I. Introduction
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Culpeper's Rebellion
I. Introduction

The December 1677 overthrow of the government in Albemarle County in royally chartered Carolina continued a long history of reaction to oppression. European precedents for such reactions began as early as 1581 when the Dutch acted in their States General in declaring their independence from the King of Spain as follows:

Subjects are not created by God for the benefit of the prince, to submit to all that he decrees, . . . On the contrary, the prince is created for the subjects . . . if he . . . endeavours to oppress and molest them and to deprive them of their ancient liberty, privileges and customs and to command and use them like slaves, . . . his subjects . . . must no longer recognize him as a prince . . . but should renounce him; in his stead another must be elected to be an overlord to protect them." 1

Hugo Grotius in 1625 assembled his major work, De jure belli et pacis, which reduced to writing for the first time the laws of national conduct. These two Dutch examples gave to the Puritans resident in Holland a theory of freedom in political terms based on their recent and effective implementations. The English Civil War, 1642-1646, showed them the way toward different religious practices. A combination of these factors was brought with colonists who settled in New England, and they later began to engage in a soon flourishing trade with the settlers in the otherwise isolated Albemarle County, the name given to the present Albemarle Sound region in North Carolina and the first populated section under the 1663 Carolina Charter. Albemarle County inhabitants were a mixture of adventurers, escapees from both civil and religious penalties, and younger sons of gentry who had come to seek their fortune where land would not be withheld from them by ancient traditions enforced by primogeniture. They were not well educated men, in the main, but they knew when their rights were being infringed and took swift, bold action to remove those trying to enforce laws or regulations which they thought improper. Unlike their more religious New England trading partners, they based their government on physical and martial strength rather than religion.

Into this disparate group of settlers in 1677 returned Thomas Miller, a man who would be governor, but who had last been seen in the county in May 1676 as he was being escorted in chains and under armed guard for trial in Virginia for blasphemy and treasonous words. He was acquitted and went on to London where his tale of irregularities in both government and customs collections was corroborated by Thomas Eastchurch, a former speaker of the Albemarle County Assembly. Through a series of events to be discussed below, Miller returned to Albemarle County in July 1677 to claim the position of acting governor. Within less than six months he was removed in a coup d'état which is today known as "Culpeper's Rebellion."

This paper will attempt to place that uprising in proper context with the events of seventeenth-century England as well as with events in the nearby colonial areas. Central to the problem being discussed here were trade practices both in the colonies and in England. A century and a half later Alexis de Tocqueville would explain that the driving factor behind this American turn to trade was that it offered "the quickest and best means of getting rich." 2

Experience in England with a revolution and civil war which removed not only the head of government but his very head, showed the American colonists that the time was ripe for taking control of their own affairs. The governor of Maryland made an abortive attempt to set himself up at the head of an independent colony. Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. also failed in his attempt to take control of the Virginia frontier and to drive out all Indians be they friend or foe. The Virginia governor, council, and burgesses acted to remove from office a collector of the king's customs.

These events set the stage for unrest which followed the departure from Albemarle County of Peter Carteret, the governor appointed by the Lords Proprietors, and the concurrent attempt by Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia and one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, to obtain sole control of Albemarle area from the other seven Lords Proprietors. Government in Albemarle County became unstable. Acting governor, John Jenkins, was overthrown by Thomas Eastchurch, who in his turn was thrown out. Miller was taken for trial before the governor and council of Virginia only to return and take the reins of government as the 1676 Indian wars in Albemarle County were being resolved. Miller's rule fell apart in the unfortunate (for Miller) coincidence in the timing of his order that citizens of Albemarle County turn in their arms to Miller and the arrival of George Durant three days later. The people of Albemarle County were upset at the potential loss of personal arms when the Indian situation was not yet fully settled, and Miller's threat to hang Durant was shown to have real meaning in Miller's attempt to arrest Durant on the day of his return to the colony from England. When these events were coupled with Miller's past attempts, aided by two deputy collectors and the sometime use of a merchant's shallop as a semi-official customs ship, to enforce the hated Plantation Duty Act, the inhabitants joined to overthrow Miller. Miller was imprisoned in one of the first known log houses in America where he would languish without visitors or writing materials for almost two years before managing to escape.

(To Next Chapter).

1 E. H. Kossman and A. F. Mellink, eds., Texts Concerning the Revolt of the Netherlands (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 217. (Return)

2 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 552. (Return)

Copyright 1990. William S. Smith, Jr., All rights reserved.


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