Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676) was an American colonial leader in Virginia and the leader of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.

The period of American colonial history which followed the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England (1660) was an era of political and economic instability. Typical of the way converging problems could lead to civil conflict was Bacon's Rebellion. The youthful Nathaniel Bacon took charge of discontented frontiersmen and, during the course of an Indian war, virtually assumed control of the colony of Virginia. The results of Bacon's Rebellion were not lasting; most of the legislative reforms were repealed at its end, and 23 of its leaders met their death by hanging.

Nathaniel Bacon was born on Jan. 2, 1647, at Friston Hall, Suffolk, England. He was the only son of Thomas Bacon, a wealthy landowner. A contemporary remembered him as being tall and slender, "blackhair'd and of an ominous, pensive melancholy Aspect … not much given to talk, … of a most imperious and dangerous Pride of heart, despising the wiser of his neighbours for their Ignorance, and very ambitious and arrogant." These traits of character were evident in Bacon's withdrawal from Cambridge without completing a degree. Upon his marriage to Elizabeth Duke, the bride's father rejected the match and disinherited his daughter. Shortly thereafter, the impetuous Bacon became involved in a scheme to defraud an acquaintance. Disturbed by his errant son's behavior, Thomas Bacon helped Nathaniel and his wife leave England to settle in Virginia.


Arrival in Virginia

Nathaniel Bacon arrived in Virginia in 1674 with both money and influence to aid him. His father and brother-in-law had sent him off with £1,800 and with forewarning to influential relatives in Virginia. Hearing of Bacon's wish to settle on the frontier, Governor William Berkeley helped arrange the purchase of two estates; the governor also assisted Bacon by granting his application to engage in Indian trade. The governor later paid the new planter the honor of a seat on the Council. "Gentlemen of your quality come very rarely into this country," he explained, "and therefore when they do come are used by me with all respect."

Bacon's Rebellion

A variety of causes contributed to Bacon's Rebellion. The immediate cause was the resumption of violent clashes with frontier Indians, including the killing of Bacon's overseer. Vigilante groups sprang up to protect the colonial settlements, and Bacon accepted command of the hastily organized forces. The underlying factors giving rise to the rebellion are variously described by contemporaries. Doubtless, the depressed price of tobacco exports (Virginia's main crop) and unhappiness with English mercantile laws laid bases for discontent. Other causes for dissatisfaction were the vast land grants in northern Virginia made arbitrarily by Charles II to his courtiers. Complaints also arose about the arbitrary governing system of Virginia, especially at the local level, and the inequities of heavy tax assessments. There can be little question, however, that the Indian troubles and Governor Berkeley's failure to react vigorously to demands for action by frontier settlers gave cohesion to Bacon's movement.

Bacon wrote to Governor Berkeley seeking permission to attack the Indians and then, without waiting for a reply, moved his vigilantes against the tribes. But instead of supporting this effort, the governor was furious, believing Bacon's actions would further antagonize the Indians. Hoping to marshal popular support, Berkeley proclaimed Bacon a rebel and dissolved the General Assembly, which had sat for 16 years, calling for new elections. Meanwhile, Bacon had returned a hero from an apparently successful foray against the Indians and was elected to the House of Burgesses.

When the General Assembly met in June 1676, Governor Berkeley decided to try to patch up his quarrel with Bacon. An elaborate public reconciliation was arranged, and Bacon was restored to a seat on the Council. But shortly afterward, the struggle was renewed. Probably, Bacon had expected to receive a formal commission from the governor and to return to his Indian campaign without delay. When this appointment was not forthcoming, he fled Jamestown, regrouped his men, and captured the city. Under duress, Berkeley issued the commission and also signed into law the series of legislative acts known as "Bacon's Laws." It is doubtful that Bacon had much influence over this legislation, but the new laws did indicate some of the issues which had contributed to the controversies of the past months. The most important bill established universal manhood suffrage, while other acts provided for the popular election of church vestries, eliminated tax privileges for councilors, abolished plural office holding, and instituted rules to make the local county government more responsive. This action completed, Berkeley again tried to raise troops to reassert his authority. Failing in an open confrontation with Bacon's superior forces, Berkeley fled Jamestown and a civil war ensued.

Then Bacon's Rebellion collapsed. The immediate cause was Bacon's death, from disease and exposure, on Oct. 26, 1676. Important too was the English government's continuing support of Governor Berkeley: desperate reports of the "uproars" in Virginia had induced Charles II to send 1,130 troops to support the constituted government. Yet even before the troops landed, the rebellion had collapsed, and Governor Berkeley, gathering strength as the rebel forces disintegrated, was able to disperse the remaining rebels and execute their leaders. Berkeley's vindictiveness, however, led to conflicts with the King's representatives and his eventual recall to England in disgrace.


Further Reading on Nathaniel Bacon

Two opposing views of Bacon are Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon's Rebellion and Its Leader (1940), and Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia (1957). An excellent short appraisal is in Wesley Frank Craven, The Colonies in Transition: 1660-1713 (1967). A good general account of the Southern colonies during this period is Craven's The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century: 1607-1689 (1949). For a penetrating comparison of Bacon's Rebellion with other colonial conflicts see Clarence L. Ver Steeg, The Formative Years: 1607-1763 (1964).