In light of recent border politics and the post September 11, 2001 focus on real and imagined foreign threats, I have found myself thinking of Bacon’s Rebellion.
After the showdown in April between California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praising private border patrols and President Bush condemning them as vigilantes many of us on the left were asking ourselves if this was some good-cop, bad-cop stunt. It occurred to me that the questions raised by these modern self titled “minutemen” patrolling the Mexican border bear far less resemblance to those first responders to British invasion and much more to the conflict between Bacon’s gang of men and Berkeley’s gentlemen who all felt entitled to a piece of their Virginia. While these modern vigilantes would probably prefer being aligned with frontiersmen of the mid 19th century West, the issues go back further and frankly it just seems irresistible to cast Bush and Schwarzenegger as Sir Wm. Berkeley and Nathaniel Bacon.
Berkeley and Bacon essentially started out on the same team. They were both immigrants, and they had a familial relationship strengthened by political patronage when Berkeley gave Bacon a seat on his council in 1675. Problems in the Jamestown settlement arose when Berkeley began, to put it lightly and in modern terms, tinkering with elections by stacking the deck in favor of him and his rich crony planters by disenfranchising propertyless men. This combined with corrupt taxation policies that the lower rungs of colonial men resented got their blood stirred up. The solution seemed obvious to the lower planters, get more profitable land from the local Indians.
But this was not a palatable solution to all classes of Chesapeake society. Berkeley, serving the royal crown and his wealthy peers had to worry about pesky matters like foreign relations with the Indians and the international fur trading market while Bacon, styling himself as defender of the common man simply wanted to go out to the frontier and deal with the Indian problem on his own – the Indians who were keeping him from the financial gain that he felt entitled to. In response, Berkeley like President Bush wanted to strengthen the border (with more tax dollars) rather than resort to vigilantism, a resolution that Bacon and his men found unacceptable. Their attitude can be summed up by Schwarzenegger's April comments that “Our federal government is not doing their job. It’s a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders.”
Both stories, Bacon’s rebellion and the political and popular response to minutemen patrolling the Mexican border raise a number of fundamental American questions. Bacon’s rebellion is said by some to have almost destroyed Jamestown. Illegal immigration or legal immigration for that matter since the 19 th c has been accused of destroying or at least disparaging the nation. In the case of Bacon’s rebellion, the threat clearly came from within – it was not the people of color on the fringes of the society that caused the clash between Bacon and Berkeley and their respective supporters. The eruption occurred when two leaders began acting like outlaws, one by subverting democracy and the other by offering up a violent solution.
While it is clear that a number of serious problems arise when a large number of people cross national borders illegally, it seems equally clear that most of those problems are of our own making and arise out of our own immigration policies. Obviously, lawlessness on the border would decline if legal channels were available which would, in my opinion, make it much easier to detect who the real criminals and potential terrorists actually are. Although President Bush is clearly not about to make any radical immigration policy changes, his denunciation of the civilian vigilantes makes me suspicious that, just perhaps, he may have at least a faint sense that the economies of our western states are dependent on our modern subordinated labor force, undocumented workers, while the governor of California remains remarkably oblivious to that fact.
A poll released September 8 indicates that while a majority of Californians are concerned about illegal border crossings, a majority do not support private citizen patrols. The poll does not extrapolate what “concerned” actually means to those polled but the results should tell Governor Schwarzenegger that he is not in fact supporting the will of the majority by applauding these “minutemen.” He did offer a rather weak recant in late September to a group of reporters in Mexicali claiming that he would not support armed patrols and that “no one ought to harass anyone” but would not rescind his overall approval of the project.
While ultimately Bacon and his men succeeded in getting what they wanted – the people on the borders were eventually subdued -- my fondest hope is that this current conflict over how our borders should be patrolled will keep our focus on our own policies rather than continuing to scapegoat those on the edges of American society.