Bacon's Rebellion

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Bacon's Rebellion

A Documentary Source Problem


Virginia in the late 17th century was no longer a small frightened enclave of European "civilization" amid a howling wilderness. But even though it was a settled and prosperous community, Virginia was experiencing all the social stresses of an expanding society. Due to a substantial growth in production and to some of the restrictions on exports imposed by the Navigation Acts of the 1660's, tobacco prices were depressed after 1670 and took an even sharper down-turn in 1675. Tobacco growing, as practiced in the 17th century, exhausted the soil in only a few years, so planters were constantly concerned about opportunities for expansion into the virgin lands on the frontier. However, control of these lands remained in the hands of the Crown, far away in England. Planters large and small in Virginia saw a threat to their economic and social opportunities (land was a source of social status as well as wealth) when the King granted huge tracts to court favorites in London or to "undeserving" cronies of the Governor. Many of these grants also bestowed certain tax exemptions on the owners, to the annoyance of taxpaying farmers.

To complicate matters there was an increase of violent conflict between the white settlers on, or near, the frontier and the Indians beginning in the mid-1670's The constant push westward of the English in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York had driven many tribes southward to the Virginia frontier. Here competition for food and for trade with the English among the Indians led to increased friction between the tribes and between them and neighboring whites. Desperation led to anger and to sporadic raids and thefts against white farmers. This was followed by violent retaliation and thus further conflict.

In the face of these complex and serious problems, the colonial government in Jamestown seemed inept and negligent to the majority of "plain citizens" and to many of their more prosperous neighbors. Despite Berkeley's long tenure as governor and the complacency of his political establishment, political institutions of the period were undergoing many troubling changes. Young men "of promising fortunes" grew impatient with the lack of attention they experienced at the hands of the Berkeley clique; soon they began to challenge the established authorities. The prosperity of the 1660's and the expansion of colonial officialdom resulting from the Navigation Acts made political office quite profitable. The prevailing assumptions of the times sanctioned an office holder making some personal gain from his position, but by the mid- 1670's, some settlers concluded that the Berkeley establishment had taken too much for too long. Instances of local friction increased the level of political tension. Residents of the counties resented the Governor's interference with and manipulation of their sheriffs and magistrates. At the same time the smaller farmers were growing impatient with the domination of local government by a few wealthy families. In a more mature political system these conflicts might have been resolved peacefully, but Virginia's political institutions at this time were new and changing; roles, duties and rights were only vaguely defined. In an atmosphere of social, economic, and political uncertainty explosive issues could lead to open rebellion.

In an essay of no more than 5 typewritten pages (double spaced) write a history of Bacon's Rebellion based on your analysis and interpretation of the following documents. In your work tell not only what happened, but why it happened. Don't compose a lawyer's brief defending or attacking Bacon, but tell the story that makes the most sense to you based upon the available evidence. Please note that most of the documents are arranged in chronological order; others inserted out of chronological order usually bear directly upon events in the time period in which they are placed. Not every document is absolutely crucial to a good understanding of the historical problem; be selective! To assist you in your analysis you might consider some of the following questions.

-What was the "real" cause (or causes) of Bacon's Rebellion?

-What.were the differences (if any) between Bacon's and Berkeley's response to the Indian "attacks"? Were the measures Bacon's group took warranted; were the Indian attacks so serious as to merit his actions? Would Berkeley's measures have been effective if given the chance? How did Bacon justify his actions and the "Indian policy" of his followers?

-What attitudes toward the Indians were shown by the documents? What do these attitudes reflect about the English ideas of their culture? What is the role of violence in their perceptions?

-To what degree are Bacon's and Berkeley's actions attributable to personal self-interest or to principles and ideals? To what "higher authority" (or principles of morality and justice) did each appeal in order to Justify his actions?

-Of what significance is the length of Bacon's residence in Virginia?

-How would you assess the behavior of Governor Berkeley throughout the whole incident? Was he consistent and reasonable or erratic and irrational? Is Bacon a more, or less, commendable figure than Berkeley?

-What did the Rebellion accomplish? Did Berkeley and his followers appear to have learned a lesson from the uprising (e.g. did they propose any reforms)?

These questions are intended as a guide to possible interpretive issues. Your main concern should not be to answer these questions but to construct a passage with continuity of narrative and interpretation. You will certainly need to deal with some of these questions in the process of explaining the broader meaning of the events you describe, but you should not interrupt the narrative at an inappropriate point merely to answer one of the questions. Your account should be as flawlessly and gracefully written as you can make it. Consider yourself bound not to consult secondary accounts until after you have written your own. (Since such accounts are based on other - or additional evidence, they would be more likely to confuse you than to help you in working with this specific, limited set of documents.)


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