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Bacon’s Rebellion: As Seen from Cherry Point

Charles M. Andrews' Narratives of the Insurrections

“Imperial School” historian Charles Andrews provided later generations with invaluable collections of colonial documents.

Editor’s Note

Charles McLean Andrews was one of the most prolific and important historians of his—or perhaps any other—era. Andrews was born in Connecticut to a family going back seven generations in American history. He studied at Trinity College and Johns Hopkins University and later taught at Bryn Mawr College and Johns Hopkins before settling into a long career at Yale.

Andrews was a pioneer in the “Imperial School,” which reacted against George Bancroft and others’ nationalist interpretations of colonial America. The Imperial Schoolers argued that the nationalists’ desire to justify American principles—even the very existence of the Republic—obscured their ability to accurately represent the past. Andrews and others helped integrate American history into world history by fixing it within the larger history of the British Empire. The colonial period and its most important, transformative events could not be understood without reference to the mother country. To understand how Englishmen and other Europeans gradually transformed into Americans, Andrews argued that we must clearly identify and explain the colonists’ conflicts with their imperial governors.

Over the course of his career, Andrews was a member and leader in scholarly societies like the American Historical Association, his hundreds of published writings earned prestigious awards, and his hardline empirical approach to the past deeply influenced later generations of historians. Some of his most important works were collections of colonial documents with editor’s introductions placing them within imperial context. With the following excerpt from Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675-1690, Andrews provides readers with a brief history of the late-century rebellions that shocked the ‘First British Empire’ to its foundations. After the English Civil Wars, considerable social, intellectual, political, and economic changes all converged to produce an interconnected series of colonial rebellions, each of which seriously threatened the entire imperial project. Our first insurrection narrative comes from Thomas Mathew, of Cherry Point plantation, Virginia.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History





In the year 1676, the date of the first narrative in this volume, the Enghsh settlements in America were still in the formative stage of their development. Though ideas and institutions were taking shape, the social order was unsettled and there prevailed a great variety of opinions similar to those held in England and ranging from the conservative belief in passive obedience and the divinity of kings to the radical notions of Levellers and Fifth Monarchy men. As a rule, colonists radical in opinion and restless in spirit crossed the water to America, and naturally the environment into which they entered did little to arouse conservative instincts. Intolerance was a characteristic of those who differed on questions of government and religious faith, and much quarrelling accompanied the establishing of homes in the New World. The colonies were still receiving new accessions of people — English, French, and German— and each newcomer, having fled from persecution or economic distress abroad, added his quota to the stock of varied and often antagonistic opinions on matters of politics and religion.

Among the colonies themselves many diversities appeared. The New Englanders were homogeneous in race, social relations, religion, and methods of government, but to a degree greater than elsewhere were they illiberal toward others and independent of all that concerned the interest and welfare of the mother country. Virginia was largely homogeneous in race but not in class, and in political organization and economic relations was in close accord with the government at home. Maryland, homogeneous in race but not in religion or class, presented conditions very similar to those in Virginia; while in New York, where popular government had not been established, great diversity prevailed in race, religion, and political ideas. In the north there was little discontent due to poverty and suffering; but in the southern colonies social uneasiness, penury, and ignorance were everywhere factors of importance.

Upon a people, sensitive and excitable and reflecting in so many ways the restlessness and discontent prevailing in England during the seventeenth century, every change in the situation at home was bound to make a deep impression. The age was one when men were not content to let sleeping dogs He. Fears and suspicions were easily aroused; hatred and anger cut deep into men’s souls; and trifling incidents were sufficient to arouse doubt and mistrust. Colonial society at this time was in a ferment and quick to respond to outside forces. The fact that during the years from 1676 to 1690 insurrections broke out in nearly all the colonies can be explained only in part by conditions existing in the colonies themselves; for behind the immediate causes lie those remoter influences, largely from outside, which give to the uprisings a common origin and common characteristics. These popular movements were not isolated phenomena; they were manifestations of a general discontent in the larger English world and the result of fears which prevailed in England as well as America, and though not always present in equal measure, or operating with equal effect, were everywhere much the same.

Throughout the colonies bodies of settlers existed holding definite ideas regarding a “free government,” or, as the more common phrase had it, a “free parliament.” Despite the presence of representative assemblies in all the colonies except New York, the belief widely prevailed that elsewhere than in New England “free parliaments” did not actually exist. Men of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland held this view of the matter, and were in part justified by the facts; for in these colonies the royal or proprietary appointees controlled affairs and often compelled the popular assemblies to follow their lead. In New York, since the days of Governor Nicolls, demands for a representative assembly had been heard, and the Long Island towns had frequently plotted among themselves for a return to the jurisdiction of Connecticut. The New England colonies were content as long as they were let alone, but when they lost their charters and were combined in a Dominion of New England, with a royal governor, they too joined the ranks of those opposed to the preponderant influence of the royal prerogative.

But there is nothing to show that there was any widespread opposition to the connection with England or to the royal or proprietary authority as such. The insurgents of Albemarle, Virginia, and Maryland may have planned to set up popular governors, as in New England, but no colonist at this period would have been so foolhardy as to believe that separation from England was desirable or that English aid or protection could be dispensed with. The enemy that the colonists in America opposed and endeavored to destroy was the same enemy that their fellow Englishmen were fighting — the royal authority as exercised by and under the Stuart kings. In the government of Charles II. and James II. and of all who represented them, the colonists thought they saw a menace to free government. There was much in the royal policy that they neither knew nor understood, but in their eyes the government of the Stuarts was not only harsh and despotic, but wrong, for they believed that it meant the dominance of Roman Catholicism, at this time a terrifying spectre and a fearful menace to Protestantism, and also the possible ascendancy of France, where despotism and Roman Catholicism were wreaking a terrible vengeance on the Protestant Huguenots. Even if a Stuart appointee were an avowed Protestant, he was classed with dogs, rogues, strangers, Irishmen, and Papists, and suspected of plots to bring down the French upon the colony or to carry the colony over to the side of France. We know that these fears were baseless and irrational, but they were real to many a colonist of this period and were forces that drove men to action. Bad government, heavy taxation, and perverted justice lent evidence and proof; wars and rumors of wars with the Indians on the frontiers gave ample warrant for belief in the machinations of Jesuits and Frenchmen at their doors; and the presence of Roman Catholic governors in Maryland and New York and of Roman Catholic officials in both colonies furnished grounds for belief that conspiracy was fomenting in the midst of the people themselves. Among ignorant and distressed planters and laborers, who, isolated in large part from the world outside, lived in a wilderness as yet untamed, these rumors, elaborated and magnified, assumed startling proportions, and even in towns such as New York and Boston lost few of their terrors. Any examination of the causes of these insurrections becomes a study in human psychology.

How far the revolts were due to England’s efforts to enforce her commercial policy, as expressed in the navigation acts, royal proclamations and instructions, and customs officials, it is not easy to determine. In every instance where such influence can be seen, other causes were at work to such an extent as to render it more than doubtful whether the British policy was a serious contributing factor. The uprising in Albemarle was a protest against the attempt of Miller, the collector, to collect the plantation duty, but as Miller was trying to act also as governor, and doing his part very badly, we cannot be sure that the plantation duty alone would have brought about the revolt. Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia was supported largely by the poor and discontented planters, but even if the navigation acts can be shown to have been a cause of destitution, they cannot be placed as determining factors in the same class with the heavy taxation and the political misrule. Though the Marylanders had had difficulties with the royal officials, they do not mention the acts in their complaints; and the northern colonists seem to have little to say of them, save that the New England merchants objected to their enforcement by Randolph as interfering with the freedom of their trade. As the acts were largely neglected before 1676, and very inadequately applied until after 1696, I am not inclined to see in them a cause of much importance.

One cannot study the insurrections as a whole without noticing the mutual dependence of one colony upon another. New England sea-captains took part in the Albemarle movement; Albemarle men were at Jamestown and had some place in the Virginia uprising; Virginia and Maryland were so near together that their leading actors were in constant touch and almost mutually interchangeable. Leisler in New York was in correspondence with Maryland, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, while New York and Boston were in close communication. New Yorkers serving as officials under Andros in Boston, Dudley presiding in New York at Leisler’ s trial, and Leislerian supporters at Boston obtaining the reversal of Leisler’s attainder by act of Parliament in England. The measure of these intercolonial relations and their effect upon the insurrectionary movements are difficult to determine, but the fact that such interdependence existed is of considerable moment, and shows that not only were the causes of the movement much the same at bottom, but also that the influence of one revolutionary group on another is a matter not to be disregarded.

C. M. A.



The first popular uprising in colonial America took place in Virginia. This movement, commonly called, after its leader, Bacon’s Rebellion, was at bottom a protest of the growing middle class in the newer plantations and counties against the political and social monopoly of the aristocrats living in the older settled areas. The number of small planters, poor immigrants, and servants freed from bondage had greatly increased since 1650 and formed a social element easily disturbed by conditions that distressed the colony. Virginia had but one staple, tobacco, and so staked her prosperity on a single commodity that was liable to constant fluctuations in its market value. Her people, despite frequent efforts of those in authority, both in England and in the colony, refused to engage in other staple industries. Government, both local and general, was in the hands of a clique, charged not only with political monopoly but also with favoritism, corruption, and incompetence. Most of the people had no share in political life, for appointments were in the hands of the crown and the governor; the assembly of 1661 sat continuously for fourteen years; and a disfranchising act of 1670 cut off the landless class entirely from the right to vote. Taxation was unjust because the only direct tax was a poll tax, and was heavy owing to levies at this period for certain unusual charges, such as the agency to England for the purpose of obtaining a reversal of the king’s iniquitous grant of the Northern Neck to Arlington and Culpeper, and the new forts erected on the upper waters of the rivers for protection against the Indians. The political scandals and the heavy taxes touched very closely a people among whom poverty and ignorance widely prevailed, owing to normal frontier conditions, the falling price of tobacco, and disasters that resulted in heavy local losses.

The burden of England’s commercial policy was undoubtedly a grievance temporarily and in certain particular quarters, but it was in no sense a cause of the insurrection. Virginia had been living under the limitations of a restricted market for thirty years, and neither before nor after 1660 had the colonists protested against the requirement that they send their tobacco directly to England. Such protests as exist were individual and not general. Even after 1676, when the people at large had a chance to say what they thought, they scarcely mention this requirement among their grievances. They speak of the bad government, of heavy taxes, of dangers from the Indians, and of the oppressive conduct of individuals, but only in a very few instances of the navigation acts. They ascribed the low price of tobacco to heavy customs dues in England and to excessive planting in the colony.

There are many accounts of Bacon’s Rebellion, of which the three selected for insertion here cover in an authoritative and fairly impartial fashion the entire movement.

The narrative of The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion was written in 1705 by “T. M.” at the request of Secretary Harley, and must have remained for many years in the Harleian library. Though the Harleian collection of manuscripts was sold in bulk to the British Museum in 1753, this particular document, which bears the library numbering, fell in some way into the hands of the trade and was bought, in November, 1801, at a sale of the stock of Collins, bookseller of London, by Rufus King, minister plenipotentiary of the United States at the court of St. James. In December, 1803, he sent it to President Jefferson. The original is now in the Library of Congress. The Virginia Historical Society has a copy of one of the two transcripts which Jefferson caused to be made; the other was given by him to the American Antiquarian Society and is now in its possession.

The author, “T. M./’ is undoubtedly Thomas Mathew, of Cherry Point, in the parish of Boutracy, Northumberland County, in the Northern Neck, Virginia. Mathew was a merchant-planter, having extensive landholdings in Virginia, particularly in those counties where the troubles with the Indians first began, Northumberland and Stafford, at the lower and upper waters of the Potomac. Although he was not interested in the politics of the colony and preferred to restrict himself to mercantile pursuits, yet he served as a county justice in 1672 and 1676, and at his house in 1677-1678 the county court of Northumberland sat as a “court maritime” to try a shipmaster guilty of a breach of the navigation acts. In 1676, though a resident of Northumberland County, he was chosen, with Colonel George Mason, to represent Stafford County in the House of Burgesses, and sat as a member of the Reforming or Baconian Assembly of that year. He took an active part in the work of the session and, as his own account testifies, was a member of influence. But he was not a party man and political responsibilities were irksome to him. He disliked controversy, though he could not avoid it altogether, and he tried to steer a path between the two extremes, committing himself to neither party. He was twice offered a lieutenancy by Bacon, but each time refused.

After the rebellion was over Mathew returned to his mercantile interests, experimented with the manufacture of linen, and came into frequent contact with William Fitzhugh, the well-known planter and letter-writer, who also had lands in Stafford County. Later he returned to England, where he lived in Westminster until his death, which took place some time between October, 1705, and February, 1706. He married a sister of Captain John Cralle, and left three children, born in Virginia between 1677 and 1680.

Mathew wrote his account of the rebellion thirty years after the event. From internal evidence it would appear that he had at hand notes made at the time, though there is nothing directly to prove such a statement. He was well fitted to write the account, having lived in the midst of the events he describes and having been an eye-witness of many of them. He drew much information from personal conversation with Bacon, Lawrence, and other leaders, and certainly at first had much sympathy with the cause they represented, though not with its excesses. His narrative is straightforward and concise, such as one would expect from a man of business, and it is manifestly fair and honest. Mathew displayed no partisan interest in the rebellion, but rather a desire to do what he could to protect the country and to further the cause of peace.

The narrative was first printed in the Richmond Enquirer, September 1, 5, and 8, 1804, from the copy now owned by the American Antiquarian Society. In 1820, it was printed for the second time, from a copy obtained from the Library of Congress, in the Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine, III. 128-149. It was issued for the third time by Peter Force in 1836, in his Collection of Tracts, vol. L, no. 8, the text being that of the copy possessed by the American Antiquarian Society, and for the fourth time, after the second copy, in the Virginia Historical Register and Literary Note Book, HI. 61-75, 121-136, in April and July, 1850. A fifth reprint was issued in 1897, by G. P. Humphrey, in Colonial Tracts, no. 8. The present text is from the original manuscript in the Library of Congress.

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