American Portraits

Bacon’s Rebellion and Respect

In this lesson, students will learn about how Nathaniel Bacon demanded respect for the rights of colonists in Virginia in the 1670s. They will learn how they too can demand respect for their own rights.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


In the late winter of 1674, a young Englishman named Nathaniel Bacon boarded a ship bound for Virginia in the American colonies. It was a treacherous voyage that lasted months during which time storms pounded the ship and made the passengers seasick. The wealthy young gentleman in his twenties had a fortune of some 1,800 English pounds. He was a smart man, having attended Cambridge University. When he finally landed in Virginia, his contacts, including the governor’s wife, helped him establish himself. He purchased 1,200 acres of property on which he built a plantation near present-day Richmond, and was also seated on the Governor’s Council. Bacon was part of the planter elite and an unlikely leader of a rebellion….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can being respectful of others help advance freedom?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how Nathaniel Bacon demanded respect for the rights of colonists in Virginia in the 1670s. They will learn how they too can demand respect for their own rights.


  • Students will analyze Nathaniel Bacon’s demand for respect in Bacon’s Rebellion.
  • Students will understand how they can be respectful of others’ rights and demand respect for their own rights.


Sir William Berkeley was the royal governor of the English colony of Virginia from 1641 to 1652. During the time of the English Civil War, Parliamentary forces sailed to Virginia to depose Governor Berkeley because he supported the Royalist forces. He was out of power during the reign of Oliver Cromwell and restored to the governorship in 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne. Governor Berkeley and the Virginia government instituted some unpopular policies such as revoking universal male suffrage and instituting property requirements to vote, giving land grants to fellow wealthy politicians, and preventing the colonists from moving onto Native American lands because of fear of conflict.

In July 1675, a trade dispute between some colonists and Doeg Native Americans near the Potomac River led to several deaths. Tensions escalated, and in the months that followed, colonial militia numbering in the hundreds engaged in several indiscriminate slaughters of hostile and friendly natives. In retaliation, Native Americans launched several raids along the frontier and killed dozens. Berkeley tried to maintain order but failed, especially since his policies caused an uprising led by Nathaniel Bacon.

Bacon was a wealthy planter but sided with the common people against the governor in order to win greater respect for their rights. Virginians (along with other colonists) were developing a strong American identity and an autonomous, individualist spirit of liberty. They would no longer suffer government abuse of their rights.


  • Parliamentary
  • Depose
  • Royalist
  • Revoking
  • Suffrage
  • Militia
  • Indiscriminate
  • Hostile
  • Autonomous
  • Treacherous
  • Interregnum
  • Tenure
  • Doled
  • Negligent
  • Reprisal
  • Ire
  • Drought
  • Rebel
  • Pardoned
  • Commissioned
  • Confronted
  • Corrupt
  • Encamped
  • Provisions
  • Siege
  • Morale
  • Typhus
  • Dysentery
  • Ringleaders
  • Dispatched
  • Pacify

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Nathaniel Bacon? What was his role in Bacon’s Rebellion?
  • Why did Bacon fight against the government’s disrespect for the colonists’ rights?
  • What actions did Bacon take to show the government that they could not trample on the rights of Virginians?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Rice, James D. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

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