Fools and Charlatans

Who is former Gov. William Berkeley’s P.R. agent? I want to hire the guy!

In today’s commentary section, the Richmond Times-Dispatch selected “the greatest” Virginians of the 17th century: Capt. John Smith and Gov. William Berkeley. I won’t quarrel with Smith, savior of the Jamestown colony. But Berkeley — “Butcher” Berkeley, defender of the English monarchy, oppressor of Bacon’s Rebellion and instigator of Indian slave trading? Puh-lease.

According to Jack P. Greene, a Johns Hopkins University professor of
colonial history:

[Berkeley] more than anybody else during the seventeenth century, helped to give shape to early colonial Virginia society. He was an improver and during his long governorship endeavored to create a political society in Virginia that would incorporate English legal, political, and social traditions into the warp and woof of the rude agricultural world of the Chesapeake.

He provided the leadership for a people focused heavily on private estate building to insure the protection of property and the rule of law and to provide the religious and political institutional foundations for the transformation of Virginia into a recognizably English polity.

Read “Nathaniel Bacon Vindicated, Gov. Berkeley Shamed,” based on the scholarship of Richard Thornton, to see what we have to say about that!

As for Nathaniel Bacon — leader of the first colonial revolt against English misrule, advocate of landless farmers and freed slaves, and expositor of the “Declaration of the People” — the Times-Dispatch relegates him to the bottom of an article about the “most controversial” 17th century Virginians. Indeed, one Bland Whitley would create a special category, Worst Virginian of the 17th Century, to dishonor Bacon on the grounds that he established “a precedent whereby opponents of governing elites took out their resentment on those even more vulnerable than themselves (in this case the Indians).”

Who is this charlatan Whitley? Apparently, he is employed by the Library of Virginia as a historian and editor. The fact that Bacon represented the interests of white servants and black slaves against the royalist aristocracy once counted for something among historians. That interpretation appears to be out of fashion now that the greatest evil a historical figure can commit is being a European in the civilizational clash between Europeans and Indians!

Bacon probably wasn’t the nicest guy in the world when it came to his dealings with Indians. There was a lot of bad behavior back in the 17th century, when England, and by extension, Virginia, was ruled by a monarchy and aristocracy; a century when brutality and violence were endemic around the globe. Democracy, human rights and respect for multi-cultural diversity hadn’t been invented yet, people!

What do we know about the specifics of Bacon’s conflict with the Indians? Not much for sure. The evidence is incomplete and conflicting. For some reason, though, historians today are all too eager to embrace the narrative spun by the aristocrat Berkeley and his royalist chums, who blamed Bacon for upsetting the finely tuned alliances that enabled the enslavement and trade in the Indians living in the Carolinas and Georgia, over that of Bacon, the tribune of the people. What a travesty!

I can hardly wait to see the T-D’s selection of the greatest Virginian of the 18th century. I’m laying odds on Lord Charles Cornwallis!

Update: Here’s Bacon’s real sin: He was Virginia’s first recorded tax protester! The first of his complaints against Berkeley criticized the Governor “For haveing upon specious pretences of publiqe works raised greate unjust taxes upon the Comonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends, but noe visible effects in any measure adequate.”

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One response to “Fools and Charlatans”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Dare I say it?

    Who the hell cares what the Times-Disgrace says are the “greatest” Virginians?

    Although the editorial section is better after the departure of rug-biting right wingnut MacKenzie, the Commentary section is a series of self-serving, utterly boring pieces written by the power structure about how great they are. It is a must NOT READ.

    And, the problem with Anglo Protestants writing history is that they give themsevles a much bigger role than they deserve at the expense of everyone else.

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