U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The many lives of Nathaniel Bacon


Nathaniel Bacon, 1647-1676  This apparently is not Nathaniel Bacon the rebel. Sorry for the mistake.

One of the most powerful insights Edmund Morgan offered us over his long and illustrious career was that Bacon’s Rebellion, its context, and its aftermath provide an early roadmap for the history of race relations and its intersection with class politics in American history.(1) Unfolding a story of opportunities lost, Morgan suggested that Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 marked a turning point in the history of slavery in Virginia and the southern colonies more broadly.

Up till then slavery was not yet the central institution it would later be, as both indentured servants and slaves formed the underclass of early Virginia. In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, instead of forming a cross-racial alliance that would challenge the rule of the gentlemen class, white men struck a faustian bargain across class lines on the backs of black folks, defining freedom as a white person’s privilege and slavery as the default status of people of African descent. Thus slavery became the favored labor regime in the south, indentured servitude dwindled, and blackness and whiteness became entrenched in law and custom.

At the center of this early Virginia insurgency stood a familiar American specimen, the demagogue Nathaniel Bacon. Inciting hatred of Indians and plumbing festering resentments against Virginia elites, Bacon found himself at the head of an open rebellion after a convoluted series of events. Much like our contemporary twenty first century populist, Bacon did not have a clear design and plunged into populism without much of a plan. What he did do very well however, was foment the hatred of a particularly volatile group of white men first and foremost against Indians, but also against the leadership of the colony that many perceived as both corrupt and soft on the “savages.” Again, similar to our president-elect, Bacon was himself part of the aristocracy of the colony, who nonetheless struck the right tone with a growing disgruntled bloc of white folk.

More striking than the particulars of the rebellion itself, the context for the rebellion’s eruption and the resolution of social tensions in Virginia in its wake proved to be harbingers of things to come. Virginia towards the end of the 17th century was a society quickly spiraling out of an earlier established “equilibrium” that hinged on high mortality rates and the availability of lucrative tracts of land wrested by force from local Indians. Until midcentury the colony’s economic boom relied primarily on extracting labor from indentured servants who were lured to the colony with promises of both freedom and land, once they performed their designated period of unfree labor. This proved “viable” so long as death rates were high and prime tobacco growing lands abundant. In this fashion, many of those who outlived their servitude periods could join the planter class as free men and social tensions remained in check.

However, during the second half of the 17th century, as people lived longer and the prime tobacco growing lands were taken by large planters and land speculators, the ranks of former servants swelled, and fewer and fewer “freedmen” became financially established. As a result, the disparity of wealth between freedmen and well-to-do planters widened and the prospects of social mobility grew dim. This was a recipe for social unrest.

According to Morgan, Nathaniel Bacon’s success in fomenting hatred against Indians as a means of shoring up popular support foreshadowed things to come. Though Bacon died quite quickly after assuming command of the colony, and after his death the rebellion was easily put down by royal authorities, the specter of popular revolt by the “many” against the “few” prompted elites in Virginia to recalibrate the social order. They too employed racial anxieties as a means to shore up popularity and solidarity across class lines, but instead of Indians they turned to ‘others’ of African descent as their chosen scapegoats.

In this vein, slavery augmented by a hardened racial alignment emerged as the preferred form of unfree labor in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion. This also relieved the anxiety generated by the growing ranks of volatile men in the colony, for as slavery waxed and servitude waned, fewer unfree laborers achieved freedom and threatened the social order. “Slaves,” as Morgan noted “proved in fact less dangerous than free or semi-free laborers.” As opposed to white men “slaves were unarmed,” and—since the former could be counted on to uphold the social order—slaves “did not have to be armed.”(2) White men would now unite both against the threat of Indians and of an insurrection of slaves.

The pestering question that seems to repeat itself over and over, and over again, in American history is who is to blame for the sinister covenant that brought us the white patriarchy as we know it in American history. It is telling that in his concluding remarks regarding the social realignment in Virginia Morgan applied the passive voice when discussing the status of lower-class white men after the rebellion. “[T]hey [small planters],” asserts Morgan, “were allowed not only to prosper but also to acquire social, psychological, and political advantages that turned the thrust of exploitation away from them and aligned them with the exploiters [my italics].” Similarly, he sketched the tripartite social organization of Virginia by the second quarter of the eighteenth century: “a slave labor force isolated from the rest of society by race and racism; a body of large planters, firmly committed to the country, who had become practiced in politics and political maneuvering; and a larger body of small planters who had been persuaded that their interests were well served by the leadership of their big neighbors [my italics].”(3)

For Morgan, as it has been for many others, the “exploiters” were the big men of Virginia, while lower class whites were only erstwhile historical agents in this affair. Numerous brilliant studies have shed light on this problem without offering a full resolution for this gnawing question. First, of course, was W.E.B. Du Bois in his masterful Black Reconstruction in America (1935). A few years later, in 1938, C. Vann Woodward continued this tradition with his path-breaking interpretations of Populism and the New South that begun with Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel and continued in his later work. In The Name of War (1998) and Our Savage Neighbors (2008), Jill Lepore and Peter Silver traced how white settlers joined forces with genocidal consequences for Indians during King Phillip’s War and the Seven Years War, respectively. Published just this year, Robert Parkinson mirrored such analyses in his exhaustive study of race and nationalism during the American Revolution: The Common Cause (2016). And David Roediger and Alexander Saxton made a similar case for the Jacksonian and antebellum periods with The Wages of Whiteness (1991) and The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (1990), respectively.

The dynamics of racism in American history are clear: the “wages of whiteness,” as David Reodiger framed Du Bois’ conceptualization, have proven time and again more enticing than material benefits. White common folks consistently prioritized racial identity over any other form of allegiance in forging a collective dedicated to freedom. Usually there were also some material benefits involved for most whites—though never a fundamental restructuring of the economy.

Nathaniel Bacon had many lives: he appeared to us as Andrew Jackson, Tom Watson, Father Coughlin, and now Donald Trump. Yet perhaps more important than the particular legacy of the various individuals who rose to prominence by exploiting racial animus and antiauthoritarian resentment, we are left once more with an uneasy choice. Should we regard common white men as full agents in this many-times-told American tale, or should we voice our frustration at the ever-elusive demon of false consciousness and lay all the blame on white elites? The most productive way forward probably lies somewhere in the middle. On one thing, I hope, enough people can agree, we must fundamentally challenge the capitalist and racist order that has resulted in the immiseration of most everyone else.

[1] This was at the center of his book American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975).

[2] Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 309

[3] Ibid., 344, 369.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Eran,

    If I may be so bold, I’d like to nominate a work which you have not cited in your quest to assign “blame for the sinister covenant that brought us the white patriarchy as we know it in American history.” For those who are interested, I recommend Rebecca Anne Goetz’s excellent 2012 monograph entitled, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race.

    If she is correct, and I think she is, her analysis of how “hereditary heathenism” came to conflate religion with a racial ideology, illustrates a weakness in the explanatory power of the “wages of whiteness” thesis of Morgan’s to explain why so many of the early republic’s greatest practitioners of “Democracy” hailed from the Virginia slave holding planter class. For what it’s worth, her book also question’s the work of the great Winthrop Jordan in his magisterial White over Black.

    I also believe that historians have a mission to test historical hypotheses vigorously especially those works which are extremely influential, and Morgan’s American Slavery: American Freedom has been internalized by graduate students since its publication in 1975.

    • Thanks for the note Brian. I recall looking through her book a while ago, planning to read it, but I never did. This was a good reminder that I should do so!

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