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date: 25 May 2018

Summary and Keywords

Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) was an uprising in the Virginia colony that its participants experienced as both a civil breakdown and a period of intense cosmic disorder. Although Thomas Hobbes had introduced his theory of state sovereignty a quarter century earlier, the secularizing connotations of his highly naturalized conceptualization of power had yet to make major inroads on a post-Reformation culture that was only gradually shifting from Renaissance providentialism to Enlightenment rationalism. Instead, the period witnessed a complicated interplay of providential beliefs and Hobbist doctrines. In the aftermath of the English civil war (1642–1651), this mingling of ideologies had prompted the Puritans’ own experimentation with Hobbes’s ideas, often in tandem with a Platonic spiritualism that was quite at odds with Hobbes’s own philosophical skepticism. The Restoration of 1660 had given an additional boost to Hobbism as his ideas won a number of prominent adherents in Charles II’s government.

The intermingling of providentialism and Hobbism gave Bacon’s Rebellion its particular aura of heightened drama and frightening uncertainty. In the months before the uprising, the outbreak of a war on the colony’s frontier with the Doeg and Susquehannock peoples elicited fears in the frontier counties of a momentous showdown between faithful planters and God’s enemies. In contrast, Governor Sir William Berkeley’s establishmentarian Protestantism encouraged him to see the frontiersmen’s vigilantism as impious, and the government’s more measured response to the conflict as inherently godlier because tied to time-tested hierarchies and institutions. Greatly complicating this already confusing scene, the colony also confronted a further destabilizing force in the form of the new Hobbist politics emerging from the other side of the ocean. In addition to a number of alarming policies emanating from Charles II’s court in the 1670s that sought to enhance the English state’s supremacy over the colonies, Hobbes’s doctrines also informed the young Nathaniel Bacon Jr.’s stated rationale for leading frontiersmen against local Indian communities without Berkeley’s authorization. Drawing on the Hobbes-influenced civil war-era writings of his relation the Presbyterian lawyer Nathaniel Bacon, the younger Bacon made the protection of the colony’s Christian brotherhood a moral priority that outweighed even the preservation of existing civil relations and public institutions.

While Berkeley’s antagonism toward this Hobbesian argument led him to lash out forcibly against Bacon as a singularly great threat to Virginia’s commonwealth, it was ordinary Virginians who most consequentially resisted Bacon’s strange doctrines. Yet a division persisted. Whereas the interior counties firmly rejected Bacon’s Hobbism in favor of the colony’s more traditional bonds to God and king, the frontier counties remained more open to a Hobbesian politics that promised their protection.

Keywords: Bacon’s Rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon Jr., Sir William Berkeley, Hobbism, providentialism, frontier politics, King Philip’s War, Doegs, Susquehannocks, oaths

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