Nathaniel Bacon


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Bacon, NATHANIEL, patriot; born in Suffolk, England, January 2, 1642. He was educated at the Inns of Court, London; came to America with a considerable fortune in 1670; settled in Gloucester county, Virginia, and owned a large estate high up on the James River. A lawyer by profession and eloquent in speech, he easily exercised great influence over the people. He became a member of the council in 1672. He was a republican in sentiment; and, strongly opposing the views and public conduct of Governor Berkeley, the stanch loyalist, he stirred up the people to rebellion. Berkeley, who was very popular at first, had become tyrannical and oppressive as an uncompromising royalist and rigorous executor of his royal master's will. At the same time republicanism had begun a vigorous growth among the people of Virginia; but it was repressed somewhat by a majority of royalists in the House of Burgesses; and the council were as pliant tools of Berkeley as any courtiers who paid homage to the King. The governor rigidly enforced navigation laws oppressive to colonial commerce; and the marriage laws, and the elective and other franchises, were modified, abridged, or abolished. The Church of England was made supreme, and was an instrument of persecution in the hands of the dominant party, in attempts to drive Baptists, Quakers, and Puritans out of Virginia. Stimulated by these oppressions, republicanism grew vigorously in Virginia, and the toilers and righteous men of the aristocracy soon formed a powerful republican party that threatened to fill the House of Burgesses with men of their creed. Berkeley, having a pliant majority of the cavalier class in the Assembly, sanctioned unjust and arbitrary decrees of the King, who gave to profligate court favorites, first large tracts of land, some of it cultivated, in Virginia; and, finally, in 1673, he gave to two of them (Lord Culpepper and Earl of Arlington) " all the dominion of land and water called Virginia " for thirty years.

Colonists of Virginia Become Discontent

The best men in the colony of both parties, alarmed by this proceeding, sent a committee with a remonstrance to the King, but the mission was fruitless. The republicans were very indignant. Rebellious murmurs were heard everywhere in the colony; and the toiling people were taught to regard the aristocracy as their enemies, and so the majority of them were. Having a majority in the legislature of the colony, they ruled without any regard for the happiness of the people. Everything for the public good was neglected. There were no roads or bridges in Virginia; and the people were compelled to travel along bridle-paths on land, and to ford or swim the streams. They journeyed on the water in canoes or boats, and endured many hardships. The working people lived in log-cabins with unglazed windows. There were no villages. At the time, Jamestown, the capital, consisted of only a church, a State-house, and eighteen dwellings; and, until lately, the Assembly had met in the hall of an ale-house. This was about seventy years after the founding of the colony, when it contained 50,000 inhabitants. The large landowners - the aristocracy - meanwhile were living in luxury in fine mansions, in sight of some beautiful river, surrounded by negro slaves and other dependants, and enjoying a sort of patriarchal life. The governor was clamoring for an increase of his salary, while his stables and fields had seventy horses in them, and flocks of sheep were on his great plantation, called "Green Spring." The tendency of such a state of society was obvious to every reflecting mind.

Indian Troubles

It was at this juncture that Bacon arrived in Virginia, and espoused the cause of the republicans. In the summer of 1675 the Indians, seeing their domain gradually absorbed by the encroaching white people, in their despair struck a heavy blow. As they swept from the North through Maryland, John Washington, grandfather of the first President of the United States, opposed them with a force of Virginians, and a fierce border war ensued. Berkeley, who had the monopoly of the furtrade with the natives, treated the latter leniently. Six chiefs, who had come to camp to treat for peace, were treacherously slain by Englishmen. The wrathful Indians strewed their pathway, in the country between the Rappahannock and James rivers, with the dead bodies of ten Englishmen for every chief that was treacherously murdered, and blackened its face with fire. The supineness of the governor increased the sense of insecurity among the people, and a deputation headed by Bacon petitioned him for leave to arm and protect themselves. Berkeley, having reason, as he thought, to suspect Bacon of ambitious rather than patriotic motives (for he had been engaged in an insurrection before), refused to grant this prayer.

Bacon's Rebellion

At this Bacon took fire. He knew the cause of the refusal, and he at once proclaimed that he was ready to lead the people against the approaching invaders without permission, if another white person should be murdered by them. Very soon news reached him that some on his own plantation, near (present) Richmond, had been slain. He summoned the people to a consultation. Mounting a stump, he addressed them with impassioned eloquence, denounced the governor, and advised his hearers to take up arms in their own defense. They were soon embodied in military force, and chose Bacon as their general. He asked the governor to give him a commission as such, but was refused; and Bacon marched against the Indians without it. Before he had reached York River, the governor proclaimed him a rebel, and ordered his followers to disperse. A greater portion of them followed Bacon's standard, and the expedition pushed forward; while the lower settlements arose in insurrection, and demanded an immediate dissolution of the aristocratic Assembly. The Indians were driven back to the Rappahannock, a new Assembly was chosen, and Bacon was elected to a seat in the House of Burgesses from Henrico county.

The new House represented the popular will. They gave Bacon a commission as general, but Berkeley refused to sign it. Some of the Assembly supported the governor in the matter, when Bacon, fearing treachery, retired to the " Middle Plantation " (now Williamsburg), where 500 followers proclaimed him commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. With these he appeared at Jamestown, and demanded his commission. Regarding the movement as revolutionary, the governor again refused to sign it. The sturdy old cavalier went out in great anger before the insurgent chief, and baring his bosom, exclaimed, " Shoot! shoot! it is a fair mark!" Bacon said, respectfully, " Not a hair of your head shall be hurt; we have come for our commissions to save our lives from the Indians." The governor, influenced by his judgment when his anger had cooled, or by his fears, not only signed the commission, but joined his council in commending Bacon to the King as a zealous, loyal, and patriotic citizen. That was done on July 4, 1676, just 100 years before the famous Declaration of Independence, written by a Virginia " rebel," THOMAS JEFFERSON, proclaimed the English-American colonies " free and independent States."

Bacon, so encouraged, immediately marched against the Indians. The faithless governor, relieved of his presence, crossed the York River, called a convention of the inhabitants of Gloucester county, and proposed to proclaim Bacon a traitor. The convention refused to do so, when the haughty baronet issued such a proclamation on his own responsibility, in spite of their remonstrances. The news of this perfidy reached Bacon at his camp on the Pamunky River. He addressed his followers with much warmth, saying, " It vexes me to the heart that, while I am hunting the wolves and tigers that destroy our lands, I should myself be pursued as a savage. Shall persons wholly devoted to their King and countrymen who hazard their lives against the public enemy - deserve the appellation of 'rebels' and 'traitors'? The whole country is witness to our peaceable behavior. But those in authority, how have they obtained their estates? Have they not devoured the common treasury? What arts, what sciences, what learning have they promoted? I appeal to the King and Parliament, where the cause of the people will be heard impartially." Under the circumstances, Bacon felt himself compelled to lead in a revolution. He invited the Virginians to meet in convention at the Middle Plantation. The best men in the colony were there. They debated and deliberated on a warm August day from noon until midnight. Bacon's eloquence and logic led them to take an oath to support their leader in subduing the Indians and in preventing civil war; and again he went against the Indians. The governor, alarmed by the proceedings at the Middle Plantation, fled, with his council, to the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, where, by promises of booty, he tried to raise an army among the inhabitants and the seamen of English vessels there. William Drummond, who had been the first governor of North Carolina, with his brave and patriotic wife, Sarah, was then with Bacon. Mrs. Drummond did much to incite the Virginians to go on in the path of revolution, and she was denounced as "a notorious, wicked rebel." Her husband proposed to Bacon to proclaim government in the colony abdicated by Berkeley on account of his act. It was suggested that a power would come from England that would ruin the republicans in the colony. Sarah snatched up a small stick from the ground, and exclaimed, " I fear the power of England no more than a broken straw. The child that is unborn shall have cause to rejoice for the good that will come by the rising of the country." The proclamation of abdication was made, on the ground that the governor was fomenting civil war; and writs were issued for a representative convention.

Meanwhile Berkeley had gathered a motley host of followers incited by promises of plunder; proclaimed the freedom of the slaves of " rebels "; was joined by some Indians from the eastern shore, and the English ships were placed at his service. With this army, commanded by Major Beverly, the governor sailed with five ships and ten sloops, and landed at Jamestown early in September, 1676, where, after piously offering thanksgiving in the church, he proclaimed Bacon a traitor. Bacon was surprised, for he had then few followers in camp; but his ranks swelled rapidly as the news went from plantation to plantation. At the head of a considerable host of patriotic Virginians, he marched towards Jamestown, seizing by the way as hostages the wives of loyalists who were with Berkeley. The republicans appeared before the capital on a moonlit evening, and cast up entrenchments. In vain the governor urged his motley troops to attack them; they were not made of stuff for soldiers. Finally, the royalists stole away in the night, and compelled the indignant governor to follow them, when Bacon entered Jamestown, and assumed the reins of civil power. Very soon he was startled by a rumor that the royalists of the upper counties were coming down upon him. In a council of war it was agreed to burn the capital. The torch was applied at the twilight of a soft September day, and the next morning nothing was left but the brick tower of the church and a few chimneys (see JAMESTOWN) . Then Bacon hastened to meet the approaching royalists, who, not disposed to fight, deserted their leader and joined the "rebels." At the same time the royalists of Gloucester yielded their allegiance to Bacon, and he resolved to cross the Chesapeake and drive the royalists and Berkeley from Virginia. His plans were suddenly frustrated by a foe deadlier than the malignity of the royalists who opposed him. The malaria from the marshes around Jamestown in September had poisoned his blood, and on October 11, 1676, he died of malignant fever. His followers made but feeble resistance thereafter; and before November Berkeley returned to the Peninsula and resumed the functions of government at the Middle Plantation, which was made the capital of Virginia. Bacon had failed; yet those " do not fail who die in a good cause." His name is embalmed in history as a rebel; had he succeeded, he would have been immortalized as a patriot. His principal followers were very harshly treated by the soured governor, and for a while terror reigned in Virginia. The rebellion cost the colony $500,000. See BERKELEY, SIR WILLIAM.




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