One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
I may have stumbled upon the explination was to why people would bring guns to a public meeting. This story really starts with the sudden death of the Governor of the Colony of Virginia, Samuel Mathews, Jr, in January of 1660. He had been born in America, and there were high hopes he would be a brave new leader of a brave new world. Instead, on March 13, 1660 the Burgesses, members of the Virginia colonial assembly, decided to take a step back to the future by appointing “the honorable Sir William Berkeley” as their Governor, again.
His supporters were the FFV, the First Families of Virginia, including the bloodlines of Lee, Spencer, Washington, Randolph, Fitzhugh, Harrison, Custis, and others. And in 1674, there landed in the midst of this fraternity Will’s nephew, the impatient and ambitious 24 year old, Nathaniel Bacon.
Will welcomed his nephew warmly, giving him property and a trading concession with the Indians. Being a politician, Will also took the opportunity to shore up his own political support by naming his nephew to the Colonial Council, thus assuming he could count on the support of his family. However Will did not appoint his nephew as a commander of the local militia, and it was the appointment he did not receive which Nathaniel took note of.
But why had this young man traveled to America? Well, Nathaniel had recently married. And his new in-laws had quickly realized he was a pretentious, pompous fraud. They promptly disinherited their daughter. And that was why Nathaniel had come to America. He needed cash. But Nathaniel had picked a bad time to make a new start.
Beginning in 1670 Virginia had suffered from a string of hailstorms, floods, and droughts. Years of bad harvests were followed by the ‘bitter winter’ of 1672-73 when half the colonies’ livestock starved to death. By the spring 1676 wheat and corn or so scarce that Will had to ban their exportation even to neighboring colonies.
In cash-poor Virginia colony, where debts and salaries were often paid in tobacco and crop futures, this created a credit crunch which hit the newer settlers, like young Nathaniel Bacon, much harder than their bankers, who were usually members of the FFV, and close friends of William Berkeley.
The newer settlers were known as ‘freeholders’, and these men, such as William Drummond, wanted more cash in the colony, and they didn’t like paying taxes, and they wanted a war against the Indians, which, of course, would have required more taxes; logic was not their strong suit.
Like his inlaws before them, the freeholders took quick measure of Nathaniel Bacon. But these men were not looking for an addition to their families. They were looking for a tool. And Nathaniel was a perfect tool. The freeholders figured the boy didn’t know enough about Virginia (or Indians) to argue with them if they made him a general. So they did, without the Governor’s approval. Nathaniel immediately marched his little army off to butcher some local Indians. As the freeholders intended, that put the Governor in a bind, because the dead Indians had signed a peace treaty with the Governor. It looked like the entire frontier would erupt in an Indian war. Will demanded an apology from his nephew, who proudly refused.
Then in June of 1676 Nathaniel arrived in Jamestown for the opening of the House of Burgesses, and Will took the opportunity to arrest the little snot. Nathaniel was dragged in front of the council and required to apologize. Then Will magnanimously pardoned him. It was great theatre, but if the Governor thought he was directing this little melodrama he was mistaken. He was now facing an actor just as capable of historanics as himself.
Overnight, Nathaniel slipped out of town and returned the next morning in front of an ad hoc audience, er, army, of 300 freeholder militiamen. They marched into town, with flags flying and drums pounding. The members of the house hung out the windows of their parliment building, mesmerized by the preformance.
Never one to let an audience go to waste, Will came stomping out of the hall and ripped open his shirt. Baring his chest, or at least his ruffles, Will declared to the spectators, “Here I am! Shoot me before God! (It’s a) fair mark, a fair mark! Shoot!” Nathaniel calmly said no, thank you. Instead he wanted the Governor to name him overall commander of the entire Indian war. Since the Governor’s didn’t want any Indian war, he exited at once, stage right. Nathaniel, with no actor to play against, went over the top. He started screaming. He ordered his men to surround the meeting house, and announced he would kill everyone inside if he were not given total command at once. For a few minutes it looked as if there would be a wholesale slaughter just for the sake of a theatrical effect. But a touch of reality was supplied by the supporting players and reason eventually prevailed - or at least self preservation. Will was persuaded to sign his nephew’s commission. He did not mean it, of course, and as soon as the little snot was out of sight, he said so.
The lesson here I would say is that people who bring their own matchlock black powder muskets to public meetings have a “flare” for the dramatic. They are looking to play to an audience in an in-appropriately dramatic fashion.
Where were we" Oh, yeah. Twenty-five year old Nathaniel Bacon had just bullied the royal governor of Virginia. But what was next. What would happen in Act Two? On July 30, 1676 the boy General published a “Declaration of the People”. “If virtue be sin, if piety be guilt, all the principles of morality, goodness, and justice be perverted.” It might be poetry (and it might not) but Nathaniel was now addressing a skeptical audience. The declaration went on to demand the arrest of Will and 19 other FFVers as “traitors to the people”. Nathaniel then announced a general war on the Indians and demanded an oath of allegiance from all government officials. It was signed, Nathanial Bacon, General, “By the Consent of ye People”, and was made without any of ye people present. The paperwork thus complete, Nathaniel marched off with 1,000 men to attack the nearest Indians.
About now it dawned on the more thoughtful freeholders that they had hitched their fortunes to a rather temperamental artist. But Mr. Drummond, for one, would listen to no such warnings. “I am in over (my)shoes”? I will be over (my) boots!” He soon was in over his neck. The governor gathered his own supporters at Jamestown, and counter-proclaimed his nephew a traitor.
Nathaniel then marched his army back to Jamestown, (the Indians were suddenly not such a threat) and on September 19, 1676 Nathaniel burned the capital of Virginia to the ground. It was a sorry end for the “Old cradle of an infant world, In which a nestling empire lay” (Ode to Jamestown, James Kikke Paclding). But it was also the defining moment of Nathaniel Bacon’s performance. The very set he was preforming upon, the edifice painfully constructed over a century of painful effort, at the cost of thousands of lives, had been put to the torch in one adolescent thespian outburst. There was no third act. Forty days later the upstart actor was dead.
Nathaniel Bacon died of the “bloody flux”, which is the old name for dysentery, on October 25th, 1676. With him “Bacon’s Rebellion" also died, leaving Will free to hunt down the freeholders. When William Drummond was brought before him, the governor greeted him by saying, “I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia. Mr. Drummond. You shall be hanged in half an hour.” And he was. Twenty-four men in all were executed for their roles in the uprising. Charles II back in London would later observe, “That old fool (Berekely) has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.” A year later the curtain dropped on William Berekeky. He died in England, having been recalled to explain himself.
Historian Susan McCulley has noted, “Bacon's Rebellion does seem at first glance to be the beginnings of America's quest for Independence. But closer examination of the facts reveals what it really was: a power struggle between two very strong personalities.” Strong personalities? I would call them two of the biggest hams in American history.