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Ten years before the start of the American Revolution, backcountry settlers in the North Carolina Piedmont launched their own defiant bid for economic independence and political liberty. The Regulator Rebellion of 1766-71 pitted thousands of farmers, many of them religious radicals inspired by the Great Awakening, against political and economic elites who opposed the Regulators' proposed reforms. The conflict culminated on May 16, 1771, when a colonial militia defeated more than 2,000 armed farmers in a pitched battle near Hillsborough. At least 6,000 Regulators and sympathizers were forced to swear their allegiance to the government as the victorious troops undertook a punitive march through Regulator settlements. Seven farmers were hanged.
Using sources that include diaries, church minutes, legal papers, and the richly detailed accounts of the Regulators themselves, Marjoleine Kars delves deeply into the world and ideology of free rural colonists. She examines the rebellion's economic, religious, and political roots and explores its legacy in North Carolina and beyond. The compelling story of the Regulator Rebellion reveals just how sharply elite and popular notions of independence differed on the eve of the Revolution.
An engaging and richly detailed exploration of the North Carolina Regulators, illuminating the power of their folk Christianity. Recovers the Regulators' importance in the era of the American Revolution and to the creation of American populism.
From the Publisher
The most thorough analysis of the Regulators in North Carolina, particularly in the evolving Piedmont society preceding their rebellion.--North Carolina Historical Review
This first complete narrative treatment of the Regulator rebellion . . . makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Great Awakening and the nature of backcountry settlement in the Upper South.--Georgia Historical Quarterly
A masterful work, truly required reading for a proper understanding of early North Carolina history. . . . A well-organized, delightfully written volume grounded in extensive research that unearths new material as well as judiciously reinterprets hitherto available information.--William and Mary Quarterly
Kars has put the North Carolina Regulation at the forefront of American frontier history and underlined the crucial importance of the backcountry in understanding the role of ordinary people in the American past.--Journal of Interdisciplinary History
[Kars] shows how ordinary people struggled to establish dignity within complex class structures not of their own making. In a crisp, narrative style, Kars captures the local voices of resistance without losing sight of the larger social and economic forces that transformed personal frustration into organized violence. . . . A welcome contribution not only to the history of agrarian protest but also to the currently burgeoning field of Atlantic history.--Journal of American History
This is social history of the highest order. . . . Kars's explanation of the uprising should cause a reevaluation of the origins of the American Revolution. This important book should command the attention of all students of the origins of the Revolution.--Historian
On Wednesday morning, June 19, 1771, six prisoners were taken out of jail in Hillsborough, a small village in the North Carolina Piedmont. The men had been condemned to die for their participation in the Regulation, a farmers' reform movement that had just been defeated by Governor William Tryon's army in an encounter at Alamance Creek. Soldiers marched the prisoners to a field on a small hill overlooking the Eno River just east of the twenty-year-old town. The area had been carefully cleared to provide a better view for those compelled to watch. On orders of the governor, the soldiers arranged themselves around the hastily erected gallows. In front of a hushed crowd, which included the wives and children of some of the condemned men, the six farmers were hanged.
Among those who watched the executions were many of the major participants in the dramatic events of the previous five years. In front of the crowd stood Governor Tryon, a proud, short-tempered man. Born in 1729, the year that North Carolina became a crown colony, Tryon had become governor of the province in 1765. He had been helped by Lord Hillsborough, an influential in-law who was a member of the Board of Trade and later secretary for the colonies. Tryon had first ignored the farmers' grievances and, later on, had vigorously opposed the Regulators; he had done much to escalate the conflict. Standing by him were many prominent eastern North Carolinians. These men, many of whom had vigorously opposed the Stamp Act and would soon emerge as leaders of the independence movement, had come west with the governor to subdue the Piedmont farmers with military force.
A second group of participants consisted of Piedmont public officials and merchants, the Regulators' main antagonists. Chief among them was Col. Edmund Fanning of Hillsborough. At thirty-four years of age, he was the most powerful man in the Piedmont. Educated at Yale and Harvard, Fanning had come to Hillsborough in 1760; that same year he was appointed a town commissioner and elected to represent Orange County in the General Assembly of North Carolina. He quickly established himself as a prominent and increasingly wealthy lawyer who held numerous influential posts in Orange County. He was a close friend of Governor Tryon.
The majority of the spectators were farming men and women who had participated in the Regulation or were sympathetic to its aims. Many would have known the hanged men well. These people, all of them relatively recent immigrants to the colony, had begun their organized actions in 1766. In that year, a group of farmers living in Orange County on Sandy Creek off Deep River, about twenty miles southwest of Hillsborough, started the Sandy Creek Association. Its main aims were to combat corruption among local officials and to increase participation of farmers in the political system. The core of the organization consisted of a number of radical Protestants, mostly Quakers, led by Herman Husband, a prosperous farmer from Maryland, who had first come to the Piedmont in the mid-1750s and had settled on Sandy Creek permanently in 1762. Husband quickly became one of the main spokesmen for the farmers' movement, as well as its chief chronicler and ideologue. His powerful ideas about social justice were tremendously influential among Piedmont farmers. Within two years of its organization, the Sandy Creek Association ceased to exist, but the seeds for more widespread resistance had been sown; early in 1768 many of its members joined with other reform-minded farmers under the name of "Regulators" to indicate 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 organized not only in Orange County, but throughout the Piedmont counties of Anson, Rowan, and Mecklenburg as well.
Regulators pursued legal and extralegal means to put a stop to practices by local officials that they considered extortionate. They repeatedly petitioned the governor and the assembly, tried to set up meetings with local officials, and brought suits against officials. When such legal measures had little effect, they resorted to extralegal action: they refused to pay taxes, repossessed property seized for public sale to satisfy debts and taxes, and disrupted court proceedings. In September 1768, Governor 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 disrupted the superior court in Hillsborough, beat up a number of lawyers, merchants, and officials, and destroyed the home of Edmund Fanning. The authorities retaliated forcefully.
Almost as soon as 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 and march against the Regulators. On May 16, 1771, about 1,000 militiamen confronted upward of 2,000 farmers on a field near Alamance Creek about twenty miles west of Hillsborough. Two hours after the first shot was fired, 17 to 20 farmers lay dead, along with 9 militiamen; more than 150 men on both sides were wounded. One Regulator was hanged on the spot without benefit of trial; the 6 men executed on June 19 had been hastily tried in Hillsborough. At least 6,000 Regulators and sympathizers took the oath of allegiance as the victorious troops undertook a punitive march through backcountry settlements. Some of the best-known Regulator leaders fled the province. By summer, the Regulation had been suppressed. This book seeks to understand why Piedmont farmers fought the War of the Regulation, risking their farms, the well-being of their families, and even their lives. When I came to the United States as an undergraduate exchange student from the Netherlands, I did not imagine I would one day go to graduate school in American history, much less write a book about a farmers' rebellion in eighteenth-century North Carolina. Instead, I fully expected to return home at the end of twelve months to begin a career in international law. By the end of my first year in college, however, I discovered social history.
I began graduate school with an interest in the questions surrounding the transition to capitalism in the early modern period, which was a matter not only of technological and economic change but of deeply contested cultural and mental shifts as well. I quickly became most intrigued by two major events in the eighteenth century: the Great Awakening (a wave of religious revivals at midcentury) and the American Revolution. In the last thirty years or so, social historians have shown just how much social conflict accompanied the War for Independence. Historians such as Alan Heimert, Gary Nash, and Rhys Isaac have studied the connections between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution, yet I felt that the precise links remained elusive, especially in the South. Here, between these two events, it seemed to me, lay substantial unfinished business, much of which corresponded closely to the main issues that had preoccupied me so far.
So I decided to work on social unrest in the eighteenth-century South; the North Carolina Piedmont provided the perfect field for study. Although the largest agrarian rebellion before Independence had taken place there, little work had been done on the Piedmont. The available scholarship for the most part either seemed far removed from any real people or failed to engage the larger questions I felt were crucial. Moreover, surprisingly few historians have written about the Regulator Rebellion itself, and there is no book-length treatment. Historians who have studied the Regulation most recently have explained the rebellion in several plausible ways: as the logical outgrowth of class conflict, as the result of paranoia on the part of Piedmont farmers, or as a function of frustration over thwarted upward mobility. While all three explanations have something to offer, none seemed entirely satisfactory to me. Class conflict rarely leads to rebellion in any kind of automatic way. Explanations which rely on paranoia or mere frustration to explain five years of costly struggle do not seem to take quite seriously enough the grievances of people in the past. Having pored over this recent literature, I wanted to write a densely detailed social history focused on the experiences of ordinary people in the North Carolina Piedmont. I suspected that such a treatment could help us understand how numerous free rural people in the South reacted to and were affected by the development of capitalism and what they thought about politics in the years before Independence.
I began by investigating people's private lives. I examined bastardy bonds and fornication prosecutions in the county courts, but I realized that without a greater understanding of how people made a living, these documents would have little to say to me. I turned to church records in the hope that I might find more evocative evidence about people's day-to-day lives. To my surprise, it was in the Quaker records in Greensboro and especially in the Moravian records in Winston-Salem that the colonial Piedmont came alive to me for the first time. The voices I heard were not those of the learned ministers so ably captured by previous historians of religion. Instead, church minutes and the conversations among lay people recorded in the diaries of local Piedmont ministers revealed a world where farming men and women were deeply influenced by revivalist Protestantism and wrestled actively with crucial moral and political questions in their local communities. It seemed it could not be an accident that the Regulator Rebellion happened in the midst of this creative and subversive religious climate. I also decided to examine the political economy of the Piedmont, to understand what farming families were rebelling against; to find out how these rural men and women thought about the world and what they hoped for; and to connect the Rebellion more closely to social unrest in the eighteenth-century colonies generally, and to the American Revolution especially.
The book has been organized around these three concerns. Part I considers matters pertaining to land and the economy. Part II chronicles the Great Awakening in the Piedmont and examines the role religion played in the Regulation. The third and fourth parts tell the story of the Regulation itself, comparing the activities of Piedmont farmers to those of the better-known, more elite Sons of Liberty, who similarly sought to obtain redress of their grievances, first by legal, and eventually by extralegal means. Part III covers the first four years of the Regulation, during which the Regulators patiently pursued the three legal strategies repeatedly urged on them by the authorities: petitioning the governor and assembly, taking officials to court to try to obtain convictions for extortion, and calling for legislative change. Part IV chronicles the intensification of the conflict as Regulators, stymied in their efforts for legal change, resorted to extralegal means of redress, such as closing courts. The governor, alarmed by the farmers' growing strength and boldness, became increasingly anxious to subdue the uprising with military force. The result, of course, was the Battle of Alamance and the subsequent punitive march and hangings. Early in May 1771, a young radical Protestant minister named John Williams saddled his horse at his house in Lunenburg County to ride with a fellow minister to the Separate Baptist Association meeting in Orange County, Virginia. On Saturday, May 11, the two men reached the Association meeting, where colleagues prayed, exhorted, and preached for several long days before the more than 1,200 people assembled. Radical ministers did not write out their sermons. They considered the power to preach a gift from God, and when they stood before an audience, they hoped to channel for the Holy Spirit. Ministers rated themselves, and each other, in their diaries as having "preached with liberty," with "great liberty," or, less often, with "some liberty," or even "no liberty." That first afternoon, according to John Williams, Brother Hargitt preached poorly, being but "middling warm in his application." Brother Burriss, who followed him, preached "with a good deal of liberty." Next Brother Waller exhorted till he was "spent." But "the Christians" were "set all a fire" when Brothers Marshall and Craig caught the spirit and "broke loose together," preaching in concert for more than half an hour with the audience "shouting." Hereafter, mercifully, an intermission was called.
I have borrowed John Williams's powerful phrase for the title of this book for a number of reasons. First, I argue that, like Brothers Marshall and Craig, many North Carolina farmers were inspired and sustained in their rebellion by popular religion. While religious records for pre-Revolutionary North Carolina are not nearly as extensive as we might like, available evidence (Quaker and Moravian records, diaries of itinerant preachers, ministers' correspondence, Regulator petitions, and the writings of Regulator spokesman Herman Husband) suggests that the insurgent climate created by the Great Awakening helped Piedmont farmers gain the individual and collective self-confidence to attempt to reform their government and rid it of corruption. Inspired, too, by the unfolding protests against Britain, Regulator leaders like Herman Husband combined the Protestant insistence on one's own moral truth with radical Whig ideas about the right and duty of citizens to resist unjust government, to fuel and justify their rebellion.
Second, like many eighteenth-century protesters, Regulators proved themselves "reluctant revolutionaries" who firmly believed that the malfunctioning of their government ought to be corrected by legal means. Only when officials repeatedly thwarted them in their efforts at peaceful and legal redress did they come to see extralegal action, and even limited violence, as a legitimate alternative. Thus, the political development of the Regulators parallels that of the better-known, more closely studied Sons of Liberty, who led the patriot movements throughout the colonies. The richly detailed records of the North Carolina Regulation allow us to map with equal care the process by which rural, nonelite, free people-the great majority of white colonists-became politically active in the pre-Revolutionary decades. Such intellectual history adds an important dimension to our understanding of popular ideology, of the elusive "revolution from below," and thus of the American Revolution itself. Furthermore, many of the men who opposed the Regulators most actively, in the assembly and on the battlefield, were the very same men who propelled North Carolina into the conflict with Britain, revealing the profound differences between popular and elite notions of independence.
Last, it is my belief that the Regulation represents a moment of protest against the slow separation of morality from economics that characterized (and enabled) the development of the emerging capitalist order. The North Carolina Regulation allows us to view this process as it worked itself out in the lives of common people on the southern frontier. Regulators were certainly not opposed to private property or economic development, both of which were essential to their vision of a society of independent yeoman farmers. Yet their religious beliefs provided Piedmont farmers with a subtle critique of what they considered the selfish and relentless pursuit of unlimited material gain which increasingly became the norm in the eighteenth century and which they believed corrupted civil society. The Regulators' insistence that everyone's behavior, whether in the family, local community, government, or marketplace, be judged by the same set of moral standards challenged the growing separation of the private and the public realms and the relegation of morality to the former. Thus, the farmers' attempt to "break loose together" constitutes an instance of resistance to the slow and massive shift in social conscience that accompanied the transition to market economics.