The year was 1676 — still one century before 13 American colonies banded together against the British Empire — and many settlers of Virginia were not happy. They faced limited job prospects, external threats, and, perhaps worst of all, a government that wasn’t listening.
Seizing on this restlessness, a man emerged who concentrated the voice of the disgruntled masses. His name was Nathaniel Bacon. The elites who served in the colonial government, he argued, had lost touch with the plight of the common Virginian. BPutting his tobacco money where his mouth was, Bacon led an uprising of poorer English colonists who were desperate to rage against the establishment. We call this event Bacon’s Rebellion.
Last November, it may have finally succeeded.(Click here–>)
Before its hiatus, PPFA never truly unpacked the results of the election. Sure, I called the result on Election Night, reflected on it the next morning, and then led a group therapy session the day after that. Since then, however — nothing. So allow me, for one post at least, to look back before I look forward.
In the four months since that earth-shattering night, it seems pundits have turned over every stone from the rubble it left behind. “How the heck did that happen?” they asked. PPFA’s take, if I had to identify the biggest factor in President Trump’s victory, was that the election came down to the necessary amount of people in the necessary combination of states being sick and tired of Washington. Republicans then nominated a non-politician, while the Democrats nominated someone who had been in Washington for a quarter-century. In future history classes, when this election gets mixed in with all the others, that will be the brief summation of how Trump won.
Of course, the anti-establishment wave that crested in November before drenching the White House lawn in January had actually been building for quite some time. It shed light on a division that has existed in this country for centuries, and I don’t mean the relatively modern red-and-blue-state paradigm. State Senator Obama was right, but he was right for the wrong reasons. We’re not 50 different monolithic blocks of electoral votes; what we have instead are red and blue areas inside every state. (Well, almost every state.)
The patterns inside those states reflect a much more consistent political divide than we’re used to hearing about. It’s not blue state versus red. It’s blue urban areas versus red rural ones. Almost every state has both, and the degree to which each type of region turned out to vote determined how each state tipped. President Trump had record turnout in rural areas, negating Hillary Clinton’s edge in the cities.
Again, this divide is not new. It was around last election and the election before that. They’ve been around since Hamilton’s Federalists battled Jefferson’s (southern motherflippin’) Democratic-Republicans. Yes, we’ve been fighting the same battles since our founders. In fact, as we see with Bacon’s Rebellion, this divide goes back a full century before the birth of the nation itself. Trump’s victory might just be a culmination of the movement started in 1676 Virginia.
The early history of the Virginia colony is often overshadowed by the Pilgrims at Massachusetts, but Virginia actually came first. In 1607, when the Mayflower was still 13 years away from delivering a hundred puritanical souls across the north Atlantic to their Plymouth destiny, the English planted the Jamestown colony, the first permanent English settlement in America. After Jamestown’s early struggles (the descriptively named Starving Time), it turned the corner after cultivating a crop to which Europe quickly became addicted: tobacco. Unlike New England’s harsh winters and rocky land, the welcoming weather and fertile fields of the American south encouraged this cash crop, and it quickly became profitable. Other settlements quickly filled out Virginia; Jamestown remained as its colonial capital until the end of the century.
To incentivize colonization and rapid planting of the region, labor was needed. Colonial leadership consequently proposed the “headright system,” which we can consider the earliest government subsidy in American history. It said that if a Virginian sponsored an indentured servant‘s voyage across the Atlantic, that Virginian would be allotted 50 acres of farming land for a cheap price. The Virginia planters were interested for obvious reasons, and many poor Englishmen and women, eager for a new life in a new world, lined up to be a part of it, too. These servants, who agreed to work for a certain amount of years, hoped to then capitalize on the system when freed after their contract. It was win-win.
As Virginian leadership hoped, wealthier planters happily signed up for these indentured servants. Since one servant meant 50 acres, 10 servants meant 500. That led to enormous profit, which allowed the planter to pay for even more voyages and gobble up more land to cultivate more fruitful tobacco on plantations that grew like strengthening, voracious black holes. A wealthy gentry class emerged and distanced itself from everyone else. It quickly claimed ownership of all profitable land, usually nearer to the coast and waterways in order to trade on vessels traversing the Atlantic. The headright system also successfully catalyzed immigration — three-quarters of all seventeenth century immigrants to the Chesapeake region were indentured servants. By 1670, the colonial population of Virginia ballooned to 35,000, the largest of the English colonies.
However, like most government subsidies, only short term ramifications were considered. When the indentured servants had worked off their debt and went out to make their own fortune, all the good land had been claimed. Well-paying farming jobs were also rare; plantation owners merely contracted new servants to take the place of old ones. Therefore, newly freed former servants were forced to find uncolonized land, which meant they were relegated into the deepest parts of the American frontier. Not only was that land less desirable, but on it roamed Native American tribes. These tribes had once lived in the coastal lands before being displaced by aggressive English colonists, and now new white-skinned settlers crept further inland to take more. Consequently, these poorer frontier farmers unavoidably clashed with the natives on numerous occasions.
As a result of these skirmishes, they appealed to the colonial government in Jamestown for help. Much to their frustration, they were repeatedly ignored. Many of them attributed the negligence of Virginia’s governor, William Berkeley, to being in league with the natives. They also accused him of not knowing what it was like to be an average Virginian.
They weren’t wrong. If you ever want to know how not to resemble a man of the people, study this guy:
Moreover, Governor Berkeley and his government were indeed friendly to the natives in exchange for the lucrative fur trade.
Enter Nathaniel Bacon. He couldn’t take it anymore. He and others drew up a list of complaints called the “Declaration of the People of Virginia.” It charged the government with the following (this should sound familiar):
- Unfair taxation
- Passing policies favorable only to the elites
- Not putting the people of Virginia first
- Ignoring the threat at the border
- That includes “having protected, favored, and emboldened” that threat while “never contriving, requiring, or appointing any due or proper means of satisfaction for their many invasions, robberies, and murders committed upon us.”
- Not doing enough to Make Virginia Great Again.
Okay, I made that last one up. But still — ladies and gentlemen, Nathaniel “J.” Bacon!
After being ignored, Bacon formed a small army of a few hundred men that raided native settlements before turning onto Jamestown itself, burning the capital down and forcing the flight of Governor Berkeley to seek reinforcements.
Unfortunately for Bacon, like future frontier Americans on the Oregon Trail, he died of dysentery. His movement petered and was defeated by the return of Berkeley’s forces. For their trouble, 23 of the rebels were hanged.
But later Americans took up Bacon’s populist torch. Those Americans include Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Bernie Sanders, and now President Donald J. Trump.
I hope I’ve made my thesis clear: Donald Trump is the latest iteration of Baconism, and I hope understanding that helps you understand some Trump voters. To be sure, differences in the movements abound — Bacon’s Rebellion fell apart, whereas Trump’s rebellion has made him the most powerful person in the country — but the two movements share remarkably similar strands of DNA.
In both cases, it’s a populist movement rising up against what the common man perceives as a corrupted government that has lost touch with its people. Similarly, there’s a vibe of coastal elitism versus the inland, salt-of-the-earth working class. Underlying the frustration in both eras was an unsatisfactory economic situation where well-paying jobs were hard to come by while government officials lived far too extravagantly. Moreover, Bacon’s group was at the time described as “a rabble of the basest sort of people,” a not-too-distant cousin of “basket of deplorables.” One could also stretch the comparison to Berkeley and other wealthy Virginians benefiting from Native American relations while the incumbent president’s Democratic Party benefited from a porous southern border.
Most urgently, in both events there’s an external threat that the movement feels is a pressing problem which the government is not taking seriously enough. In Virginia it was the looming native menace; today it’s illegal immigration, the impact of immigration on jobs, and “radical (pause) Islamic (enunciated as clearly as possible) terrorism.” These dangers made many people feel desperate, and you can understand that desperation. How helpless one feels if the people who are supposed to protect you instead look the other way. In 1676, that perceived disconnect convinced Bacon’s men to take up arms. Four months ago, it drove voters to the polls.
This time, of course, the rebels succeeded. That success comes with some irony — the rebels have become the establishment. The dog hasn’t just caught the car — it’s behind the wheel. So hold on tight.
Speaking of succeeding, I hope the footnotes are working out! Remember that after you’re done reading each one, you just have to hit your back button to return to where you left off. That’ll save you scrolling and potential spoilers. Also keep in mind that if you’re pressed for time, the footnotes are tangential at best and mind-numbing at worst.
I hate that I had to phrase it in that awkward way. Maybe that’s the #1 argument to switch to the popular vote — so PPFA can just say things like, “Because more people wanted X.” I think that’s well worth a 28th Amendment, don’t you?
There has been remarkable continuity in our two parties despite the evolution of their names. The Federalist Party of the late eighteenth century, like the Democrats of today, were most popular in the northeast, in cities, and along the coast, and it championed a strong federal government. Its Democratic-Republican foe, just like the modern Republican Party, was more popular in the south and in rural, inland areas, and it promoted a decentralized government with more power to the states. There were evolutionary generations in between (WHIGS!), but these two early parties were essentially the progenitors of today’s.
The English had looked around the region already, naming it “Virginia” after their “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth, who never married. (The veracity of whether she was a literal virgin is inappropriate for a family blog.) They also attempted the ill-fated Roanoke Colony in these lands, but we all know what happened to them. And by that I mean we don’t know what happened to them.
You might have heard of some of these gentry families, many of which became known as the “First Families of Virginia” or FFVs: Washingtons, Jeffersons, Randolphs, Lees… All these later revolutionary Americans were descendant of the seventeenth century planters who took advantage of generous land policies and then used their status to solidify their families as prominent Virginians.
Interestingly, the “deepest parts of the American frontier” were, at the time, only a hundred miles inland or so. What an interesting time! That being said, there were no good roads, so traveling to and from uncolonized land was difficult.
Interestingly, another similarity could be that Bacon himself was pretty well off — he had two plantations. This is akin to Trump claiming to represent the working class despite his wealthy background. Instead, Bacon may have been capitalizing on this movement after getting rebuffed by the government when he sought a military commission. Trump, of course, also had spent a lot of time not being taken seriously by the establishment, despite his cameo in Home Alone 2.
- In many cases, broader historical processes were more at fault than any individual person or group of officials. Due to years of English encroachment, native hostilities were inevitable, but the colony did not yet have the population to go into the frontier to subdue them.
- The lack of good farmland and jobs, meanwhile, was the result of years of policy inscribed by predecessors. In modern America, the irreversible tide of automation has pinched the job market, and our quickly accumulating debt is largely due to paying back old loans and obligations to programs from decades ago. Terrorism is also as old as civilization itself, only now there are bombs and more people to kill.
- When Bacon’s men attacked native villages, they attacked a tribe which had nothing to do with earlier conflicts. Red skin was red skin, so to speak. Today, some focus their ire on wide swaths of Muslims and immigrants who have nothing to do with the problem.