Lessons in Citizenship from a Renegade Quaker

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Herman Husband was disowned by his Quaker Meeting, along with his future wife and everyone who attended their wedding.  His offense was refusing to accept the decision of the Meeting to show leniency to a member who had vocally objected to the mistreatment of her daughter.   He was very much on the wrong side of that argument.  But his stubborn insistence on freedom of conscience was the source of his most significant contributions to the future of his country.

In 1766, as the anger of the North Carolina backwoodsmen towards their corrupt officials began to boil over into violence, Husband and the Separate Baptist apostle Shubal Stearns joined together to form the Sandy Creek Association, with the goal of  directing that anger into non-violent channels.  When the angry settlers organized as Regulators, the Sandy Creek Association set out to teach them how to act like citizens.

They began with petitions, which were met by threats and intimidation not only from local officials but even from Governor Tryon.  When violence broke out again, Husband—who had published “sermons” condemning the officials, but who had consistently counseled against violence—was arrested and then released.  Husband and others then filed a series of lawsuits against the corrupt officials, complaining of extortion.  That tactic too failed.  The officials were either found  not guilty, or fined one  penny for each offense.  Plaintiffs in the suits were themselves sued for malicious prosecution, or intimidated into dropping their suits.

The next approach was through the ballot box.  After a well-organized campaign, Husband and numerous other supporters of the Regulators were elected to the colonial Assembly.  A series of local meetings produced a sophisticated political platform, including provisions for election by secret ballot; recorded votes in the Assembly; salaries rather than fees for the chief justice and clerks; and a tax on property, proportional to the taxpayer’s wealth, rather than a head tax that was the same for all.  None of these measures was passed.  Instead, Tryon secured the passage of an ex post facto law making rioting punishable by death, even if committed before the passage of the law.  Husband was expelled from the Assembly on a trumped-up charge, and charged with riot, but charges were dropped when the witnesses refused to show up.

Even as these political measures were being attempted, Tryon was raising the army that ultimately crushed the Regulators at Alamance Creek.  A very few years later, however, members of the provincial gentry, who had colluded in the extortion that sparked the rebellion, came begging for help in resisting British tyranny.  To their dismay, the burned, beaten and starved settlers wanted no part of another conflict.  Some fought with the Loyalists; many more refused to join up with either side.

Part of the effort to attract the support of the former Regulators was reflected in provisions of the North Carolina Declaration of Rights, adopted in December of 1776.  These included provisions guaranteeing the right to bear arms “for the Defence of the State;” the right “to Assemble together to consult for their common good, to instruct their Representative, and to apply to the Legislature for Redress of Grievances;” and a ban on ex post facto laws.

The story of the rebellion also attracted the attention of other colonies.  Similar provisions were included in the South Carolina Declaration of Rights and the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights, both adopted in the same year, and in the Vermont and Massachusetts Declarations, adopted in 1777 and 1780 respectively.  Ultimately, versions of these provisions made it into the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

In North Carolina and elsewhere, the Patriot elite had begun to grasp the necessity of paying attention to the concerns of ordinary backwoodsmen.  In acting like citizens, the Regulators had staked their claim to the rights of citizens.

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