No one would have called Nathaniel Bacon a populist. He was, in fact, an ambitious young aristocrat who thought that Virginia’s Governor Berkeley and his associates were too common for the positions they held. But in Virginia in 1676, there were plenty of discontented people with grievances for him to exploit.
By 1660, two generations after Jamestown was founded,the “great planters” of the Tidewater had begun the process of monopolizing all of the most desirable land, as well as the deepwater landings along the rivers that provided access to Atlantic commerce. Small farmers—former indentured servants and free people of color—were pushed inland to the edges of settlement, where the local Indians still maintained a vigorous presence. Although taxes were increasingly burdensome, the Virginia elite were reluctant to spend any money for the defense of the frontier settlers.
Bacon cast himself as their savior. When an Indian raid gave him the opportunity, he bullied the Governor into giving him a commission to raise volunteers from the border area to punish the offenders. His mixed band of frontier settlers killed some hostile Indians, and massacred a considerably larger number of friendly ones. Then, after a series of feints and maneuvers between Bacon and the Governor, Bacon and his volunteers captured some more friendly Indians, marched them to Jamestown (pillaging the houses of the Governor’s supporters along the way,) and burned the town to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Bacon died of dysentery, and the rebellion collapsed.
In the wake of this upheaval, Virginia’s aristocrats began to see the wisdom of dividing the “rabble,” by driving a wedge between the poor whites and the free people of color. It was safer to divide the potentially aggrieved into “us” and “not us,” to discourage them from uniting to address their grievances. It was at this point that laws began to be passed to improve the conditions of white indentured servants, while encouraging racial contempt and degrading all people of African ancestry. The huge influx of newly enslaved Africans in the early years of the 18th century accelerated this process. By 1723 the racial caste system was set in stone, and the free people of color were on the wrong side.
Readers are free to find whatever parallels they wish between these events and more recent history. For further reading: Anthony S. Parent, Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740;Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.Share