by Christian Rivera
Bacon’s rebellion was sparked in the summer of 1676, after years of social polarization between poor farmers and elite planters, and fighting with Native Americans—and a widely disputed policy intended to establish boundaries between English and Native American settlements—culminated in what was arguably the first rebellion in the American Colonies in which English settlers played a role. Had the English population not grown, the policy—which limited the natives to wilderness land beyond the outer limits of English settlements—might have worked. However, as the population grew, so did the demand for land.
After about 30 years of continued population growth, the settlers further encroached on native territory. The natives responded to these encroachments by retaliating with ever-escalating attacks on frontier settlements. The uprising, which was led by Nathaniel Bacon, was largely in protest against Governor William Berkeley’s refusal to provide military protection from these Native American attacks, and his failure to authorize Bacon to form an independent unit of his own.
In hopes to maintain peace, Governor William Berkeley mistakenly believed that branding Bacon a rebel—and threatening to punish him for treason—for leading a march to track hostile natives (despite his lack of authorization), and calling an election would bring in new burgesses who would endorse his policies. Instead, his plan set in motion a chain of events that would alter the course of history.
Nathaniel Bacon—along with many other frontier leaders—was elected into the House of Burgesses. Following the election, the new legislature passed Bacon’s Laws, which was a series of measures that gave the settlers a voice in government affairs and restored the vote to all freemen. Under pressure, Berkeley eventually pardoned Bacon and authorized his war against the Indians. However, the elite planters ultimately convinced Berkeley that Bacon and his forces were a larger threat to the settlers than the natives were.
When Bacon learned that Governor Berkeley had again branded him a traitor, he declared war on Berkeley and the elite planters. For the following 3 months, Bacon fought the natives, sacked plantations, and attacked Jamestown. Those loyal to Berkeley retaliated by burning the homes of those loyal to Bacon. The fighting continued until Bacon’s sudden death in late October. Leaderless, the rebels were unable to continue their campaign, and in the wake of Nathaniel Bacon’s death, Berkeley promptly hanged 23 of Bacon’s troops, and confiscated the property of others—actions that violated English property laws.
In the end, the rebellion did nothing to remove the grandees from power, and in fact, strengthened their influence. Upon learning of the rebellion, King Charles ordered an investigation, and Berkeley was recalled to England and replaced as governor. The king also nullified Bacon’s laws, and instituted new export taxes on tobacco in order to pay for government expenses in such a way that circumvented the House of Burgesses. The king’s export taxes, however, allowed the colonial government to greatly reduce taxes for the people—to the tune of 75% between 1660 and 1700.
Over time, tensions between the grandees and the poor farmers gradually lessened with the introduction of slaves from Africa, and as the ruling class realized that it would be safer to let the settlers fight Indians than to fight each other. Lawmakers looked the other way as the settlers again encroached on Indian lands. Overall, the most significant contribution to political stability was the declining dependence on the servant labor system. Partly due to improving economic conditions in England, fewer servants were arriving in the region, thus the number of poor, newly freed servants declined—greatly reducing the numbers of the lower class.