Read CHAPTER V - A BACON!  A BACON! of Give Me Liberty The Struggle for Self-Government in Virginia , free online book, by Thomas J. Wertenbaker, on

Sir William Berkeley was one of the best Governors in the history of colonial Virginia during his first administration; during his second he was one of the worst.  The man who had won the gratitude of the people by his respect for their rights, his refusal to use the courts to further his own interests, his efforts to bring prosperity, was followed by their bitter curses when he left Virginia in 1677.  The courtly young gentleman who had exchanged the Court of Charles I for the forests and tobacco fields of the colony, had become the crabbed, dictatorial old man.  In 1672 the Quaker preacher, William Edmundson, visited him to intercede for the Society of Friends.  The next day Richard Bennett asked Edmundson whether the Governor had called him dog, rogue, etc.  “No,” he replied.  “Then you took him in his best humor."

One of Sir William’s worst traits, his greed, grew on him with the years.  “Though ambition commonly leaves old age, covetousness does not,” he wrote Lord Arlington.  It may have been this which made him marry Frances Culpeper, the widow of Captain Samuel Stephens, who brought him a large estate.  Though there was nothing wrong in this, it was whispered through the colony that it was the marrying of a young wife which was responsible for Berkeley’s “old follyage.”  Frances seems to have been loyal to him amid the troubles which soon followed, even though she may have cast tender eyes on Philip Ludwell, whom she married after Sir William’s death.

Whatever is the explanation of the change in Berkeley’s character, it obviously was the Civil War in England, the execution of Charles I, and the turmoil of the Commonwealth period which intensified his distrust of republican institutions.  They had been tried and the experiment had ended in disastrous failure.  True, he had been a witness of the success of self-government in Virginia, but this did not change his views.  Monarchy was the form of government ordained by God.  In Virginia it was he, as the King’s representative, who should rule.  So he was determined that there should be no more republicanism in the colony than his instructions required.

Berkeley did not attempt the barefaced disregard of law practiced by Harvey.  His methods were more subtile.  He sought to make men obedient to his will by holding out to them offices of profit or honor.  The people of Charles City County complained that Sir William, “aspiring to a sole and absolute power over us ... greatly neglecting the Council ... did take upon him the sole naming and appointing of other persons in their room and place such as himself best liked and thought fittest for his purposes." The men who sat around the Council table with him might perhaps venture an opinion now and then, but they dared not arouse his brittle temper by opposing him when once he had made up his mind.  To do so might lose one a collector’s place, or a colonelship in the militia, or even one’s seat on the Council.

The situation in the House of Burgesses was similar.  Berkeley was shameless in corrupting the representatives of the people by handing out jobs.  It was testified that he took on himself the sole appointment of all officers, military as well as civil.  Offices were created merely “to increase the number of his party ... all which offices he bestowed on such persons, how unfit or unskilful soever, he conceived would be most for his designs.”  Thus, by a skilful use of the patronage, he so gained upon and obliged all or the greatest number of men of parts and estates “as to ... do whatsoever he pleased."

If a Burgess voted as Sir William wished, he could count on perhaps a sheriff’s place, perhaps a collector’s place, almost certainly a commission in the militia.  If the Burgesses of 1666 wore their uniforms when they took their seats, the session must have assumed a military aspect, for, of the thirty who attended, six were colonels, two lieutenant colonels, one major, and fourteen captains.

Having in this way made a majority of the Burgesses subservient to his will, Berkeley used his right of prorogation to retain them indefinitely.  In this bit of political strategy he could justify himself with the thought that he had the example of his royal master.  The Long Assembly of Virginia was the counterpart of the Long Parliament of England.  For sixteen years he refused to hold a general election, and he probably congratulated himself that in the colony there was but a mockery of self-government.  The Burgesses might betray the interests of the people with impunity; they could not be made to answer at the polls.  So it was with bitterness that the people paid their taxes for the salaries of men over whom they had no control.  The people of Charles City County complained that their representatives had been “overswayed by the power and prevalency” of Berkeley and his Council, and had neglected their grievances.

As Sir William was supreme in the Assembly, so he was supreme in local government.  The justices of the county courts were his appointees.  The well-paid sheriffs’ office, which he made the stepping stone to the House of Burgesses, was his to fill.  So the county courts, in exercising their judicial, legislative, and executive powers, dared not act contrary to his will.

Berkeley had prided himself on having won the affection of the people in his first administration.  One wonders whether he realized that this affection was turning to hatred.  Nathaniel Bacon accused him of enriching a few favorites at the expense of the people, and of glaring injustice to individual men.  “All the power and sway is got into the hands of the rich, who by extortious advantages ... have curbed and oppressed them in all manner of ways,” Bacon wrote in a fiery manifesto. The constant breach of laws, unjust prosecutions, excuses, and evasions, showed that the men in power were running the government “as if it were but to play a booty, game, or divide a spoil.”  Nor was there any hope of redress, for to lay the people’s grievances before the House of Burgesses was to appeal “to the very persons our complaints do accuse."

Some of the Burgesses, as well as the members of the Council, could expect large grants of land if they were in the Governor’s good graces.  “Some take up 2,000 acres, some 3,000, and others 10,000, and many more have taken up 30,000,” it was said.  Unable to cultivate such vast tracts, they merely built little shacks, or perhaps “hog houses” on them so as not to forfeit the deed.  When the soil of the little farms of the poor began to wear out, or when new settlers arrived, the only available land was on the frontier.  Here they made a precarious living on “barren lands” where they were in constant danger from the Indians.

But the most urgent complaint was of the heavy load of taxes.  When the sheriff came to the poor planter to demand a part of his little crop of tobacco, he wanted to know to what use it would be put.  He knew that a goodly share went to Governor Berkeley, some to the Councillors, some to pay the salaries of the Burgesses, but much was not accounted for.  When the members of the county courts retired into a private room to lay the local levy, there were angry murmurs of fraud.  Of course they will not tell us what the taxes are for, because part of the money they put in their own pockets, it was said.

Bacon echoed these charges.  “See what sponges have sucked up the public wealth, and whether it hath not been privately contrived away by unworthy favorites, by vile juggling parasites whose tottering fortunes have been repaired and supported." And the small farmer cursed as Lady Berkeley drove by in her coach, or when they viewed the Governor’s wide acres, his six houses, his four hundred cattle, his great flock of sheep, his sixty horses, his well-filled barns.  Few had ever seen his costly plate, but its fame must have been spread abroad.

Berkeley was accused of using the courts to punish his enemies and reward his favorites.  A manifesto entitled “Declaration of the People,” said that he had “rendered contemptible the magistrates of justice by advancing to places of judicature scandalous and ignorant favorites.”  Colonel Henry Norwood wrote Secretary Williamson in 1667 that great injury had been done in the courts “by the insinuation of some that make advantages of the Governor’s passion, age, and weakness.”  It was a grievance, he said, that in the Assembly the chairman of the committee to consider appeals from the county courts was usually a member of the Council.

Berkeley vowed that he knew of nothing in which he had not distributed equal justice to all men, but there is reason to think that he did use the courts to further his own interests.  Thomas Mathew states that he cheated Thomas Lawrence out of “a considerable estate on behalf of a corrupt favorite,” and we know that Lawrence never forgave him.  William Drummond was another who had a personal grievance and it was his efforts to gain revenge which drove the Governor to such acts of savage cruelty when he had him in his power.

Though Berkeley may have been indifferent to the rights of others, he was quick to complain when his own interests were concerned.  He had been eloquent in denouncing the restrictions on the trade of Virginia under the Commonwealth, and now he was greatly concerned when his adored Charles II gave his assent to even more stringent acts.  All goods sent to the colonies, even though of foreign growth or manufacture, must come by way of England; all tobacco, sugar, wool, etc., produced in the colonies must be shipped to England or her dominions.

The results for Virginia were disastrous.  The Dutch traders had paid three pence a pound for tobacco; the English merchants now offered a half penny or in some cases only a farthing.  The mass of the people were reduced to poverty and rags.  Secretary Ludwell reported that when the small planter had paid his taxes, very little remained for him for the support of his family.  “So much too little that I can attribute it to nothing but the mercy of God that he has not fallen into mutiny and confusion." Nine years later Ludwell had occasion to remember these words when the poor did fall into mutiny and confusion.

Berkeley sailed for England in May, 1661, where no doubt he talked with his brother Lord John Berkeley in an effort to have the Navigation Acts repealed.  But he had no success.  The fault is your own, he was told.  Stop planting so much tobacco and produce the more useful commodities needed by England.  Send us masts for our ships, flax for our linen, hemp for our ropewalks, potash for our woolens.

Berkeley made a sincere effort to turn the colony to the production of commodities other than tobacco, but all his experiments ended in failure.  Ten years later, when the Lords of Trade asked him what impediments there existed to trade, he blurted out:  “Mighty and destructive by that severe act of Parliament which excludes us from having any commerce with any nation in Europe but our own....  If this were for his Majesty’s service or the good of his subjects we should not repine, whatever our sufferings are for it.  But on my soul it is contrary to both."

Not only did the Navigation Acts impoverish Virginia, but they brought additional disaster to the people by provoking the Dutch to war.  In 1667 a fleet of five Dutch warships entered the Chesapeake Bay.  The crew of the English frigate Elizabeth, not suspecting danger, had careened her to clean her bottom.  So they had to stand by helpless as the enemy moved up and captured her.  The Dutch then turned on the tobacco fleet and took twenty vessels. In a second Dutch war a desperate engagement was fought off Lynhaven Bay.  Nine or ten of the tobacco ships, in their haste to get away, ran aground and were taken.

Had Edward Johnson been in Virginia in the year 1667, he would have been sure that the series of misfortunes which befell the colony came as a sign of God’s anger.  “This poor, poor country ... is now reduced to a very miserable condition,” Thomas Ludwell wrote Lord John Berkeley.  “In April ... we had a most prodigious storm of hail, many of them as big as turkey eggs, which destroyed most of our young mast and cattle....  But on the 27th of August followed the most dreadful hurricane that ever the colony groaned under....  The night of it was the most dismal time that ever I knew or heard of, for the wind and rain raised so confused a noise, mixed with the continual cracks of falling houses....  But when the morning came and the sun risen it would have comforted us after such a night, had it not lighted us to the ruins of our plantations, of which I think not one escaped.  The nearest computation is at least 10,000 houses blown down, all the Indian grain laid flat on the ground, all the tobacco in the fields torn to pieces and most of that which was in the houses perished with them." Even then the misfortunes of the planters were not ended, for in 1673 an epidemic occurred among their cattle, which carried off fifty thousand animals.

In the midst of their suffering the people looked back on the Commonwealth period as a golden era.  Then they had enjoyed self-government; now their representatives had betrayed them.  Then the trade with the Dutch had brought prosperity; now the Navigation Acts had made their tobacco almost worthless and reduced them to rags.  Then men were advanced to places of trust and honor because of their ability; now the chief offices were reserved for those who toadied to the Governor.  Then taxes had been moderate; now they were crushing.

The legend built up by Berkeley that Charles I had been the loving father of the people received a crushing blow when it became known that he had granted all the vast region between the Potomac and the Rappahannock to Lord Hopton and several other noblemen.  Charles II so far responded to the plea of the Virginians for relief as to recall the patent and issue another in its place containing promises to protect their rights and property.  But when they noted that the new patent required them to duplicate the quit rents of the past eleven years to pay off the patentees, they were in despair.  This would amount to so vast a sum that it would wipe out many estates. So they appointed Major General Robert Smith, Colonel Francis Moryson, and Thomas Ludwell to plead their cause in England.

In the meanwhile, the patent had been assigned to the Earl of St. Albans and three others.  The agents began negotiations with these men and apparently purchased it for a large sum to be raised in the colony.  Several years later Berkeley wrote that the two great taxes of sixty pounds of tobacco per poll to buy in the Northern patent had so aroused the people that many were “ripe for mutiny.”

Negotiations with St. Albans were still under way when the agents were amazed to find that the King had issued a patent to the Earl of Arlington and Lord Culpeper to all Virginia, with such rights and powers as to make them practically masters of the colony.  To them were to go all escheats, quit rents, and duties formerly belonging to the Crown; they could create new counties and parishes, issue patents to land, appoint civil officers.

This not only revokes former grants and privileges, but leaves us at the mercy of these lords who may look after their own interests “without regard to the liberty of the people,” complained the Assembly.  The common people were so wrought up “by being left to the oppression of their fellow subjects” that they might mutiny or desert the colony. Fortunately, Arlington and Culpeper agreed to give up their patent in exchange for a grant of the Northern Neck, with the quit rents and escheats.

To protect the colony from such grants in the future, the agents now pleaded for a charter guaranteeing that the people should have their immediate dependence upon the Crown.  They sought a promise, also, that they should be taxed only by the Assembly.  Had it not been for the outbreak of Bacon’s Rebellion the charter might have gone through, for twice it reached the great seal.  As it was, when it was granted it contained little more than the promise that Virginia should be directly dependent on the Crown.

Never in American history were a people more greatly wronged than the Virginians in the Restoration period.  With Charles II repaying their loyalty by sacrificing them to the greed of favorites, with the Governor they had trusted making a mockery of self-government by corrupting the Burgesses, with their economic interests ignored to build up English commerce and shipping, they reflected bitterly that they had been betrayed.  It was Berkeley himself who thought that if they saw an opportunity, the poor planters might go over to the Dutch in “hopes of bettering their condition by sharing the plunder of the country with them." They “speak openly there that they are in the nature of slaves, so that the hearts of the greatest part of them are taken away from his Majesty,” reported a certain John Knight.

In 1674, when the sheriffs began to collect the heavy taxes, there was a wild burst of anger.  The money is not to be used for the benefit of the colony, it was whispered, but merely “the enriching of some few people." In two separate places the people rushed to arms, determined to resist.  Berkeley at once issued a proclamation, requiring them to disperse.  But had they had a leader, some “person of quality,” they would probably have anticipated Bacon’s Rebellion by flying in the face of the government.  As it was, by “the advice of some discreet persons that have an influence upon them,” they refrained from violence. But in many an humble cottage there were prayers that God would send a leader to direct them in righting their many wrongs.

This leader they found two years later in Nathaniel Bacon.  The son of a wealthy English squire, Thomas Bacon of Friston Hall, Suffolk; fellow-commoner in St. Catherine’s Hall, Cambridge; a pupil of the great scientist John Ray and his companion in his celebrated tour of the continent, he seemed as much out of place in the forests of Virginia as Berkeley had been when he arrived three decades earlier.  Bacon had been in Virginia but a few months when the Governor made him a member of the Council.  “Gentlemen of your quality come very rarely into this country, and therefore when they do come are used by me with all respect," he explained.

It was with Sir William’s friendly approbation that Bacon purchased a plantation at Curles Neck, on the James, forty miles above Jamestown.  He bought also, a “quarter,” or farm to be managed by an overseer, on the frontier at the site of Richmond.  “I chose to seat myself so remote, I having always delighted in solitude,” he said.

Bacon soon found himself at odds with the dictatorial Governor.  It seems probable that prowling Indians made off with some of his livestock and that he, without consulting Berkeley, had retaliated.  When Sir William reproved him, he lost his temper and was guilty of “unbecoming deportment." At the meetings of the Council he obviously did not like the way things were conducted, for he absented himself as much as possible.

When he was in Jamestown it is certain that he knew both Lawrence and Drummond.  In fact it is probable that he boarded with Mrs. Lawrence, who took in paying guests, and no doubt was one of several persons accused of keeping ordinaries “at extraordinary prices.”  When the Assembly or the General Court was in session, her house was crowded.  To her clients Lawrence, in so subtle a manner as not to cause suspicion, suggested the possibility of curbing “the forwardness, avarice, and French despotic methods of the Governor." That he poured out the story of his own and the people’s wrongs in Bacon’s ears, and that Bacon proved a sympathetic listener, hardly admits of a doubt.  Otherwise he would not have risked his neck to seek him and Drummond out for a midnight conference after Berkeley had proclaimed him a rebel.

With Virginia a mass of explosives, the match which set them off was an Indian war.  The Susquehannocks, a tribe friendly with the whites, had been attacked by the Sénecas and driven from their towns at the head of the Chesapeake Bay to the north bank of the Potomac near the site of Fort Washington.  Here they began a series of raids on the plantations on both sides of the river in search of food.  When a band of Indians of another tribe crossed over to Virginia, killed several people, and escaped into Maryland, an enraged party of whites pursued them.  Unfortunately, they made the mistake of attacking the Susquehannocks and killing fourteen of them.  The Susquehannocks retaliated with a series of murders, and the Indian war was on.

While the Virginians and Marylanders were gathering their forces, the Indians busied themselves building a fort with high embankments, moat, and corner bastions.  It presented so formidable an appearance that before attacking it the white commanders summoned the Indian “great men” to a parley.  But when they came out, Major Trueman, of the Maryland forces, charging them with the recent murders, had them knocked on the head.  Infuriated at this breach of faith, the Indians in the fort made a successful resistance, and at last broke through the besieging forces, made their way up the left bank of the river, and crossed over to Virginia.

Falling upon the frontier plantations, they took ample revenge for the murder of their “great men.”  In a few days they had wiped out a number of families.  Dragging off their miserable captives to secluded spots in the forest, they staged scenes of horror that would have staggered the imagination of a Dante.  Some they roasted alive and cut off pieces of their flesh, which they offered to their other victims.  Others they bound to stakes, pulled their nails off, stuck feathers in their flesh, ripped them open and wound their entrails around the trunks of trees.

Memories of the days when he led his men to victory over Opechancanoe must have come to Sir William, but he was now too old to take the field.  But he collected a strong force to go out against the Indians, and gave the command to Sir Henry Chicheley.  Then, to everyone’s amazement, he changed his mind and disbanded the soldiers. This he seems to have done for fear Chicheley might not be able to discriminate between friendly and unfriendly Indians.  He stated that he planned to use the Pamunkeys and Appomatox to be his “spies and intelligence to find out the more bloody enemies.”

Unfortunately, these tribes were no longer friendly.  The gradual encroaching on their lands by the frontier families had forced them to “live remote in the woods,” and caused them to harbor a deep sense of injustice.  But even after Berkeley finally came to realize this, and admitted that the neighboring tribes were aiding the Susquehannocks, he kept reverting to this policy.

So, when the savages renewed their raids, he called the Assembly together and pushed through legislation for a defensive war.  It called for the erection of forts on the frontier, the enlistment of five hundred men, and the use of friendly Indians.

To the exposed families this seemed mere folly.  Is it not easy for the Indians to sneak in between forts to fall upon us and commit their devilish murders? they asked.  We are already burdened enough with taxes without having more piled on for works which give us no protection.  What is needed is a large mobile force to seek out the enemy and destroy them.  When petition after petition reached Berkeley, asking him to send a leader, it merely aroused his brittle temper.  As one group stood humbly before him, they spoke of themselves as “Your Honor’s subjects.”  “Why you are a set of fools and loggerheads.  You are the King’s subjects, and so am I. A pox take you."

In this Berkeley made his greatest mistake.  Since he would not send the frontiersmen a leader of his own selection, they picked a leader for themselves.  When the dread news spread in Charles City County that large bodies of Indians were on the upper James ready to descend on them, hundreds of angry men assembled in arms to resist them.  Bacon, whose outer plantation had been plundered by the Indians and his overseer murdered, was easily persuaded to join them.  When he appeared a shout went up, “A Bacon!  A Bacon!  A Bacon!  A Bacon!” From that moment they were ready to follow wherever he would lead.

From the first Bacon made it clear that he would try to redress the people’s grievances as well as save them from the Indians.  As the frontiersmen gathered around him he addressed them, denouncing “the government as negligent and wicked,” calling the ruling clique “treacherous and incapable,” the “laws and taxes unjust and oppressive,” and dwelling on “the absolute necessity of redress." Amid the shouts of approval he made them sign a large paper, “writing their names circular-wise that the ringleaders might not be found out.”  He then sent out “emissaries” to all parts of the colony to denounce the Governor, complain of the restrictions on the franchise, and demand the dismissal of the Long Assembly and a new election of Burgesses. Instantly he became the hero of the people, “the only patron of the country and the preserver of their lives and fortunes.”

He hoped to gain his ends by peaceful means, and wrote the Governor asking for a commission to fight the Indians.  When Berkeley, enraged at the accusations of misgovernment, proclaimed him a rebel, he wrote that he had taken up arms only to defend the country against the Indians.  He then marched into New Kent, a county “ripe for rebellion” to attack the Pamunkeys, whom he had reason to believe had participated in some of the murderous raids.  But when they fled, he turned south in pursuit of a band of Susquehannocks.  When he arrived at the Roanoke River, the Occaneechees, a friendly tribe living on an island in the river, volunteered to go out and give battle to the Susquehannocks.  But after they had defeated them and returned to the island they became involved in a quarrel with Bacon.  A desperate battle ensued in which the Indians were defeated and forced to flee.  After gathering up the spoils, Bacon turned his face homeward.

In the meanwhile, Berkeley had raised a force of three hundred men to intercept Bacon at the falls of the James.  But he hastened back when he received word that the people everywhere were rising against him.  Astonished, he asked the Council what the people wanted.  They replied that they were crying out against his refusal to hold an election for so many years, and the denial to many of the right to vote.  Since Berkeley’s whole structure of political control was based on these two points, to waive them must have seemed to him like complete surrender.  But he yielded, and called for an election of Burgesses in which all freemen had the right to vote.

Berkeley watched anxiously as the returns came in, and his henchmen, one after the other, were defeated.  When on June 5, 1676, the Burgesses assembled in the little statehouse in Jamestown, all but eight were of “Bacon’s faction.”  Bacon, himself was elected as one of the representatives of Henrico County.  Had he been permitted to take his seat, with an overwhelming majority behind him, he undoubtedly would have dominated the proceedings and pushed through the reforms he had demanded.

But he was not destined to take his seat.  Instead of coming to Jamestown on horse with a strong force, and posting the men in or near the town, he set out in his sloop with only forty armed men.  When they attempted to land they were fired on.  That night Bacon slipped into town and held a long conference with Lawrence and Drummond. We can only surmise what passed between these two embittered men and the daring young leader.  But it is safe to say that they discussed, not only Berkeley’s “French despotism,” but what reforms Bacon should propose in the Assembly.  It is probable that Lawrence and Drummond had already talked with some of the pro-Bacon leaders, for the Governor warned the Burgesses not to be misled by these “two rogues.”

As Bacon was returning to his sloop he was discovered and captured and brought before the Governor.

“Now I behold the greatest rebel that ever was in Virginia,” Sir William said.

Then, after a pause, he asked:  “Mr. Bacon, have you forgot to be a gentleman?”

“No, may it please your honor.”

“Then, I’ll take your parole.”

A few days later, when the Council and Burgesses were assembled in the Statehouse, Berkeley rose and said: 

“If there be joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth, there is joy now, for we have a penitent sinner come before us.  Call Mr. Bacon.”

Bacon then stepped forward and handed in his written submission.  The Governor resumed: 

“God forgive you!  I forgive you!”

“And all that were with him?” asked one of the Councillors.

“Yea, and all that were with him.  Mr. Bacon, if you will live civilly but till next quarter court I will promise to restore you again to your place there,” resumed the Governor, pointing to Bacon’s vacant seat. In fact it was the very next day that he reappointed him to the Council.

Philip Ludwell explained this great leniency by pointing out that there were hundreds of armed men within a day’s march of Jamestown ready to revenge any harm done to their leader.  But Berkeley had an additional motive.  Bacon in the Council was far less dangerous than Bacon in the House of Burgesses.  In the Council he would be under his watchful eye; in the House he would put himself at the head of the majority in pushing through reform measures.

So Bacon had to sit as a helpless and dissatisfied spectator, as Berkeley once more dominated the Assembly.  Thomas Mathew, who was present, tells us that “some gentlemen took this opportunity to endeavor the redressing several grievances the country then labored under,” when they were interrupted by pressing messages from the Governor to meddle with nothing until the Indian business was dispatched.

With the matter of reform sidetracked, there followed a debate as to whether two Councillors should be asked to sit on the committee on Indian affairs.  “The great sway that those of the Council bear over the rest of the Assembly in matters of laws and also in orders upon appeals, being commonly appointed chairman in all committees," had been a long-standing grievance.  So now one member rose and pointed out that if they had bad customs they had come together to correct them.  In the end the matter “was huddled off without coming to a vote, and so the committee must submit to be overawed, and have every carped at expression carried straight to the Governor."

Bacon grew more and more restive as he saw the way things were going.  The Assembly did not prove “answerable to our expectation,” for which they should be censured, he said later.  When a motion was presented to request Berkeley not to resign, he must have looked on with disgust as enough pro-Bacon men assented for it to pass.

So under the pretext that his wife was ill, he got permission to leave town.  Then, instead of visiting Curles Neck, he headed for Henrico.  Here his veterans gathered around him.  When they heard that he had suffered humiliation, that he had been denied a commission, and that their grievances had not been redressed, they “set their throats in one common key of oaths and curses.”  We will have a commission or “pull down the town,” they said.  “Thus the raging torrent came down to town."

Berkeley made hasty preparations to resist them.  But it was too late.  In Jamestown all was confusion.  The cry was:  “To arms!  To arms!  Bacon is within two miles of the town.”  When the Governor realized that resistance would be useless, he ordered the guns to be dismantled, and returned to the statehouse.  So the motley army streamed into the village weatherbeaten frontiersmen, demanding to be led out against the Indians; poor planters, seeking relief from heavy taxes; freedmen made desperate by hunger and nakedness.  The common cry was, “No levies!  No levies!"

The Burgesses, hearing the hubbub, rushed to the windows of their hall on the second story of the statehouse to witness the exciting scenes below.  Bacon had asked them to grant him his commission, and now he called up to them, “You Burgesses, I expect your speedy result.”  Whereupon his men cocked their fusils and aimed them at the windows.  “For God’s sake hold your hands, forbear a little and you shall have what you please,” cried the Burgesses.

And have it they did.  It was now Berkeley’s turn to be humiliated.  He was forced to make Bacon General of all the forces in Virginia.  When this was followed with a demand that he write the King a letter testifying to Bacon’s loyalty and the legality of all he had done, he could no longer contain himself.  Rushing out he threw back his coat and cried out; “Here, shoot me, fore God fair mark.”  Bacon replied that he would not hurt a hair of his head.  And in the end he got the letter he wanted.

He also got “the redress of the people’s grievances,” he told Berkeley he had come for.  He mounted the stairs to the long room where the Burgesses sat and “pressed hard, nigh an hour’s harangue,” not only on preserving the colony from the Indians, but on “inspecting the revenues, the exorbitant taxes, and redressing the grievances of that deplorable country.”  Then, to his surprise, he learned that a series of reform laws had already been put through.

Bacon’s escape from Jamestown had confronted the Assembly with a completely changed situation.  No longer was he a virtual prisoner under the Governor’s eye and his veterans without a leader.  Now he was at their head once more to march on the town and revenge their wrongs with arms in their hands.  “We have all the reason in the world to suspect that their designs are ruinous,” said Philip Ludwell.  So the pro-Bacon majority in the Assembly took advantage of the general alarm to rush through a remarkable series of reform laws that struck at the very basis of Berkeley’s power.  Sir William certainly would not have affixed his signature had he not considered his situation desperate.  Some months later, after the rebellion had been suppressed, all the laws of this session were repealed on the ground that they had been secured by violence.

These bills may have been outlined by Bacon, Lawrence, and Drummond during their famous midnight conference and introduced by some friend in the House.  They may have been drawn up by the committee on grievances.  Thomas Blayton was later accused of being “Bacon’s great engine” in the Assembly, and James Minge, the clerk, of being “another Bacon’s great friends in forming the laws.”  Virginia historians have long called them Bacon’s Laws and rightly, since they struck at the abuses he had denounced, were passed in an Assembly dominated by his friends, and under the pressure of his armed forces.

The very enactment of Bacon’s Laws throws a flood of light on the abuses they were intended to rectify.  They broadened the franchise by giving all freemen the right to vote; they restored a degree of democracy in local government by giving the people a voice in assessing county taxes and in naming vestrymen and by barring Councillors from sitting on the county courts; they fixed fees for sheriffs and other officials; they struck at the Governor’s appointive power by making it illegal for sheriffs to serve more than one year at a time, or for anyone to hold more than one of the offices of sheriff, clerk of the court, surveyor, or escheator at the same time. Far-reaching though they were, Bacon’s Laws did not include an act to prohibit officeholders from sitting in the Assembly.  Such a law, if permitted to stand, would have put an end forever to the Berkeley system of rule by placemen.

After Bacon left Jamestown to battle with the Indians the colony might have enjoyed internal peace had Berkeley remained quiet, contenting himself with placing the whole matter before the King.  But he tried to raise forces to take the rebels in the rear, and civil war resulted.

In this war Bacon at first seemed to sweep all before him.  As he led his men back from the frontier he was everywhere hailed as the people’s friend and savior.  On the other hand, none but a handful remained loyal to the Governor, so that he was forced to take refuge across the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore.

When Bacon found himself master of all Virginia except Northampton and Accomac Counties, he set up his headquarters at Middle Plantation, the site of Williamsburg.  Here he was joined by Lawrence and Drummond, who seem to have helped him in drawing up a manifesto against Berkeley, and in holding a conference with a number of leading planters and binding them by oath to be faithful to him.

Soon after this Bacon held a conversation with a certain John Goode which shows that he had thoughts of extending his rebellion to neighboring colonies and setting up an independent state.

“There is a report that Sir William Berkeley hath sent to the King for 2,000 redcoats, and I do believe it may be true,” said Bacon.  “Tell me your opinion, may not 500 Virginians beat them, we having the same advantages against them the Indians have against us?”

“I rather conceive 500 redcoats may either subject or ruin Virginia,” Goode replied.

“You talk strangely.  Are we not acquainted with the country, can lay ambushes, and take to trees and put them by the use of their discipline, and are doubtless as good or better shots than they?”

“But they can accomplish what I have said without hazard ... by ... landing where there shall be no opposition, firing our houses and fences, ... preventing all trade.”

Bacon replied that he knew how to prevent this.

Goode then pointed out that all the principal men in the country would join the redcoats.

“Sir,” he added, “you speak as though you designed a total defection from his Majesty and our country.”

“Why, have not many princes lost their dominions so?” asked Bacon.

Goode replied that his followers did not think themselves engaged against the King’s authority, but against the Indians.

“But I think otherwise, and I am confident of it that it is the mind of this country, and of Maryland and Carolina also to cast off their Governors, ... and if we cannot prevail by arms to make our conditions for peace, or obtain the privilege to elect our own Governor, we may retire to Roanoke."

Whether Bacon could have enlisted the peoples of Carolina and Maryland in his cause, secured naval and military aid from the Dutch, and anticipated the American Revolution by a century, must remain in the realm of speculation.  But before he could proceed far with his plans he suffered an irreparable disaster he lost command of the water.

In Bacon’s Rebellion, as in the Revolution and the War between the States, the great Virginia rivers made it possible for the side which had superior naval forces to penetrate into the heart of the country, while they proved a barrier to the movement of troops by land.  So when several merchant vessels, which Bacon had seized and armed, fell into Berkeley’s hands, leaving him the undisputed master in Virginia waters, the rebel cause became almost hopeless.

Yet it is remarkable that when the Governor had assembled a formidable force, brought them up the James, and occupied Jamestown, Bacon succeeded in driving him out.  The place seemed impregnable, since the only approach was over a narrow isthmus, protected by barricades and guarded by the cannon of the ships in the river.  Berkeley himself supplies the explanation when he reported that his men refused to fight, but in spite of his urgent pleas, hurried him on shipboard and away.

So Bacon’s men entered the little capital unopposed.  But they realized that they could not hold it, for Berkeley’s fleet was still nearby, while other loyalist forces were threatening from the north.  After a consultation, the leaders decided to burn the town.  Lawrence applied the torch to his own house.  Drummond to his, Bacon to the little church, others to Berkeley’s five houses, and the statehouse. As Berkeley saw the flames rising above the rooftops and reflected on the waters of the James he cursed the cowardice of the men who had forced him to desert the place.

But now the end was at hand for Bacon.  While at the house of Major Thomas Pate, in Gloucester County, he became ill of dysentery.  As he lay on his deathbed, he kept inquiring whether the redcoats had arrived, and whether there was a strong guard around the house.  We do not know whether his wife was there to comfort him in his last hours, but it is probable that she was far away at Curles Neck.  He died October 26, 1676.  Knowing that Berkeley would want to expose the body on a gibbet, Lawrence is said to have disposed of it in secret, probably with a night service somewhere in the Virginia woods, and then to have had a public funeral with a casket weighted with stones.

Bacon was mourned in many a humble cottage throughout the colony.  Who now would lead the people in their struggle to gain their rights?  One of his followers wrote in touching verse that death had ended “our hopes of safety, liberty, our all." There was no one else who had won the confidence and affection of the people to take his place.

The struggle continued for three more months, the rebels won more victories, but something like anarchy ensued.  There was no central government, some of the county courts were closed, crops were rotting in the fields, servants and slaves left their masters to join the rebel forces, there was indiscriminate plundering, the masters of the incoming merchant vessels refused to sell their goods to the rebels or buy what tobacco they had on hand.

As soon as Berkeley got his hands on some of Bacon’s followers, he began a series of executions unparalleled in American history.  Thomas Hansford pleaded that he might be shot like a soldier, but Sir William told him he was condemned, not as a soldier, but as a rebel.  As he stood on the scaffold he addressed the assembled crowd, declaring that he died a loyal subject and lover of his country. When Major Cheeseman was brought before the Governor, his wife rushed in to plead that she be hanged and her husband spared.  Berkeley spurned her with a vile insult.  Cheeseman cheated the hangman by dying in prison. But Captain Wilford, George Farloe, Thomas Young, and others soon followed Hansford to the gallows.

The end came before the arrival of the English troops.  Group after group surrendered, and their leaders took the oath of loyalty, kissed the Governor’s hand, and were pardoned.  But there was no pardon for Bacon’s two chief advisers.  “I so much hate Drummond and Lawrence that though they could put the country in peace into my hands, I would not accept it from such villains,” Berkeley declared.

Lawrence escaped.  He was last seen with four others on the extreme frontier, riding through the snow and disappearing into the forest.  Their fate is unknown.  Drummond was found hiding in Chickahominy Swamp and brought before the Governor.  He was greeted with a mocking bow.  “Mr. Drummond, you are very welcome.  I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia.  Mr. Drummond, you shall be hanged in half an hour.”  He was treated with savage brutality, and then, after the pretence of a trial, hurried off to the scaffold.

Bacon and Drummond did not die in vain.  Though they and thousands of others were stigmatized as rebels and traitors, though the cause they contended for ended in disastrous failure, Bacon’s Rebellion had a lasting influence on American history.  It served as a warning that Americans would not submit to misgovernment and despotism under whatever form.  Had not the British Government under George III forgotten that warning there might have been no American Revolution.

To contend, as some have done, that Bacon’s Rebellion was no more than a quarrel between a rash young man and an old fool, is to make the most shallow interpretation.  Men do not rush to arms, and risk their lives and property in a wild uprising because of a dispute between individuals.  As Professor Charles M. Andrews has pointed out, revolutions “are the détonations of explosive materials, long accumulating and often dormant.  They are the resultant of a vast complex of economic, political, social, and legal forces, which taken collectively are the masters, not the servants, of statesmen and political agitators.  They are never sudden in their origin, but look back to influences long in the making.”