Revolts Before the Revolution — Part II: The North Carolina Regulators

Governor Tryon and the Regulators; engraving by A. Bollet Co. Source: Wikipedia
Royal Governor of N. Carolina, William Tryon confronts the Regulators; engraving by A. Bollet Co. Source: Wikipedia

[This is the second in a series of articles on pre-Revolutionary America, which was far more prone to class inequities and conflict than we are often told in standard accounts of the colonial period. Part I of this series can be read here]

Season Five of Starz network’s long running tv series Outlander, based on the books of Diana Gabaldon, brings viewers into the time of the “Regulator Movement,” an uprising of western North Carolina backcountry small farmers against eastern, coastal elites who they felt were oppressing them in a variety of ways. It is important to note that this rebellion was not against the British but rather fellow colonists who were charged by the Regulators with being corrupt and exploitative.

The term “regulator” used in this context sounds strange to modern ears. But the backcountry men knew it had been in use in England for generations to describe those who had mobilized to redress “publick grievances and abuses of power.” And there were grievances aplenty in western North Carolina. For example, in Granville, Anson and Mecklenburg counties hardscrabble settlers resisted attempts to evict them after they refused to pay heavy rents to a syndicate of speculators who controlled over one million acres of land. As Gary B. Nash tells us in his The Unknown American Revolution, the complaints of backcountry farmers were well distilled by George Sims, who in June 1765 wrote “An Address to the People of Granville County,” where he attacked the “damned lawyers who practiced numberless…devilish devices to rob you of your livings in a manner diametrically opposite to the policy of our State and the intentions of our legislature.” Nash continues:

A year later, the behavior of extortionate local officials brought Orange County farmers to the boiling point. The farmers hated the county court officials appointed by the governor and a legislature dominated by eastern planter interests. Sheriffs and justices, allied with land speculators and lawyers seized property when farmers — in a cash starved economy — could not pay their taxes or debts to local merchants. Seeing their farm tools, animals and land sold at public auction, often at a fraction of their worth, the farmers petitioned the colony’s governor and legislature for lower taxes and, paper currency and lower court fees. When they found no relief, they went outside the law.

Leading them in this extralegal direction, was Herman Husband (1724–1795), identified by Nash as, “a man with unswerving principles, a gift for language and a family background suggesting anything but a career as a radical reformer.” Husband was gentry-born in Cecil County, Maryland. Prosperous, Anglican and slave-owning, his family could have provided him, as the eldest of twelve children with a substantial inheritance. But Husband’s adolescence coincided with the First Great Awakening, a radical Christian religious revival spearheaded by the fiery preachers, George Whitefield, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. Fifteen-year-old Husband almost certainly must have heard Whitefield preach when he visited Cecil County while on a colonies-wide tour in 1739. Husband then had a profound conversion experience that led him away from his family’s Anglicanism, first to Presbyterianism and then to the Society of Friends (known more colloquially as the “Quakers”), which he saw as more representative of the early Christian Church. Determined to “take up the Cross,” by his early twenties, Husband had as Nash notes, “enlisted in a Bible-based millennial army to prepare the world for Christ’s return.” Philosophically he was also drawn to the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. In fact Husband and Franklin kept up a correspondence through John Willcox, a merchant of Cross Creek, (now Fayetteville, North Carolina), who went to Philadelphia, twice annually to purchase goods.

Purported image of Regulator leader Herman Husband (1724–1795) Source: Google Images
Purported image of Regulator leader Herman Husband (1724–1795) Source: Google Images

In the late 1750s, Husband, now married and providing for several children, moved to North Carolina’s backcountry. Part of the steady stream of farmers seeking cheap land, he soon encountered corrupt local officials who controlled land titles. He also saw slavery creeping into a region he had hoped might be “a new beginning for landless whites to acquire property and build a society based upon small freeholders devoid of a tax supported clergy or slavery.” Nonetheless, Husband himself acquired considerable property in Granville County and by the time of the Stamp Act crisis (1764–66) he had become the voice of the growing population of backcountry small farmers.

As Nash tells us:

Refusing to pay county and provincial taxes; grating at parish taxes to support the Anglican Church, which they abhorred; forcibly repossessing land taken away from them to satisfy debts; and closing the courts to to halt judgments against them, the farmers banded together in what they called the Sandy Creek Association…As their chief spokesman, Husband entered politics for the first time. He preached a doctrine of social justice and the duty of Christians to obtain it. In “An Impartial Relation of the First Rise and Cause of the Recent Differences in in Publick Affairs” (1770), Husband asked how the elite could justify the “Conduct of any Government” that had promoted “so many thousands of poor families to bestow their all and the labor of many years, to improve a piece of waste land, with full expectation of title,” only to refuse the farmer’s “protection from being robbed of it all by a few roguish individuals, who never bestowed a farthing thereon?”

By 1768, the Regulator movement was gathering momentum, almost entirely oblivious to the growing storm between the British government and its North American colonies in the aftermath of the Stamp Act crisis. Adding to backcountry farmers’ outrage was the legislative appropriation of a stupendous 15,000 pounds to build a palace for Governor William Tryon. In the poorest colony in British North America, the money was to be raised by a regressive poll tax, where the richest land and slave owners paid exactly the same amount as the poorest taxpayers. Sheriffs and other local officials soon found themselves under attack by the small farmers, who overpowered them to repossess livestock and household goods taken as payment for taxes and debts. They called on Tryon to take action to suppress the Regulators.

Tryon responded by proclaiming “an absolute insurrection of a dangerous tendency…in Orange County” and called out the militia in in adjoining counties but most militiamen would not respond. After sheriffs arrested Husband and another leader, several hundred armed Regulators assembled at the county seat of Hillsborough, west of present-day Durham and demanded their release. The frightened sheriffs complied. For months the two sides tried to resolve their issues at a time when other colonies were up in arms over the Townshend Acts, which imposed new taxes and other repressive measures. Through the tense summer of 1768, charges and countercharges flew back and forth . In September, Tryon called out the militia again and word circulated that he intended to “try, hang and condemn all those who bear the title of regulators.” That only brought on a defiant response with the Regulators vowing that if nothing would “propitiate” the governor “but our blood,” they were prepared “to fall like men and sell our lives at the very dearest rate.” Bloodshed was averted, for the moment, when Tryon agreed to accept the Regulators petition and consider their grievances.

But the governor was convinced by wealthy easterners to stonewall the Regulator’s petitions and move to reassert his authority. The Regulators in turn fought back by turning to electoral politics, with several of them, including Herman Husband, taking seats in the provincial legislature in 1769. The new Regulator representatives proposed sweeping reforms: replacing the regressive poll tax with a progressive one that would rise in proportion to a person’s wealth; publication of the legislature’s debates; the replacement of voice voting with secret ballots; new measures to halt the embezzlement of tax revenue by corrupt officials and the repeal of a law disallowing non-Anglican ministers from performing marriage ceremonies. Nash cites the opinion of Marjoleine Kars, a historian of the Regulator Movement, that these demands were extraordinary and that “No other such wide-ranging, radical and concrete version of agrarian reform has come down to us from the pre-Revolutionary period.” But before the legislature could consider such measures, Tryon dissolved it.

Image of the 1771 Battle of Almance Source: Wikipedia
Image of the 1771 Battle of Alamance Source: Wikipedia

Exasperated by the inattention to their grievances, the Regulators packed the Rowan County Courthouse in Hillsborough in September 1770, brandishing staves, clubs and whips. The incensed crowd seized Justice Edmund Fanning, who embodied all the arrogant and exploitative behavior of the eastern elite, dragged him outside the courthouse and mauled him. Then, they went even further, looting Fanning’s home, smashing furniture and finally “pulling down” the structure entirely. “Debarr’d from justice,” as Herman Husband put it, the Regulators administered their own rough justice in response.

In December 1770, Tryon reconvened the legislature and called for appropriations for a military expedition against the “seditious mob.” He further signed the Johnson Riot Act into law, virtually declaring war on the Regulators. The act authorized Tryon to raise militia units and applied its provisions retroactively to all involved in the September Hillsborough property destruction. Far from frightening the farmers, the Johnson Riot Act radicalized them further and through the winter they recruited many more poor farmers into their ranks. As Nash notes, “[S]piriting up the farmers was a fulminous pamphlet entitled, ‘A Fan for Fanning and a Touchstone for Tryon.”

In May 1771, Tryon readied his military expedition. Eastern North Carolinians had been enticed with an enlistment bounty of two pounds (equivalent to a month’s wages). Tryon marched his army of 1,100 west with six swivel guns (a small cannon mounted on a swiveling stand) and two cannons, on loan from the British army in New York. Though his numbers were half of what he wanted (hundreds of men refused to march against the Regulators), Tryon’s army was still formidable and heavily armed. He took prisoners along the way and commandeered horses; Regulators, fighting guerrilla-style, stole the horses back and blew up ammunition wagons. By May 9, 1771, several thousand Regulators had massed in Rowan County, along the Great Alamance Creek. There they approached Tryon’s army. In a last minute effort to avoid bloodshed, they petitioned Tryon one last time for a peaceful redress of their grievances on May 15. Tryon responded that he would send an answer by the next day.

On May 16, Tryon moved his army to within a hundred yards of the Regulators’ encampment. He offered no further consideration of their grievances, only a demand to surrender their “outlawed leaders” and lay down their arms. The Regulators rejected this ultimatum, then in horror as Tryon ordered the execution of one of their men, who had been captured, in front of them. Herman Husband and others religiously opposed to war left the field as confrontation now became inevitable. Tryon then commanded his artillery to open fire on the remaining Regulators. In the mele that followed, Nash writes that “about twenty” Regulators were killed and over 150 men wounded on both sides. Other sources put the number of Regulators killed at a considerably lower nine, with 61 militiamen and an unknown number of Regulator wounded. At least nine and perhaps as many as twenty-seven militiamen may also lost their lives. Nash tells us that one captured Regulator, “a radical Protestant father of newborn twins, was hanged on the battle site, after refusing to renounce the Regulator cause.

Tryon was not one to practice reconciliation. He sent his troops to destroy the farms of their leaders, including that of Herman Husband. Husband, traveling in disguise as an itinerant preacher named “Tuscape Death,” fled with his family fled to western Pennsylvania. Nash writes, “On the following days Tryon’s army cut through an area populated mostly by Separate Baptists [a sect that grew out of the Great Awakening], burning their way from farm to farm.” In the final act of this drama, Tryon pushing the court in Hillsborough for swift justice and the death penalty, obtained the conviction of twelve of fourteen captured Regulators charged with treason. At the gallows on the morning of June 19, Tryon commuted the death sentence of for six of the convicted Regulators. He then rode by horse the next day for the coast in a hurry to get to his next assignment as royal governor of New York, the last as it would turn out.

Tyron’s Palace — Still a N.Carolina tourist attraction — Source: Google Images
Tyron’s Palace — Still a N.Carolina tourist attraction — Source: Google Images

After Tryon’s departure, the surviving Regulators fared better under a more sympathetic governor, Josiah Martin, who took a tour of the backcountry and became convinced they had been “provoked by insolence and cruel advantages taken…by mercenary tricking Attornies, Clerks and other little Officers who have practiced upon them every sort of rapine and extortion.” As Nash points out, the Regulators have not been well-remembered, while many of the eastern men who lined up behind Governor Tryon later became heroes of the American Revolution and today line the pages of North Carolina school history books. A major tourist attraction today in New Bern, colonial North Carolina’s capital, is Tryon’s Palace, built with revenues obtained from the regressive poll tax that helped to ignite the state’s western frontier over 200 years ago.

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Al Ronzoni

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City