Bacon's Rebellion

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What was Bacon's Rebellion and why was it important?

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Bacon's Rebellion at its core laid a foundation for racial distinctions that would plague the land that would become America for hundreds of years to follow.

Prior to the rebellion, there had grown a divide between wealthy white plantation owners (mostly tobacco farmers) and the workers they used to cultivate and harvest for them, including both white indentured servants and enslaved African people. While the land owners enjoyed an abundance, the workers felt pinched by the economic strain.

Bacon looked outside Virginia to the lands occupied by various Native American tribes and pushed Governor Berkeley to take this land for the poorer whites and blacks in Virginia. Berkeley had been caught in trying to maintain a balance between these tribes and Virginians for years and was not looking to create further conflict. And, needless to say, the Native American tribes in question were not willing to simply donate their ancestral lands to poor white and black colonists.

So, when Berkeley refused to act as Bacon wished, Bacon took matters into his own hands, amassing a group of rebels to take the lands they wanted. They fairly emaciated the Occaneechi people and then began to call for a war against Native Americans. Bacon and his rebels began terrorizing Native American tribes, gathering further support from poor white and black colonists as they campaigned. Eventually, they burned Jamestown to the ground, and then, suddenly, Bacon died of dysentery. His rebellion quickly fizzled.

However, this did reshape the way race was viewed. The wealthy saw that a force of white and black disgruntled colonists held the potential for significant power. They therefore increasingly began to distinguish between colonists of "European descent" and "African descent" in their lawmaking and declared people of the latter "hereditary slaves" in order to break apart this collective force against them. This would shape policy and eventual national thought for many years, and traces of these policies are still seen today.

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Bacon's rebellion began with a series of skirmishes between Virginia colonists and the Doeg Native Americans in the 1670s. Increasing numbers of Virginia landowners became frustrated that Sir William Berkeley, the Royal Governor of Virginia, curbed the reprisals they were permitted to take against the Doeg after raids on their farms.

One of the Governor's council, Nathaniel Bacon, asked Sir William for a general commission to attack the Doeg and, when he was refused, gathered a force of several hundred men and attacked them anyway. Support for Bacon grew among the Virginians, and he rebelled openly against the Governor, forcing him to flee to his plantation. On July 30th, 1676, he issued the Declaration of the People of Virginia, which listed various complaints against the Governor and his administration, including corruption, excessive taxation, and failure to protect the colony from its enemies. In September of the same year, Bacon's troops attacked Jamestown, burning it to the ground.

The Rebellion itself was abortive, petering out at the end of 1676 after Bacon died of dysentery. Its importance lies in its being the first rebellion of discontented American colonists against the English government. A century later, the Founding Fathers, Jefferson in particular, were to regard it as a prelude to the Revolution and Bacon as a patriot, whose Declaration anticipated their own Declaration of Independence.

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Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed uprising that occurred in 1676 between Nathaniel Bacon and the government of Virginia. Bacon led the Virginia settlers of all classes against the government of William Berkeley. While Berkeley was the governor, tobacco prices fell and taxes rose, leading to economic problems. The right to vote was restricted to land owners, and the colonists no longer felt protected. When the colonists wanted to push westward and take Native American land, Governor Berkeley denied them. He also refused to retaliate against Native American attacks on the colonists. For these reasons, the colonists rebelled under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon.

Bacon’s rebellion was important because it was the first time that colonists fought against tyranny. Many historians claim that Bacon’s Rebellion planted the seed for the American Revolution, which occurred 100 years later.

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