Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) in Virginia was the largest uprising in the Thirteen Colonies before the time of the American Revolution a hundred years later. It was a failed attempt to overthrow the rich landowners who ruled Virginia. After the rebellion, the rich maintained their power by dividing the bottom 99% by race. It became the model for US society.
In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a “Rabble Crew”, “an incredible Number of the meanest People”, “English and Negroes in Armes”, whose “fortunes & Inclinations” were “desperate”. They marched on Jamestown, the capital, and burned it to the ground. The governor, William Berkeley, fled, asking the king across the sea to send his soldiers.
Berkeley had long feared this moment. He said of Virginians:
“six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed.”
Tobacco was Virginia’s big moneymaker. It took huge amounts of land and labour, creating a few big landowners. Virginia was only allowed to sell tobacco to British merchants, who kept prices low. In the late 1600s, most indentured servants started to outlive their contracts, creating a large number of free, poor, landless men. Most had guns.
By the 1660s there was the beginnings of the colour line, but it was weak: poor Whites and Blacks were used to working together, living together, running away together, having families together – and fighting together. Whites did not even call themselves “whites”, not till the 1670s.
To keep peace with the Indians (Native Americans), Berkeley built a line of forts to prevent Virginians from taking Native land to the west. Bacon, like many in backcountry Virginia, opposed this.
In 1675, fighting broke out with the Susquehannock Indians. Bacon felt that Berkeley’s defence of Virginia was half-hearted, so he raised an army of his own. Berkeley accused Bacon of treason. Bacon’s army marched on the capital.
Bacon controlled nearly all of Virginia when, suddenly, he died at age 29 of the bloody flux (dysentery, bloody diarrhoea). The king’s men arrived and put down the rebellion.
After the rebellion, the rich maintained their power by creating what, in effect, was a three-race model of society:
- Blacks, people of African blood, would provide slave labour. Virginia moved from using Black and White indentured servants and slaves to mainly using Black slaves. The civil rights of even free Blacks became limited. Any child a White person had with a Black person would become a slave – the One Drop Rule.
- Natives would provide land to create White wealth and buy social peace among Whites. Natives were painted as the enemy of Whites.
- Whites, people of pure European blood, would enjoy what rich landowners like Washington and Jefferson would later call “liberty” and “equality” – paid for by Black slave labour and Native land. Natives and Blacksprovide an Other that brings rich and poor Whites together.
- Poor Whites would provide the armed manpower to maintain the social order, by serving in Indian wars and slave patrols. Pushing Blacks to the bottom of society gave poor Whites a stake in the social order.
- Ronald Takaki, “A Different Mirror” (2008);
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” (2014);
- Samuel Eliot Morrison, “The Oxford History of the American People” (1972);
- Daniel K. Richter, “Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America” (2001);
- Audrey and Brian D. Smedley, “Race in North America” (2012);
- Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States” (2003);
- Online Etymology Dictionary