Virginia government history

A new Assembly represented popular opinion in Virginia, and in their legislation they proceeded upon the principles of freedom, justice and humanity, and the governor and his fellow cavaliers were compelled to yield at all points. The Assembly voted to give the required commission to Bacon, but Berkeley refused to sign it. Some of the members were disposed to support him in the refusal. Bacon, fearing treachery, retired to the Middle Plantation (now Williamsburg), where he was soon surrounded by about five hundred followers who proclaimed him commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. With these he marched to Jamestown and demanded his commission. The governor, regarding the movement as rebellious, again refused to sign it. In an angry moment the old cavalier went out and confronted the insurgents. Baring his bosom to their weapons, he cried out: "Shoot! shoot! it is a fair mark!" Bacon said respectfully: "Not a hair of your head shall be hurt; we have come for our commissions to save our lives from the Indians."

The passion of the governor soon yielded to his judgement or his fears, and he not only signed the commission but joined his council in commending Bacon to the king as a zealous, loyal, and patriotic citizen. That was done on the 4th of July, 1676, just one hundred years to a day before the representatives of English-American colonies signed the famous document written by a Virginia "rebel," which declared these colonies to be free and independent States.

On receiving his commission, Bacon marched against the Indians beyond the York River. Berkeley appears to have learned lessons of faithlessness from his immoral king, in his old age, for as soon as Bacon had departed, the governor went over the York into Gloucester country, called a convention of the inhabitants, and proposed to proclaim Bacon a traitor. The convention, though loyal, spurned the proposition, when the proud and obstinate baron issued such a proclamation in spite of their remonstrances. When the news of this perfidy reached Bacon, in his camp on the Pamunkey River, he said: "It vexes me to the heart, that while I am hunting the wolves and tigers that destroy our lands, I should, myself, be pursued as a Indian. Shall persons wholly devoted to their king and country-men hazarding their lives against the public enemy-deserve the appellation of rebels and traitors? The whole country is witness to our peaceable behavior. But those in authority, how have they obtained their estates? Have they not devoured the common treasury? What arts, what sciences, what learning have they promoted? I appeal to the king and Parliament, where the cause of the people will be heard impartially."

Bacon felt compelled, by the action of the governor, to lead in a revolution. He invited the Virginias to meet in convention at the Middle Plantation, to devise means for saving the colony from the grasp of tyranny. The best men in the colony hastened to the gathering. From noon until midnight on a warm August day, that convention debated and deliberated.

Bacon's eloquence and logic led them to vigorous action, and the whole assemblage took an oath to support their leader in subduing the Indians and preventing civil war.

In the strength of these popular pledges, Bacon proceeded against the Indians. The governor, alarmed by the demonstration at the Middle Plantation, fled, with some of his council, to the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, where, by promises of booty, he tried to raise an army among the inhabitants and the seamen of English ships in the ports. This movement demanded prompt action on the part of Bacon. With this leader was the brave William Drummond, who had been the first governor of North Carolina. He was accompanied by his wife Sarah, who was as brave as he. She did much to inspire the Virginians-civilians and soldiers-with courage to go on in revolution; and she was denounced as a "notorious and wicked rebel." When her husband proposed to declare Berkeley's flight from Jamestown to be an abdication of government, and the appointment of another in his place, and it was suggested that a power would then come from England that would ruin the republicans of the colony, Sarah Drummond, who knew that the realm was then distracted by factions, snatched up a small stick from the ground, and exclaimed: "I fear the power of England no more than a broken straw. The child that is unborn," she said, "shall have cause to rejoice for the good that will come by the rising of the country."

Drummond's proposition was agreed to. Government in the colony was declared to be abdicated by Berkeley, and that he was fomenting civil war; and Bacon and four of his colleagues issued writs for a representative convention of the people. Meanwhile Berkeley had gathered a motley host of followers on the eastern shore, many of them allured by hopes of plunder. He had proclaimed freedom to the slaves of "rebels" who should join his standard. The English vessels on that coast were placed at his service, and some Indians joined him. With this army under the command of Major Beverly, in five ships and ten sloops, the governor sailed for Jamestown, and landed there early in September. After offering thanksgiving for his safe arrival, he again proclaimed Nathaniel Bacon a traitor.

The republican leader was taken by surprise. He had but a few followers in arms; but the news spread swiftly through the forests and over the plantations, and very soon Bacon was at the head of brave Virginians marching toward their capital. On their way, they seized as hostages or pledges of honor on the part of their husbands the wives of royalists who were with Berkeley.

On a moonlit evening the republicans appeared before Jamestown, and cast up an intrenchment. In vain the governor urged his troops to go out and attack them. His men were not made of stuff for soldiers. Only the seamen showed pluck, and they were too few to do much. At length the royalists stole away in their ships by night and compelled the indignant governor to follow them. Then Bacon entered Jamestown-the only village in all Virginia-and assumed the reins of civil power. He was startled by a rumor that the royalists of the upper counties were coming down upon him. In a council of war it was resolved to burn the capital, that no shelter might remain for an enemy. At twilight the torch was applied, and the blaze of the conflagration was seen by the royalists on the ships, far down the James River. Drummond set fire to his own house-one of the best in the village-as a sacrifice to freedom. So perished the first town founded in America by Englishmen. It was never rebuilt. No vestige of it remains but the ruins of the church tower and a few monuments in the graveyard near it.

Bacon now hastened to meet the royalists from the north. These were not disposed to fight, and in a body they deserted their leader and joined the patriots. The royalists of Gloucester yielded their allegiance to Bacon, and he resolved to cross the Chesapeake and drive the cavaliers and their adherents out of Virginia. But a deadlier foe than these now attacked the republican leader. The malaria from the marshes around Jamestown poisoned his blood, and he died of a malignant fever on the 11th of October, 1676. There was no man to receive his mantle of authority and influence, and his departure paralyzed the cause he had espoused. His followers made but a feeble resistance thereafter, and before the first of November Governor Berkeley returned to the Middle Plantation and resumed the functions of government. Nathaniel Bacon failed, and he is embalmed in history as a rebel. Had he succeeded, he would have been immortalized as a patriot.

The vexations and fatigues which Berkeley had endured in his contest with the republicans soured his haughty temper and made him very miserable. He signalized his return to power by acts of wanton cruelty. His king had proclaimed Bacon to be a traitor, and sent an armament under Sir John Berry to assist in crushing the rebellion in Virginia. These were the first royal troops sent to America to suppress the aspirations of the people for freedom. The incident was repeated a hundred years later when Howe, Clinton, Cornwallis and Burgoyne were here, like Sir John Berry, leading British troops to suppress a more formidable and successful uprising of Americans in favor of the rights of man.

Feeling strong, Berkeley, with strange stony-heartedness, pursued the accomplices of Bacon with malignant severity, until twenty-two of them were hanged. Even King Charles was disgusted with his cruelty, and said: "The old fool has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father". The first martyr was Thomas Hansford, a gallant young native of Virginia. When he was brought before Berkeley, he boldly avowed his attachment to the republican cause; and when he was sentenced to be hanged, he said: "I ask no favor but that I may be shot like a soldier and not hanged like a dog." The governor replied: "You die, not as a soldier, but as a rebel." When he came to the gallows, he said: "Take notice, I die a loyal subject and a lover of my country."

When Edmund Cheesman was arraigned before the governor, and he was asked why he engaged in Bacon's wicked scheme, before he could answer, his young wife stepped forward and said: "My provocations made my husband join in the cause for which Bacon contended; but for me, he had never done what he has done. Since what is done", she said, as she fell upon her knees in an attitude of supplication, with her head bowed and covered with her hands, "was done by my means, I am most guilty; let me bear the punishment; let me be hanged, but let my husband be pardoned." The governor angrily cried out: "Away with you!" and added a brutal insinuation against her virtue. The poor young wife fainted, and her husband was led to the gallows.

So fearful, at first, was the cruel old baron that some of his intended victims might escape through a verdict of acquittal by a jury, that men were taken from the tribunal of a court-martial directly to the gallows without the forms of civil law. When the brave Drummond, who had been captured, was brought before him, the governor with wicked satire made a low bow and exultingly cried: "You are very welcome; I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia; you shall be hanged in half an hour." "I expect no mercy from you," Drummond replied. "I have followed the lead of my conscience, and done what I might to free my countrymen from oppression." He was condemned at one o'clock, and was hanged at four o'clock. By a decree, his brave wife Sarah was denounced as a traitor and banished, with her children, to the wilderness, there to subsist by the charity of sympathizing friends. And after these judicial murders had been publicly condemned by the king as contrary to his commands and offensive to his clemency, Berkeley continued to fine, imprison and confiscate the property of all those who, in any way, were accomplices of Bacon, until he was recalled in the spring of 1677, and went to England with the returning fleet of Sir John Berry. So glad were the colonists at the departure of the governor that they fired great guns and lighted bonfires. In England his cruelties were severely censured; and Sir William Berkeley died of grief and mortified pride before he was permitted to stand before his king. Circumstances had transformed a wise, prudent and benevolent magistrate in the days of his young manhood, into an unwise and cruel oppressor in his old age.

With the troops under Sir John Berry came Colonel Jeffreys, appointed to recall Berkeley and succeed him as governor. With him were associated Sir John and Colonel Moryson as commissioners to inquire into and report the causes of "Bacon's Rebellion." They found the Virginia Assembly pretty thoroughly winnowed of its aristocratic elements, and in sympathy with the people. The Burgesses would yield nothing repugnant to liberty because of the presence of troops quartered in Virginia; and when Jeffreys and his associates demanded that all the books and journals of the Assembly should be submitted to their inspection, they hesitated. Those papers were seized; and when the Assembly demanded reparation for the insult, and Jeffreys appealed to the Great Seal of England in defence of the act, the Burgesses firmly replied to him that "such a breach of privilege could not be commanded under the Great Seal, because they could not find that any king of England had ever done so in former times." When the king was informed of this reply, with foolish arrogance worthy of his grandfather, he commanded the governor to "signify his majesty's indignation at language so seditious, and to give the leaders marks of the royal displeasure." The Burgesses were quite indifferent to the royal frowns or to the royal favors.

Soon after Berkeley's departure from Virginia, the king appointed Lord Culpepper, one of his favorites to whom he had leased the province for the term of a generation, governor of the domain for life, with a salary double in amount that received by the late magistrate, because he was a peer. It now became a proprietary colony. Culpepper went there reluctantly, in 1680, with instructions to bury all animosities growing out of Bacon's "rebellion." But the profligate governor began his administration by disfranchising all of the willing followers of Bacon. He despoiled the colonists of privilege after privilege, and exercised measures which impoverished them. By a proclamation forbidding, under severest penalties, all disrespectful words concerning the governor and his administration, he closed the royal ear against all complaints of his tyranny; and having accumulated, by a system of pillage, a considerable sum of money, he returned to England to spend it in dissipation.

Culpepper returned to Virginia in 1682. his profligacy and rapacity so disgusted the people and fostered discontents, that, unable to endure him longer, they broke out into insurrection. His false reports of the matter included the king to issue an order for the hanging of several of the most influential leaders; but at length the true state of the case was laid before Charles, and he recalled the grant made to Culpepper and Arlington, and constituted Virginia a royal province again. Lord Howard of Effingham was sent over as governor in Culpepper's place. His greed was excessive, and was not controlled by moral principles. He was instructed by the king not to allow a printing-press to be set up in Virginia, and he was left free to sway the judiciary for his own benefit. With him was sent a frigate to cruise on the coast and enforce the navigation laws. His rapacity was so shameless in the methods of its gratification, that the colonists were on the point of rising in general insurrection, when news came of the death of King Charles and the accession to the throne of this brother James, Duke of their condition--it could not well be made worse.

Virginia was so impoverished and really degraded by misrule, that voluntary emigration to its shores had almost creased at the time of the accession of James, in 1685. Another and strong tide of emigration now began to flow thitherward.

Charles the Second had a son born out of wedlock, whom he had created Duke of Monmouth. He had participated in a movement for making himself the successor of this father instead of the Duke of York, and had fled to Holland. On the accession of James, this young man engaged with others to carry out the project. He sailed from Holland with eighty men, and landed on the west of England, where he was joined by about six thousand partisans, many of them men of good families and education. Monmouth was defeated, captured and beheaded, and his partisans were most severely treated. Sir George Jeffries was then Lord Chief Justice of England. He was went into the insurgent district, where he held what are known in history as the "Bloody Assizes." The partisans of Monmouth were brought before him by scores. he seemed to delight in convicting and punishing them. The king wrote: "Lord Chief Justice is making his campaign in the west. He has already condemned several hundreds--some of whom are already executed, more are to be, and the others sent to the plantations." He caused three hundred and twenty to be hanged or beheaded, and more than eight hundred to be sold as slaves in the West Indies or Virginia. Many of them were given to court favorites that they might sell them on speculation, or extort money for the pardon of those who had any to give.

In this nefarious business Effingham engaged. So, also, were some of his friends; and many men of culture, as well as good mechanics, were sent to Virginia to be sold as slaves, and so added good social materials to the population. "Take all care," wrote the malignant monarch to Effingham, by the hand of Sunderland, "that they continue to serve for ten years at least, and that they be not permitted in any manner to redeem themselves by money or otherwise, until that term by fully expired. Prepare a bill for the Assembly of our colony, with such clauses as shall be requisite for this purpose." This malice was not countenanced by the Assembly. The Burgesses showed, on all occasions, a manly spirit of resistance to wrong; and when a new government in England pardoned these exiles in December, 1689, the Virginians received them with open arms as brethren and citizens.

A new Assembly convened in 1688. It was "more turbulent," the governor and council said, "than any which had preceded." They paid very little attention to the unlawful requirements of the chief magistrates, and boldly discussed the rights of citizens. To check this stimulant to republicanism, the governor and council determined to dissolve the Assembly. The people resented the attempt to interfere with the privileges of their representatives, and flew to arms. They were on the verge of open insurrection, when the news came over the sea that King James had been driven from the throne, and it was occupied by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.

The revolution in England which placed William and Mary on the throne had such an important bearing upon the colonial history of our country, that a brief outline of its principal events is necessary for a clear understanding of that bearing. That revolution had been gathering head ever since, soon after James's accession to the throne, it became evident that he contemplated the overthrow of the constitutional system of England, and the restoration of the Roman Catholic religion and polity there as they existed at the accession of Henry the Eighth. By a series of crimes and blunders, the king, in less than three years, had arrayed all of his subjects against him excepting the Roman Catholics and a few pliant dissenters. The foreign policy of the government was made subservient to France, then ruled by Louis the Fourteenth, a kinsman of James.

In the summer of 1688, a crisis occurred. The king had ordered a declaration of indulgence to be read in all the churches. The order shocked the Protestant sentiment of England, and met with strenuous opposition. The Archbishop of Canterbury and six bishops were sent to the Tower on a charge of libel, because they ventured to petition the king against the order. This outrage shook English society to its foundations, with the most intense excitement. The prelates were acquitted, yet the excitement continued; and in obedience to what was undoubtedly the common wish of Protestant England, some of the leading peers and prelates of the realm invited Prince William of Orange to invade England and dethrone the Stuart. William was the husband of Princess Mary, the eldest daughter of King James, and both were Protestants.

William accepted the invitation, and on the 5th of November 1688, he landed at Torbay, with fifteen thousand troops. The friends of James all deserted him--even his daughter Anne, the wife of Prince George of Denmark. James fled to France, and William called a convention of the notables of England to settle the momentous questions of the future monarchy. In February, 1689, William and Mary were proclaimed joint monarchs of England, and their effigies, or profiles of their faces, were placed together on the coins of England. To this the couplet refers in speaking of lovers

"-- cooing and billing, Like William and Mary on a shilling."

The detested and detestable Stuart dynasty now disappeared forever, Higher political principles were diffused through English society. A declaration of the rights and liberties of the subject was made by the British Parliament at the accession of the new sovereigns; and from that time the people of the realm had a more direct and controlling participation in the administration of the public affairs of the realm, than even in the time of the Commonwealth and Cromwell. The salutary influence of that great change in the English government and policy upon the destinies of the English-American colonies was remarkable. From the period of that revolution, to the beginning of the French and Indian War at the middle of the eighteenth century, the history of Virginia is the story of the steady, quiet progress of an industrious people, who were ready in "the fullness of time" to join with other colonies in the establishment of a great republic.

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