This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Since the publication of Thomas J. Wertenbaker’s unabashedly Whiggish Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader (1940), historians have taken pains to keep their interpretations of Bacon’s Rebellion clear from even the whiff of ideological anachronism. As a result, most late-20th-century analyses of this largest of uprisings in the 17th-century English American colonies stress its nonideological character, an interpretive stance that has typically involved recourse to various incarnations of what we might call a social-functionalist explanation, that is, an explanation that, on the basis of certain presumed characteristics of 17th-century Virginian society (for example, its autonomy from English government, its failure to reproduce certain traditional aspects of English society, and its exploitative conditions between wealthy planters and poorer landowners, tenants, servants, and slaves), draws conclusions about its susceptibility to social division and collapse without giving much, if any, weight to ideological disagreement. More recently, however, this determined materialism appears to be yielding to a new willingness to give ideology a greater analytical role, as suggested by Stephen Saunders Webb’s and Kathleen Brown’s identification of Nathaniel Bacon Jr. as a recognizable “republican,” David Hackett Fischer’s and Holly Brewer’s suggestion that Governor Sir William Berkeley deserves to be seen as following in the mold of “Stuart absolutism,” and Peter Thompson’s argument that the Baconites employed a class-based language of “commonalty” that linked them to the Cromwellians of the English civil war.
Here, casuistry, the determination of lawfulness and unlawfulness when God’s will is unclear, will be offered as the most plausible description of the language that both animated and divided the Baconites and Berkeleyites as well as the most cogent explanation for why the conflict spiraled so quickly into civil war. In particular, I will focus on the intense exertions by both sides to identify the location of “rebellion,” a label associated palpably with sin (in addition to treason against the king) and thus simultaneously a rhetorical weapon of pronounced moral (as well as legal) significance and, no less dreadfully, a powerful starting point for justifying extraordinary punitive measures against the persons so designated, including the plundering of their estates and the purging of the commonwealth of such malignant bodies and souls.