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Learning Bacon’s Rebellion for Christian history students

Thursday, April 6, 2017 7:50
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I have written in the past on why we need more revisionist history, and why “revisionism” is not a bad word, but a good thing. I spoke about the need for Christian involvement in this effort—being “men of Issachar”—at last year’s Providential History Conference. I’d like to give you a sample I came across in writing my upcoming book on American slavery and racism.

The following is about the episode known as Bacon’s Rebellion. I spent a good time reading several accounts of this near coup d’etat in colonial Virginia in 1676. One of the outstanding things about this is the broad spectrum of the historiography: some have treated Nathaniel Bacon as a hero; others portray him as a rogue. One American history book written by and for young Christians gives him exceedingly gentle and favorable treatment.

The truth is, he was indeed up against a veritable tyrant in Governor Berkeley, but he was also a cruel, tyrannical, hateful, and bloodthirsty man himself. This ought not be glossed over.

Another outstanding aspect of the story gives a parallel to our own time: the popular front was whipped into a racist war frenzy against all Indians indiscriminately. While the indiscriminate part is mostly absent today, it is surprising how easy it is to demonize an entire class of people who are seen as aliens, especially when a few of their class have indeed committed crimes. When we read that virtually the entire colony supported Bacon with all his cruelty to even peaceful Indians—supported him and gave his murders a pass—it should not only act as a lesson on how to correct history, but also as a powerful check upon how we view similar phenomena among us today.

Here, then, is an the lesson, and a tiny sneak preview from the future book:

Bacon’s Rebellion

Slave insurrections, of course, did occur, and while not necessarily frequent, they occurred frequently enough to sustain and often elevate the fears already stoked by growing slave populations. We will highlight of few of the more impactful examples. The first of these occurred in 1676, led by wealthy planter and statesman Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon’s Rebellion did not originate as a slave rebellion, and was not primarily a slave rebellion, but it involved slaves rebelling on the promise of freedom. If it did not originate the fears of slave rebellions in the American colonies, it was certainly among the earliest of influences.

This Rebellion involved more than one underlying social tension, but the proximate cause was the governor’s refusal to avenge, or even very much to protect, frontier plantations from Indian raids. Governor Berkeley and a small tightknit clique of the wealthiest Virginians, including George Washington’s great-grandfather, John, controlled the lucrative beaver fur trade with the Indians and would move very little towards angering them, leading to the expression, “no bullet would pierce beaver skins.” When public angst peaked, Berkeley finally decided to send a militia to put down the marauders, but at the last minute rescinded his order and laid the issue before the Burgesses. This act, and the Burgesses’ subsequent decision to respond only with a series of defensive, and expensive, forts, angered the public and left the colony a powder keg. Nathaniel Bacon would be the match.

An earlier piece of legislation also found renewed interest in 1676 as well. The 1670 law that declared non-Christians arriving by sea to be permanent slaves, but not those by land, had been written that way specifically to prevent the permanent enslavement of Indians. Even those captured as prisoners of war could only receive a sentence of indentured servitude. In the people’s haze of anti-Indian war fever, leaving such an exception in place only further proved the governor’s softness on Indians.

Bacon found himself at the center of a circle of impromptu volunteers who had plans of organizing to handle the Indians themselves. When warned by Berkeley, Bacon steamed ahead with an armed militia and began a long career of plundering, torturing, and murdering Indians. In one case, he befriended a peaceful tribe, instigated them to attack a second tribe, then demanded the booty for himself. The ensuing disagreement led to Bacon launching a surprise attack on the befriended tribe as well, killing over a hundred men, women, and children indiscriminately, and kidnapping many others as slaves.

This merciless bloodthirst would set the mold for Bacon. On one occasion, he solidified his control by forcing a convention of leaders to sign an oath of loyalty to him which included an overt declaration of treason against the crown. On another, he kidnapped the wives of several leaders who opposed him, threatening to put them on the front lines of the battle if Berkeley fired upon his positions. His continued successes—praised by the populace—would only further empower and embolden him to greater acts of tyranny and a virtual dictatorship. At one point, he is said to have had the whole colony on his side with the exception of maybe 500 men loyal to Berkley’s clique, and Berkeley in hiding. Bacon seized the opportunity to attack Berkeley’s stronghold: he marched on Jamestown and burned it to the ground. Abound a month later, the abrupt end to his campaign would come, seemingly by divine appointment. He was stricken with dysentery, described as “Bloody Flux,” and died. With the crown’s backing, Berkeley regained control and imposed a reign of terror against those who had substantial parts in the rebellion. Charles II is later said to have remarked that Berkeley hanged more people over Bacon than he himself had over the beheading of his father.

One of the outstanding features of Bacon’s Rebellion was that alongside the flood of poor white farmers and indentured servants that joined Bacon, a number of black slaves also joined and fought. Moreover, during the period of conflagration between Bacon and Berkeley, both had formed militias, and each attempted to weaken the other by promising freedom to any slaves who would switch sides. It is unlikely any that any such promise was ever kept, certainly not en masse. Among the last rebel holdout groups after Bacon’s death was one that included some 400 black slaves and white indentured servants. They were promised freedom if they would disarm, but it was a lie and they were delivered back to their masters. Historian Edmund S. Morgan founded the thesis that Bacon’s Rebellion opened the eyes of planter elites to see the potential for social catastrophe when poor whites join blacks in a revolt, and thus the need to drive a social wedge between the two. From here on out, it was suggested, the elite would try to diminish their share in white indentured servants and turn increasingly to permanent black slaves.  [1]

Morgan’s thesis contains enough truth to remain a classic, but has seen enough successful challenge to suffer severe qualification. Scholars like Winthrop Jordan have brought forth evidence to show that racism existed powerfully long before Bacon’s Rebellion, and others have shown that Virginian elites were seeking black slaves much earlier than 1676. The elites “were not men on the verge of turning to slavery; they already had. And neither Bacon’s Rebellion nor the growing scarcity of white ser­vants had anything to do with it.”[2] Furthermore, Bacon’s efforts did not focus upon racial reconciliation or freedom for slaves, considering his indiscriminate hostility to Indians: he influenced the enactment of laws allowing enslavement of all Indians captured in war, then subsequently led raids to plunder and enslave neighboring tribes, friendly or not.[3] Likewise, the offers of freedom for slaves were insincere attempts merely to weaken the opponent’s forces. The important remnant of Morgan’s thesis stands, however: the elites certainly saw the danger of black slaves joining forces with poor whites (indentured or not). If the poorer classes united, as Bacon showed was possible, an alarming upheaval, if not coup, was on the horizon—a lesson that would not soon be forgotten, and gave the elite all the incentive in the world to appease poor whites, and stigmatize blacks so that poor whites would at least have a caste to look down upon, even if they were little better off.


[1] Murray Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, Volume I: A New Land, a New People: The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1975), 101–113; Billings, et al, Colonial Virginia: A History, 77–98.

[2] Coombs, 351.

[3] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1966), 177.

American Vision’s mission is to Restore America to its Biblical Foundation—from Genesis to Revelation. American Vision (AV) has been at the heart of worldview study since 1978, providing resources to exhort Christian families and individuals to live by a Biblically based worldview. Visit for more information, content and resources


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