The North Carolina Regulation was a farmers' reform movement in the pre-Revolutionary period. Between 1766 and 1771, North Carolina farmers sought to combat corruption among local officials and to increase their participation in the political system. The Regulators lived in the Piedmont, the area west of the coastal plain and east of the mountains. This region had first been settled by Europeans starting in the 1740s as part of a vast interior migration from the middle colonies to the southern Piedmont. Rising land prices in the middle colonies, dangerous warfare with Indians, and a desire to live life according to their own dictates drove colonists into the southern backcountry, where the native population had shrunk to almost nothing as a result of epidemics, warfare, and migration further west.
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Eager for cheap land, religious freedom, and economic security, newcomers were deeply disappointed to find that their dreams were threatened by corrupt local officials eager to enrich themselves. Such officials engrossed the best land and drove up land prices; failed to pass people's tax monies on to the provincial treasury; and made government expensive by charging higher fees than the law allowed. Inspired in part by the protests against the Stamp Act in 1765, Piedmont farmers first organized in Orange County in 1766, led by a Quaker named Herman Husband. Husband's powerful ideas about social justice combined religious radicalism with the country or real Whig political philosophy increasingly adopted by the Patriot movement. In 1768 farmers joined under the name of "Regulators" to indicate that they intended to "regulate" and reform government abuse. The term "regulator" had first been used in this way in England in 1655 and had since entered into common usage.
Regulators pursued both legal and extralegal means to reform their local government. They tried to set up meetings with local officials, who rebuffed them. They repeatedly petitioned the governor and assembly, hoping to interest them in their cause, with little success. They brought suits against extortionate officials but could not get convictions. When such legal means did not bring results, Regulators resorted to illegal actions: they refused to pay their taxes; repossessed property seized for public sale to satisfy debts and taxes; disrupted court proceedings; and tried officials at people's courts. In September 1768 Governor William Tryon and his militia confronted a large number of Regulators outside of Hillsborough, but violence was avoided. Two years later, a large group of Regulators brought proceedings at the superior court in Hillsborough to a halt; beat up a number of lawyers, merchants, and officials; and destroyed the home of the most hated Piedmont official, Edmund Fanning. Government officials retaliated swiftly and powerfully.
Battle of Alamance Creek. When the assembly opened later that fall Herman Husband, who had been elected a legislator for Orange County in 1769, was accused of libel, expelled from the assembly, and jailed. Next, the assemblymen passed a sweeping Riot Act that, among other things, gave Governor Tryon the authority and funds he needed to raise the militia against the Regulators. On 16 May 1771, about eleven hundred militiamen, commanded by many of North Carolina's prominent Patriots—men who would soon lead North Carolina into independence—confronted upward of two thousand farmers on a field near Alamance Creek, about twenty miles from Hillsborough. In a battle that lasted less than two hours, from 17 to 20 farmers were killed along with 9 militiamen; more than 150 men on both sides were wounded. One Regulator was hanged on the spot without benefit of trial. Six more were executed on 19 June in Hillsborough after a hasty trial. After the battle, the governor and his troops undertook a punitive march through the Piedmont, forcing some six thousand men, the great majority of adult males in the area, to take the oath of allegiance to the crown. Some of the best-known Regulators fled the province, and by summer the Regulation had been suppressed.
Regulation and Revolution. Once news of the Battle of Alamance spread, sympathy for the Regulators grew outside of North Carolina. Many incipient Patriots stressed the parallels between themselves and the Regulators, who had also stood up for their right as freeborn Englishmen, had patiently tried to redress their grievances by peaceful means, and had finally been driven to war by the governor and his friends. North Carolina's leading Whigs, most of whom had opposed the Regulators, labored hard to undercut this initial impression beyond the colony. To them, there were no parallels between legitimate opposition to Britain and the Regulators' resistance to oppression by local elites. It would not be long before Patriot elites elsewhere would understand the dilemma of North Carolina leaders: how to galvanize popular support for the Patriot cause while limiting people's aspirations for independence and justice at home. In this respect, the North Carolina Regulation constitutes an important and early example of the limited nature of the radicalism embodied in the independence movement. While North Carolina farmers did not secure their broadest goals in the Regulation or in the subsequent Revolution, their dreams of economic justice in an agrarian setting surfaced again and again in the South, finding its most explicit reincarnation in Populism in the 1880s and 1890s.
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The terms "Regulation" and "Regulators," while most prominently associated with the North Carolina farmers' movement, were used in various other struggles in Revolutionary America, such as in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. While North Carolina farmers intended to create a local government respectful of the law, South Carolina backcountry elites took the law in their own hands between 1767 and 1769. These men called themselves Regulators, but their aims were nothing like those of their North Carolina namesakes. The South Carolina Regulation was a vigilante movement led by slave owners aimed at disciplining horse thieves, bandits, and marginal people who made their living by hunting and trading rather than by farming. Thus, rather than a movement of common people trying to make government more responsive to the people, the South Carolina Regulation consisted of elite men trying to impose their values and way of life on the rest of the population.
The Pennsylvania Regulation (usually known as the Whiskey Rebellion ) and the Massachusetts Regulation (better known as Shays's Rebellion [1786–1787]) bore a close resemblance to the North Carolina Regulation. Farmers in those states protested structural economic inequality much as did their North Carolina counterparts.
Ekirch, A. Roger. "Poor Carolina": Politics and Society in Colonial North Carolina, 1729–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
Husband, Herman. "An Impartial Relation …" In Some Eighteenth Century Tracts Concerning North Carolina. Edited by William K. Boyd. Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards and Broughton, 1927.
Kars, Marjoleine. Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Kay, Marvin L. Michael. "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.
Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
Powell, William S., James K. Huhta, and Thomas J. Farnham, eds. and comps. The Regulators in North Carolina: A Documentary History, 1759–1776. Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History, 1971.
Whittenburg, James P. "Planters, Merchants, and Lawyers: Social Change and the Origins of the North Carolina Regulation," William and Mary Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1977): 215–238.