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Bacon's Rebellion

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Bacon's Rebellion

In the late 1600s and early 1700s in the American Colonies, the prospect of owning land lured settlers to the country. Three-quarters of the settlers by 1700 were young men, moving out of England due to enclosures on their village lands.

However, a combination of the rapidly growing population of landowners and an unpredictable tobacco economy sowed the seeds for conflict between poor farmers and the established wealthy elite—Bacon's Rebellion. What does "bacon" have to do with class conflict? Read on to find out all about this important rebellion.

Bacon's Rebellion definition and summary

Bacon’s Rebellion was a violent political, social, and economic protest by poor tenant farmers of Virginia from 1675 to 1676 in response to growing tensions with the wealthy elite of the colony, lack of expansion into Indigenous lands, corruption in the government, increased taxes, and removal of voting rights.

It was called Bacon's rebellion after its leader Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon died in October 1576, which contributed to the defeat of the rebellion. It still had important impacts, however, which we will explore further. First, let's look at the causes and the course of the rebellion.

Bacon's Rebellion, The burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, StudySmarter

The Burning of Jamestown by
Howard Pyle, 1905

Bacon's Rebellion causes

In the late 1600s, long-standing social conflicts flared into political turmoil as the tobacco economy, on which the colonies depended, fluctuated. Falling tobacco prices signalled an imbalanced market. Though tobacco exports doubled between 1670 and 1700, outpacing European demand, this expansion coincided with the Navigation Acts, which restricted colonial trade to England.

These Acts removed other possible buyers of American tobacco who may have paid higher prices than the British. In addition, the Navigation Acts made the colonists' shipments of tobacco, sugar, and other essential goods through England subject to an import tax, which stifled market demand.

Causes of Bacon’s Rebellion

The growing class of poor tenant farmers and indentured servants

Even with low tobacco prices, Virginians still planted tobacco because no other cash crop grew well in the region. Many families adopted crop rotations over 20-year cycles to preserve soil fertility, which produced a better crop but not as much yield. Many earned just enough to scrape by.

Worse off were newly freed indentured servants, who could not earn enough to buy tools and seed or pay the fees required to claim their own fifty acres of land. Many former indentured servants had to sell their labor again, either signing back into the indenture contract or becoming wage farmers or tenant farmers on wealthier estates.

Indentured servants were those whose passage to the colonies from Europe was paid for by someone else in exchange for four to seven years of work.

Conflict with the wealthy elite of the colony

A consequence of low tobacco prices, struggling family farms, and the growing amount of poor farmers in need of work is that after 1670, an elite of planter-merchants came to dominate the Virginia and Maryland colonies.

Like their English counterparts back across the Atlantic, they prospered from owning large estates that they leased to the growing population of former servants. Many well-to-do planters also became commercial intermediaries and moneylenders. They set up retail stores and charged commissions for shipping tobacco produced by the smaller family-owned farms.

This elite class accumulated nearly half the land in Virginia by securing land grants from royal governors.

In Maryland, by 1720, one of these wealthy landowners was Charles Carroll. He owned 47,000 acres of land, farmed by hundreds of tenants, indentured servants, and enslaved people.

Government corruption and loss of voting rights

William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, gave large land grants to loyal council members. These councillors then exempted their land from taxation and established their friends as local judges and justices of the peace.

To win cooperation from the elected legislative government of Virginia – the House of Burgesses, Berkeley bought off legislators with land grants and high-paying appointments as sheriffs and tax collectors.

However, social unrest unraveled when the corrupt Burgesses changed the voting system to exclude landless freemen, who now constituted half of all white men in the colony. Property-owning men retained the right to vote, but they were upset by the falling tobacco prices, corruption, and burdensome taxes.

Lack of expansion into Indigenous lands

When the English landed in Virginia in 1607, 30,000 Indigenous people lived there; by 1675, their population had declined to 3,500. By comparison, the number of English had boomed to 38,000 along with close to 2,500 enslaved Africans.

Most Indigenous Peoples lived on treaty-granted territory along the frontier of English settlement. Now poor and landless former servants demanded that the natives be expelled or killed.

Opposition to western expansion came from wealthy river-valley planters, who wanted a ready supply of tenant farmers and wage laborers. Berkeley resisted the urge to expand west as he and other planter-merchants traded with the Indigenous people for good furs.

The course of Bacon’s Rebellion

As these aggressive planter-merchants confronted a multitude of free, young, and landless laborers, armed political conflict erupted in Virginia in the 1670s. This violent struggle left a mixed legacy: a decrease in class conflict among whites and increasing racial divisions because of the massive importation of enslaved Africans.

Bacon's Rebellion: Fighting Erupts

Fighting broke out between English and the Indigenous Peoples of the area in late 1675. A vigilante group of Virginia men murdered thirty Indigenous people. A greater force of 1,000 militiamen surrounded a Susquehannock native village, ignoring Governor Berkeley's orders. This force killed five chiefs who came out to negotiate.

The Susquehannocks, who had recently migrated from the north, retaliated and killed 300 white settlers on outlying plantations. Berkeley proposed a defensive strategy to avoid all-out war: a series of frontier forts to deter the Indigenous Peoples. The settlers detested this plan as a scheme for the wealthy elite to grant themselves more land and raise taxes on the poorer farmers.

Bacon's Rebellion: Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon emerged as a leader of these rebellious poor tenant farmers. A young, well-connected migrant from England, Bacon held a position on the Governor's council, but residing on a frontier estate, he differed with Berkeley on Indigenous policy.

When the Governor refused Bacon a military commission to attack the nearby natives, he used his commanding personal presence to mobilize his neighbors and attack the peaceful Doeg people. Berkeley condemned the frontiersmen as rebels, expelled Bacon from the council, and arrested him.

Bacon's armed men forced the Governor to release him and hold new legislative elections. The newly elected House of Burgesses enacted far-reaching reforms that limited the power of the Governor and the council and restored voting rights to landless free white men.

Bacon's Rebellion: Too little, too late

These much-needed reforms came too late. Bacon remained angered and upset toward Berkeley, and poor farmers and indentured servants resented years of exploitation by the wealthy planters. Backed by 400 armed men, Bacon issued a "Manifesto and Declaration of the People" and demanded the extermination or removal of all Indigenous people in Virginia and an end to the rule of wealthy landowners.

Bacon's Rebellion, An 1878 depiction of the ruins of Jamestown, StudySmarterAn 1878 depiction of the ruins of Jamestown following its burning during Bacon's Rebellion. From A School History of the United States, from the Discovery of America to the Year 1878 by David B. Scott (1878)

Bacon led his army to plunder plantations of those allied with Berkeley and eventually burn Jamestown to the ground. When Bacon died unexpectedly in 1676 of dysentery, Berkeley took revenge. He dispersed the rebel army, seizing the estates of well-to-do rebels and hanging twenty-three men

The following are excerpts from Nathaniel Bacon’s “Declaration of the People”. Note the specific grievances he lists against Governor Berkeley and how he addresses himself and his constituents as Englishmen under the Crown of the King as a means of emphasizing the infringements against landless white men.

“For having, upon specious pretenses of public works, raised great unjust taxes upon the commonalty for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends, but no visible effects in any measure adequate; for not having, during this long time of his government, in any measure advanced this hopeful colony either by fortifications, towns, or trade.”

“For having protected, favored, and emboldened the Indians against his Majesty’s loyal subjects, never contriving, requiring, or appointing any due or proper means of satisfaction for their many invasions, robberies, and murders committed upon us."

“For having, when the army of English was just upon the track of those Indians, who now in all places burn, spoil, murder and when we might with ease have destroyed them who then were in open hostility, for then having expressly countermanded and sent back our army by passing his word for the peaceable demeanor of the said Indians, who immediately prosecuted their evil intentions, committing horrid murders and robberies in all places, being protected by the said engagement and word past of him the said Sir William Berkeley…”

“We accuse Sir William Berkeley as guilty of each and every one of the same, and as one who has traitorously attempted, violated, and injured his Majesty’s interest here by a loss of a great part of this his colony and many of his faithful loyal subjects by him betrayed and in a barbarous and shameful manner exposed to the incursions and murder of the heathen.” 1

The Effects and Significance of Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon's Rebellion was a pivotal event in the history of the Virginia and Chesapeake colonies.

After the rebellion, planters who owned land retained their dominance by curbing corruption and appointing tenant farmers to public office. They appeased the wage and tenant farmers by cutting taxes and supporting expansion into Indigenous lands.

Bacon's Rebellion, A slave ship, StudySmarterOnboard a slave ship, an engraving from 1835

Most importantly, planters sought to hinder any future rebellion by poor whites by drastically reducing the use of indentured servants. Instead, planters imported thousands of enslaved Africans.

In 1705, the Burgesses explicitly legalized chattel slavery – owning enslaved people and their families as property to be bought and sold for labor. Those fateful decisions committed generations of Americans and Africans to a social system based on racial exploitation.

Bacon's Rebellion - Key takeaways

  • Social unrest in the Virginia Colony was due to the social and economic imbalance between the wealthy plantation owners and the former servants, tenant farmers, and wage laborers.
  • A key issue was that the poor members of society wanted to expand into Indigenous land. By the 1670s, these social tensions came to violent conflict as white settlers attacked Indigenous villages on the frontier – the conflict led to the death of 300 white settlers.
  • In response, Berkeley restricted any incursion into Indigenous territory but Nathaniel Bacon rallied his neighbors to attack the Doeg people.
  • Bacon was arrested but his militia attacked the properties of the wealthy landowners, demanding his release and new elections to the House of Burgesses.
  • Bacon was released, and new officials were elected – they lowered taxes, reestablished the right of landless white men to vote, and ended much of the political corruption.
  • These reforms were too late for many of the unruly farmers, who burnt Jamestown to the ground. The rebellion ended shortly after Bacon died in 1676.
  • Bacon's rebellion ended political corruption in the Virginia government by the appointment of tenant farmers to political positions, solidified the voting rights of landless white men, and decreased the use of indentured servants. However, this caused the high demand for enslaved African labor in the Chesapeake colonies.

1. Bacon’s Rebellion: The Declaration (1676). (n.d.). History Matters. Retrieved February 8, 2022, from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5800

Frequently Asked Questions about Bacon's Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion was a violent political, social, and economic protest by poor tenant farmers of Virginia from 1675 to 1676 in response to growing tensions with the wealthy elite of the colony, lack of expansion into Indigenous lands, corruption in the government, increased taxes, and removal of voting rights. 

Bacon’s Rebellion was caused by an unstable tobacco economy, which made it difficult for poor tenant farmers to earn a living, which allowed for the establishment of a wealthy elite of plantation owners. These plantation owners used their status and the Governor to influence government policy in their favor. They restricted the voting rights of white men who did not own land. They forbade expansion into Indigenous Peoples' territory to acquire more land for settlers and increase taxes on laborers and tenant farmers. These policies forced many freed white men back into indentured servitude. This, along with the corruption, lack of land, and restriction of rights, led to poor farmers violently attacking Indigenous villages and causing the Virginia government to react. The conflict between the plantation owners and the poor farmers came to a head when the farmers forced a new election in the House of Burgesses, removal of corruption, pillaged plantations, and burnt Jamestown to the ground. 

Bacon’s Rebellion took place beginning in October of 1675 into 1676. 

Bacon's Rebellion was a pivotal event in the history of the Virginia and Chesapeake colonies. After the rebellion, planters who owned land retained their dominance by curbing corruption and appointing tenant farmers to public office. They appeased the wage and tenant farmers by cutting taxes and supporting expansion into Indigenous Peoples' lands. Most important, planters sought to hinder any other future rebellion by poor whites by drastically reducing the use of indentured servants. Instead, planters imported thousands of enslaved Africans. In 1705, the Burgesses explicitly legalized chattel slavery- owning enslaved people and their families as property to be bought and sold for labor. Those fateful decisions committed generations of Americans and Africans to a social system based on racial exploitation.

As it was a conflict directly from the growing economic and social inequality between a wealthy elite group of planter-merchants and a poorer group of tenant farmers, wage laborers, and indentured servants, Bacon’s rebellion could be considered a class war. This disparity between the groups, and governmental control of the wealthy over the landless white men, was a direct cause of the violent conflict that erupted in 1675, led by Nathaniel Bacon. 

Final Bacon's Rebellion Quiz

Question

What was the primary influence of Bacon’s Rebellion on the labor system in the colony of Virginia? 

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Answer

The rebellion caused a new demand for enslaved African labor

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Question

Which of the following is not a true statement about the growing cultivation of tobacco in Virginia in the 1600s

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Answer

The high demand for tobacco and limited American supply created a stable high-value commodity to be sold in European Market

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Question

Which of the following was not a form of political corruption used by Governor Berkeley to consolidate his power?


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Answer

He used his wealth to monetarily bribe wage laborers to vote for policies he preferred

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Question

Which group instigated the first violent outburst that lead to rebellion?


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Answer

A group of vigilante settlers created a militia and attacked a Susquenhannock village

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Question

Which Act passed by the British Parliament exacerbated the economic issues affecting the tobacco industry in Virginia?


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Answer

The Navigation Acts

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Question

Which of the following was an unintended consequence of the Navigation Acts on the tobacco industry in Virginia?


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Answer

The lack of trade to other nations increased their own production of tobacco, driving down the price of American tobacco

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Question

Which of the following is not true of Nathaniel Bacon?


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Answer

He was appointed as a justice of the peace by the Governor, which gave him control of the local militia

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Question

Which of the following was an unintended consequence of Bacon’s Rebellion?


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Answer

The wealthy planter-merchants began using fewer indentured servants, increasing the demand for enslaved African labor

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Question

What year was Bacon’s Rebellion quelled?


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Answer

1676

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Question

Which of the following was the most influential effect of Bacon’s Rebellion?


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Answer

The movement away from indentured servants and using Englishmen as a source of labor created a new high demand for enslaved Africans, quickly changing the racial and cultural divide of Virginia.

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