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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Regulators

"The humble Petition of us the Subscribers sheweth that We the Inhabitants of Orange County pay larger Fees for recording Deeds than any of the adjacent Counties and many other Fees more than the Law allows by all that We can make out from which a jealosie prevails that we are misused and application has been made to our representatives to satisfy us But we were disregarded in the said application upon which the said discontent growing more and more so as to threaten a disturbance of the public peace, we therefore beg that those matters may be taken under your serious consideration and interpose in our Favour so that we may have a fair hearing in this matter and [be] redressed where we have been wronged."

Regulators' Advertisement No. 9 - Petition from the Regulators concerning public fees, May 1768

In 1724, North Carolina was described as “vastly inferior, its trade is smaller, and its inhabitants thinner, and for the most part poorer” compared to neighboring colonies. Despite experiencing rapid demographic growth before the American Revolution, it still lagged economically. Various factors, including natural hindrances such as droughts, disease, floods, and hurricanes, contributed to this. The spillover of European wars during the 1740s and 1750s resulted in high taxes, low exports, and expensive imports. The scarcity of currency, agricultural labor, and the absence of staple cash crops further hindered economic development. The lack of a deep water harbor also restricted large-scale overseas trading, and most trade was conducted internally or through neighboring colonies. The absence of a wealthy plantation elite meant wealth disparity was not as pronounced as in other colonies.

The coastal plain had sparse settlement, while the backcountry experienced a surge in immigration from dissenting Protestant groups: Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Moravians. Unlike the original settlers along the coastal regions, these immigrants came with families, extended families, or whole communities. They tended to settle based on ethnic and religious associations. These were religious dissenters and fiercely independent. Those from Pennsylvania had lived under the more liberal Quaker government of that colony. Cut off by inadequate transportation and communication, they were not exposed to the same political debates and information as other colonists were at the time. Conflict, animosity, and misunderstanding existed between the established families along the coastline and the newcomers in the hills.

The colonial government in North Carolina was essentially an extension of the British royal government. The governor, appointed by the Crown, held significant power and represented the royal prerogative. The Crown also appointed the governor's executive council and the chief justice. The governor, as commander-in-chief, had the authority to appoint militia officers and select sheriffs for each county. The colonial legislative assembly consisted of two houses. The upper house was the governor's council, while the lower house comprised elected freeholders of the colony. The sheriff oversaw elections, but there was limited oversight. The colony had two court systems: the superior court, which had six circuits controlled by the chief justice and two associates appointed by the Crown, and the inferior court, which acted as the county court. County judges presided over the inferior court, which served as a form of local government. Sheriffs carried out the orders of the inferior court and were responsible for collecting court-imposed taxes. The clerk of the pleas, a position with minimal responsibilities, held power to appoint other clerks for the county courts, often favoring those who could provide him with the highest rent. As a result of this system, a small group of men had control over various offices within the colonial government.

Tyrone "Palace", seat of the North Carolina colonial government

The backcountry inhabitants faced challenges with the existing government structure, mainly due to a system known as the "courthouse ring." This term refers to a network of corruption and cronyism within local governance and legal matters. Members of the courthouse ring held influential positions in the court system, including judges, court officials, and lawyers. They conspired to maintain their power and manipulate court proceedings to their advantage. They would exploit legal loopholes, engage in corrupt practices like bribery and extortion, and show bias towards their connections for personal gain. Ordinary citizens, especially those with limited resources, suffered from excessive fees and unfair treatment, depriving them of justice and perpetuating the courthouse ring's interests.

Governor William Tyrone

By the 1760s, there was growing discontent in the backcountry region of North Carolina. Land disputes were a significant source of this discontent. Many small farmers and settlers faced challenges in obtaining clear titles to their land, as corrupt officials or unscrupulous land speculators engaged in fraudulent practices. The burden of excessive taxation further fueled the grievances of backcountry settlers. The colonial government imposed heavy taxes on various goods and services, including land, legal proceedings, and necessities. And then, there was the profound disillusionment with the colonial government. Officials were accused of accepting bribes, misappropriating public funds, and abusing their authority for personal gain. Moreover, the administration of justice was perceived as biased and unfair, favoring the wealthy and well-connected. Religious influences, particularly evangelical Christianity, played a role in shaping the opposition to colonial rule. The movement attracted frontier Protestants from various denominations who emphasized individualism and had a solid antiauthoritarian stance.

The protests began in 1764 in the Piedmont counties of Anson, Orange, and Granville. The protesters created grassroots organizations and associations, providing a platform for collective action against perceived injustices. Typically formed within rural communities, these associations adopted the name "the Regulation,” inspired by a group in South Carolina formed to protect against outlaws. The Regulators protested through both peaceful means and violence.

In April 1768, some North Carolina "Regulators" seized control of the Anson County Courthouse and drafted a document called the "Anson Regulators Protest Paper." In this paper, they voiced their grievances about unfair tax levies. They argued that no people should be taxed without their consent or the consent of their elected representatives. This early complaint against "taxation without representation" was sent to British authorities and was connected to the appointment of county officials instead of their election, leading to a lack of popular representation.

Edmund Fanning

Throughout 1768, dissatisfaction spread, leading to increased threats and violence against appointed officials. The clerk of court and sheriff for Orange County was Edmund Fanning. He was born on Long Island, New York, in 1739 and later moved to North Carolina to pursue a law and public service career. Fanning's actions, behavior, and perceived association with political elites and land speculators made him a focal point of the Regulator Movement's frustrations. The Regulators saw him as a symbol of the perceived injustices and abuses they sought to address.

Fanning wrote to Governor Tyrone and expressed concern that the Regulators plan to disrupt the upcoming quarterly court session in Hillsborough. In response, Tryon ordered all the militia leaders in the province to send troops if Fanning requested assistance. Fanning obtained a warrant for the arrest of the Quaker Herman Husband on the charge of "stirring up an Insurrection." Herman Husband was born around 1724, possibly in Maryland, and later settled in North Carolina. He wrote political tracts, and his writings galvanized support for the Regulator movement. He even had an active correspondence with Benjamin Franklin. At the time, colonial authorities wrongly accused Herman Husband of being a leader of the Regulators, and there is debate among historians regarding his exact role and level of involvement. Fanning, accompanied by a group of 27 men, apprehended Husband and another man at Husband's residence. However, when many Regulators gathered near Hillsborough, Fanning released Husband, and they eventually agreed to leave.

Contemporary account of Hillsborough "Riot"

Despite protesting and submitting petitions that failed to yield results, the Regulators resorted to more drastic measures in September 1770. The Regulators gathered in Hillsborough to disrupt the court and voice their political demands. Initially peaceful, the situation escalated when armed Regulators entered the courthouse, requesting to be jury members. After their requests were ignored, they attacked a lawyer named Williams and later seized and beat Edmund Fanning. Both men eventually escaped. Despite promising to continue to hold court, the presiding judge fled during the night. This prompted the frustrated Regulators to target Fanning, running him out of town and engaging in acts of violence and destruction.

Government officials and absentee landowners perceived the Regulators as threatening the social order, and sensationalized news stories portrayed them as outlaws and traitors. This narrative led to a willingness among many North Carolinians to support military violence to suppress the Regulators. Governor Tryon obtained approval from the Provincial Assembly to call for volunteers from existing militia regiments. In May 1771, Tryon led these men from New Bern, passing through Hillsborough en route to Salisbury while recruiting additional supporters (known as Tryon's March).

On May 16, 1771, approximately 2,000 Regulators faced Tryon's colonial militia near Alamance Creek, just a few miles from Hillsborough. The Regulators were primarily farmers, small landowners, and tenants, while the militia consisted of well-trained and equipped soldiers. A pitched battle ensued with exchanges of gunfire. The Regulators, lacking military training and organization, could not withstand the disciplined and better-equipped militia. The battle resulted in casualties on both sides. The militia eventually gained the upper hand, forcing the Regulators into retreat.

The Battle of Alamance marked the ultimate suppression of the Regulator Movement. Following their defeat, many Regulators faced legal consequences, including arrests and trials; some were executed. However, most of the remaining Regulators were located and compelled to sign loyalty oaths to the royal government to receive pardons for participating in the rebellion. More than 6,000 Regulators and their sympathizers chose to sign these pledges, seeking amnesty for their actions. Those who refused to sign the loyalty oaths fled into hiding or exile. Some joined other rebel groups and persisted in their fight against governmental corruption.

There is an ongoing debate among historians regarding the extent of the Regulator Movement's influence on the American Revolution. While the Regulator Movement shares some common themes and grievances with the broader revolutionary cause, the specific impact and connection between the two remain subjects of interpretation and different scholarly perspectives. The Regulator Movement was a local civil war fought against corrupt government officials, driven by a desire to regulate the government and eliminate corruption. The American Revolution, on the other hand, had broader goals of independence and overthrowing British rule. Another factor is the division among the Regulators themselves during the Revolutionary War. Some Regulators remained loyal to the British Crown because their initial movement was not aimed at breaking away from the royal government, and they still recognized the sovereignty of England. Meanwhile, other Regulators joined the Patriot movement and fought for independence. This resulted in former allies fighting against each other during the American Revolution. Additionally, it's worth noting that many members of Governor Tryon's militia, who had previously opposed the Regulators, joined the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. This meant that they fought alongside the very Regulators they had once defeated.


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