and then attacked the wrong tribe, the Susquehannocks.
Frequent complaints of bloodshed were sent to Sir William Berkeley from the heads of the rivers, which were as often answered with promises of assistance. These at the heads of James and York rivers (having now most people destroyed by the Indians) grew impatient at the many slaughters of their neighbours and rose or their own defence, who choosing. Bacon for their leader, sent oftentimes to the Governor, humbly beseeching a commission to go against those Indians at their own charge.
Mr. Bacon, with fifty-seven men, proceeded until the fired the palisades, stormed and burned the fort and cabins, and (with the loss of three English) slew 150 Indians.
The Susquehannocks retaliated and killed hundreds of settlers.
In order to contain the situation before it spiraled completely out of control, Berkeley set up up a meeting between the warring parties. The meeting went horribly wrong and several of the tribal chiefs were killed. Berkeley also set up a "Long Assembly" to investigate the whole affair. The assembly was accused of corruption because of its preference of trade over the security of the small farmers.
Not coincidentally, most of the favored traders were friends of Berkeley. Regular traders, some of whom had been trading independently with the local Indians for generations, were no longer allowed to trade individually.
As if that wasn't enough, most independent traders were banned from dealing with the indians on the grounds of preventing arms from falling into the hands of hostiles.
However, the assembly wasn't without its virtues. An outrage that had been building for decades forced the council to reform voting rights. For the first time all freedmen would be allowed to vote, and limits would be put on the number of years that someone could hold office.

Berkeley continued to plead for calm during this crisis, while Bacon demanded that he authorize a retaliatory raid. It didn't help Berkeley's cause that he was making a tidy profit on his monopoly on the beaver trade with the local indians.
Bacon demanded a commission to launch a raid against the attacking indians, but Berkeley declined. When Bacon proceeded anyway, Berkeley declared him a rebel, and also agreed to pardon any of Bacon's men if they went home peacefully. Berkeley rode into Bacon's headquarters at Henrico with 300 armed men and Bacon fled into the forest with 200 of his men. Berkeley then called for an election to the House of Burgesses to gauge the colony's leaning. Much to Berkeley's surprise, the colony elected Bacon to the Burgess.

In June 1676 Bacon traveled to Jamestown to take his seat on the Burgess.
He once again demanded his commission to continue expeditions against the Indians. He was immediately arrested and was ordered by Berkeley to apologize. Bacon complied, and, once he apologized, was pardoned and permitted to take his seat with the rest of the Burgesses. He was still not given a commission.
At this point Bacon was gathering an increasing amount of popular support with all classes of colonists, except for the upper class. Berkeley failed to notice the shift.

Civil War

Bacon continued to demand a commission to fight against the indians. During the debate Bacon grew disgusted. He left the proceedings, gathered up a large group of armed men and surrounded the statehouse. Once again he demanded a commission. Berkeley answered with, "Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot."
Bacon didn't shoot Berkeley, but Bacon also didn't back down. After several minutes of strong words, Berkeley backed down. He gave into all of Bacon's demands. Berkeley's authority was in shambles while Bacon dominated Jamestown from July to September of 1676.

Shortly afterwards an indian attack distracted Bacon. While Bacon responded, Berkeley attempted to launch his own coup.
General Bacon marched with 1,000 men into the forest to seek the enemy Indians; and, in a few days after, our next news was that the Governor had summoned together the militia of Gloucester and Middlesex counties, to the number of 1,200 men, and proposed to them to follow and suppress the rebel Bacon.
Bacon stormed it (Jamestown) and took the town, in which attack were twelve men slain and wounded, but Governor Berkeley, with most of the followers, fled back down the river in their vessels. Here, resting a few days, they agreed to the burning of the town. Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Drumond, owning the two best houses save one, set fire each to his own house, which example the soldiers following laid the whole town (with church and statehouse) in ashes, saying the rogues should harbor no more there.

Berkeley's coup failed because Bacon had the popular support of the people. Not just the farmers, but also the laborers, indentured servants, and even slaves. This was class war, and for the first time in colonial history the poor were winning.
Bacon, in order to cement his popularity, made a Declaration of the People on July 30, 1676. Most notable during his leadership was recognition of the right to bear arms.
Berkeley fled to John Custis' plantation on the Eastern Shore. By this time Bacon's control over his troops was beginning to degrade. The burning of Jamestown on September 19, despite targeting the aristocracy, was a little extreme for many of his followers. A ship sent by Bacon to the Eastern Shore was seized by Berkeley's men.

Collapse of the rebellion and fallout

The final showdown between Bacon and Berkeley never happened.
On October 26th, 1676, Bacon abruptly died of the "Bloodie Flux" and "Lousey Disease" (body lice). His body was likely burned. Leadership of the rebellion fell to Bacon's right hand man, Joseph Ingram. However, Ingram had none of the charisma of Bacon, and the rebellion collapsed. Several armed merchant ships arrived in Jamestown and took the side of Berkeley.
In a matter of weeks Berkeley had regained control of the colony. Berkeley immediately repealed all of the liberal reforms passed that year, including the right to bear arms. He also launched a reign of terror against political opponents.
He seized rebel property without the benefit of a trial. He also hung all the rebel leaders, 23 in all.

Months later, when the Royal Navy and Royal Commissioners arrived, the colonists had the chance to vent their grievances. Amnesty was issued for everyone except Bacon. Berkeley was relieved of his command and called back to England.

"That old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I have done here for the murder of my father."
- King Charles II commenting on William Berkeley




Blogger Unknown on 11/28/2007 10:58 PM:

Very well done.

My only comment, having done a piece on Bacon myself, is that you fell for the all-too-easy mistake to make with that graphic (don't worry, Wikipedia makes it too). That's not a picture of the Nat Bacon you're talking about -- it's a picture of his grandfather, a British MP and Knight of the Realm. (Note the "Sir" before Bacon's name in the image, an attribute which Nat Bacon never held.)