Tuesday, August 18, 2020
August 18, 2020: Virginia Histories: Bacon’s Rebellion
[As with everything else in this plague-ridden year, my sons and my annual summer trip to Charlottesville unfortunately hasn’t been able to happen as planned. But this blog will always return to my home state, this time for a series on a few of Virginia’s pivotal historical moments!]
On the myths and realities of a 17th century uprising, and why the latter matter so much.
I’m not going to pretend that I can remember my early experiences with Social Studies as a Virginia public school student with any particular clarity or precision (other than the Camp Virginia trips on which my 4th grade Social Studies teacher Mr. Kirby took us), but I do have a general sense of how some of our state’s histories were presented in those settings. And I’m pretty sure that when it came to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the dominant educational frame was one of class revolt, of one of the first moments in post-contact Virginian (and perhaps American) history when settlers of non-elite status rose up against the colony’s elites and power structure. Nathaniel Bacon himself was a landed planter, and a member of the Governor’s Council to boot, and thus entirely part of that elite power structure, and I don’t think those educational narratives presented him otherwise. But nonetheless, as I remember it the principal emphasis remained on the surprising coalition of lower-class white settlers and African American slaves that Bacon assembled in support of his short-lived rebellion (it ended when Bacon died of dysentery on October 26th) against his distant relative Governor William Berkeley and what Bacon and the rebels perceived as Berkeley and his cohort’s various affronts to the colonists.
And then there are the specifics of those affronts. I hope I don’t lose my VirginiaAmericanStudier credentials when I admit that I had not read Bacon’s “Declaration” in full until researching this post, and thus had not realized just how thoroughly it focuses on racist and white supremacist depictions of the colony’s Native American inhabitants. While the first two of the Declaration’s eight criticisms focus on broad abuses of power, the remaining six are entirely linked to “the barbarous heathen” and Berkeley’s unwillingness either to make total war on them himself or to allow the colonists to do so. The Declaration’s concluding section makes clear that such war is precisely the overall goal of the rebellion and its cross-cultural community: “This we, the commons of Virginia, do declare, desiring a firm union amongst ourselves that we may jointly and with one accord defend ourselves against the common enemy.” This PBS page quotes Bacon as saying that the battle was “against all Indians in general, for that they were all Enemies”; I can’t find verification of that quote elsewhere at the moment, but the sentiment is entirely in keeping with the Declaration’s arguments and goals. Bacon’s Rebellion may have featured Virginians of a certain status rising up against those of another, that is, but they did so in service of white supremacist and genocidal goals rather than class warfare ones.
I would highlight two definite and one more potential (but still important) effect of better remembering those details of Bacon’s Rebellion. For one thing, the Declaration is as straightforward a 17th century historical document as one could find; we can’t know why every individual participant in the uprising joined, but we can and should be clear on why its titular leader started it and what his (and thus its) goals were. For another, there’s a broader through-line between Bacon’s combinatory coalition in service of such white supremacist goals and various other American histories: the Confederacy’s reliance on so many non-slaveholding whites to fight and die in service of the slaveholding elite and their white supremacist system; the late 19th century Populist and Suffrage movements’ tendencies to unite white perspectives through racial segregation and prejudice; exclusionary appeals to African Americans to oppose immigrant communities; and many more. And for a third, I would argue that the white supremacist realities of Bacon’s Rebellion offer an important counterpoint to the many well-intentioned 21st century progressives who claim that class, not race, is the most important element in our current political and social debates. It’s not an either-or, of course, but too often in American history, as in July 1676, “class” has been used as a tool to further oppress and exclude Americans of color.
Next VA history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginia histories or contexts you’d share?