Bacon’s Rebellion is the single most important event in all of American history, because pretty much everything that has happened since – and a good chunk of what you’re seeing in the headlines these days – can be traced back directly to what happened in Virginia in 1676. It sets American history in motion in ways that we’re still dealing with now, and if you want to understand this country’s history you need to understand Bacon’s Rebellion and its consequences.
Late seventeenth-century Virginia was a place ripe for conflict.
At first glance this might be surprising. The gruesome demographics of the earlier part of the 1600s had eased up a bit, and life expectancy had actually improved to the point where you weren’t taking a decade off of your life by emigrating there from England. Settlers going to the more northerly colonies in New England – where they didn’t build their main settlements in the middle of a swamp at just the point where the fresh water coming down the river became fouled by the seawater coming up with the tides – added a decade to their lives by heading for the New World, but Virginia had a well-earned reputation as a morgue in the first half century or so after the English colonized the place. By 1670 or so, this was no longer true.
And as late as 1650 the price of tobacco – the one crop that Virginians had managed to export in any significant amount – was still relatively high.
But beginning in the 1650s the price of tobacco began to fall, as Navigation Laws required all of the crop to be sent through England rather than directly to other markets and the iron law of supply and demand took its toll. By 1660 the price of tobacco had fallen to about a penny a pound – a third of what it was in 1650 and a thirty-sixth of what it was in 1620 when the tobacco boom started – and it would remain there into the 1700s. That’s below cost, which meant that it was economically impossible to make a living as a tobacco planter in Virginia in the late 1600s.
Unfortunately by 1660 tobacco had such a hold on Virginia that few men there could imagine making a living any other way, which meant that more and more Virginians tried to survive by growing a crop that earned them less and less money. There is no way that could end well. It’s just math.
The demographic improvements carried their own problems.
Slavery had been legal in Virginia from the very beginning, but from what historians have been able to piece together it was not all that common prior to 1660 and only slightly more common for a while after that. You do see evidence of enslaved Africans in Virginia as early as the 1640s and possibly sooner, but while bound labor was the only way that tobacco could be produced profitably this was overwhelmingly provided by indentured servants – usually English in the 1600s – rather than slaves.
Indentured servants are essentially temporary slaves. In exchange for passage across the ocean plus room and board they agree to serve as bound labor for a fixed period of time – seven years was common – during which time they could be bought, sold, and treated as things but after which they would be set free, given a reward (often land on the frontier), and allowed to join society as free citizens.
The first Africans in Virginia arrived in 1619 – a year before there were Pilgrims in New England, for those of you keeping score at home – and from what historians are able to tell they were treated as indentured servants as well – held in bondage, treated as things, and bought and sold like English indentured servants, but if they survived they were set free. There was in fact a small community of freed Africans in Virginia in the 1620s and 1630s, and they had the same rights as freed English indentured servants. They could own land and become tobacco planters. If they owned enough land they could vote and serve on juries – juries that were usually deciding the fates of white people, something that wouldn’t happen again in Virginia until the 1970s once the practice halted. They could marry who they chose, and even own indentured servants or slaves of their own.
This tells you that “race” as we understand the term didn’t mean a whole lot to the settlers. They were far more likely to care about religious views – there is a reason that Shakespeare’s Othello is described as the Moor (“the Muslim”) of Venice rather than the black man of Venice, after all.
That began to change in the 1640s, as “race” in the modern sense began to matter more to Virginians than it did in the decades prior. Historians are not exactly sure why this change happened but happen it did. You see laws passed discriminating between the rights of freed African indentured servants versus freed English indentured servants, denying freed Africans the right to serve in the militia or own a gun (gun ownership being a white privilege of long standing in this country). But slavery itself was still fairly uncommon and would remain so into the 1670s. In 1660 there were fewer than 1000 slaves in Virginia. In 1670 there were about 2000 – roughly 5% of the population. They were outnumbered by indentured servants three to one.
The reason for this is simple economics plus demographics. In the early 17th century few settlers, bound or free, survived seven years in Virginia. Slaves are expensive because you’re paying for a lifetime’s worth of labor, whereas indentured servants are far cheaper because you’re only paying for seven years’ worth of labor. And if both of them are likely to die before seven years is up, there’s no point in paying for a slave. You get all of the economic benefits of slavery without all the costs by going with indentured servants, and if you think it is immoral to reduce human beings to chattels this way you’re absolutely right. But that was the logic at the time. It wasn’t morality that kept slavery from being common. It was just finances.
But by the 1660s mortality rates had declined to the point where most indentured servants were surviving long enough to be set free. You’d think this was a good thing, and for the indentured servants it was, but it had consequences.
Those freed indentured servants would often be given land out in the back country, much to the dismay of the Native Americans who had already seen a large chunk of their land taken from them. This meant constant conflict between the settlers and the Natives, conflict that threatened to burst out into warfare at any time.
And having been tobacco field hands during their time in Virginia, those freed indentured servants would set about trying to make a living doing the one thing they knew how to do, which was grow more tobacco. Which means you had even more people growing a crop that was even less valuable, and you know what that means? It means they’re going to fail, that’s what it means.
So in the 1660s Virginia became divided into two hostile camps.
On the one hand you had the wealthy planter elites – the people who had made their money when tobacco prices where high and could now afford to branch out into other things like money lending or the fur trade. These people lived in the eastern tidewater areas and were the ones who controlled the Virginia government.
On the other hand, you had a growing number of small tobacco farmers out on the frontier – mostly freed indentured servants. These people were poor, powerless, and increasingly angry, particularly after the tidewater elite put strict property limits on their right to vote (voter suppression being an age-old tactic in the US) and refused to help them eradicate the local Native Americans, with whom the elites traded for their furs.
By the early 1670s Virginia was a society on the brink of disaster, and the guy who set things in motion was Nathaniel Bacon.
Bacon was 26 years old when he arrived in Virginia in 1674. Like many early Virginia settlers he was a gentleman – a social rank at the time, not simply a description of an adult male – and he was eager to rebuild the fortune he had squandered back in England. Governor William Berkeley was sufficiently impressed with the young man that he appointed Bacon to the governor’s council, but they very quickly fell out when Berkeley denied him a license to trade with the Natives.
Bacon then threw himself into the opposition – an opposition centered around the small tobacco planters of the back country – and became their leader.
After rising tensions turned to violence between the settlers and the Natives in 1675 and 1676 (largely because Bacon and the back countrymen worked on a “kill them all and let God sort them out” philosophy of deciding between allies and threats), Berkeley threw Bacon off the council entirely. Bacon then led the frontiersmen against the Virginia government, routed the colonial militia, and burned the capital, Jamestown, to the ground in the summer of 1676. Bacon then died of dysentery in October, after which Berkeley recaptured Jamestown, executed 23 of the surviving rebels, boarded a ship to explain the situation to the crown in 1677, and died before he could do so.
Given that I have just described the entire rebellion in a single paragraph of just over a hundred words – a rebellion which failed and left the original government in charge when all was said and done, it must be noted – it is a fair question at this point to ask how this could possibly be the most important event in American history.
The rebellion had consequences, that’s how.
When the tidewater elite looked back over the events of Bacon’s Rebellion, they asked themselves, “What was the main source of this revolt?” And the answer they came up with was obvious: the small tobacco planters out in the back country. Small planters who had once been indentured servants but had survived to earn their freedom and their land thanks to the declining mortality rates of 17th century Virginia. Bacon had led them, but they were the root of the problem and as long as there were indentured servants living long enough to be freed they would constitute a poor, angry, volatile underclass ready to be stirred up by an ambitious leader like Nathaniel Bacon.
But Virginia needed bound labor, because free labor wasn’t going to grow tobacco.
So the solution was clear: find a source of bound labor that they didn’t have to set free.
Slaves, in other words.
Slavery meant no dangerous class of poor, freed indentured servants to deal with, and thanks to the declining mortality rates and the fact that slavery was made inheritable through the mother (and think about the incentives in that little arrangement the next time someone tells you the free market is the engine of liberty, why don’t you) slavery was now not only cost effective but potentially profitable.
On top of that race-based chattel slavery created a bond between the eastern planter elite and the small western planters, one that would reduce future rebellions by keeping the two sides allied against a common enemy, because as long as you had race-based slavery whites would unite against blacks – even across political or economic lines, even at the expense of their own political or economic interests.
Convince poor whites that blacks or other non-whites are the enemy and they will slit their own throats every time. Go ahead and dispute that if you want. I dare you. Go ahead.
Bacon’s Rebellion is the single most important event in all of American history because more than any other event it sets the United States on the path toward race-based chattel slavery, toward dividing Americans into white and nonwhite, into people and things, and from that decision nearly all of the rest of American history flows.
By 1700 race-based chattel slavery is the default system of bound labor in the American colonies, particularly in the south. There were roughly nineteen thousand slaves in the Chesapeake region in 1700 – 22% of the population, more or less – which is a significant increase from 1670, and it would only continue to grow. By 1750 there were over 200,000 slaves in the thirteen colonies that would become the US. By 1775 that would be about half a million – again, roughly 20% of the population.
If you want to understand colonial society, you need to understand this. If you want to understand the Civil War, you need to understand this. If you want to understand pretty much any part of American history, you need to understand this.
If you want to understand the headlines today, you need to understand Bacon’s Rebellion and its consequences.
We’re living them now.