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The Story of Bacon's Rebellion|
II. - The People's Grievances
by Standard, Mary Newton
|Around the Governor had gathered a ring of favorites, called by the people "grandees," who formed an inner circle which grew daily richer and more important as those outside of its magic bounds sunk into greater obscurity and wretchedness. The result was, under an outward show of unity, two distinct parties, deeply antagonistic in feeling, the one made up of the Governor and the Governor's friends-small in numbers but powerful in wealth and influence -and the other of the people, strong only in numbers and in hatred of their oppressors. The one party making merry upon the fat of that goodly land, the other feeding upon the husks and smarting under a scourge each several lash of which was an intolerable "grievance."
It would be impossible to gain a faithful picture of the time without a knowledge of the nature of some of these grievances. Most of them were summed up in the melancholy and inharmonious cry of "hard times," which made itself heard through-out the broad land-a cry which in whatsoever country or time it be raised invariably gives rise to discontent with the existing government, and, in extreme cases, brings with it a readiness on the part of the distressed ones to catch at any measure, try any experiment that seems to hold out promise of relief. One cause of the poverty of the people of Virginia in 1676 was to be found in the low price of tobacco-the sole money product of the colony-through a long series of years. For this and the' consequent suffering the government was, of course, not responsible. Indeed, it sought to find a remedy by attempting to bring about, for a time, a general cessation of tobacco culture in the colonies. A scheme to better the condition of the people by introducing diversified industries was also started, and with this end in view tanneries were established in each county, and an effort was made to build new towns in several places, but it soon became plain that they could not be maintained. These unhappy attempts became, by increasing the taxes, merely fresh causes of discontent. Yet, while they were blunders, they were well meant, and in accordance with the spirit of the times.
Giving the government all honor due for taking even these misguided steps in behalf of the people, it must be confessed that there were other troubles greatly to its discredit.
The heaviest of these were the long continued Assembly,-while the people clamored, justly, for a new election,-the oppressive taxes, and the Indian troubles.
As early as 1624 the Virginia Assembly had declared that the Governor (for all he was his Majesty's representative) could not levy taxes against the will of the Burgesses, which, since the Burgesses were supposed to represent the people, was as much as to say against the will of the people. Governor Berkeley's Burgesses, however, did not represent the people. The Assembly chosen in l862, [sic--1662] and composed almost entirely of sympathizers with the Governor, was so much to the old man's mind that, saying that "men were more valuable in any calling in proportion to their experience," he refused to permit a new election, and the consequence was that in the thirteen years before our story opens, during which this Assembly sat under Sir William's influence, he had brought it up to his hand, as it were, and it had ceased to represent anything but its own and the Governor's interests.
With such a legislature to support him, Sir William could bid defiance to the restrictions upon the Governor's power to lay taxes, and the poor "tithable polls" (all males above sixteen Years of age) were called upon to pay the expenses of any measures which were deemed proper in carrying on the government; for the unrighteous taxes were imposed always per captia-never upon property, though by act passed in 1670 only landholders could vote.
It was by this system of poll-tax that the ample salaries of the Burgesses were paid and also that the sundry perquisites attached to the office of a Burgess were provided--such as the maintenance of a manservant and two horses apiece, and fees for clerks to serve committees, and liquors for the committees to drink their own and each other's good health. Doubtless many stately compliments were exchanged when the Burgesses, in an outburst of generosity, were pleased to present the Governor and others of high degree with "great gifts," but the grace and charm of the act were not perceptible to the eyes of the people who, enjoying neither the gifts nor the applause of presenting them, were taxed to pay the piper.
The "poorer sort" complained that they were "in the hardest condition-who having nothing but their labor to maintain themselves, wives and children, pay as deeply to the public as he that hath 20,000 acres." Their complaints were just, but not likely to find a hearing, for the spirit of the age demanded that, in order that the wealthy might keep up the appearance of wealth and maintain the dignity of their position, those who had no wealth to be retained and no dignity to be maintained must keep the wolf from the door as best they might while the fruits of their daily toil were "engrossed" by their so-called representatives. In the mean time, these representatives, their pockets thus swelled, found public life too comfortable to feel any desire to return to agricultural pursuits, or to be content with the uncertain income afforded by the capricious crop.
But this was not the worst.
While Charles II was yet in exile, some of his courtiers who, for all their boasted sympathy in the sorrows of their "dear sovereign," were not unmindful of their own interests, prayed of his Majesty a grant of the Northern Neck of Virginia, and Charles, forgetful of the loyalty of the little colony beyond the seas which had been faithful to him through all of his troubles, and utterly ignoring the right and title of those then in possession of the coveted lands, yielded them their wish, After the Restoration this grant was renewed, and in 1672 his Majesty went further still and was pleased to grant away the whole colony, with very few restrictions, to Lords Arlington and Culpeper. Not only were their Lordships to be enriched by the royal quit-rents and escheats, and to enjoy the sole right of granting lands, but through the privilege likewise given them of appointment of sheriffs, surveyors, and other officers, the power of executing the laws and collecting the taxes, and of dividing the colony into counties and parishes and setting boundary lines was to be practically in their hands.
Thus upon the fair bosom of Virginla, already torn and fretted by a host of distresses, was it purposed that these two "Lords Proprietors" should be let loose-their greed for gain to be held in check only by the limitations of the colony's resources-through a dreary waste of thirty-one years.
The colonists, foreseeing that all manner of dishonesty and corruption in public affairs would be the certain and swift result of such large powers, cast about for a remedy, and at length determined to send a commission to England to raise a voice against the ruinous grant and to bribe the hawks away from their prey. So far so good; but to meet the expenses of the commission the poll-tax was greatly increased, so that while the landholders were to be relieved by having their rights restored, the "poorer sort" were made poorer than ever by being required to pay sixty pounds of tobacco per head for that relief. This unjust tax was a crowning point to all that the people had suffered, and a suppressed groan, like the threatenings of a distant but surely and steadily approaching storm, arose, not in one settlement, not in one county, but from one end of Virginia to another, even to the remotest borders of the colony.
While this black enough tempest was brewing about the path of the Governor and the "grandees," another and a still darker cloud suddenly arose in an unexpected quarter and burst with frightful fury upon the heads of the unhappy people, the chiefest among whose "grievances" now became their daily and hourly terror of the Indians, made worse by the fact that their Governor was deaf to all their cries for protection.
Indeed, the savages, not the colonists, were the protected ones, for the gain from the Indian beaver and otter fur trade, which the Governor and his friends monopolized, was believed to be a stronger argument with Sir William Berkeley for keeping in league with the red men than the massacre of the King's subjects was for making war upon them. The helpless people could only shake their heads despairingly and whisper under their breath, "Bullets cannot pierce beaver skins."
In a "Complaint from Heaven, with a Huy and Crye and a Petition out of Virginia and Maryland. To Owr great Gratious Kinge and souveraigne Charles ye ii King of Engel 'd etc. with his parliament," it is charged that "Old Governr. Barkly, altered by marrying a young Wyff, from his wonted publicq good, to a covetous Fole-age, relished Indians presents with some that hath a like feelinge, so wel, that many Christians Blood is Pokketed up wth other mischievs, in so mutch that his lady tould, that it would bee the overthrow of ye Country."
The most ghastly accounts of the sly and savage incursions of the Indians, and of the way in which they served their victims, such as flaying them alive, knocking out their teeth with clubs and tearing out their finger-nails and toe-nails, flew from lip to lip. The terror-stricken planters upon the frontiers and more exposed places deserted their homes, left the crops upon which they depended for existence to waste and ruin, and huddled together in the more sheltered places, still not knowing "upon whom the storm would light."
Truly was the colony under the "greatest distractions" it had known since the frightful Indian massacre of the year 1622.
In such a state of horror and demoralization, and remembering all that those of earlier times had suffered, no wonder the colonists did not question whether the natives had any rights to be considered, and came to scarcely regard them as human beings, or that the sentiment "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" should have prevailed. Indeed, the one chance for the divine law of the survival of the fittest to be carried out in Virginia seemed to be in the prompt and total extermination of the red race.