The Regulator Movement: War Against Tyranny in Colonial North Carolina

On May 16, 1771, a band of poor frontier farmers in Alamance Creek, North Carolina fought a pitched battle against the forces of the colonial governor William Tryon. Calling themselves the “Regulators,” they demanded only fair treatment under the law. But they were rebuffed by Governor Tryon, who ordered his troops to open fire. In the ensuing Battle of Alamance Creek, Tryon’s well-equipped and well-trained militia defeated the farmers, putting an end to a period of North Carolina history known as the War of Regulation—a farmer uprising that lasted five years and left a lasting mark on consciousness in the region in the periods before and after the Revolution.

By the end of the 1750s, the area now known as the central North Carolina Piedmont was still frontier land. Most of the Native population had been driven out or exterminated, and settlers flooded the region. However, there were impediments to the settlers’ aspirations, chiefly the mismanagement of a large piece of land constituting nearly half of North Carolina known as the “Granville Tract.” George Carteret had inherited this land from his father, and had come to be known as the “Earl of Granville.”

Corruption was the order of the day, and Granville’s agents energetically lined their pockets. Meanwhile, the farmers dealt with difficult farming conditions, poor soil, and a general lack of knowledge about the land. They regularly found themselves in debt to multiple creditors and were unable to grow the crops necessary to pay back their loans. The taxation system was highly regressive, with 90% of public revenue coming from poll taxes and import duties. Taxes had to be paid in hard currency, which was nearly impossible, as England did not supply the colonies with enough coinage and prohibited them from minting their own. Finally, the seat of government was along the coast—a world away from the backcountry of the Piedmont. To the western farmers, it seemed as if tax money was only being spent to benefit wealthy easterners. Nothing exemplified this dynamic better than the plan, authorized by the North Carolina legislature in December 1766, to construct a new state house, now known as Tryon Palace. One of the most opulent buildings in the colonies, it was seen by the farmers as a monument of corruption.

To the farmers suffering under the yoke of royal oppression, “Tryon Palace” was the last straw. / Image: geofotousa, Flickr

The Stamp Act of 1765 was viewed as a form of “taxation without representation,” sparking a wave of protests across all 13 colonies. In 1766, after years of unrest in the region, farmers in Orange County, North Carolina founded the Sandy Creek Association, giving the Regulators an organizational structure and platform to express their views. They were very aware of their position in class society, frequently referring to themselves as “poor” in their literature. Their immediate concerns were the regressive tax system, the extortionate fee structure, and the unresponsive and corrupt local officials. It was common for government officials to hold multiple positions simultaneously, including positions in the militia.

The Regulators aimed their criticism particularly at Edmund Fanning, a close friend of the Governor. To the Regulators, he represented all that was greedy and corrupt about the colony, holding the positions of Orange County Assemblyman, Superior Court Judge, Register of Deeds, and Militia Colonial, and regularly abusing all of these positions for personal financial gain.

Like the Sons of Liberty, the Regulators initially believed that the colonial government would sympathize with their plight if only they were made aware of it. This was not to be the case. While Tryon publicly claimed to want to work with the Regulators, in actuality, he took actions that worsened the situation and exacerbated tensions. Meanwhile, many among the ruling class of colonial elites who would later go on to sign the Declaration of Independence, such as James Iredell, stood firmly against the Regulators, viewing them not as allies in the struggle for democracy and independence but as a threat to their power and privilege.

Initially, the Regulators used only peaceful means as they attempted to achieve their goals. They assumed that the Governor or the King would intervene and rescue them from the abuses of the petty officials that made up the functioning arm of the colonial government. But Tryon had no interest in “rescuing” the poor farmers. Fearful of losing the support of these officials and his base of power along with it, he allowed the abuses to continue virtually unchecked. After years of petition and protest, the Regulators declared in print that they would not pay taxes until they were satisfied with their legitimacy—they too would not submit to “taxation without representation.” This led to violence in Hillsboro in April, 1768, when the local sheriff seized the property of a Regulator for nonpayment of taxes. Afterward, Edmund Fanning—always the enemy of the Regulators—organized a raid in collaboration with the sheriff, which resulted in the capture of Regulator leaders Herman Husband and James Butler.

At the same time, the movement was spreading to neighboring counties. In Anson County, the Justice of the Peace was forced to abandon his court when it was stormed and occupied by Regulators. In Rowan County, Regulators attacked and burned the county jail, freeing farmers who had been legally but wrongfully imprisoned. Similar events occurred in Johnston County, although the justices and their supporters there were able to defend the courthouse. By this point, the Regulation had become a popular movement with widespread support throughout the backcountry.

Corrupt officials like Edmund Fanning made it impossible for farmers to thrive and attracted the ire of the Regulators. / Image: public domain

Tensions were extremely high in the lead up to the trial of Husband and Butler. Governor Tryon dispatched the militia in response to thousands of Regulators gathering in Orange County. Many militiamen refused to serve out of sympathy for the Regulators, and the presence of the militia was not enough to disperse the masses. Only after Tryon personally promised to give a fair hearing to the Regulators to redress their grievances did they leave—but of course, this never happened.

At the trial, Husband was acquitted, as a grand jury failed to return a true bill of indictment. Butler and two other Regulators received fines and prison sentences. Fearing additional violence, Tryon suspended the fines, freed the prisoners, and issued a pardon to all Regulators, excepting only the principal leaders. At the same trial, Edmund Fanning himself was found guilty of six counts of taking excessive fees, but the one-penny fine levied against him did little to placate the Regulators.

As of September 1770, there still had been no action taken against the corrupt officials, and by this point the Regulators had become more militant. Years of petitions to the Governor, the Assembly, and the courts had yielded no results, and it was only a matter of time before the situation came to a head. During a session of the Hillsboro Superior Court, Regulators forced Judge Richard Henderson from the bench and attacked several lawyers. William Hooper—who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence, but who at the time was a Crown Representative—was dragged through the streets, and Edmund Fanning was badly beaten as the Regulators took control of the court.

The crowd did not harm Judge Henderson; in fact, he was protected, brought back to his house and allowed to preside over the court with a new jury. But the Judge was reported to have immediately mounted a horse and left town. Seeing that the judge was gone, the crowd then seized upon the docket, entering their own judgments on cases, amounting to a protest of the wrongs they knew existed but were powerless to fix. The system of colonial government left the farmers with no other options. Their interests were utterly opposed to those of the rich property owners, merchants, and corrupt officials. Experience had taught them that revolt was the only option.

A sense of panic set in at all levels of the colonial government. In the Virginia Gazette the Regulators were described as having “brought its courts of justice to their own control, leaped the strong barrier of private property, and audaciously violated the laws of God and man.” In response, Tryon mustered the militia in each county, considering those who didn’t report for duty as supporters of the Regulation.

Under these conditions of panic, the North Carolina Colonial Assembly met in 1770. Their first target was the Quaker Regulator leader and Assembly member, Herman Husband. He was accused of writing and circulating a letter containing “false and seditious libel” and although it was signed “James Hunter,” Husband was charged with publishing it. This, combined with other false charges, resulted in his expulsion from the Assembly. Realizing that it would be too dangerous to allow him to return to the Regulators, the Chief Justice ordered his arrest.

Interestingly, many assembly members described themselves as sympathetic to the plight of the Regulators, but it was primarily because they saw that the abuses of petty officials threatened the stability of the colonial government and, therefore, their own interests. Consequently, they worked to pass reforms such as a more equitable fee structure, the creation of four new counties, changes in the system that allowed for the seizure of property to pay debts, and other minor measures to address the concerns of the poor farmers. But as subsequent events show, the Assembly was merely moving with one hand to appease the Regulators, and with the other hand to crush them by force.

On December 31, rumors that a band of Regulators were assembled with weapons and provisions at Cross Creek reached the Assembly. This caused the Assembly to adopt the Riot Act, which would allow the colonial government to deal harshly with the Regulators should they attempt to march on the capital, located at that time in New Bern. It allowed for anyone who failed to appear after 60 days when summoned by any court to be declared an outlaw and killed with impunity. This violation of due process was opposed by peaceful citizens and sneered at by the Regulators who called it the “riotous act.” Even the British Crown would later denounce this move.

This “whip of counterrevolution” drove Regulators to take an even more militant stance. As they then put it, “now we shall be forced to kill all the clerks and lawyers.” Tryon, who by then had accepted a commission to become Governor of New York, was determined not to leave the colony in a state of rebellion and decided to use the Riot Act to subdue the Regulators violently. Tryon was not interested in waiting to see if the new laws passed by the General Assembly would have any effect. He swiftly signed the Riot Act and immediately ordered that the leaders of the Hillsboro riots be arrested.

Tryon was ruthless in his treatment of the farmers. His implementation of the Riot Act was even condemned by the British crown. / Image: public domain

Four days after the passing of the Riot Act, Tryon was informed that the Regulators were still gathering in Orange County. He then called a special session of the court to address the charges against Husband, who had remained in jail since his arrest on December 20, 1770. The court met on February 2, finding no true bill of indictment against Husband. This was unacceptable to Tryon, who in turn dissolved the court that had freed Husband and ordered a new court to meet on March 11. The new jury, composed entirely of colonial aristocrats, returned a true bill on all 62 indictments presented. The Riot Act demanded that the defendants present themselves to the court within 60 days or be branded as outlaws subject to extrajudicial execution.

Simultaneously, Tryon assembled the militia with the intent of marching on Hillsboro, the heart of Regulator country. Claiming to act in defense of the Superior Court, his true aim was to crush all “lawlessness” and political opposition. His forces were to be divided in two columns. The Cape Fear section, under General Hugh Waddell, was to march from Salisbury to Hillsboro, while a second force commanded by Tryon himself would march directly from New Bern. Tryon fancied himself a military man and reveled in the task before him. Far from being silenced by the threat of violence, however, the Regulators were as defiant as ever. In a message to the governor, they swore to contend for their rights, affirming that “our civil liberties are certainly more dear to us than the good opinion of a ruler.”

During the march from Salisbury, Waddell’s detachment was met at the Yadkin River by a large group of Regulators. Recognizing the numerical superiority of his enemy and noting his own soldiers’ mood and reluctance to fire on the farmers, Waddell was forced to fall back to Salisbury. The column suffered another embarrassment when nine Regulators attacked and destroyed a convoy carrying gunpowder to General Waddell from the south. But the governor’s full force had reached the banks of the Alamance, near the Regulator’s encampment. By the second week of May 1771, Tryon and his detachment of over 1,000 men reached Hillsboro without incident.

The Regulators had assembled a force of nearly 2,000 men, less than half of whom were armed. They had no efficient organization or definite aims, and to make matters worse, they had little control over the men themselves, some of whom were rowdy and behaving recklessly. In addition to lacking any order of battle or discipline, the leaders did not understand that Tryon was not there to negotiate, but to suppress what he viewed as a direct challenge to his authority and the sovereignty of the Crown. The relatively easy successes achieved by the Regulators in previous skirmishes had not prepared them for the pitched battle that awaited.

Not surprisingly, Tryon offered no concessions to the Regulators when negotiations began on May 16. Instead, he demanded that the farmers turn over their arms, surrender their leaders, and disperse. The Regulators refused. It’s not known exactly why the first shots were fired, but it’s agreed that they came from the governor’s side. On the Regulator’s side, some broke rank, but the tougher fighters—some of whom had previous experience as soldiers—were able to rally the troops briefly, even managing to capture several pieces of artillery from the governor’s men. But the farmers, untrained in the use of cannons, were unable to fire them, and abandoned them as their line collapsed.

As the Regulators ran out of ammunition, Tryon set fire to the woods they were using as cover, and in less than two hours the battle was over. Both sides lost nine men, and over 150 were wounded. Fifteen Regulators were captured and held prisoner. One of these prisoners, James Few, was executed without trial on the spot in an attempt to strike terror in to the hearts of the Regulators—despite the fact that the movement had already been crushed. A personal vendetta between Few and Edmund Fanning also played a role. It was said that Fanning had seduced the woman to whom Few was engaged and that Few was involved with the destruction of Fanning’s house during the Hillsboro riot. As a result, Fanning insisted that Few be shot on the spot.

Postcard from Alamance County printed circa 1910 depicting the death of James Few. / image: public domain

On May 21, 1771, Tryon marched to Sandy Creek, where the first association of Regulators had been formed in 1766. He spent a week collecting supplies from the colonists and forcing them to take an oath of allegiance. He proclaimed that anyone taking the oath—excepting the prisoners he had already captured and those outlawed by the Riot Act—would be pardoned. Eventually, three-quarters of all free men in the Piedmont were forced to take the oath. Six of the prisoners were hanged on June 19, after a court-martial found them guilty of treason.

Some of the condemned men renounced their association with the Regulators. Others, like James Pugh, died heroically, remaining true to their principles. Pugh harshly condemned the governor from the barrel used as his scaffold and turned to address Edmund Fanning in the same manner when the barrel was overturned, strangling the life out of him. The next day, Tryon left for his new posting as governor of the colony of New York. In an attempt to further stabilize the situation, King George eventually issued a blanket pardon for all Regulators, except for Husband, who had fled to western Pennsylvania.

Just a few years later, the colonies would erupt in an all-out rebellion against the Crown, and some of the same men who had suppressed the Regulator Movement would find themselves leaning on the energies of the poor masses to further their own interests. But the War of Regulation is more than just a footnote or precursor to that great event, or to the post-Revolution uprisings of the poor like Shays’ Rebellion. It was a show of the magnificent militancy and spirit of rebellion present among the poor masses of early North Carolina—a spirit which remains today, as the conditions for a new revolution are being prepared.

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