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The War of the Regulation (or the Regulator Movement) was a North and South Carolina uprising, lasting from about 1765 to 1771, in which citizens took up arms against corrupt colonial officials. Though unsuccessful, some historians consider it a catalyst to the American Revolutionary War.


The origins of the War of Regulation stem from a drastic population increase in North and South Carolina during the 1760s, followed by immigration from the large eastern cities to the rural west. The inland section of the colonies had once been predominately composed of planters with an agricultural economy. Merchants and lawyers began to move west, upsetting the social and political structure. At the same time, the local agricultural community suffered from a deep economic depression, due to severe droughts throughout the past decade. The loss of crops cost farmers not only their direct food source, but also their primary means of an income, which led many to rely on the goods being brought by newly arrived merchants. As income was cut off, the local planters often fell into debt. The merchants, in turn, relied on lawyers and the court to settle disputes. Debts were not uncommon at the time, but from 1755 to 1765 the cases brought to the docket increased 15 fold, from seven annually to 111 in Orange County alone.[1] Court cases could often lead to planters losing their homes and property, so they grew to resent the presence of the new merchants and the lawyers. The shift in population and politics eventually led to an imbalance within the colony's courthouses, where the newly arrived and well-educated lawyers used their superior knowledge of the law to their sometimes unjust advantage. A small clique of wealthy officials formed and became an exclusive inner circle in charge of the legal affairs of the area. The group was seen as a 'courthouse ring', or a small bunch of officials who obtained most of the political power for themselves.

In 1764, several thousand people from North Carolina, mainly from Orange, Anson, and Granville counties in the western region, were extremely dissatisfied with the wealthy North Carolina officials, whom they considered cruel, arbitrary, tyrannical, and corrupt. Taxes were collected by local sheriffs supported by the courts; the sheriffs and courts had sole control over their local regions. Many of the officers were very greedy and often would band together with other local officials for their own personal gain. The entire system depended on the integrity of local officials, many of whom engaged in extortion; taxes collected often enriched the tax collectors directly. At times, sheriffs would intentionally remove records of their tax collection in order to further tax citizens. The system was endorsed by the colonial governor, who feared losing the support of the various county officials. The effort to eliminate this system of government became known as the Regulator uprising, War of the Regulation, or the Regulator War. The most heavily affected areas were said to be that of Rowan, Anson, Orange, Granville, and Cumberland counties. It was a struggle between mostly lower class citizens, who made up the majority of the population of North and South Carolina, and the wealthy ruling class, who were about 5% of the population, yet maintained almost total control of the government. The primary aim of the Regulators was to form an honest government and reduce taxation. The wealthy businessmen/politicians who ruled North Carolina at this point saw this as a grave threat to their power. Ultimately, they brought in the militia to crush the rebellion and then hanged its leaders. It is estimated that out of the eight thousand people living in Orange County at the time, some six or seven thousand of them were in support of the Regulators. Although the "War of the Regulators" is considered by some to be one of the first acts of the American Revolutionary War, it was waged against corrupt local officials and not against the king or crown. In reality, many anti-Regulators went on to become Patriots during the American Revolution, such as William Hooper and Francis Nash; while many Regulators became Loyalists.


Herman Husband became one of the unofficial leaders of the Regulators. Husband was from Maryland, born into a Quaker family. One of the major flaws in Husband's campaign was he tried to invite good relations with the eastern regions of North Carolina, mostly unaffected by local sheriffs. Husband retained very little control over the Regulators, who generally went against his policies of winning over public sentiment and committed acts of minor violence at regular intervals.

Another Regulator leader was James Hunter. He refused to take command of the Regulators after Husband's departure before the Battle of Alamance.

Captain Benjamin Merrill had about 300 men under his control and would have assumed control over military leadership after James Hunter, but he was unable to serve in the Battle of Alamance.


Governor Arthur Dobbs, who authored popular works such as "Trade and Improvement of H'elend" and "Captain Middleton's Defense," served as the Royal Governor of North Carolina until his death in 1765. William Tryon then assumed the position. Tryon had an extremely lavish home built in 1770 in New Bern (now known as Tryon Palace), which became one of the main points of resentment for the Regulators, who were already paying substantial taxes. William (The Regulator) Butler was quoted as saying "We are determined not to pay the Tax for the next three years, for the Edifice or Governor's House, nor will we pay for it." Governor Josiah Martin succeeded Governor Tryon in office just after the end of the rebellion. His policies eased the burden on former Regulators and allowed them to be assimilated back into society. Edmund Fanning was the main opposition to the Regulators. A graduate of Yale College, he was generally regarded by his friends as well disciplined and firm. He held many political offices in Orange County. He was once found guilty of embezzling money (along with Francis Nash) but was fined only one cent per charge.


Breaking up the court

North Carolina's colonial court met in Hillsborough. In 1768, the Regulators entered Hillsborough, broke up the court, and dragged those they saw as corrupt officials through the streets.[2] The mob attempted to have the judge try the cases that were pending against several Regulator leaders, including Husband. The presiding judge (Richard Henderson) quickly adjourned the court until the next morning to avoid being forced to make a ruling in the presence of an angry mob of Regulators, and escaped in the night. The Regulators rioted, destroying public and private property alike. Fanning was among the lawyers beaten, found after taking refuge in a shop neighboring the courthouse. According to judge Richard Henderson, Fanning's beating was so severe that "one of his eyes was almost beaten out."[1] The courthouse was systematically and symbolically vandalized. Human waste was placed on the judge's seat, and the body of a long deceased slave was placed upon the lawyers bar. The mob continued to destroy shops and property in the town, and ultimately brought their destruction to Fanning's personal residence. After destroying all of the furniture and drinking all of his alcohol, the entire house was picked apart. Henderson's barn, along with his stables and home were also burned to the ground.[3] They cracked the church bell of the Church of England, but stopped short of looting the church further due to their religious beliefs.[2]


There were several different publications and petitions circulated to promote the end of taxation and other issues. A number of influential members of the area communities signed the Regulator Advertisement and the Regulator Petition, of which there were several versions of each. Each document identified concerns and issues relevant to the Regulator Movement. The terms "Regulation" and "Regulator" were introduced in the Regulator Advertisement in 1768.[4]


While small acts of violence had been taking place for some time, mainly out of resentment, the first organized conflict was in Mecklenburg County in 1765. Settlers in the region, who were there illegally, forced away surveyors of the region assigned with designating land. Minor clashes followed for the next several years in almost every western county, but the only true battle of the war was the Battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771.

The governor and his forces which numbered just over 1,000, with roughly 150 officers, arrived at Hillsborough on May 9. At the same time, General Hugh Waddell, supporting Governor Tryon, en route with his contingent of 236 men was met by a large contingent of Regulators. Realizing his force was outnumbered, he fell back to Salisbury. On May 11, having received word of the retreat from a messenger, Tryon sent the force to support General Waddell. He intentionally chose a path that would lead his forces through Regulator territory. He gave strict orders that nothing was to be looted or damaged. By May 14, his troops had reached Alamance and set up a camp. Leaving about 70 men behind to guard the position, he moved the remainder of his force, slightly under 1,000 men, to find the Regulators. About 10 miles (16 km) away, a force of approximately 2,000 Regulators (by some accounts, 6,000)[2] without any clear leadership or supplies was gathered mainly as a display of force, and not a standing army. The general Regulator strategy was to scare the governor with a show of superior numbers in order to force the governor to give in to their demands. The first clash of the battle was on May 15 when a rogue band of Regulators had captured two of the governor's militia soldiers. Governor Tryon had informed the Regulators that they were displaying open arms and rebellion and that action was to be taken if they did not disperse. The Regulators did not understand the severity of the crisis they were in and ignored the warning. Despite hesitation from his own forces, Governor Tryon allegedly initiated the main battle of Alamance on May 16 by shooting Robert Thompson, who was the first death of the battle. The Regulators resistance crumbled somewhat quickly. Captain Merrill, a Regulator, was supposed to arrive on the battlefield but was delayed. The battle was over with nine deaths for the governor's forces and about the same for the Regulators. Virtually everyone captured in the battle was fully pardoned in exchange for an allegiance to the crown; however, seven Regulators were executed for their part in the uprising.


Following the battle, Tryon's militia army traveled through Regulator territory where he had Regulators and Regulator sympathizers sign loyalty oaths and destroyed the properties of the most active Regulators. He also raised taxes to pay for his militia's defeat of the Regulators.[2]

At the time of their defeat at the battle of Alamance, public opinion was decidedly against them. They were seen as a bunch of "lawless desperadoes" and Governor William Tryon was praised for his actions in stamping out the rebellion.[5] As news articles spread the word of his victory, Tryon was branded a hero of the colonies for defeating the larger group of Regulators with his small, well prepared militia. However as the initial excitement over the glorious battle died down, many newsmen, especially in the Boston area, began to question the reasons behind the rebellion and investigated further to find its cause. Several reasons were found to see the destruction of the Regulators as an act of an oppressive government. Most particularly admonished was the methods in which Tryon himself had used to win the battle of Alamance. The use of a riot act, and the execution of rebellion leaders after the battle was frowned upon. Reports also indicated that severe battlefield misconduct had taken place on the governor's side, including giving the farmers a 2 hour warning period before the battle began, and subsequently breaking that agreement to bombard them with artillery fire.[5]

Several trials were held after the war, resulting in the hanging of six Regulators at Hillsborough on June 19, 1771. Many of the main leaders remained in hiding until 1772, when they were no longer considered outlaws. Many Regulators moved further west into places such as Tennessee, notably establishing both the Watauga Association at Sycamore Shoals (1772) in present day Elizabethton, Tennessee, the first independent white republic on American soil, and the State of Franklin (1784), another short-lived republic that failed to join the Union of the United States. The Regulators are important characters in Jimmy Carter's historical novel The Hornet's Nest (2003). The Battle of Alamance is also a significant event in the novel novel, the fifth book in the Outlander series of novels by author Diane Gabaldon.

Regulation in South Carolina

At the same time as the regulation in North Carolina, the South Carolina colony had a group of men calling themselves regulators, albeit with very different goals. The regulators of the south were also farming class, landowning men who had grievances against officialdom. However their main problems stemmed not from corruption, but a lack of representation and of government-provided services such as courts and churches. These regulators also found an enemy in local groups of "hunters" (who were seen as undesirables) and bandits. It can be argued that the South Carolina regulation is also a partial cause for the revolutionary war, as the distant authority of the Parliament of Great Britain caused so much delay in meeting their demands.

The Regulators of South Carolina were formed during the mid-1760s, and active mainly between 1767 and 1769. Over the past few decades the population of the frontier had boomed, thanks to the planning of Robert Johnson (governor). He supported sending yeomen out to the frontier in mass, to provide a buffer for the coastal cities from Cherokee attacks. The slave population alone grew 19% (however the entire slave population of the frontier only accounted for 8% of the total population of the colony). During this time violent crimes and organized bandit raids threatened the welfare of the settlers inland of the colony. The fallout of the Cherokee war of 1760-1761 left many settlers without homes, and children were abandoned during native raids. These people would fall back on the only trade they could use to sustain themselves and their families, which was hunting for their food. In the colonial period on the western frontier this was not seen as an honorable profession, and hunters were labeled as vagrants, bandits, and outlaws, and blamed for stealing livestock. Their method of "fire hunting" at night used fire to blind deer. However, in the dark, farmers' livestock would often be mistaken for deer. Many unused animal corpses were also left as a result, which drew wolves and scavengers closer to populated areas. Hunting also pushed well into the boundary of the local natives, the Creek Indians, hurting the already tense relationship with colonists. In due course the bandits were found to be some 200 strong. Eventually they were bold enough to attack magistrates, and one regulator, James Mayson, was dragged from his home in the night. The bandits, while originally being composed of the hunting groups, were not an exclusive group. They accepted mulattos, free blacks, and runaway slaves, and any outlaw available. Some members of the bandit network were well established farmers as well. In South Carolina, "regulators" were not rebels, but a vigilante force of propertied elite men, and they co-operated with their colonial government for their entire active time. The South Carolina regulators were a much smaller organization than the mass movement in North Carolina. There were 100 known regulators, of whom 32 became justices of the peace, and 21 were militia leaders. 31 owned slaves, and 14 owned 10 or more. Their primary aim was to protect themselves and their assets from bandits, their secondary purpose was to get courts, churches and schools established in their quickly growing communities. Unfortunately the only court in the colony was in Charleston, through which all legal documentation had to go. In fact, the inland settlers had the sympathy of the coastal elite, but the circuit court act, which would establish the jails, courts, sheriffs and 14 judicial districts, was held up by a dispute with the Parliament of Great Britain concerning the tenure of judges.

In contrast to the outcome of Herman Husband's Sandy Creek association and regulators, the South Carolina regulation movement was a great success. Their manifesto, written by Anglican missionary Rev. Charles Woodmason forcefully argued their case.[6] Eventually a series of acts were passed that met the needs of the propertied frontiersman. These included vagrancy acts, which outlawed many aspects of hunter lifestyle, such as their trespassing on native lands. This, coupled with the 1769 ordinance for the preservation of wolves, which forbade fire hunting, led to many hunters being whipped and banished from the area. In 1768 the Charleston grand jury began urging the creations of new schools in the back country, as per regulator request. And finally in 1769 the circuit court act was passed, making way for the new courthouses and jails, as well as setting up four new judicial districts. The cooperation between frontier and coastal colonists was so effective, that by 1771 Governor Montague of South Carolina had issued a full pardon for any actions taken by the regulators in his state.[7]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Whittenburg, James (1977). Planters, merchants, and lawyers: Social change and the origins of the North Carolina regulation. The William and Mary Quarterly. pp. 215–238. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Bishir, Catherine (2005). North Carolina Architecture. UNC Press. pp. 55–56. 
  3. Hudson, Arthur Palmer (1947). Songs of the North Carolina regulators. The William and Mary Quarterly. pp. 470–485. 
  4. Polk, W.R. and Polk, W.R. (2007) The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution. HarperCollins. p 359.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Parkinson, Robert G. (2007). An astonishing account of civil war in North Carolina: Rethinking the newspaper response to the battle of Alamance. Journalism History. pp. 223–230. 
  6. This document and related materials are printed in Richard J. Hooker, ed. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant. 1953. ISBN 978-0-8078-4035-1.
  7. Klein, Rachel N. (1981). Ordering the backcountry: The South Carolina regulation. The William and Mary Quarterly. pp. 661–680. 

Further reading

  • Brown, Richard Maxwell. The South Carolina Regulators: The Story of the First American Vigilante Movement. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1963
  • Gross, David (ed.) We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1-4348-9825-3 pp. 77–79
  • Hamilton, Jon Jay. Herman Husband: Penman of the Regulation. Graduate thesis. Wake Forest University, 1969.
  • Hooker, Richard J. Hooker, ed. The [South] Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant. 1953. ISBN 978-0-8078-4035-1. Also contains information on North Carolina conditions.
  • Kars, Marjoleine. Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Kay, Marvin L. M. "The North Carolina Regulation, 1766-1776: A Class Conflict." In The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, edited by Alfred F. Young. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976.
  • Kay, Marvin L. M., and Lorin Lee Cary. "Class, Mobility, and Conflict in North Carolina on the Eve of the Revolution." In The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, edited by Jeffrey J. Crow and Larry E. Tise. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.
  • Klein, Rachel N. Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  • Nelson, Lynn A. “Historiographical Conversations about the Backcountry: Politics.” Journal of Backcountry Studies. Vol II, No. 2 (Fall 2007)[1]
  • Powell, William S., James K. Huhta, and Thomas J. Farnham (eds). The Regulators in North Carolina: A Documentary History. Raleigh: State Dept. of Archives and History, 1971.
  • Stewart, Cory Joe, Ph.D. The Affairs of Boston in the North Carolina Backcountry during the American Revolution. A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Greensboro, NC, 2010. 228 pp. [2]
  • Walker, James Loy. The Regulator Movement: Sectional Controversy in North Carolina, 1765-1771. Graduate thesis. Louisiana State University, 1962.
  • Whittenburg, James Penn. Backwoods Revolutionaries: Social Context and Constitutional Theories of the North Carolina Regulators, 1765-1771. Graduate thesis. University of Georgia, 1974.
  • Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492–Present. Harper-Perennial, 2003.

External links

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