History is Relevant



As I was preparing for class today I was hit once again with the relevance of the past.

Today in my U.S. History to 1865 survey course I will be lecturing on Bacon’s Rebellion.  In a timely e-mail, my friend Ben Wetzel of Notre Dame reminded me just what Bacon’s Rebellion was all about.  I have been teaching the rebellion for years, but Ben’s e-mail infused my preparation with even more relevance than usual.

Bacon’s Rebellion is the story of a rich, landed white guy named Nathaniel Bacon who gathered a group of disgruntled, poor, white frontier settlers to rebel against Virginia’s colonial government. His rebels burned the Virginia colonial capitol of Jamestown on September 19, 1676.  Bacon’s troops did not appreciate the fact that the colonial government was not protecting them against Indian raids on the Virginia frontier.  They opposed what they believed to be unfair taxes. They were sick and tired of living under a colonial government controlled by a few elites.  (There were a lot of swamps in colonial Virginia, but I am not sure if Bacon wanted to “drain” them).   I should also add that their hatred of Indians was heavily motivated by race.

Later in the day, in my Pennsylvania History course, I will be teaching about William Penn and religious freedom.  Pennsylvania was the second British-American colony (behind Rhode Island) to offer religious freedom to its inhabitants.  Eighteenth-century religious freedom often had its limits, but in Penn’s era it was a radical concept.

I don’t preach politics in my history classes, although I will bring up the subject if something a politician says or does provides an illustration of good or bad historical thinking.  Tomorrow I probably won’t mention Donald Trump, the 21st-century white working class, our present-day race problems, or the vetting of Muslim refugees. But one cannot ignore the fact that history can offer perspective on contemporary events.

It’s always a great time to study history!

2 thoughts on “History is Relevant

  1. John: I agree that Bacon’s Rebellion is tough to teach in a survey course. But I have been able to do it in a lecture on tobacco, indentured servants, and the rise of slavery in VA. As for Rice–it is an excellent introduction.


  2. Professor Fea – The consequences of Bacon’s Rebellion is one of the most important developments in colonial American history. And because it was so multifaceted, it is also a bit difficult to teach in the time allotted by U.S. history survey courses.

    FYI for your readers, I highly recommend James D. Rice’s book, Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America.

    If readers want something more accessible, an excellent overview by Rice can be found at:

    Rice notes Bacon’s while populist racism scapegoating Indians and directed against Governor Berkley.
    “At the turn of the century [i.e., 1700] white Virginians were increasingly united by white populism, or the binding together of rich and poor whites through their sense of what they considered their common racial virtue and their common opposition to the interests of Indians and enslaved Africans. Thus Bacon’s Rebellion was, as one writer has put it, a critical element in ‘the origin of the Old South’.”


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