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Nathaniel Bacon was born in England in 1647, was born a gentleman, educated at Cambridge and was related to the famous philosopher, Francis Bacon. By 1673 Bacon has migrated to America to start a new life in the Virginia Colony. Bacon was said to be handsome, of average height with dark hair, passionate, and articulate. Bacon was quickly accepted by the ruling elite in Virginia due to his background, given a place on Governor Berkeley's council (to whom Bacon was related by marriage), and well regarded--at least for a time. Bacon was known to utter the oath, "Damn my blood" frequently enough to be recorded in history.
Bacon's arrival in Virginia coincided with a number of crises that were roiling the colony. Previous trade problems had made tobacco trade less profitable, native American relations had broken down into open warfare, and the governor, Sir William Berkeley had presided over the, "Long Parliament" that had sat for fourteen years without democratic elections. Berkeley's inaction in the face of these challenges prompted the colonists to seek leadership elsewhere--Bacon was not shy to assume that leadership.
Nathaniel Bacon responded to the security panic of the subjects in Charles City County by assuming the command of a force to attack the native tribes. Bacon achieved his goal but seems to have killed what would be considered non-combatants by modern standards of warfare, and very likely was considered equally reprehensible in the 17th Century.
Berkeley charged Bacon with rebellion and treason for attacking the tribe without commission. Bacon, however, was supported by public opinion and elected to the House of Burgesses from Henrico County even as Berkeley removed Bacon from the council. The new elections only solidified the radical faction in the colony and made government less manageable than before.
Bacon was captured and taken to the Capitol in Jamestown. Berkeley seems to have been effected by the large crowds that gathered to support Bacon, and so Berkeley offered Bacon a pardon if he could once again behave like a "gentleman." The offer seems to have been prearranged along with Bacon's written admission of guilt.
By June of 1676 the Royal Governor and the radical faction seemed reconciled to cooperation. Tension still existed, however, between the camps. Bacon seems to have decided that the quiet in relations was merely a lull before he was to be attacked by Berkeley. With, perhaps, some knowledge of the Governor's intent, Bacon fled Jamestown just ahead of Berkeley's men.
Not long a fugitive, Bacon returned to Jamestown at the head of 100 men to demand a commission from the Governor. Berkeley came out of the Assembly building and personally confronted Bacon and challenged Bacon to fight. The 70 year old Governor and the much younger Bacon enacted a bizarre verbal fight, but no blows were offered by either man. Finally the Governor and Assembly gave Bacon a commission and enacted several reforms that democratized the Virginia government, but not without the Bacon men shooting into the Assembly building and frightening the sitting law makers.
"Bacon's Laws" as the reforms became known reduced the influence of the ruling few in Virginia. Voting was now to be the franchise of all freemen, the Vestry was to be elected instead of serving life appointments, more representation in taxation was made possible, and overlapping office holding was abolished. It seemed that the revolution of '76 had been successful in the June of 1676.
Unfortunately for the reform movement, as soon as Bacon left Jamestown to fight the native tribes, the Governor denounced Bacon as a traitor and tried to raise troops to end the rebellion. Bacon returned with his force to Jamestown, estimated at 1300 strong, and forced the Governor to flee to the Outershore Island of Virginia, Accomack.
Though the Governor and Bacon enacted a series of marches and retreats which also involved the eventual burning of Jamestown, Bacon's force was doomed to be swamped by disease and the gathering might of the British Empire. Before a major battle could be fought, Bacon died of fever in October of 1676 leaving his forces without the dynamic leadership which held together the revolutionaries. Indeed, Bacon's force had become revolutionary by overt acts against the Crown's Governor and destruction of Crown property. Had Bacon lived and gained independence for Virginia--not necessarily his stated goal--then he would have become a heroic patriot to a new nation.
The collapse of Bacon's rebellion followed swiftly. Twenty-three leaders were hanged as traitors. Bacon's Laws were immediately repealed, but over time many were reenacted by the Burgesses who sympathized with the mode moderate aims of the rebellion.
Bacon's rebellion should have acted as an alarm to the British Crown that the Americans were unwilling to live under a repressive regime. The warning was ignored until a century later when new rebels like Henry, Jefferson and Washington emerged from the colony of Virginia.