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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Power
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Imperial Rivalry I: Spain and England in the Caribbean
Text 2. Imperial Rivalry II: Spain and France in Tejas (Texas)
Text 3. Imperial Rivalry III: England and France in the Northeast
Text 4. Colonial Rule
Text 5. Colonial Rebellion (English Colonies)
Text 6. Indian Relations
Text 7. Indian Wars
Text 8. Africans I: English Colonies
Text 9. Africans II: Spanish and French Colonies

Reading Guide
Bacon's Epitaph, ca. 1676
"Bacon's Epitaph," ca. 1676
Colonial Rebellion (English Colonies)
- Barbados: Declaration of Independence, 1651, excerpts (PDF)
- Virginia: Bacon's Rebellion, Bacon's View, 1675
- Virginia: Bacon's Rebellion: A Planter's View, 1676 (PDF)
- Massachusetts: Boston Declaration of Grievances, 1689, excerpts (PDF)
- Massachusetts: Publick Occurrences, an unlicensed newspaper, 1690 (PDF)

For the English Atlantic colonies—the first of England's overseas possessions to win their independence—the claim to have fomented the "first rebellion against royal authority" is a mark of honor. But how should "first rebellion" be defined, and which colonial uprising merits the label? The Virginia rebellions led by John Pott in 1635 and Nathaniel Bacon in 1676? The Carolina revolt led by John Culpeper in 1677? The civil uprisings in 1689 that deposed governors in New England and Maryland after the English Revolution? Or perhaps the Barbados rebellion of 1675, even though the island colony didn't achieve independence from Britain until 1966. If independence was not the goal of a rebellion, what was? Each rebellion has the inevitable nuance that resists the simple category of "colony vs. England." Since a skill of historical analysis is identifying nuance, let's begin.
  • BARBADOS DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. In Barbados, the issue was not colony-versus-England, but supporters-versus-opponents of the king of England; still, the conflict led to the first "declaration of independence" from England. Settled by the English in 1627, Barbados became a major sugar producer by the 1640s, enjoying increased autonomy from England as the home country became embroiled in political rivalry and civil war. But with the overthrow of King Charles I by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, the island fell into its own political turmoil as supporters and opponents of the monarchy competed for power. As Charles's supporters gained the upper hand, their opponents successfully urged Parliament to take action against them. The Barbadians were declared traitors, all trade was halted between the island and England, and a naval fleet was dispatched to Barbados to subdue the Royalist leaders. At this point the Barbadian governor and council issued the 1651 Declaration of Independence from England, asserting that they would not abandon "those old heroic virtues of true Englishmen."
    [A Declaration of my Lord Willoughby, Lieutenant-General and Governor of Barbados, and other Caribee Islands; as also the Council of the Island belonging to it; serving in answer to a certain Act formerly put forth by the Parliament of England, the 3rd October 1650; 1651]

  • BACON'S REBELLION—BACON'S VIEW. On one level, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 was an uprising of backwoods farmers against the ruling class of rich planters in Virginia. On another level, it was a power struggle between two groups of planters, those in the inner circle of economic power and those excluded from it. The men who led the backwoodsmen in their revolt, primarily the young and hot-headed Nathaniel Bacon, were planters excluded from the powered elite led by Governor William Berkeley (bark-lee) and thus from the lucrative Indian trade monopolized by Berkeley's friends. Using the very real grievances of the common farmers—falling tobacco profits, rising taxes, reduced opportunities to buy their own farms, harsh shipping regulations imposed by England, and finally, the outbreak of war between the backwoods farmers and the Susquehannock Indians (with whom Berkeley wanted to maintain trade)—Bacon led the farmers in armed rebellion. Jamestown was occupied and burned; tidewater plantations were attacked and plundered. When Bacon died suddenly of dysentery, the rebellion ended. Governor Berkeley hanged twenty-three of the rebellion's leaders. At the height of his short-lived power, Bacon released this declaration "in the name of the People of Virginia," listing his followers' grievances against Governor Berkeley and his "pernicious councilors, confederates, aiders, and assisters." (Bacon's Oath of Allegiance is included in the next text.)
    [Declaration of Nathaniel Bacon in the Name of the People of Virginia, 30 July 1676]

  • BACON'S REBELLION—A PLANTER'S VIEW. Almost thirty years after Bacon's Rebellion, the son of one of Governor Berkeley's inner circle offered his perspective of the uprising. In The History and Present State of Virginia, Robert Beverley, Jr., presents Bacon as a man "in every way qualified to lead a giddy and unthinking multitude," yet he does not assign all blame to Bacon and the Indians while exonerating the governor and the crown. He methodically lists Virginia's problems in the 1660s and 1670s, from falling tobacco prices to disabling wars with the Dutch to parliamentary actions restricting colonial trade. The final aggravation of Indian raids made the backwoods settlers who were "already full of discontent . . . ready to vent all their resentment against the poor Indians." Bacon saw in the backwoodsmen's sense of abandonment by the ruling coastal planters a platform for his own struggle with the elite: a class war, perhaps.
    [Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705]

  • BOSTON DECLARATION OF GRIEVANCES. The Boston uprising of 1689 was one of several uprisings in which English colonists resisted autocratic governors while asserting their allegiance to the English king—in this case, at least, if the king was not James II. Having come to power in 1685, James II had appointed the autocratic Sir Edmund Andros to enforce stricter control on the northern Atlantic colonies. Andros imposed new taxes, abolished colonial assemblies, and curtailed longstanding citizens' rights. In April 1689 when Boston colonists learned that King James had been deposed the previous November (in the Glorious Revolution of 1688), they stormed the fort of Boston and demanded the ouster of Andros. Anxious to avoid worse mob violence, a group of elite Bostonians, including Cotton Mather, presented a declaration calling on Andros to step down from office. On the day of the uprising, this declaration (which exaggerates many of the grievances, scholars remind us) was read from the balcony of the Boston Town House and soon printed as a broadside. While sharing the rioters' opposition to Andros, Mather and his compatriots clearly disassociate themselves from the "people's sudden taking to arms."
    [Cotton Mather et al., Boston Declaration of Grievances, 1689]

  • PUBLICK OCCURRENCES—AN UNLICENSED NEWSPAPER. This document represents the individual vs. authority type of resistance, almost a hallowed institution in American history. It is a three-page newspaper printed in Boston in September 1690—the first and last issue of Publick Occurrences by editor Benjamin Harris (and the first multi-page newspaper in the later United States). From its content alone you wouldn't identify the paper as an act of resistance, but Harris had come to Boston from London (some say "fled") with a history of publishing pamphlets deemed seditious by the authorities. He knowingly published the paper without the required official approval, and, after reciting the recent news of disease, fire, and other tragedies, he included critical comments about the ongoing war against New France (King William's War). You will also read the declaration of the governor issued four days later asserting his "high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that the same be Suppress'd and called in." All nondistributed copies of the paper were destroyed.

    Publick Occurrences also affords us a snapshot of life in Boston in 1690, a year bringing war and smallpox in addition to the standard news items of fires, deaths, and news from the home country. It also provides a city-specific view of the imperial rivalry between England and France during King William's War that had begun a year earlier in the northern English colonies.
    [Benjamin Harris, editor, Publick Occurrences, 25 September 1690]
And why did the French and Spanish colonies not experience similar rebellions against royal authority in the 1600s? New France was sparsely settled and, in effect, ungoverned until becoming a royal province in 1663, after which its three thousand settlers welcomed the order and protection afforded by a closer royal presence. Spain's North American colonies were under stricter royal control, and most settlers depended on imperial protection against the numerous Indian revolts. Finally, France and Spain did not share the expansion of citizens' rights occurring in England in the 1600s, rights which the English colonists had clearly come to expect. (22 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What justifications are presented for these acts of resistance in Barbados, Virginia, and New England?
  2. Which justifications would you identify as self-serving rationales? as sound statements of principle? as a middle ground between these?
  3. How does the colonists' self-image as Englishmen define their vocabulary of resistance?
  4. How do the colonists use the terms slave and slavery? What rhetorical effect do they intend?
  5. What aspects of these documents appear in the 1776 Declaration of Independence?
  6. What term most fits each of these events, in your opinion: uprising, revolt, rebellion, civil war? Does a discussion of terms clarify or obfuscate analysis of the events?
  7. What is the outcome of armed conflict in these rebellions? What is the contribution of printed broadsides and declarations?
  8. To what extent are these seventeenth-century episodes precursors of "modern revolution" in later centuries?
  9. Based on the newspaper Publick Occurrences, what inferences can we draw about life in Boston in 1690 and the concerns of its inhabitants? What do we learn about public discourse in Boston?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What power relationships had been forged among the peoples of North America by 1690?
  •  How did the European rivalries of the 1690s in North America set the stage for the later imperial conflicts of the 1700s?
  •  What did "North America" signify to Europe in 1690? to the inhabitants of North America?

Barbados Declaration of Independence:  2
Bacon's Rebellion—Bacon's view:  3
Bacon's Rebellion—A planter's view:  7
Boston Declaration of Grievances:  4
Boston: Publick Occurrences & ban order:  6
22 pages
Supplemental Sites
The Civil War in Barbados, from BBC

Bacon's Rebellion, overview and current interpretations, from the National Park Service

Colonial uprisings in 1689, in E. B. Greene, Provincial America, 1690-1740, 1905, from Classics of American Colonial History (Dinsmore Documentation)

Letter describing the Boston Uprising of 1689, from Bruce Dorsey, Swarthmore College

Publick Occurrences, discussion from the Massachusetts Historical Society (links to images within the text)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Bacon's Rebellion—Bacon's View: History Matters
Other texts: National Humanities Center

Image: "Bacon's Epitaph, made by his man," poem, ca. 1676, author unknown; image of first page of handwritten poem. Reproduced by permission of the Virginia Historical Society.

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