In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

43 CHAPTER 3 Rethinking the “American Paradox” Bacon’s Rebellion, Indians, and the U.S. History Survey JAMES D. RICE Historians have long considered Bacon’s Rebellion, a civil war that convulsed Virginia in 1676, one of the most important events in all of American history. A staple of textbooks and survey courses, it enjoys an unusually high level of name recognition for a prerevolutionary event that was not a “founding,” so much so that an online search turns up appropriations of the name for contemporary political uses. Not coincidently , its causes, consequences, and meaning have been much contested. Did its youthful leader Nathaniel Bacon, the “Torchbearer of the Revolution ,” launch a democratic struggle against the tyranny of Virginia’s colonial governor William Berkeley, the embodiment of royal absolutism in America? Or was Bacon the anti-torchbearer, leading the way to a long, dark American tradition of slavery and racism?1 The story of Bacon’s Rebellion usually goes something like this: In the summer of 1675 a trading dispute between a Virginia planter and some Indians along the Potomac River turned violent. Differences soon arose among Virginians over how best to prosecute the resulting “Susquehannock War.” Governor Berkeley’s strategy was essentially defensive and focused on the Susquehannocks alone. Many Virginians, however, saw in the war an opportunity to go on the offensive, not only against the Susquehannocks but against all Indians in the region. In the spring of 1676 Bacon, a wealthy young newcomer to Virginia, emerged as the leader of this latter group. After Berkeley refused Bacon’s repeated requests for a commission “to go out against the Indians,” Bacon led an unauthorized attack against the Occaneechees, who were allies of Virginia. This made him a rebel. Baconites and Berkeley loyalists first aimed guns at one another in late June, and throughout the summer of 1676 they alternated possession of Virginia’s capital at Jamestown. The rebels generally prevailed, forcing Berkeley and other leading loyalists to take refuge on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In mid-September the rebels burned Jamestown to the ground. When Bacon died of disease in October, however, the rebellion fell apart. It was all over by late January 1677. A regiment of regular troops, 44 JAMES D. RICE accompanied by royal commissioners sent to investigate the matter, arrived from England shortly after the final suppression of the uprising. They placed much of the blame on Berkeley. Berkeley was recalled to England but died in London before he could defend his handling of the rebellion to the king. The most influential explanation of these events today is Edmund S. Morgan’s 1975 American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Bacon’s Rebellion, Morgan argues, was an “instinctive attempt to subdue class conflict by racism.” The result was a new settlement in which planters replaced white indentured servants with enslaved Africans, and whites of all ranks bonded together as members of a single race. Having learned from the rebellion that “resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class,” Virginia’s ruling class began to offer their (white) social inferiors better opportunities, more political power, and more respect. Bacon’s Rebellion was therefore a pivotal moment in the creation of what Morgan calls “the central paradox of American history”: that is, the intimate marriage between freedom and slavery in which the emerging rhetoric of American liberty was completely intertwined with the rise of racial slavery.2 Morgan’s thesis features prominently in many survey courses and textbooks , and with good reason. American Slavery, American Freedom, after all, connects the colonial period (foreign territory to many instructors and virtually all students) to some of the most important themes in U.S. history: the centrality of slavery, the rise of an aggressively democratic society, and the vexed relationships between (and legacies of) slavery and democracy down to the present. It helps to account for the closely interrelated phenomena of white populism, African American slavery, and the pervasive rhetoric of liberty and freedom among slaveholders in revolutionary-era Virginia and in the United States thereafter.3 Yet a survey course featuring Morgan’s interpretation of Bacon’s Rebellion misses out on the opportunity to tell a still-larger story. This is because it glosses over the experiences and motivations of Native Americans, who were far more central to the rebellion—and to American history as a whole—than Morgan and other scholars have acknowledged. Indeed, a Native-centered account of...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.