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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Discuss the plantation system and the development of “white identity”. Also discuss how imperialism and capitalism created the need for the economic and moral acceptance of slavery. In your discussion be sure to identify the significance of Bacon's Rebellion.   



Even though Jamestown Virginia was founded in 1608, slavery did not become a characteristic feature of Virginia society until nearly the end of the century. It became so then for several reasons.

The catastrophic fall in the price of tobacco ruined the small farmers, permitting profits only to men who had the capital to purchase cheap and self-propagating labor.

Because of a shortage of indentured servants which started in the 1660's when England began restricting the emigration of white indentured servants, because of class tension, Virginians were forced to use black labor. The need for black labor continued in the 1670's because of the improved economic conditions in England. White servants were not as interested in indenturement and the competition of other colonies for servants provided other opportunities.

Relatively few blacks were imported into Virginia or the southern colonies until the late seventeenth century. The reason for this was that the cost of a slave was roughly five times that of a white servant. During this period blacks were sold in the New World to the sugar plantations in the West Indies where they fetched a higher price than Virginians could afford or would want to pay as long as the supply of white servants was available .

The problem of a low supply of the black man's labor and the high price needed for him was solved with the formation of the Royal African Company (1672) as it made slaves more readily available. The English government had given the Royal African Company a monopoly on the slave trade which ended in 1678; consequently, other merchants began slave-trading on a larger scale. Hence, the indenture system began to give way to slavery as the permanent solution to the region's chronic need for labor.

An additional inducement causing planters and politicians to switch was the recognition that, unlike white servants, black slaves (and their offspring) would be forever barred from competing with whites for land or political power .

In 1670, the House of Burgesses passed a law that sealed the fate of the black man, although it did not refer to them by race directly: "All servants not being Christians (that is, not being white Europeans) imported into this colony by shipping shall be slaves for their lives." This process became accelerated following the catastrophe of the 1676 Bacon's Rebellion.

As gender and racial categories became more clearly defined, a clash along class lines took place in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia. It was led by an English settler named Nathaniel Bacon, an English gentleman who had come to Virginia in 1629 and taken a position of some power in the colonial government. He had received a portion of land in the backcountry (away from the coast) of Virginia and set up a farm. Disputes with local Indians were frequent, and Bacon requested permission to raise a militia to fight the local Indians. The colonial government denied him this permission, because Governor Berkeley believed Bacon, a small planter, wanted to challenge the authority of the colonial government, which was led mainly by Virginians of significant wealth.

In the early summer of 1676, Bacon’s neighbors elected him their burgess and sent him to Jamestown to confront Berkeley. Though the House of Burgesses enacted pro-rebel reforms like prohibiting the sale of arms to Indians and restoring suffrage rights to landless freemen, Bacon’s supporters remained unsatisfied.

Berkeley soon had Bacon arrested and forced the rebel leader into the humiliating position of publicly begging forgiveness for his treason. Bacon swallowed this indignity, but turned the tables by gathering an army of followers and surrounding the State House, demanding that Berkeley name him the General of Virginia and bless his universal war against Indians.

Instead, the 70-year old governor stepped onto the field in front of the crowd of angry men, unafraid, and called Bacon a traitor to his face. Then he tore open his shirt and dared Bacon to shoot him in the heart, if he was so intent on overthrowing his government. “Here!” he shouted before the crowd, “Shoot me, before God, it is a fair mark. Shoot!” When Bacon hesitated, Berkeley drew his sword and challenged the young man to a duel, knowing that Bacon could neither back down from a challenge without looking like a coward nor kill him without making himself into a villain. Instead, Bacon resorted to bluster and blasphemy. Threatening to slaughter the entire Assembly if necessary, he cursed, “God damn my blood, I came for a commission, and a commission I will have before I go.” Berkeley stood defiant, but the cowed burgesses finally prevailed upon him to grant Bacon’s request. Virginia had its general, and Bacon had his war.

After this dramatic showdown in Jamestown, Bacon’s Rebellion quickly spiraled out of control. Berkeley slowly rebuilt his loyalist army, forcing Bacon to divert his attention to the coasts and away from the Indians. But most rebels were more interested in defending their homes and families than in fighting other Englishmen, and deserted Bacon in droves at every rumor of Indian activity. In many places, the “rebellion” was less an organized military campaign than a collection of local grievances and personal rivalries. Both rebels and loyalists smelled the opportunities for plunder, seizing their rivals’ estates and confiscating their property.

For a small but vocal minority of rebels, however, the rebellion became an ideological revolution: Sarah Drummond, wife of rebel leader William Drummond, advocated independence from England and the formation of a Virginian Republic, declaring “I fear the power of England no more than a broken straw.” Others struggled for a different kind of independence: white servants and black slaves fought side by side in both armies after promises of freedom for military service. Everyone accused everyone else of treason, rebels and loyalists switched sides depending on which side was winning, and the whole Chesapeake disintegrated into a confused melee of secret plots and grandiose crusades, sordid vendettas and desperate gambits, with Indians and English alike struggling for supremacy and survival. One Virginian summed up the rebellion as “our time of anarchy.”

The rebels steadily lost ground and ultimately suffered a crushing defeat. Bacon died of typhus in the autumn of 1676, and his successors surrendered to Berkeley in January 1677. Berkeley summarily tried and executed the rebel leadership in a succession of kangaroo courts-martial. Before long, however, the royal fleet arrived, bearing over 1,000 red-coated troops and a royal commission of investigation charged with restoring order to the colony. The commissioners replaced the governor and dispatched Berkeley to London, where he died in disgrace.

But the conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion was uncertain, and the maintenance of order remained precarious for years afterward. The garrison of royal troops discouraged both incursion by hostile Indians and insurrection by discontented colonists, allowing the king to continue profiting from tobacco revenues. The end of armed resistance did not mean a resolution to the underlying tensions destabilizing colonial society. Indians inside Virginia remained an embattled minority and Indians outside Virginia remained a terrifying threat. Elite planters continued to grow rich by exploiting their indentured servants and marginalizing small farmers. The vast majority of Virginians continued to resent their exploitation with a simmering fury. Virginia legislators did recognize the extent of popular hostility towards colonial rule, however, and improved the social and political conditions of poor whites in the years after the rebellion. During the same period, the increasing availability of enslaved workers through the Atlantic slave trade contributed to planters’ large-scale adoption of African, race-based slave labor in the Chesapeake.

Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty. As explained by historian Edmund Morgan, in colonies like Virginia, the planter elite, with huge land grants, occupied a vastly superior position to workers of all colors.5 Southern colonies did not hesitate to invent ways to extend the terms of servitude, and the planter class accumulated uncultivated lands to restrict the options of free workers. The simmering resentment against the planter class created conditions that were ripe for revolt.

Varying accounts of Bacon’s rebellion abound, but the basic facts are these:

1. Bacon developed plans in 1675 to seize Native American lands in order to acquire more property for himself and others and nullify the threat of Indian raids. When the planter elite in Virginia refused to provide militia support for his scheme, Bacon retaliated, leading an attack on the elite, their homes, and their property. He openly condemned the rich for their oppression of the poor and inspired an alliance of white and black bond laborers, as well as slaves, who demanded an end to their servitude. The attempted revolution was ended by force and false promises of amnesty. A number of the people who participated in the revolt were hanged. The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed.

2. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves. Instead of importing English speaking slaves from the West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European language and culture, many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with poor whites.

3. Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interest, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.

By the mid-1770s, the system of bond labor had been thoroughly transformed into a racial caste system predicated on slavery. The degraded status of Africans was justified on the ground that Negroes, like the Indians, were an uncivilized lesser race, perhaps even more lacking in intelligence and laudable human qualities that the red-skinned Indians natives.

The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in in America was born.

It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites. The southern slaveholding colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves. Northern white elites were sympathetic to the demand for their “property rights” to be respected, as they, too, wanted the Constitution to protect their property interest. As James Madison put it, the nation ought to be constituted “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority (the poor).” Consequently, the Constitution was designed so the federal government would be weak, not only in its relationship to private property, but also in relationship to the rights of states, to conduct their own affairs. The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind (the words Slave or Negro were never used), but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism—the division of power between the states and the federal government—was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states. Even the method for determining proportional representation in Congress and identifying the winner of a presidential election (the Electoral College) were specifically developed with the interest of slaveholders in mind. Under the terms of our country’s founding document, slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.


The Significance of the 1676 Bacon's Rebellion on Race-Based Slavery

Anthony Johnson

An African Virginian Planter 

Slaves, themselves, became a major cash crop. Bought at African factories '16 a piece, they were sold in the colonies at prices ranging from 16 in the seventeenth century to 40 by 1750. (It is difficult to work out present-day equivalents for seventeenth century currency. It has been estimated that one was equal to about 89 dollars today). Hence, the decision to bring African slaves to the English colonies was based primarily upon economic considerations.

However, there was a moral justification for slavery. "Cultural nationalism" had English writers associating blacks in Africa with heathen religion, barbarous behavior, sexual promiscuity, in fact, with evil itself. From such an ethnocentric perspective, the enslavement of African men and women seemed unobjectionable. The planters maintained that if black slaves converted to Christianity, and abandoned their supposedly savage ways, they would actually benefit from their loss of freedom.

Also because the African culture was a non-western culture and colonial society was based on western culture, when the Blacks' values and motivations did not match that of colonial society, they viewed them inferior as people and as a race.

As slavery increased in the late 1600s, the expanding black population apparently frightened white colonists. As the number of Africans increased, Virginia lawmakers drew up more restrictive slave codes. It was during this period that racism was fully revealed. By 1700 slavery was unequivocally based on the color of a person's skin. Blacks fell into this status simply because they were black and non-western in culture.

Finally, as American society continued to become more democratic, particularly after the American War for Independence, the increased emphasis on democracy made the white population more aware and afraid of the future position of the black slave and the need to keep him under control. By the 1830s, the fact that America's society contained nearly 2.5 million blacks suddenly became deeply troubling to many white Americans in the North and South.

To gain an understanding of the beginning of white identity and the moral justification for race-based slavery watch the film below:

Also the following Articles will broaden your understanding of the significance of race-based slavery and the construction of "whiteness" as an identity:

With this combination of events white Americans had to confront the idea that blacks might become as free as anyone else to compete and make of themselves whatever they could. Most whites found this prospect abhorrent, and as they contemplated it, their racial attitudes as well as their anxiety over the social and economic position of blacks within society, intensified greatly. This anxiety over the social and economic position of blacks produced two distinct political patterns in society's treatment of the slave question up until the Civil War.

Listen to this insightful interview about "white identity":