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13 January, 2012
The Story of Bacon's Rebellion|
VI - The June Assembly
by Standard, Mary Newton
|Governor Berkeley, finding the wrath of the people past his control, gave up for the time the chase after Bacon, returned home, and to appease the people, not only had the offensive forts dismantled, but even, upon the 18th of May, dissolved the legislature that had established them, and for, the first time for fourteen years gave orders for the election of a new free Assembly. This Assembly, whose immediate work, the Governor declared, should be to settle the "distracted" condition of Virginia, was "new" in more senses than one, for, departing from the usual custom of electing only freeholders to represent them, some of the counties chose men "that had but lately crept out of the condition of servants," for their Burgesses. Thus showing the strong democratic feeling that had arisen, to the exasperation of the aristocratic Berkeley.
Bacon had by this time returned from his march into the wilderness and the countryside was ringing with glowing reports of his success against the Indians. The people welcomed him with wild enthusiasm, for they not only regarded him as their champion against the brutalities of savages, but attributed to him the calling of the new Assembly, to which they looked for relief from the "hard times." Their hopes, as will be seen, were not doomed to disappointment.
A short time before the meeting of this "June Assembly," as it was commonly called, Bacon made his friend and neighbor, Captain Crews, the bearer of a letter from him to Sir William Berkeley, in which he said:
"Sir: Loyalty to our King and obedience to your Honor as his Majesty's servant or chief commander here, under him, this was generally the preface in all my proceedings to all men, declaring that I abhorred rebellion or the opposing of laws or government, and if that your Honor were in person to lead or command, I would follow and obey, and that if nobody were present, though I had no order, I would still adventure to go in defence of the country against all Indians in general, for that they were all our enemies; this I have always said and do maintain, but as to the injury or violation of your power, interest, or personal safety, I always accounted magistracy sacred and the justness of your authority a sanctuary; I have never otherwise said, nor ever will have any other thoughts."
Continuing, he says that he does not believe the rumors of the Governor's threats against his (Bacon's) life, which are "daily and hourly brought to my ears," and wishes that "his Honor" were as willing to distrust the various reports of him. He says his conscience is too clear to fear and his resolution too well grounded to let him discontinue his course, and closes his letter with these words:
"I dare be as brave as I am innocent, who am, in spite of all your high resentment, unfeignedly, your Honor's humble and obedient servant."
Madam Byrd, who had been driven from her home by fear of the Indians, said in a letter to a friend in England that neither Mr. Bacon nor any with him had injured any Englishman in their persons or estates, that the country was well pleased with what he had done, and she believed the council was too, "so far as they durst show it." "Most of those with Mr. Bacon," she wrote, "were substantial householders who bore their own charges in this war against the Indians." She added that she had heard that Bacon had told his men that he "would punish any man severely that should dare to speak a word against the Governor or government."
Henrico County chose Nathaniel Bacon to represent it in the new House of Burgesses, and Captain Crewes was also sent from that county. Although the voters were resolved to give their darling a voice in the Assembly, however, they were loth to trust his person in the midst of so many dangers as they knew lurked about Jamestown for him. Madam Elizabeth Bacon, proudly writing of her young husband, to her sister in England, under date June 29, says, "The country does so really love him that they would not leave him alone anywhere."
And so, accompanied by a body-guard of forty armed men, the newly elected Burgess of Henrico set sail in a Sloop for Jamestown. When he had passed Swan's Point, a mile or two above the town, he dropped anchor and sent a messenger ashore to inquire of the Governor whether or not he might land in safety and take his seat as a member of the Assembly. Governor Berkeley's only answer was delivered promptly, and with no uncertain sound, from the savage mouths of the "great guns" on the ramparts of the town fort-whereupon Bacon moved his sloop higher up the river. After nightfall, accompanied by a party of his men, he ventured on shore and went to "Mr. Lawrence's house" in the town, where he had an interview with his good friends Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Drummond, and then returned to the sloop without having been seen. These two friends of Bacon's were gentlemen of prominence and wealth in the colony. Their houses were the best built and the best furnished in Jamestown, and Richard Lawrence was a scholar as well as a "gentleman and a man of property," for he was a graduate of Oxford, and was known to his contemporaries as "thoughtful Mr. Lawrence." His accomplishments, added to a genial and gracious temper, made him a favorite with both the humble and the great, and he had the honor to represent Jamestown in the House of Burgesses. He had married a rich widow who kept a fashionable inn at Jamestown, and their house was a rendezvous for persons of the best quality. Mr. Lawrence was cordially hated by Governor Berkeley and his friends, one of whom dubbed him "that atheistical and scandalous person."
Mr. Drummond, "a sober Scotch Gentleman of good repute," had at one time been Governor of North Carolina. He was noted for wisdom and honesty, and an admirer said of him, "His dimensions are not to be taken by the line of an ordinary capacity"; but the Governor's caustic friend, already quoted, has placed him on record as "that perfidious Scot."
We shall hear more of these two gentlemen hereafter.
At length, finding no hope of meeting with a more hospitable greeting from the Governor of Virginia than that which he had already received, the "Rebel" set his sails homeward; but, in obedience to Governor Berkeley's orders, Captain Gardner, master of the ship Adam and Eve, which lay a little way up the river, headed him off, and "commanded his sloop in" by firing upon him from aboard ship, arrested him and his guard, and delivered them up to the Governor in Jamestown. Within the State House there a bit of drama was then acted in the presence of the amazed Assembly- Governor Berkeley and Mr. Bacon playing the principal parts. In this scene the fair-spoken Governor's feigned clemency was well-matched by the prisoner's feigned repentance, for Berkeley found it prudent to be careful of the person of a man in whose defense the excited people were ready to lay down their lives, and Bacon found it equally prudent to seem to believe in the friendship of one who he knew hated him with all the venom of his bitter heart, and doubtless also realized that to accept the proffered clemency, however insincere he might know it to be, was the likeliest way of obtaining the coveted commission to continue his Indian campaign, and to gain admission to his seat in the Assembly, by which he hoped to raise his voice in behalf of the oppressed commonalty of Virginia.
The Governor, looking at Bacon, but addressing himself to the Assembly, said:
"Now I behold the greatest rebel that ever was in Virginia." Then, addressing himself to the prisoner, he questioned, "Sir, do you continue to be a gentleman, and may I take your word? If so you are at liberty upon your own parole."
Upon which Mr. Bacon expressed deep gratitude for so much favor.
On the next day the Governor stood up during the session of the Council, sitting as upper house of the Assembly, and said:
"If there be joy in the presence of angels over one sinner that repenteth, there is joy now, for we have a penitent come before us. Call Mr. Bacon."
Mr. Bacon came forward, and dropping upon his knee, in mock humility, presented his Honor with a paper which he had drawn up, pleading guilty of the crime of rebellion and disobedience and throwing himself upon the mercy of the court.
Governor Berkeley forthwith declared him restored to favor, saying three times over, "God forgive you, I forgive you !"
Colonel Cole, of the Council, put in, "And all that were with him."
"Yea," quoth Sir William Berkeley, "and all that were with him "-meaning the Rebel's body-guard who had been captured in the sloop with him, and were then lying in irons.
Governor Berkeley furthermore extended his clemency to the culprit by restoring him to his former place in the Council of State,-"his Majesty's Council," as the Virginians loved to call it,- made him a positive promise of the much-desired commission to march against the Indians, and even suffered Captain Gardner, of the ship Adam and Eve, to be fined the sum of seventy pounds damage and in default of payment to be thrown into jail, for seizing Bacon and his sloop, according to his own express orders.
Bacon's friends had been thrown into an uproar at the news of his arrest, and some of them made "dreadful threatenings to double revenge all wrongs" to their champion and his guard; but all were now so pleased at the happy turn of affairs that "every man with great gladness returned to his own home."
And so it happened that Mr. Nathaniel Bacon, so lately dubbed a "rebel" and a "mutineer," took his seat, not merely in the House of Burgesses, but in the more distinguished body, "his Majesty's Council." The Council chamber was upon the first floor of the State House, that occupied by the Burgesses upon the second. The Burgesses, as they filed upstairs. to take their places, that afternoon, saw, Through the open door of the Council chamber, a surprising sight,-"'Mr. Bacon on his quondam seat," -and to at least one of them it seemed "a marvelous indulgence" after all that had happened.
The session was distinctly one of reform. Nathaniel Bacon was determined to make the best of his hard-earned advantage while he had it, and he at once made his influence felt in the ssembly. He was now strong with both Burgesses and Council, who were won, in spite of any prejudices they may have had, to acknowledge the personal charm and the executive genius of the daring youth. He promptly set about revising and improving the laws. Universal suffrage was restored, a general inspection of public expenses and auditing of public accounts was ordered, and laws were enacted requiring frequent election of vestries by the people, and prohibiting all trade with the Indians, long terms of office, excessive fees, and the sale of spirituous liquors. Some of the most unpopular leaders of the Governor's party were debarred from holding any public office. The wisdom of the Rebel's legislation was to be later set forth by the fact that after his death, when the fascination of a personality which had bent men's wills to its own was no longer felt, and when his name was held in contempt by many who failed to understand him or his motives, the people of Virginia clamored for the reestablishment of "Bacon's Laws," which upon his downfall had been repealed; and in February, 1676-7, many of them were actually re-enacted-with only their titles changed.
Governor Berkeley, finding it beyond his power to stem the tide of reformation which tossed the old man about like a leaf whose little summer is past,-a tide by which his former glory seemed to be utterly submerged and blotted out,-pleaded sickness as an excuse to get away from it all and take refuge within his own home, but in vain. Not until he had placed his signature to each one of the acts passed for the relief of the people and correction of the existing abuses would Bacon permit him to stir a step.
But the Assembly was not wholly taken up with revising the laws. It devoted much attention to planning the Indian campaign to be carried on under "General Bacon," for which 1,000 men and provisions were provided. For this little army we are told that some volunteered to enlist and others were talked into doing so by members of the Council-Councillor Ballard being especially zealous in the work. It was also decided to enlist the aid of the Pamunkey Indians, who were descendants of Powhatan's braves, and had been allies of the English against other tribes. Accordingly, the "Queen of Pamunkey" was invited to appear before the House of Burgesses and say what she would do. The "Queen" at this time commanded a hundred and fifty warriors. She was the widow of the "mighty Totapotamoy" who had led a hundred warriors, in aid of the English, at the battle of "Bloody Run," and was slain with most of his men. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities possesses an interesting relic in what is known as the "Indian Crown, "-a silver frontlet presented to the "Queen of Pamunkey" by the English Government, as a testimonial of friendship.
This forest queen is said to have "entered the chamber with a comportment graceful to admiration, bringing on her right hand an Englishman interpreter, and on her left her son, a stripling twenty years of age, she having round her head a plait of black and white wampumpeag, three inches broad, in imitation of a crown, and was clothed in a mantle of dressed deerskins with the hair outwards and the edge cut round six inches deep, which made strings resembling twisted fringe from the shoulders to the feet; thus with grave courtlike gestures and a majestic air in her face, she walked up our long room to the lower end of the table, where after a few entreaties, she sat down; the interpreter and her son standing by her on either side, as they bad walked up."
When the chairman of the House addressed her she refused to answer except through the interpreter, though it was believed that she understood all that was said. Finally, when the interpreter had made known to her that the House desired to know how many men she would lend her English friends for guides in the wilderness against her own and their "enemy Indians," she uttered, "with an earnest, passionate countenance, as if tears were ready to gush out," and a "high, shrill voice," a "harangue," in which the only intelligible words were, "Totapotamoy dead! Totapotamoy dead!" Colonel Edward Hill, whose father had commanded the English at the battle of "Bloody Run," and who was present, it is written, "shook his head."
In spite of this tragic "harangue," the House pressed her to say how many Indians she would spare for the campaign. She "sat mute till that same question being pressed a third time, she, not retarning her face to the board, answered, with a low, slighting voice, in her own language, Six. But being further importuned, she, sitting a little while sullen, without uttering a word between, said Twelve. . . . and so rose up and walked gravely away, as not pleased with her treatment." While Bacon was dictating laws in Virginia, making ready for the march against the Indians and at the same time preparing a defense of himself for the King, his father, Thomas Bacon, of Friston Hall, England, was on bended knee before his Majesty pleading with him to withhold judgment against the rash young man until he could obtain a full account of his part in the troubles in the colony, concerning which startling tales had already been carried across the water.