Indian massacres and oppressive taxation were the immediate causes that drove Nathaniel Bacon and his Virginia rebels to rise up for American freedom, but there were deeper passions stirring in the land that led Bacon, the uncommon aristocrat, to stand for the good of common man against Sir William Berkeley.
Berkley's Corrupt Ways
This rebellion grew out of the misgovernment of the King's governor, Sir William Berkley, whose chief aim was to build a system of personal rule by corrupting the Lower House of the Assembly, through the use of the appointing power. He surrounded himself with "yes men" and in 1661, when the Burgesses met in the little statehouse at Jamestown, Berkeley made it very clear to them that they were there because of his favor, and expected them to vote as he proposed.
What Berkeley proposed was nothing short of tyranny. Large areas of unoccupied land were granted to his favorites, taxes were levied against the poor for his/their personal benefit, and Sir William's enemies, estates were confiscated. This went on for over sixteen years.
Nathaniel Bacon For The Common Man
Nathaniel Bacon declared that the common people were "curbed and oppressed in all manner of ways" and that perpetual breach of laws, prosecutions, excuses, and evasions showed that things were carried, "as if it were but to play a booty, game, or divide a spoil."
After years of oppression by Sir William Berkeley, under the leadership of Bacon, the people turned to open resistance, touched off by an Indian war in the summer of 1675, when Governor Berkeley refused to defend the people from the hostile Indians. Bacon and the people suppressed the Indians themselves. Afterwards their aggression was turned towards Sir William Berkeley, because of his evil rule over the common man.
At first, when Nathaniel Bacon and his wife migrated from England, Sir William befriended him and tried to win his support, but when Bacon saw his motive, he withdrew from him and eventually rebelled against Berkeley, forcing him to pass a series of laws which struck at the roots of the governor's power. Councilors were no longer exempt from taxation, officials must not charge for their services more than the fees prescribed by law, the justices of peace were to be restrained in assessing taxes, sheriffs were not to succeed themselves, no man was to hold more than one public office at a time, and a law that was a century and a half in advance of its time, giving the right to vote to all freemen.
After this, Bacon returned with his ragged men to continue to fight the Indians, but when he heard that Berkeley had marked him as a traitor, he came storming back and civil war ensued against Berkeley and his followers. Berkeley's strength was the waterways, Bacon controlled the land. When Berkeley sailed up the James River and took Jamestown, Bacon and the rebels steamed in from land and forced Berkeley to retire and deliberately burned Jamestown, with its picturesque church, the old statehouse, and the cluster of cottages, to prevent Berkeley from returning.
As the battle went on, Berkeley took advantage of his sea power, making several raids on Bacon's outposts along the Virginia rivers, taking many captives and holding Council of War and sentencing them to death.
Bacon was resolved to fight on, but history says different, worn out through the hardships of war, he became sick and died. Some of his men fled to the woods and were never seen again, but others stayed public in their resistance to Sir William Berkeley's corrupt ways, and were captured, treated as traitors, given hasty trials, and hanged.
The more one studies Bacon's Rebellion, the more its kinship with the American Revolution becomes apparent. Although Nathaniel Bacon never received the recognition due him as patriot of freedom, if he had lived a century later, no doubt, he would have been a big influence in the American Revolution.