Bacon’s Rebellion 1676 (see textbook p.100, 101, & 122)

“Nothing did more to consolidate Virginia’s slide toward race slavery than Bacon’s Rebellion, the major uprising that shook the Chesapeake region in 1676” (Jones p. 122). In 1676 a frustrated English settler, Nathaniel Bacon, led an uprising of Virginia colonists who felt they were not getting their share - who resented both Native Americans and the Jamestown elite, both of whom seemed to be denying them access to land and prosperity. Bacon led an attack on neighboring Indians against the orders of Governor Berkeley. The ruling class represented by Berkeley was wary of the damage and expense these kinds of frontier wars against the native populations – such as Metacom’s War (aka King Philip’s War) in New England. Many of the poor, discontented men who joined Bacon’s raids on Indians (against Berkeley’s orders) were former indentured servants who were now having a hard time finding an economic niche as freemen in a society controlled by very wealthy large landholders. Many discontented servants and slaves also took up arms. Ultimately, the rebellion was put down with English military reinforcement, but the potential power of a coalition of the poor and oppressed - black and white, freemen, servants, and slaves – demonstrated in the uprising, was very worrisome to the Virginia elite (the rich and powerful).


Edmund Morgan has argued in “The American Paradox” (see PDF file on web syllabus) that the Virginia elite’s fear of unruly, discontented former indentured servants -especially their making common cause with servants and slaves and stirring up a general revolt of the lower, laboring classes prompted the Virginia elite to


1) cut down on importing European indentured servants and turn to the trade in West African slaves instead, so that there would be fewer unruly European freemen in the future. Some say this signals, for the first time, Virginia’s turning to slavery as its primary labor force and turning away from indentured service as its primary labor force. Colonial America would still rely on European indentured servants for labor - especially in the Chesapeake (VA, MD) and the Middle Colonies (DE, PA, NJ, NY) until about 1800, but it is the time period after Bacon’s Rebellion – the late 17/early 18 century – that historians refer to as America’s “terrible transformation” to slavery (see chapter 4). Prior to 1700 all the American colonies had used servants and slaves – European, Native American, and African – after 1700, the northern colonies relied on relatively few slaves (relative to the south) and the southern colonies were transformed from “societies with slaves” to “slave societies” (see p. 167).


2) try to separate the lower orders (lower classes) with a screen of racial contempt – to divide (with a color line) and conquer so to speak. The Virginia elite gave poor whites special privileges (like voting) that used to be reserved for people with property and gradually diminished the right of free blacks. So by 1700, the opportunities that had permitted men like Anthony Johnson and other Afro-Virginians to forge lives as freeholding property owners (and owners of servants) who enjoyed all the rights and privileges of propertied Englishmen in the earlier part of the 17th century – these opportunities and avenues of economic and social mobility were either completely closed or made increasingly inaccessible. Virginia laws gradually closed these avenues of mobility over time e.g. at different point in time Virginia statutes stated that African-Americans and Native Americans were prohibited from buying European servants, freed black slaves were required to leave the colony, African-Americans and European-Americans would be penalized for getting married or having children together, free blacks would be denied the privilege of voting, testifying and suing in court, and non-free blacks would be denied the opportunity of suing for their freedom as Elizabeth Key and many others had.