Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Preface to a Manuscript on Bacon’s Rebellion, 10 March 1804

Preface to a Manuscript on Bacon’s Rebellion

[on or before 10 Mch. 1804]

The Original Manuscript, of which the following is a copy, was communicated to me by Mr. King, our late Minister Plenipotentiary at the court of London, in a letter of Dec. 20. 1803. the transaction which it records, altho’ of little extent or consequence, is yet marked in the history of Virginia as having been the only rebellion or insurrection which took place in the colony during the 168 years of it’s existence preceding the American revolution; and one hundred years exactly before that event. in the contest with the house of Stuart it only accompanied the steps of the mother country. the rebellion of Bacon has been little understood, it’s cause & course being imperfectly explained by any authentic materials hitherto possessed. this renders the present narrative of real value. it appears to have been written by a person intimately acquainted with it’s origin, progress and conclusion, 30 years after it took place, when the passions of the day had subsided and reason might take a cool & deliberate review of the transaction. it was written too, not for the public eye but to satisfy the desire of a minister Ld. Oxford; and the candor & simplicity of the narration cannot fail to command belief. on the outside of the cover of the MS. is the No 3947 in one place, and 5781 in another. very possibly the one may indicate the place it held in Ld. Oxford’s library and the other it’s number in the catalogue of the bookseller, to whose hands it came afterwards; for it was at the sale of the stock of a bookseller that Mr. King purchased it.

To bring the authenticity of this copy as near to that of the original as I could, I have most carefully copied it with my own hand. the pages and lines of the copy correspond exactly with those of the original. the orthography, abbreviations, punctuation interlineations and incorrectnesses are preserved, so that it is a fac simile except as to the form of the letters. the orthography & abbreviations are evidences of the age of the writing.

The author says of himself that he was a planter (pa. 20.) that he lived in Northumberland (3.) but was elected a member of the assembly of 1676. for the county of Stafford (20) Colo. Mason being his colleague (21. 45.) of which assembly Colo. Warner was Speaker (61.) that it was the first and should be the last time of his medling with public affairs (49) and he subscribes the initials of his name T. M. whether the records of the time (if they still exist) with the aid of these circumstances, will shew what his name was, remains for further enquiry.

Tr (ViHi); undated, but see below; in Edward B. Stelle’s hand.

The care with which TJ produced a personal copy of the manuscript that Rufus King enclosed in his letter of 20 Dec. 1803 testifies to the value he placed on the first-person account. On 10 Mch., he had John March bind the copy in an octavo, calf-gilt volume, which almost certainly included the above preface. During the summer, he sent a copy, possibly his own but likely an additional one, to Richmond, where it was printed in the Enquirer in the issues of 1, 5, and 8 Sep. An introductory letter to the editor explained that the president had sent the “curious and interesting historical document” to George Wythe “with a permission to the bearer, to communicate its contents to the public.” The author of the introduction essentially duplicated TJ’s preface, altering or adding to some of the phrasing to make it a third-person rather than a first-person account and reordering some of it. Other than the reference to the copy’s communication to Wythe, the only significant intervention was a new, concluding paragraph that strongly praised Nathaniel Bacon and condemned Virginia’s colonial authorities. The incident offered proof, the author argued, “that insurrections proceed oftener from the misconduct of those in power, than from the factious and turbulent temper of the people.” TJ retained his copy until it was included in the sale of his library to Congress. In 1816, the National Register, a short-lived weekly periodical published in Washington, printed the narrative along with TJ’s preface from a copy “in the hand writing of Mr. Jefferson.” Four years later, the Richmond-based Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine also published the narrative and preface “from a copy in the Library now belonging to Congress; but formerly the property of Mr. Jefferson.” In 1821, the National Intelligencer reported the disappearance of the copy along with two other works from Jefferson’s former collection. Apparently the copy was returned, for in 1832, Edward B. Stelle, an assistant librarian of Congress, transcribed a version from “Thomas Jefferson’s copy” for John Tyler, then serving as a U.S. senator. Stelle explained that his version was “a literal transcript” and followed TJ’s own policy for transcribing the narrative, aside from the preface, from which Stelle excluded notice of TJ’s interlineations and corrections. Other than those exclusions, Stelle appears to have followed TJ’s spelling, capitalization, and abbreviations. TJ’s copy was lost in the 1851 Capitol fire that destroyed much of his former collection (Edward B. Stelle to John Tyler, 28 June 1832, MS in ViHi, bound with Trs of preface and narrative; The National Register, 1 [1816], 278; Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine, 3 [1820], 128; Daily National Intelligencer, 1 May 1821, 25 Dec. 1851; James Conaway, America’s Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000 [New Haven, 2000], 46-7; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952-59, 5 vols. description ends No. 534, 5:193; Statement of Account with John March, at 12 Mch. 1804).

only rebellion or insurrection: TJ neglected consideration of efforts in 1622 and 1644 by the Powhatan Indians to eliminate or at least constrain the spread of English settlement, both of which were featured in early histories of the colony (Frederic W. Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures [Lincoln, Neb., 1993], 148-51, 156-8, 174-7; Robert Beverley, The History & Present State of Virginia [Chapel Hill, 2013], 39-42, 46-7).

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