Atlantic History Bacon's Rebellion
by
Paul Musselwhite
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0269

Introduction

Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia was one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of the British America, and it has a well-established place in numerous Atlantic historiographies. The unrest began late in 1675 with confrontations between frontier settlers and Indians. When perceived government inaction bred resentment within Virginia’s colonial community, Nathaniel Bacon, a charismatic and well-heeled recent immigrant, demanded to lead the militia in an indiscriminate pogrom against the Indians. Outright rebellion began in June 1676 when Bacon’s band of at least 400 supporters surrounded the General Assembly, extracted a military commission at gunpoint, and spent much of the summer pursuing Indians across the colony. At its heart, then, this was a struggle over Anglo–Indian relations on the cusp of a new English wave of westward expansion, but scholars have recently highlighted realignments within Indian territory that also contributed to the violence. Crucially, though, Bacon’s demand for a leadership role also threatened the superannuated governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, who presided over a narrow planter hierarchy, and another major historiography of the rebellion has focused on class and labor tensions between the oligarchic elite and the community of servants and freedmen who flocked to Bacon’s side. In this reading the rebellion served as a wake-up call to the plantocracy, who responded by adapting their cultural, gender, and labor practices (including switching to slave labor) to placate the lower orders and secure their dominance. Although Bacon focused much of his anger on innocent communities of neighboring Indians, he also penned documents lambasting the failings of the provincial leadership. Nineteenth-century US historians read these documents as evidence that Bacon was a proto-Revolutionary throwing off English tyranny a century before the American Revolution. While scholars have conclusively disproven this thesis, new work has examined the ways in which the rebels participated in an English Atlantic political discourse. Bacon ultimately succumbed to disease, and the tide turned against his supporters, but, with little to lose, many former servants and slaves fought into early 1677. Just as Berkeley and his allies began to exact retribution, an English army arrived. Berkeley was replaced as governor by Col. Herbert Jeffreys, who headed a three-person royal commission that investigated the uprising. In their final assessment, Jeffreys and his fellow commissioners condemned the rebellion but also found fault with the colonial establishment and recommended reforms. This contentious aftermath fits within the historiography of English imperialism during the crucial period from 1675 to 1688 when officials for the increasingly assertive Stuart court in London sought to strengthen their authority in the colonies. In this respect Bacon’s actions have come to be understood as a defining moment not only for the diplomatic, social, racial, and political development of Virginia but also for the entire British Atlantic world. Frustratingly, the paucity of surviving records, especially from the chaotic months of the rebellion itself, leaves many questions unanswered. However, it does mean that most of the surviving sources have been published; this bibliography surveys these resources and traces the various strands of historiographical debate they have spawned.

General Overviews

The story of Bacon’s Rebellion has been told countless times dating back to the 18th century, and so there are innumerable sources capable of providing the basic outlines of the narrative. The longevity of historical interest in the revolt means that there is an entire complex historiography from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which can best be sampled by exploring the edited essays in Frantz 1969 and the historiographic overview provided in Carson 1976. Until recently, two dramatically divergent narratives dominated the field: Wertenbaker 1940, which celebrated Bacon as a proto-Revolutionary fighting for colonial liberty, and Washburn 1957, which sought to overturn this interpretation and rehabilitate the reputation of Governor William Berkeley. Craven 1949 is a much briefer account that offered the only nuanced middle ground between these portrayals before the 1970s. Washburn’s narrative is far more accurate and reliable than Wertenbaker’s, but it still contains considerable bias and has become outdated; this makes the recent publication of Rice 2012, which integrates much of the new scholarship and frames the narrative in a broader context, all the more welcome. Those looking for a detailed overview of colonial Virginia and the rebellion’s place within it can still rely on Billings, et al. 1986, but Russo and Russo 2012 is now a preferred introduction to the history of the colonial Chesapeake as a region within the wider Atlantic world.

  • Billings, Warren M., John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, NY: KTO, 1986.

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    This study remains the best general introduction to the dynamics of Virginia’s colonial development. It locates the rebellion within the broadest framework of political and social maturation. Limited citations, however, make it a difficult place to begin research.

  • Carson, Jane. Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676–1976. Jamestown, VA: Jamestown Foundation, 1976.

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    An overview of the rebellion, surviving source materials, historiography, and the literary portrayal of the events. Comprehensive for scholarship up to the date of publication, and particularly useful for an account of the way Bacon’s Rebellion was interpreted during the revolutionary and early-national periods of US history, but now somewhat dated.

  • Craven, Wesley Frank. The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607–1689. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949.

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    A comprehensive overview of southern history during the 17th century. Chapter 10 provides a brief, but historiographically engaged, account of the rebellion, placing particular emphasis on the evolution of the Indian trade and local political rivalries and personalities in the colony. The most balanced account among the older generation of scholarship.

  • Frantz, John B., ed. Bacon’s Rebellion: Prologue to the Revolution. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1969.

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    An edited collection of historiographic essays and extracts originally intended for students but now useful as an overview of nineteenth- and early-20th-century scholarship on the rebellion. Frantz divides this historiography into three main categories focusing on social structure, imperial politics, and proto-revolutionary ideology.

  • Rice, James. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    The most recent narrative overview of the rebellion, incorporating new insights drawn from Native American and imperial history. This should be the first point of entry for those seeking to understand the revolt.

  • Russo, Jean B., and J. Elliott Russo. Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

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    A thoroughly up-to-date introduction to the colonial history of the entire Chesapeake region, resting on the most recent scholarship.

  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and The Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

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    A detailed narrative retelling of the rebellion that focuses on the Indian conflict and seeks to refute the patriotic reading of Bacon as a proto-revolutionary but is somewhat heavy-handed in its effort to vindicate Berkeley’s conduct. Until recently this was the definitive narrative overview of the rebellion.

  • Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940.

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    A comprehensive narrative of the rebellion that typifies the early historiographic effort to valorize Bacon as a colonial hero fighting against English oppression. Riddled with errors but still widely cited as the archetype of this earlier scholarly tradition.

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