Forgotten History: The Regulator Rebellion

Tryon and regulatorsThe Regulator Rebellion, one of the great lost tragedies of American history, has been almost forgotten, except by people who learned about it in school in North Carolina.  It was not “the first battle of the American Revolution,” but rather a revolt by angry  backwoodsmen against corrupt local officials, some of whom were soon to become Patriot leaders.

In the 1750s, thousands of settlers were pouring down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania and Maryland, south into Orange, Guilford, Rowan and Anson Counties in the North Carolina Piedmont.  Many of them were recent Scots-Irish immigrants, inheritors of a fiercely independent, family-based society.  Although they were Presbyterians in name, as many as half belonged to no church, and they had few if any functioning social institutions.  They came looking for vacant land, which could be “patented” or claimed at little cost.  The reality was very different.

Most of the land was already owned by two absentee landlords.  The entire northern half of the colony, 26,000 square miles in all, was owned by the Earl of Granville, and an additional 1.2 million acres by the speculator Henry McCulloh.  The agents hired by the owners, and the corrupt local officials in charge of the judicial system, set out, almost to a man, to enrich themselves by the most brazen forms of  extortion.  They not only charged exorbitant fees for official duties that they then failed to perform, but they often forced farmers to buy back their own land for its original price plus the value of improvements the farmers themselves had made.  The most powerful men in the system were young predators with no ties to the local area, and no loyalties except to the rich men whose lifestyle they hoped to imitate.

Pushed to the brink of ruin, the farmers protested, sometimes violently.  They organized, under the name of Regulators, to fight for their rights.  They beat up the sheriffs who came to sell them back their own land; they gathered peacefully to voice their protests; they filed lawsuits and petitions; they invaded courthouses and threw out the judges.  The ruling classes of North Carolina reacted with incredulous fury at the presumption of inferiors who had suddenly begun to act like equals.

Ultimately, armies were raised.  An uncoordinated, almost leaderless mob of farmers faced a well-equipped force of gentlemen across Great Alamance Creek, and were crushed within an hour.  The governor and his army then marched through the Piedmont,  burning houses, barns, and crops and cutting down orchards.  Those who surrendered were made to give up their weapons, depriving them of the means to feed their families.  In the aftermath of the battle, thousands were brought to the brink of starvation.

In a small way, however, the world had changed.  Under the influence of one remarkable man, the Regulators had made a lasting contribution to the emergence of American democracy.  The next post in this series will tell his story.

Further reading: Marjoleine Kars,  Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina,  presents a penetrating analysis of the rebellion, focusing on the role of evangelical religion in guiding and inspiring it.

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2 Responses to Forgotten History: The Regulator Rebellion

  1. Becky Hardie January 16, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    Wow What a story. It’s so interesting to see how little things change in some ways, and so much in other ways. Priviledge is deeply rooted isn’t it.

  2. Carla Rabinowitz January 24, 2016 at 6:17 pm #

    Certain aspects of human nature don’t change. It’s interesting, though, to see how they can be modified by social circumstances. In the places I’ve found where local officials were out and out thieves and criminals, there were no social institutions and few social ties. Nearly everyone was a stranger to everyone else. Only a few miles away, however, there were immigrant communities with strong social institutions, respected leaders, and bonds of clan and language, where these kinds of abuses never occurred. The German communities of the Piedmont were one example. Another is the Highland Scots of the Cape Fear valley – next week’s post.

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