100 Years Before Lexington and Concord, Bacon’s Armed Rebellion of Whites and Blacks Forced Plantation Elite to Create System of Racial Slavery
By Frank Gormlie
Since the turmoil last year in Ferguson, Missouri, swept in a new civil rights movement, once again America is faced with the reality of its system of institutionalized racism. For Americans with conscience, understanding this system is key to changing it, and it cannot be understood without understanding its origins which trail back, of course, to colonial America.
Confronting a system that predates the very formation of the Republic itself necessitates understanding its raison d’etre – its reason for being. Why is there such a system that has a solid foundation and that has existed all this time, and is so deeply ingrained? Why is there institutionalized racism? If one accepts such a premise, that there is such a thing, then the most obvious answer is that it exists to control blacks, African-Americans. And to control other minorities, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans.
Yet this system is not meant to only control blacks – and other peoples of color – but is also meant to control white people.
Why white people need to be controlled and how the system of institutionalized racism does just that is found in the annals of colonial court houses.
So, somewhere in America’s history, there is a trail that takes us to the origins of this system of institutionalized racism, back to colonial days, before the actual construction of black slavery was finalized, back when black and white bond-servants worked and slept together – and ran away together.
Two historians are important here to aid us in the reconstruction of this period—Howard Zinn in his seminal work, People’s History of the United States, and Theodore Allen, who published The Invention of the White Race, an important contribution to understanding early colonial America.
Both Zinn and Allen recount how a unique system was created out of the needs of the colonial elite for a system of control in the early days of colonial America, a system of racial slavery.
Zinn and Allen both describe how in the early years of the 1600s in the colonies, slavery had not yet been regularized or legalized, even though there was already a developing pattern of unequal treatment. Zinn discovered evidence in the 17th century showing that where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, and a common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals.
Zinn refers to slavery scholar Kenneth Stampp, whose research concludes black and white servants of the 17th century were “remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.” Blacks and whites worked together and fraternized together.
Edmund Morgan, an important historian of colonial America, is also quoted by Zinn:
“There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.
On the top of the colonial societies, stood an elite made up of the wealthy plantation owners, rich merchants, manufacturers, traders and their governors. Not only did this colonial elite have to fear a hostile Indian population nearby, they had – in the southern colonies – the strongest and most populated colonies at first – the fear of slave revolt which seems to have been a permanent facet of plantation life. Plus they had to contend with the poor whites’ class anger – servants, tenants, city poor, the propertyless, the soldier, taxpayer, sailor.
Detailed research on slave resistance in North America has found about 250 instances where at least 10 slaves joined in revolt or in a conspiracy to rebel. And time to time, whites were involved in the slave resistance. For instance, there is a record of a Virginia conspiracy in 1663, where indentured white servants and black slaves plotted to rebel and gain their freedom. Yet, the plot betrayed, all the conspirators were executed.
As the plantations grew, so did slavery – and the conditions that blacks lived under worsened during the 1700 century. This early history is well accepted and understood by historians today. What isn’t understood or appreciated are how badly the conditions were under which the white bond-servants worked and lived. More than half of all the colonists who came to North America during the colonial period came as servants, mostly English in the 17th century, and mostly Irish and German in the 18th century.
In large part due to the monopolization of the best land in the colonies by the first European migrants and their heirs, there grew to be a body of poor whites, a large underclass of miserable Europeans who had immigrated to the colonies and whose governments had wished to get rid of them. Their plight was miserable.
The English indentured were often jailed before sailing to America in order to prevent their escape. They then endured a dangerous and long voyage. Once in the colonies, white servants were bought and sold like slaves. Beatings and whippings were common, and legal; servant women were often raped.
Court records from Virginia in 1671 inform us that Governor Berkeley had reported in previous years, that four out of 5 servants died of disease after their arrival. Many were poor children, gathered up by the hundreds off the streets of English cities and sent to Virginia and Maryland to work.
Plantation masters tried to control the sexual lives of their servants – as it was in their interest to keep women servants from marrying, or having sexual relations. They perceived that women getting pregnant and bearing children interfered with their work. Servants could not marry without permission from their masters, and they could be separated from their families. Servants could not participate in juries, although the masters could. They did not vote.
At times servants organized rebellions. Resistance to the colonial status quo by the English and European poor was exhibited by desertions en mass, by work rebellions, by mutinies on seas, work slowdowns (the first lockdown in American labor history was at the Gloucester shipyards in 1640s). There were strikes by coopers, butchers, bakers, porters, truckers, and carriers. There were recorded mass desertions by white servants in the Southern colonies during the 1700s.
Generally, when white servants survived and were freed, about 10% became prosperous, another 10% became artisans or overseers, and the remaining 80% either died, returned to England or became poor whites, part of the new urban underclass. Most servants remained landless, and became tenants, and in a Maryland study, provided cheap labor for large planters during and after servitude. If they survived their servitude, these poor whites seeking farm land, were pushed westward by the colonial elites in order to create a buffer with Native American tribes.
As the indentured white servants ran to freedom or finished their servitude time, more and more slaves replaced them, as they were more profitable to use as labor. Black slaves poured in; in 1690 they were 8% of population, but by 1770 were 21%. Overall the population of the colonies in 1700: 250,000; by 1760 – 1,600,000.
As the colonies grew, the gulf between the rich and the poor sharpened as class lines hardened during this period. By 1700 50 rich families ruled Virginia, and they lived off the labor of black slaves and white servants. The rich owned the plantations, sat on governor’s council, and served on the local magistrate. In the Carolinas, the original constitution was written in the 1660s by John Locke, which set up a feudal-type aristocracy where 8 barons owned 40% of the land and were the only governors. Everyone else – peasants and plantation workers.
Up in Boston, there was a clear-cut class system, with its early leaders had considerable wealth, in association with the clergy, sought to preserve social arrangements of Mother country. They controlled trade and commerce, dominated the politics of the residents through church and town meetings, by marriage alliances, an oligarchy formed as the basis for an aristocratic class in 17th century Boston.
Class fear among the elites was explicit. The Virginia House of Burgesses declared that white servants were despicable, as many were from past wars and if given arms “we have just reason to fears that they may rise upon us.”
As Edmund Morgan saw it:
“Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.”
Finally, the worst fears of the plantation elite crystallized in Virginia in 1676 – one hundred years before Massachusetts farmers stood with their muskets at Lexington and Concord. A young man – from the elite himself, Nathanial Bacon, formed a movement that was at first anti-Indian but then became an anti-aristocratic movement that came to symbolize mass resentment against the Virginia establishment. Called the Bacon Rebellion, hundreds of white freedmen, white bond-servants joined by black slaves staged an armed insurrection against the Virginia colonial elite.
They were very hard times in 1676, and Virginia and Maryland, the tobacco colonies experienced a severe and protracted economic crisis. The gulf between upper class and lower class had grown considerably. Bacon was a match that set off a torch of class resentment and anger. Theodore Allen views what happened in the colonies after the rebellion as key to the development of a racially-based system of slavery. Allen calls the rebellion “a civil war against the Anglo-American ruling class.”
Beginning with a dispute over Indian policy with the Virginia elite, Bacon organized armed militias to guard against the frontier hostilities of Indian tribes—militias outside official control. Popular, Bacon was elected in the Spring of 1676 to the House of Burgesses, where he adamantly opposed Governor Berkeley’s council policies towards the frontier. Bacon continued with his raids on Indians, and in response, Berkeley proclaimed him to be a rebel and had him captured. In response, 2,000 Virginians marched on Jamestown in support of Bacon, forcing his release.
After Berkeley had backed down, Bacon gathered his militia and began raiding Indians. It was in July 1676, when Bacon and his army issued the “Declaration of the People of Virginia”. It criticized Berkeley’s administration in detail, accused him of levying unfair taxes, appointing friends to high positions, and failing to protect frontier settlers from Indian attack.
Finally, Bacon moved on Jamestown itself after months of conflict. With his army numbering 300-500 men, Bacon ordered the burning to the ground of the colonial capital on September 19, 1676. Berkeley had to retreat across the river.
Seventy years after it had been founded, the colony of Virginia faced the armed rebellion of white frontiersmen, joined by slaves and servants. England would send 1,000 troops to restore order but they didn’t arrive for months later. Meanwhile in the fall, Bacon fell sick and died of dysentery. In his place weaker leaders seized the movement.
The rebels had taken over a series of garrisons along the waterways and virtually controlled the colony. The garrisons were made up of hundreds of armed white freedmen, servants and black slaves. In response, the colonial elite hired private ships with guns to counter the insurrection.
The hired ship’s captain who came upon the chief garrison of rebellion, found: “400 armed Englishmen and Negros” – a mix of free men, servants, and slaves. With false promises of pardons and freedom, the captain was able to disperse most of the garrison. But all except 80 blacks and 20 English surrendered their arms. He deceived this last holdout with superior force, disarmed them, and returned most of the slaves and servants to their masters. Twenty-three rebel leaders were hung. The remaining garrisons were overcome one by one.
Yet it was clear to the colonial elite that unfortunately the rebellion had the overwhelming support of the Virginia population, regardless of class – the defection, it was reported, was “almost general”. Governor Council member Richard Lee is recorded to have stated that the rebellion started out over Indian policy, but the overwhelming zealotry in support of Bacon was in “hopes of leveling” – equalizing the wealth. The levelers were a radical reformist tradition back in England. And it turns out that leveling was the cause of countless actions in colonies of poor whites against the rich in all the colonies in the century and half before the 1776 Revolution.
The suppression of the Bacon revolt had a double motive for the colonial rulers, as Zinn outlines: 1) develop Indian policy which would divide Indians, and 2) teach poor whites that rebellion did not pay – by a show of superior force, calling for English troops and by mass hangings.
In fact, the colonial rulers were shown that the colonies were too far from England to be controlled by troops from there. And the English didn’t want to finance a standing army in the colonies.
Yet, despite its defeat, the Bacon reverberations shook the colonial structure – especially in the southern colonies that relied on black labor the most. Bacon’s Rebellion was followed by the tobacco revolts – and once they were suppressed, the colonial governing circles were forced to deal with the issue of social control, how to control the poor whites as well as how to control the black servants.
The colonial rulers learned several lessons from Bacon’s Rebellion. It was better to war against the Indians and gain support of the whites, thereby diverting class conflict by turning poor whites against the Indians. They also learned that if the elite grabbed up the best land near the coast, it pushed propertyless whites west, and formed a buffer between elite and Indians.
They also learned something else that is central to the system of institutionalized racism. The colonial rulers learned that the only way to survive and maintain control was to keep their enemies divided. They learned that by developing a system of inequality between the black and white servants, they could mold the allegiance of the English poor to the masters.
The colonial assemblies began passing measures that over time – over a half century at least, piece by piece, law by law, began constructing “the slavery codes” – that developed this unequal treatment of whites and blacks. At first, measures were passed outlawing sexual relations between blacks and whites – installing worse penalties and punishments for blacks. This dichotomy in how people were being treated, built an unequal structure of racial slavery, where black laborers were slaves but white laborers were not slaves. This was the beginnings of institutionalized racism – a system based on the unequal treatment of whites and blacks.
Zinn and Allen page through the court histories of colonial Virginia to find records of the laws and punishment that began to piece together this structure. The fraternization of whites and blacks had to be criminalized. In 1630 a white man was whipped for “lying with a Negro”. A year later a Black woman servant begot a child of a white man. For punishment, the court ruled, the black woman was to be whipped in public, whereas the white man had to do public penance at the local church.
A Grand Jury in Charleston, SC denounced the “common practice” of sex “with Negroes and other slave wenches”. Zinn recounts how despite laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the colonies of Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Georgia, the mixed off-spring continued to be produced by black-white sex relations throughout the colonial period. The children were called “illegitimate” and kept within black families.
Heavy penalties were enacted against white women who bore children with an African father. They included adding as much as 7 years to the service time, a severe whipping and an extension of servitude for the child by 10 years.
The racial restrictions were extended even to free men and women. In 1691 Virginia provided for the banishment of any “white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free.”
We can see now, that the very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency of blacks and whites to fraternize, to fornicate, to marry.
Not only did blacks and whites intermarry, they ran off together. In 1640 Virginia, 6 white servants and 1 black started to run away but all were captured. The whites received years tacked onto their period of servitude – decidedly lighter than the sentence given to the black, who received 30 lashes, had an “R” burnt into his cheek, plus he had to work an entire year in shackles, and to serve his master as long as the master saw fit. Another record lifted out of Virginia colonial courts described how 3 servants had tried to run, 2 whites and 1 black. But they were caught, and the whites were punished with a lengthening of their service, but the black was sentenced to life-time servitude.
Virginia passed a law in 1661 that provided that if any English servant ran away with blacks, he would have to give service to the owner of the runaway blacks. In 1662 the Virginia Assembly declared that all persons born in the colony were to follow the condition of the mother. That same year interracial fornication by “Christian” men was made punishable by a fine double the amount usually imposed.
The Virginia elite needed protection from the Native Americans, and in 1639, a law was passed that authorized everybody – but blacks – to get arms and ammunition.
At the same time as the slave codes involving discipline and punishment were passed, the Virginia Assembly also passed “benefits” for their white brethren. The Law of 1705 required masters to provide white servants whose indenture was up with 10 bushels of corn, 3 shillings, and a gun plus 50 acres of land; women servants got 15 bushels of corn and 40 shillings. The black servant got life-time servitude.
Also in 1705, the law forbade any black from owning a white servant. In 1721 free blacks were deprived of their voting rights. By 1727 Virginia established the slave patrols, and all whites were required as their duty to hunt down blacks who had runaway. And the poor whites were rewarded, giving them a financial incentive.
By the 1760s the colonial rulers , the wealthy elite , had 150 years of ruling experience, and had formulated different tactics to deal with their different fears. And we have seen that the biggest fear among the wealthy plantation owners was the potential combination of poor whites and black slaves.
In response, over half a century, the elite passed the slavery codes, forcing all blacks to be slaves and all whites to be non-slaves. The elite had discovered that if they constructed a racially-based system of slavery, and gave the white servants just a bit more than the black servants received, they could effectively “buy-off” the Europeans. But they had to create a “white race” in order to achieve this.
Since civilization, there had been slaves. But there were not racially-based systems of slavery, where everyone of a particular race were presumed to be slaves – as was created out of the blood-soaked pages of our colonial history.
Historian Allen pored through 885 county-years of Virginia’s colonial records, and found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its appearance in a 1691 law. As he explained:
“Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white’. …White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”
This, then is the early history of the institutionalization of racism, a governing tool to keep people apart, and for those early years before the Republic came to be, a system to control blacks but also importantly to control whites. Remember Morgan’s conclusion:
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.
There is more to the story, but this outline is instructive to understand the origins of institutionalized racism, in order to continue the modern day civil rights movement, to take off the blinders that white people carry that prevents them from seeking common cause with peoples of color, and for once and for all – dismantle this system where races are set against each other.