Throughout all history of all lands, at the supreme moment when any country whatsoever has seemed to stand in suspense debating whether to give itself over to despair or to gather its energies for one last blow at oppression, the mysterious star of destiny has seemed to plant itself- a fixed star-above the head of some one man who has been (it may be) raised up for the time and the need, and who has appeared, under that star's light, to have more of the divine in him than his brother mortals. To him other men turn as to a savior, vowing to follow his guidance to the death; upon his head women call down Heaven's blessings, while in their hearts they enshrine him as something akin to a god. Oftentimes such men fall far short of their aims, yet their failures are like to be more glorious than common victories. The star that led them on in life does not desert them in death-it casts a tender glow upon their memory, and through the tears of those who would have laid down their lives for them it takes on the softened radiance of the martyr's crown.
Other times and other countries have had their leaders, their heroes, their martyrs Virginia, in 1676, had her Nathaniel Bacon.
This young man was said to be a "gentleman of no obscure family." He was, indeed, a cousin of Nathaniel Bacon, Sr., the highly esteemed president of the Virginia Council of State, who remained loyal to the government during the rebellion against Sir William Berkeley's rule, and is said to have offered to make his belligerent relative his heir if he would remain loyal, too. The first of the family of whom anything is known was Robert Bacon, of Drinkstone, who married Isabella Cage and had two sons, one of whom was Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper, and father of the great Lord Bacon; and the other James Bacon, Alderman of London, who died in 1573. Alderman Bacon's son, Sir James Bacon, of Friston Hall, married his cousin Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Francis Bacon, of Hessett, and had two sons, James Bacon, Rector of Burgate (father of President Nathaniel, of Virginia), and Nathaniel Bacon, of Friston Hall, who married Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas De Grasse, of Norfolk, England, and died in 1644. Nathaniel and Elizabeth Bacon were the parents of Thomas Bacon, of Friston, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Robert Brooke, of Wexford. Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., styled "the Rebel," was their son.
This Nathaniel Bacon was born on January 2, 1647, at Friston Hall, and was educated at Cambridge University-entering St. Catherine's College there in his fourteenth year and taking his A.M. degree in his twenty-first. In the mean time he had seen "many Forraigne Parts," having set out with Ray, the naturalist; Skipton, and a party of gentlemen, in April, 1663, upon "a journey made through part of the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, France." A quaint account of all they saw, written by Skippon, may be found in "Churchill's Voyages." In 1664 young Bacon entered Grey's Inn. In 1674 he was married to Mistress Elizabeth Duke, daughter of Sir Edward Duke, and in that year his history becomes a subject of interest to Virginians, for in the autumn or winter he set sail with his bride, in a ship bound for Jamestown, to make or mar his fortune in a new world. The young couple soon made a home for themselves at "Curles Neck," some twenty miles below the site afterward chosen by Colonel William Byrd for the city of Richmond, and about forty miles above Jamestown. This plantation afterward became famous in Virginia as one of the seats of the Randolph family. Bacon had a second plantation, which he called "Bacon's Quarter," within the present limits of Richmond, bnt his residence was at "Curles."
The newcomer's high connections, natural talents-improved as they had been by cultivation and travel-and magnetic personality evidently brought him speedy distinction in Virginia, for he at once began to take a prominent part in public affairs, was made a member of his majesty's Council, and soon enjoyed the reputation of being the "most accomplished man in the colony."
Ere long, too, it became apparent that the heart of this marked man was with the people. Encouraged by his sympathy they poured their lamentations into his ears, and along with his pity for their helpless and hopeless condition a mighty wrath against Governor Berkeley took possession of his impetuous soul. "If the redskins meddle with me, damn my blood," he cried -with what Governor Berkeley called his "usual" oath- "but I'll harry them, commission or no commission!" Soon enough the "redskins" did "meddle" with him, murdering his overseer, to whom he was warmly attached, at "Bacon's Quarter," and, as will be seen, he proved himself to be a man as good as his word.
And so it happened that upon this newcomer the whole country, ripe for rebellion, casting about for a leading spirit to give the signal for the uprising, set its hope and its love. In him choice had fallen upon one who had the courage to plan and the ability to put into execution, and who, for want of a commission from the Governor to lead a campaign against the Indians accepted one "from the people's affections, signed by the emergencies of affairs and the country's danger."
Though only twenty-nine years of age when he was called, of a sudden, to take so large a part in the history of Virginia, Nathaniel Bacon looked to be "about four or five and thirty." No friendly brush or pen has left us a portrait of him, but the Royal Commissioners, sent over after the Rebellion to "enquire into the affairs of the colony," give us the impression which they gathered from all they heard of him. In their words he was "Indifferent tall but slender, black-haired, and of an ominous, pensive, melancholy aspect, of a pestilent and prevalent logical discourse tending to atheism in most companies, not given to much talk, or to make sudden replies; of a most imporious and dangerous hidden pride of heart, despising the wisest of his neighbors for their ignorance and very ambitious and arrogant."
Verily, a lively and interesting picture, for even an enemy to paint.
His temperament and personality were as striking as his appearance and manner. He was nervous and full of energy; determined, self-reliant and fearless; quick and clear of thought and prompt to act. In speaking, he was enthusiastic and impassioned, and full of eloquence and spirit, and if he had been born a hundred years or so later would doubtless have been dubbed a "silver-tongued orator." He was a man born to sway the hearts of his fellows, which he understood and drew after him with magnetic power, and upon which he could play with the sureness of a master of music touching the keys of a delicate musical instrument.
Such was the man toward whom in the hour of despair the hopes of the Virginians turned-such the man who declared his willingness to "stand in the gap" between the commonalty and the "grandees," and with true Patrick Henry-like devotion, to risk home, fortune, life itself, in the cause of freedom from tyranny.
One day a group of four prominent Virginia planters were talking together and, naturally, made the "sadness of the times and the fear they all lived in" the subject of their conversation. These gentlemen were Captain James Crews, of "Turkey Island," [Afterward the seat of William Randolph, first of the Randolph family in Virginia] Henrico County; Henry Isham, Colonel William Byrd (first of the name), and Nathaniel Bacon. They were all near neighbors, and lived in the region most exposed and subject to the Indian horrors -Squire Bacon's overseer having been among the latest victims. Their talk also turned upon the little army of volunteers that was collecting in Charles City County, on the other side of the river, to march against the Indians. Captain Crews told them that lie had suggested Bacon to lead the campaign, and the two other gentlemen at once joined him in urging Squire Bacon to go over and see the troops, and finally persuaded him to do so. No sooner did the soldiers see him approaching than from every throat arose a great shout of, "A Bacon! A Bacon! A Bacon!"
The young man's companions urged him to accept the proffered leadership and promised to serve under him; his own ambition and enthusiasm caught fire from the warmth of such an ardent greeting, and without more ado he became "General Bacon, by consent of the people."
In a letter to England, describing the state of affairs in the colony, and his connection with them, he wrote how, "Finding that the country was basely, for a small, sordid gain, betrayed, and the lives of the poor inhabitants wretchedly sacrificed," he "resolved to stand in this ruinous gap" and to expose his "life and fortune to all hazards." His quick and sympathetic response to their call "greatly cheered and animated the populace," who saw in him the "only patron of the country and preserver of their lives and fortunes, so that their whole hearts and hopes were set upon him."
To a man like Nathaniel Bacon it would have been impossible to do anything by halves. Having once for all committed himself to the people's cause, he threw his whole heart and soul into the work before him, and recognizing the danger of delay and the importance of letting stroke follow stroke while the iron of enthusiasm was still aglow, he began at once to gather his forces and to plan the Indian campaign.
The excited volunteers crowded around him and he "listed" them as fast as they offered themselves, "upon a large paper, writing their names circular-wise, that their ring leaders might not be found out." Having "conjured them into this circle," he "gave them brandy to wind up the charm," and drink success to the undertaking, and had them to take an oath to "stick fast" to each other and to him, and then went on to New Kent County to enlist the people thereabouts.