Much has been said recently about the New York Times 1619 Project, but how many folks know about another year in that century - 1676?
Warning- real talk about real history lies ahead.
I am speaking of Bacon’s Rebellion. Some of you may have never heard of it; those who have may only recall a sentence or two in a long-distant high school history book. It is, however, one of the most important events in the history of race in this country and, in fact, one of its most important events, period.
I’ll summarize quickly: Nathaniel Bacon was a privileged young man in his late 20s who had recently emigrated to the Virginia colony from England. He was upset that he did not get the sort of important position he felt he deserved. He made common cause with the poor white people of the colony – many of them former indentured servants who had been promised land when their labor contract was up, only to find all the land had been claimed by the elites. Bacon stirred them up and became their spokesman in demanding that the colonial government kill more Indians so their land would be available. The governor refused, and the people rebelled. The rebellion was a surge of long-bubbling fury against the wealthy and the government. The poor whites were soon joined by large numbers of free black folks and runaway slaves.
The rebellion collapsed when Bacon died of dysentery – but it came close to working and to toppling the political and financial status quo. The capital city of Jamestown was burned to the ground. The people in charge of the colony knew they could not afford to let such a thing ever happen again – specifically, the large numbers of white poor and black poor joining forces. So they started passing laws restricting the rights of black people and illegalizing interracial marriage, thus driving a wedge between the two groups. A color line, really. They told poor whites “you are on the top side of the line, with us, and are better than them.” Even the free ones.
It was the beginning of legalized racism in this country, and has provided the template ever since.
It works like this: imagine you have three men at a table with 10 cookies. The wealthy white man with eight cookies tells the poor white man with one cookie, “Watch that black guy, he wants to steal your cookie.” So the two poor working guys turn on each other, and the first guy gets all the cookies.
It’s a scam, to maintain the status quo and keep the elite in power.
And working-class people are still falling for it.
Meanwhile… does any of that sound familiar in a different context?
Nathaniel Bacon was the first populist demagogue in American history. Let’s define that word, demagogue, using the Oxford dictionary: “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.”
Think of the irony there: this privileged, wealthy man led a popular revolt against the elite big-shots. And he did it by saying, essentially, “I know how mad you are! They have lied to you, and not followed through with their promises, because they think they’re better than you. They’ve cheated me, too, so I understand.” (Of course, in his case, they had simply not given him the amount of wealth and power he thought he deserved.) The solution he offered: Burn it all down!
The events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the nation’s capitol, may have seemed unprecedented… but it wasn’t, really. Bacon’s Rebellion is the closest thing in our history to the Trump phenomenon. It even centered on taking land away from Indians, which was also a big component of Trump policy in the form of privatizing formerly protected areas sacred to local tribes. The big difference, though: Bacon appealed to both white and black poor people. The powers-that-be, in Virginia, made sure that didn’t happen again, by driving a social and legal wedge between the races that still holds almost 350 years later. Populists come and go, but none have managed to breach the racial divide - though some have tried.
You may know there was a Populist Movement in the 1890s that led to the Progressive Era in the 1900s. In that case, it was farmers’ alliances joining forces with labor unions to undercut the power of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. Part of their strategy was to try to convince white and black farmers and workers in the South to join forces and work together to demand their rights.
And do you know what else happened in the 1890s? Jim Crow laws were upheld by the Supreme Court, making segregation the law of the land in the South. Those two things happening at the same time was not a coincidence.
Why did so many people support Trump, many to the point of violence? Why is there still so much racial division in America?
Understanding Bacon’s Rebellion is a step toward better understanding those questions. Our nation’s first demagogue, Nathaniel Bacon, stirred up the common people – who had suffered much – by stoking their anger and fear against the elite establishment and also against an Other who allegedly stood in the way, Native Americans. Bacon told the governor, and I am only slightly paraphrasing, “you love your Precious Indians more than you love your own people,” implying that the governor was a traitor for not persecuting Indians. And in the aftermath of the rebellion, of course, the government passed strict race laws designed to keep poor whites and blacks from cooperating again.
History – without whitewashing – is the key to everything.
Do you think that’s why Trump tried to control how it is taught…? Perhaps you recall (it was only a short time ago) that the former president condemned the concepts of critical race theory, white privilege, and so on, forbidding federal training programs to reference them. By extension, he was trying to forbid all of America from honestly looking at its past. This came as no surprise, since he daily tried to forbid the world from honestly looking at the present (or anything else). Instead, his administration encouraged a view they described as “patriotic,” meaning one that never said anything that could remotely be considered criticism.
Well, that may be nationalistic, but it is not patriotic. Nationalists insist their country is perfect no matter what; patriots want to make their country better because they love it. You can’t make anything better by ignoring it and refusing to even talk about it.
In my opinion, it is my job as a historian to help people face the past even when they don’t want to, even when it is uncomfortable, in order to better understand the present and to make a better future.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s everybody’s job. Let’s start doing it, together.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.