I think I may have stumbled upon an historical explanation as to why people would believe in a government conspiracy to seize private guns while at the same time demand that same government stop spending so much time protecting the rights of alleged criminals. And this explanation begins 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 Burgess, 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.
Eight years before “Will” as his friends called him, had been a popular Governor. Now, at the age of 55, Berkeley again accepted the responsibility of leading the 35,000 English settlers in the “Old Dominion”. Will was a playwright and a fighter, a Cyrano, who Mary Newton Standard has described as, “Every inch a gallant soldier, every inch a gentleman, yet haughty, unsympathetic and unlovable; narrow in mind and in heart.” (The Story of Bacon's Rebellion, Neale – 1907 ©, Jeffrey C. Weaver, 2000) She might have added he was also a drama queen.
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 - assuming he could count on the support of a member of his own 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. Unfortunately, Nathaniel had picked a bad time to make a new start in the new world.
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 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 did not like paying taxes, and they wanted a war against the Indians, which, of course, would have required more taxes.
Like their in-laws before them, the freeholders took quick measure of Nathaniel Bacon. But these men were not judging him as a new member of the family. They figured the boy did not 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. Other tribes now had reason to doubt the deals they had signed with Governor Berkeley. It looked like the entire frontier would erupt in an Indian war, which would have cost everybody money. 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 Burgess 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 histrionics 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 - his army. They marched into town, with flags flying and drums pounding. The members of the house hung out the windows of their Parliament building, mesmerized by the performance.
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 did not 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. Reason eventually prevailed. Will was persuaded to sign his nephew’s commission.
The lesson here I would say is that people who bring matchlock black powder muskets to public meetings have a “flare” for the dramatic. They are looking to attract an audience, i.e. , in an appropriately dramatic fashion, twenty-five year old Nathaniel Bacon had just overthrown the royal governor of Virginia. Curtain on Act One.
The curtain now rises on 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 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 butcher the nearest Indians.
About now it dawned on the more thoughtful freeholders that they had hitched their fortunes to a rather temperamental artist. But Drummond for one would listen to no such warnings. “I am in over (my)shoes?" He demanded when challenged by his fellow freeholders,. "I will be over (my) boots!” He was soon in over his neck. The governor gathered his own supporters at Jamestown, and counter-proclaimed his nephew a traitor.
Forgetting the Indians, Nathaniel marched his army back to Jamestown, 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 bloody effort, at the cost of thousands of lives, had been put to the torch in one adolescent thespian outburst. Curtain on Act Two. There was no third act. Forty days later the great over-actor was dead.
Nathaniel Bacon died of the “bloody flux”, which is the old name for dysentery, on October 25th, 1676. With him died “Bacon’s Rebellion", 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 final 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, even before there was, officially, an America.
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