In 1676, in Virginia, a group of black slaves and white servants united against their wealthy social superiors. This uprising was known as Bacon’s Rebellion, after its leader, the wealthy colonist Nathaniel Bacon, who died of dysentery in the midst of the uprising. In part, the rebellion was about the Virginian government’s hesitation to fight Indians encroaching on poor white servants’ territory. In the years leading up to 1676, poor whites had fought in skirmishes with the Indians, and, by 1676, poverty and starvation were rampant. Bacon also faulted Virginia’s leadership for overtaxing its citizens and monopolizing the lucrative beaver trade. Thus, Bacon’s Rebellion represented both “populist resentment against the rich and frontier hatred of the Indians.” Ultimately, colonial forces used force to disarm the rebels, and ultimately, twenty-three rebels were hanged.
Bacon’s Rebellion is a challenging subject for historians, because it can be interpreted in any number of different ways. In some ways, the rebellion was a populist uprising; on the other hand, it was instigated by a wealthy, powerful Virginian (whom, characteristically, Zinn barely discusses). Similarly, the rebellion was both racially and economically charged (its anger was directed at Native Americans, but also at the wealthy). Notice that, as with the New York rebellion of 1712, whites and blacks worked together, overcoming the racism and mutual antagonism that the American elite attempted to instill in them.
Who were the white servants who rose up against the Virginian government in 1676? Most were criminals, vagabonds, or poverty-stricken English people who’d come to the New World in the hopes of a fresh start. However, there were so many impoverished people trying to come to America in the 17th century that they were, for all intents and purposes, the property of elites in America. Poor Englishmen signed contracts that required them to work for no pay for years, slowly paying off their debts. Indentured servants traveled to the U.S. in squalid conditions, often dying on the voyage. If they reached America alive, servants worked long hours, and weren’t allowed to marry without their masters’ permission. Indentured servants fought back in various ways—18th century legal records are full of stories of servants who struck their masters, refused to obey, etc. During the 18th century, indentured servitude was gradually phased out in favor of black slavery. Once freed from their debt, some indentured servants found fortune, but most continued to live miserable lives.
Notice that, when describing the lives of indentured servants, Zinn makes many implicit comparisons between indentured servants and black slaves from Africa: like black slaves, indentured servants had to work for no pay, they were transported across the country in squalid conditions, and their “masters” controlled their personal lives with an iron fist. So even though there were myriad differences between the lives of white indentured servants and the lives of African slaves, they had enough in common to work together. Most important, they shared some common enemies: in particular, the colonial elite.
In the 18th century, class lines hardened throughout the colonies, and the distinctions between rich and poor people became sharper. American “aristocracy”—that is, those who owned the most land and property—became increasingly ostentatious during the 18th century. On the other end of the social hierarchy, immigrants, mostly from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, entered America in the hopes of making their fortunes. Black slaves poured into the colonies, representing an increasingly large portion of the total population. The biggest colonial cities, such as Boston and Philadelphia, tripled in size, generating more wealth. Most of that wealth went to the aristocracy, further widening the gap between rich and poor.
In many ways, the 18th century represented a time of crisis for the colonial elite. With the gap between rich and poor widening at a rapid rate, elites had to be wary of uprisings and rebellions. Furthermore, with the populations of cities like Boston and Philadelphia growing quickly, elites had to face the possibility that, in the event of a rebellion, they’d be greatly outnumbered.
In the 18th century, many wealthy Americans treated poor white workers as little better than slaves. Poor whites rioted and went on strike to protest taxes and food shortages. At this time, England was fighting multiple wars, and it passed on its economic burdens to the colonies, which further worsened the economic situation in the colonies. Throughout the colonies, white workers responded by rioting and burning down buildings to send a message to wealthy elites.
Zinn emphasizes the rising stakes of economic crisis in the colonies: the persecuted colonists of North America were rioting and expressing their frustration, while the elite colonists must have been terrified of losing their power to mob rule.
In response to threats of a white uprising, the governors of American colonies developed tactics to weaken the working classes. Their priority was making sure that whites didn’t cooperate with slaves or Indians. It’s revealing to study the administration of 18th century North and South Carolina, where the combined population of Indians and slaves greatly exceeded the white population. Governors in the colonies passed laws that prevented free blacks from traveling into Indian country, and they also forced Indian tribes to return fugitive slaves. The explicit goal of these measures was to make blacks and Indian “a check upon one another.” Other laws prohibited interracial sex or marriage, in part to prevent strong alliances between blacks and whites. After Bacon’s Rebellion (an alliance between slaves and poor whites) the process of driving blacks and whites apart through legal measures accelerated. Especially in the South, laws prohibited white business owners from hiring black people for skilled labor.
As Zinn has shown in the previous chapter, the colonial elites’ main priority was to divide the persecuted people of North America, in particular, along racial lines. Thus, colonial leaders took legal precautions to separate blacks from Native Americans, and white servants from black slaves. Zinn suggests that anti-miscegenation (i.e., interracial marriage) laws, many of which stayed on the books until the end of the 20th century, were intended to prevent allegiances from developing between different racial groups. While Zinn can’t explicitly prove that the laws were written with this purpose in mind, he argues that, in light of the instability of colonial society at the time, and the legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion, the elite knew exactly what they were doing when they forbid interracial marriages.
Over time, America’s urban centers created a new middle class, characterized by skilled labor and limited financial independence. American elites realized that they needed to win the middle class’s loyalty in order to maintain power. But in the late 18th century, the elites had discovered an even more powerful tool for maintaining power: the rhetoric of freedom, through which they could “unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.”
Zinn is fond of ending chapters by foreshadowing the content of the next chapter. Here, he suggests that the American Revolution provided colonial elites with a new weapon with which they could assert power over their people: ideological rhetoric.