The Regulators Movement in The Carolinas
Right before battle James Hunter, who many considered the “general of the Regulators,” was asked to lead a band of nearly 2,000 men, some unarmed and many confused, against Governor William Tryon’s well organized militia force of nearly 1,000. His response was a little surprising, “We are all free men, and every man must command himself.” It was this sense of leadership by committee that allowed the Regulators to voice their opinion so clearly and unified to the local officials and the governor himself. The Regulators were a group of western farmers in North Carolina who joined together to fight against local colonial officials who were overtaxing them. It was between the years of 1764-1771 that these farmers organized and through petitions and some random violence got their voice heard by the Governor of North Carolina, William Tryon.
Much of the momentum of the Regulators came from the Sons of Liberty and their activities in Massachusetts. The Sons of Liberty showed great opposition to the British government and the local provincial government for the lack of representation and unfair taxes being imposed on the people. The Sons of Liberty felt they should be allowed to govern themselves through their own governments as they saw fit. In this context, the Regulators were able to organize as a group of farmers and successfully petition to the local western officials of North Carolina as well as the governor himself, William Tryon. Just like the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts, the Regulators were a prelude to the upcoming War for American Independence which began in 1775. Despite working as an organization and making decisions as a group there were principal leaders of the Regulation like Hermon Husband, James Hunter, and Rednap Howell; much like the American Revolution functioned as an organization of men behind a common cause certain men were considered principal leaders such as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The Regulators organized efforts for colonial change through petitions and displays of force were the foundation of early efforts by colonial Americans in 1775 and 1776.
The exact origin of the North Carolina Regulators in the late 1760’s, early 1770's, has been debated from many angles by historians for a while. The first historian to explore the events of the Regulator movement was a member of the regulators himself, Hermon Husband. Husband was actually a native of Maryland, born in 1724, and did not move to North Carolina until 1751 where he moved to the area which soon became known as the community of Hillsborough. Husband started a farm along Sandy Creek in a corner of Orange County.
Husband’s leadership and eloquence at the beginning of the Regulator movement aided in rallying other farmers to the cause; however Husband’s leadership stopped short of stirring the crowds into riotous activities. Due to his Quaker beliefs, Husband wanted to fight against the local and provincial officials in a non-violent way, even leaving the field of Alamance just before the battle began in May of 1771. In 1770, Husband compiled an anonymous history of the regulator movement up until the time he was writing it. He began his essay with an address made a few years before the incidences of Orange County broke out, which the area in which most of this paper will focus. The address was made by a George Sims of Granville County, North Carolina, who wrote the address anonymously as an address to the inhabitants of Granville County. It was discovered in 1916, by an unknown historian in the American Historical Review, that it was Sims who originally wrote the paper that Hermon Husband mentioned as the “Nutbush Paper.” The writer makes the argument that this paper was like the Common Sense of the Regulator movement and aided in raising tensions in Granville County, where it was originally read, as well as Orange County.
The Nutbush Paper
In order to properly understand the impact of this ‘Nutbush Paper’ one needs to look at more of the address than only what Husband wrote down. Sims’ entire address was a compelling speech which was designed to drawn on the emotions of the inhabitants of the county. Sims felt it was his duty to uphold the “rights and privileges which our Constitution has endowed us with,” and the people of Granville should take up “defense against the common evil,” which has caused the problems that so many of the people know to well. Sims also wanted the people to “throw off the heavy yoke, which is cast upon our necks, and resume our ancient liberties and privileges, as free subjects.” Much of the tone of Sims address was similar to the later Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Common Sense called for immediate independence and separation from the King, a general call to arms. Husband placed Sims’ address at the beginning in order for the readers of 1770 to understand two things, first, what exactly the Regulators were fighting for and second, that these grievances and problems with local officials stretched beyond the borders of Orange County.
Sims’ address was very lengthy but the main portions, of which Husband chose to enter in his paper, helped in specifically explaining what grievances they had and the extent of those involved. “Well Gentlemen, it is not our Form of Mode of Government, nor yet the body of our Laws that we are quarrelling with, but with the Malpractices of the Officers of our County Court, and the Abuses that we suffer by those that are impowered to manage our public affairs.” Husband wanted the people to understand that this was not a rebellion against the government of North Carolina nor against the King of England but simply a “quarrelling” against the local officials of the western counties, who happened to be appointed by the governor himself.
The second part of Sims address, that Husband quotes, was on the abuses of local officials. One of the first and foremost grievances mentioned was the extortion fees charged by greedy lawyers, merchants, and tax collectors. It was this overcharging that angered the residence of the western counties most of all. “It is well known, that there is a law which provides that a lawyer shall take no more than 15 shilling for his fee in the County Court.” In Husband’s condensed version he inserted that quote along with a story of a poor man being charged court fees beyond the normal means, the importance of this argument to the regulators was key. These local officials were normally from the eastern towns and looking to make money off unsuspecting farmers and backwoods people who more than likely knew nothing of the law. Although completely one sided in argument, the Husband account of the Regulators aids in shedding some light on what happened and why. Husband’s account gives us the better understanding on why the Regulators formed and what were their driving goals and motivations.
Other historical opinion on the causes of the Regulator movement have varied between analyzing the socio-economic factors of the western half of the province versus the eastern half and discovering the basic motives of the regulators. When it came to socio-economic differences, the historian John Spencer Bassett wrote the original work in 1894. Bassett showed how eastern North Carolina was made up of mainly large plantation owners, an elite class of wealthy men who controlled the provincial assembly and many others aspects of North Carolina. His view of western people in North Carolina was mainly a class of “subsistence farmers.”
Based on Bassett’s research Whittenburg believed there was a small depression in the 1760’s, adding on the fact that specie was low throughout the country, it made it very difficult for western farmers to pay their taxes. Bassett’s argument never discounted the corruption of the local officials. In fact, he argued that the western officials were more like a clique which used their power to control the western province and charge fees to line their own pockets. Factors such as an economic depression, low currency, overtaxing, and eastern domination resulted in what Bassett called a “peasant’s rising.”
James Whittenburg, along with discussing the varying origins, explored the motivation many Regulators had for fighting and what Whittenburg believed was the true origin of the Regulator movement. Whittenburg used different historians to build his point; one of them was Elisha Douglass and Marvin L. Michael Kay. Both men looked into primary sources of the day and found that a large reason for conflict in the area was based on class. Whittenburg pointed out that sectionalism is still the standard for explaining the origin of the Regulators. In Kay’s research he established that the western counties consisted of more anti-Regulators than there were supporters. When it came to the argument of the Regulators being poor and anti-Regulators rich, Kay showed that the average tax assessment of the fifty-four known anti-Regulators was five to six times greater than the 181 known Regulators. This was all to build upon Whittenburg’s argument that the Regulators were angry at how eastern educated lawyers and merchants who were loyal to the British crown, quickly came into the western territories of North Carolina and excelled quickly in positions of authority as well as making money. The issue of British loyalists taking advantage of western American colonists bared a striking similarity to the upcoming American Revolution.
Farmers Lose Control
Edmund Fanning, a lawyer, was called a “haughty, despotic, and Tyrannical Spirit" by the Regulators.
Before the growing migration west in the 1750’s there were no defined towns or governmental structures. During that time local farmers controlled the area and would meet together when issues needed to be discussed. As towns began to take flight so “came the merchant, lawyer, the tavernkeeper, the artisan, and court officials, adventures in the perenial pursuit of gain,” as Whittenburg claimed. William Few, a member of the constitutional convention in 1776, observed much of the Regulators as he was one along with his brother and father. Few recalled the merchants and lawyers doing very well for themselves as they moved into the area as “attorneys opened offices there, finding lucrative employment in the courts.” With all of these individual establishing themselves as figures of authority, wealth, and importance the western farmers began to lose their grip of control on the area.
One of the men who established themselves in Orange County was Edmund Fanning. Fanning was an individual in which all Regulators could rally against. Fanning was a Yale graduate who worked his way to being a lawyer in Hillsborough and through ties to the eastern oligarchy, which was the North Carolina assembly, was appointed to various positions of power. Husband even singled out Fanning as the strength behind the Regulators, calling him a “haughty, despotic, and Tyrannical Spirit.” His rise to power was swift and the Regulators believed that his only reason for coming to Hillsborough was simply monetary gain. In a ballad, sung by Regulators as early as 1765, Fanning was depicted as a man trying to line his pockets with gold. This song was believed to have been written by Rednap Howell, one of only four men outlawed after the Battle of Alamance.
When Fanning first to Orange came
He looked both pale and wan,
An old patched coat upon his back
An old mare he rode on
Both man and mare wa’nt worth five pounds
As I’ve been often told
But by his civil robberies
He’s laced his coat with gold.
The invidiousness for Fanning was because of the speed in which he acquired power in Orange County as well as the amount of money he was so obviously making there.
There are varying reasons of origin and motivation for the Regulation in North Carolina. The very basic complaint of the Regulators was the fact that lawyers and county officials were charging extortionate fees to gain wealth. Rooted within this basic grievance one can find a catacomb of issues such as the sectional competition between east and west. Although nothing of the Regulators themselves indicates that there was a rivalry, the disgust many western farmers had for the educated elite, lawyers, merchants, and tavern-keepers, which dominated the political and economic realms was apparent. This animosity for the east coast connected officials grew as civil and debt court cases grew in the years leading up to 1765, the first year of active protesting in Orange County, North Carolina.
In the light of all this, the Regulators were a group of individual who were previous united, before the 1750’s, by their control and domination of western North Carolina and its direction. Then, as educated elite began to take over after migrating in the 1750’s, those same western farmers found themselves united behind the common cause of fighting against the educated elite who began to control their county and overtax their farmers. They felt their only outlet to have their voice heard was unifying. Starting as early as 1765 farmers began to riot and voice their grievances to the local officials but much went upon deaf ears. None of these protests were organized by an official group or association however, it was not until 1768 when the western farmers who were quarrelling so much with the local officials, organized officially and began to petition the colonial assembly and the governor.
In January, 1768, farmers began to realize that their grievances were not exactly being heard. Over the past three years they had attempted to riot and make their case known however, there was no clear organization. For a short time the governor reacted and reprimanded sheriffs for accepting more taxes than law allowed but after a short period the sheriffs continued the practice. With no positive resolution on the horizon the farmers of western North Carolina decided to form an organization, calling themselves Regulators. They assembled themselves into an association with five distinct intentions: first, that none of the men will pay taxes until their grievances are met according to what the law states; second, that they will pay no officers fees beyond the required amount; third, meetings will be held regularly for the purpose of talking with representatives and filing grievances to the governor; fourth, members are to pay duties in order to “defray” costs; and finally, all decisions will be brought forward to the majority. The last distinction established that no one man would control or make decisions for the majority. This rebellion against the local officials was to speak with one voice, much like the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts were doing. No one man controlled the group nor decided their fate, it was an association of disgruntle individuals.
Now that an association had been formed the regulators felt their issues would finally get resolved through a unified voice. Quickly they learned that none of the officials cared about their problems. According to Husband, in February 1768, believed to be the first of the month, the sheriff of Orange County, one Tyree Harris, made a proclamation which required that all inhabitants of Orange County are required to pay their taxes at one of five places and the officials would only be there for a period of two days. For years the people had been accustomed to the sheriff coming to their house and collecting taxes but now, the sheriff wanted the people to travel a great distance to pay taxes they did not even want to pay in the first place. This action, along with the general tensions already building, spurned Advertisement No. 5 by the Regulators. This address voiced the Regulators dissatisfaction with how the local officials had been handling affairs up to this point. Edmund Fanning and other officials in Hillsborough refused to even conduct meetings with the Regulators which infuriated them even more.
One incident sparked a riot which set in motion many events that would eventually led to change. In a stroke of bad timing county officials, under the sheriff’s orders, arrested a man and seized his horse, saddle and bridle to pay off his tax debts. A group of Regulators formed together, about 100 strong and marched into Hillsborough, North Carolina, the capital of Orange County, in order to make their presence known and take back the man’s horse and saddle. Fanning stated the incident was a “disgrace to our County and something more than a dishonor to our King and Country. The local officials reacted by calling up their local militia. Lt. Colonel John Gray, the Orange County militia leader, had desired in “raising the Militia and apprehending every man that is known to be of the Party & committing them to close gaol.” Lt. Gray wanted every Regulator involved in events on April 9th brought up on charges.
Lt. Gray’s communication was the first sent out of the town and was received by Edmund Fanning. His request to Edmund Fanning was the raising of the militia as fast as possible in order to quell the Regulator forces and apprehend those involved. Fanning approved the order yet with sympathy for the Regulators growing throughout the west, Fanning and the militia commanders of Orange County could only muster about 120 men, not nearly enough to counter the Regulators. In addition, Fanning’s letter issued arrest warrants of three men believed to be the leaders of the riot on the 9th of April. Although not mentioned in the letter, Fanning placed a warrant for the arrests of William Butler, Peter Craven, and Ninan Bell Hamilton. As far as the provincial government was concerned these men were cited as the leaders yet no evidence tells us that these men were involved. It was Fanning’s belief that if he were to apprehend the principal leaders of the Regulation then he would stop any future incidences like the one on April 9, 1768.
As letters began to be exchanged among varying parties of the Regulators and the provincial officials, who is writing these letters and for what purpose becomes dreadfully important. On April 23rd Fanning sent a letter to Governor William Tryon. This letter notified Tryon of the riot which occurred in Hillsborough as well as the reason these Regulators were causing problems in the first place. Fanning wrote to Tryon how he had heard the Regulators, upon his arrival into Hillsborough, were planning on returning with as many as fifteen hundred men. He believed they were coming into town to strike “vengeance on me and if not satisfied in every particular to their desire why then to lay the Town in ashes.”
Two days later, on April 25th, Regulators met and formed a letter, sent to who is unknown, however it specified that a minister, more than likely Rev. George Micklejohn, had by “power of persuasions and argument hath restrained us from going to the Town of Hillsborough until the eleventh day of May.” This letter was signed by five gentlemen, all were men of importance in the Regulation however none claimed themselves as a principal leader, nor did any of them sustain a leadership role for a long period of time. Two of the five men were on the warrant list of Edmund Fanning; they were Ninan Bell Hamilton and William Butler. Another one of the remaining three was James Hunter, the proclaimed ‘general of the Regulation.’ The last two gentlemen came up in various spots but neither played a significant role throughout the Regulation. Apart from James Hunter’s visible role in the Regulation the other two men, Ninan Hamilton and William Butler, had minimal roles throughout the Regulation much similar to the other members.
Loyalty to the King
The Regulators had an overwhelming desire to express their loyalty to the King at every chance they could get. After nearly every one of their correspondence to governmental officials the Regulators would sign it, “God save the King George the Third.” Their other desire during this affair was to end it peaceably. In their eighth advertisement the Regulators were determined to follow through on their goal of ending things “in a fair way for an amicable settlement.” Their hope in Revd. Micklejohn’s plan to bring all parties together for discussion was apparent in their advertisement. Twelve men were to be appointed among the Regulators to settle matters with local officials and prevent violence. Thirteen men were chosen, possibly an additional one as an alternate or because they could not decide on just twelve, of which some had not been known Regulators at this point. John Pryor, John Burston, George Henry, Charles Smith, John Marshall, William Maffet, William Cox, John Butler, Simon Dixon, and Thomas Christian consist of the greatest majority of regulators who were appointed to settle matters and none of these men were cited by government officials as possible leaders at any time between 1765 and 1771. Following that were some very familiar faces of the Regulation; Rednap Howell, James Hunter, and Hermon Husband. It is important to see how a group of men were asked to represent the Regulators goals and not just one man. Although men like Rednap Howell, James Hunter, and Hermon Husband were sent and are the more visible leaders throughout this time, ten other men were sent with equal speaking power and authority.
It is important to better understand the three visible leaders of the Regulation because their background helps us to understand their role during this time. Much like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were key players in the upcoming American Revolution, these three men played significant roles in the Regulation movement. Rednap Howell was one of only three men with warrants on their head after the Battle of Alamance in May of 1771. Howell was a contributor in a very different way; he wrote songs and poems for the men. Originally Howell was from New Jersey and for reasons unknown came to Orange County and began teaching at a common school. Howell wrote three famous songs/poems. However it is believed he wrote as many as 40 during that time, in which one can be seen above; the other two are From Hillsborough Town the first day of May, and Frohock to Fanning. All of these songs/poems were sung regularly at Regulator meetings as well as other events throughout the area. One man even mentioned hearing a song about Edmund Fanning at a wedding when he had never even heard of him up until then. Howell, along with James Hunter, were the Regulators who delivered a petition in June of 1768 to Governor Tryon. One of the main reasons for Howell to have an arrest warrant out for his arrest, after the Battle of Alamance was because of a letter intercepted by Tryon’s men. The letter was from Howell to James Hunter and specified a desire to stir up spirits of possible Regulators in the east. Howell was a visible leader of the Regulators in the eyes of Governor Tryon and Edmund Fanning however he never took his involvement much past song writing.
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