Bacon's Rebellion of 1676

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Bacon's Rebellion of 1676

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.

This was not a new concept; 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, to eliminate Dutch competition in colonial trade. This helped trigger the first Anglo-Dutch War.
The barriers to Dutch 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 and, in 1673 during the Third Anglo-Dutch war, Virginia was threated 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 Berkely coopted 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.

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." Nathanial 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. Nathanial 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, Arkington. 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.

Berkely'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.


Bacon's Rebellion

Bacon's Rebellion, popular revolt in colonial Virginia in 1676, led by Nathaniel Bacon. High taxes, low prices for tobacco, and resentment against special privileges given those close to the governor, Sir William Berkeley, provided the background for the uprising, which was precipitated by Berkeley's failure to defend the frontier against attacks by Native Americans. Bacon commanded two unauthorized but successful expeditions against the tribes and was then elected to the new house of burgesses, which Berkeley had been forced to convene. When he attempted to take his seat, Berkeley had him arrested. Soon released, Bacon gathered his supporters, marched on Jamestown, and coerced Berkeley into granting him a commission to continue his campaigns against Native Americans. A circumspect assembly then passed several reform measures. The governor, having failed to raise a force against Bacon, fled to the Eastern Shore. He gathered enough strength to return to Jamestown, where he proclaimed Bacon and his men rebels and traitors. After a sharp skirmish Bacon recaptured the capital (Berkeley again took flight) but, fearing that he could not hold it against attack, set fire to the town. Bacon now controlled the colony, but he died suddenly (Oct., 1676), and without his leadership the rebellion collapsed. After a few months Berkeley returned to wreak a bloody vengeance before he was forced to return to England. Berkeley's removal and the end of attacks by Native Americans were the only benefits the yeomen had won in the rebellion, and the tidewater aristocracy long maintained its power.


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