For some reason, the mention of a historical person with the surname of ‘Bacon’ always provokes laughter (or at the very least slight amusement) in the classroom. I see this from time-to-time whenever bringing up Sir Francis Bacon in connection to his history of Henry VII. Yes, ‘Bacon’ is an amusing surname, and in the terms of events of historical significance the ‘Bacons’ have been well represented. As well as the politician-schemer-historian Sir Francis Bacon of the 17th Century, there was the more modern painter Francis Bacon; Bacon MPs, Bacon American football players, Bacon sculptors, and Bacon playwrights; as well as the fabulously named Virginia Cleaver Bacon, an Oregon librarian (who has her own Wikipedia page, which is quite something for a librarian). But perhaps the origin of the surname does not link back to food, but rather a Norman-French name of ‘Bachun’ or ‘Bacun’.
And so, onto another famous Bacon: Nathaniel Bacon. This story concerns itself with a rebellion that broke out in the Virginia colony of the “New World” in the 1670s. The colony of Jamestown was established in 1607, becoming the first successfully enduring English colony in America (what with Roanoke failing during the Elizabethan period). After surviving the ominously titled ‘Starving Time’, the colony was able to grow and sustain itself on the profits of the tobacco trade, use of slavery, and by obtaining cheap land by dispossessing the natives. However, by the 1660s this cheap land dried up, and the poorer elements who had toiled away (some on long-term indentured contracts) became agitated due to being at the mercy of the richer, tideland elites. For the elites – under the leadership of Governor Berkeley – the control of land provided a platform for their power: less land made it rarer, and therefore more expensive (whereas more land devalued the price, and could potentially erode their platform of the elites). Tensions began to grow – and then entered Nathaniel Bacon to the scene.
Bacon was a man in his twenties who had arrived in Virginia seeking to make his fortune. The colony was filled with these types: ambitious young men; this was in stark contrast to the New England colonies were settled families managed to establish a more stable society. Bacon was able to rally together colonists to oppose Berkeley’s rules; the main aim was to push open the frontier to fight and dispossess natives from their land. Some historians have labelled it a ‘class war’, and evidence points to this conflict being between poor whites against a rich, oligarchical elite. The rebellion itself managed to force Berkeley to flee from Jamestown (which was subsequently put to the torch), however, Bacon himself died of dysentery before all events were concluded. Ultimately, the English government sent men across the Atlantic to restore order, and the local assembly was reorganised to avoid further confrontations.
The effects of the rebellion are of greater interest than the events: it showed that the democratic voice was growing in the American colonies. Rich or poor, a person could voice their opinion and dis-satisfaction (provided that person was a man and white), and the growth of democracy can be traced back to the early English colonists (such as in the House of Burgesses in Jamestown and the Mayflower Compact in Plymouth). However, perhaps a more important effect can be found: the elites didn’t want to chance antagonising the poor and causing a rebellion of a united, multi-racial poor. Therefore, slavery itself – defined as being black/African – was hardened with new slave codes. This helped solidify the white colonists against slaves, and seemed to suggest that even the poorest, low-down white colonist was still superior to a slave.
So, how to position Nathaniel Bacon: proto-revolutionary democratic hero or selfish rabble-rouser? Perhaps the answer lies in your political position and level of scepticism. The person who sees the colonial period as one big dramatic push to the revolutionary war of freedom could paint Bacon as an influence on the founding fathers, pushing for greater rights and freedoms. But perhaps the more cynical position would simply lump Bacon in with other racist, entitled Englishmen who strutted their stuff around the globe, stamping their feet until they obtained what they desired. The truth – as always – lies somewhere in the middle. All of which makes Bacon’s rebellion – even without the surname – a rich period of history in which to return.