Who were the Regulators?


From The Commemorative Souvenir Program Bi-Centennial of the Battle of Alamance, 1971

During the mid-1700s, many settlers left Pennsylvania and the other middle-Atlantic colonies, moving south over the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road and other wilderness trails. These people searched for better and cheaper land, and many of them found it in the hilly Piedmont “backcountry” of North Carolina. These new North Carolinians were mostly Germans, Scotch-Irish, or Welsh; their religion was likely to be Presbyterian, Quaker, Lutheran, or German Reformed—nationalities and religious beliefs that stressed the simple, independent life. Their land agreed with them, giving more than food—animals and plants also furnished the raw materials for clothing, housewares, and shelter. Moreover, any backcountry man who was not his own blacksmith, cooper, or cobbler, had neighbors who could perform these services in trade for work or produce. Thus, the Piedmont settlers were almost totally self-sufficient, needing only a few precious goods—salt, needles, and the like—from the outside world. Obtaining even the few needed trade goods was sometimes a difficult task for the Piedmont settler, for transportation in the backcountry was confined to the land. Here, the rivers and creeks run shallow and swift, with the few short navigable stretches abruptly ending in sandbars and rapids, or blocked by fallen trees. The valleys created by these waterways run northeast to southeast, and in the eighteenth century, it was much easier to follow these valleys than to traverse the ridges. So, moving either northwest or southeast, the backcountryman made long and infrequent trade journeys to Virginia or South Carolina. He had little contact with North Carolinians in the east.

Settlement of eastern North Carolina had taken place earlier, and the life style of the east was considerably different from that of the backcountry. In the east, there were many port towns, and creeks and rivers offered easy water transportation inland. Huge plantations had grown up on these waterways; farms based on slave labor and the relative ease of cultivating the flat land. Merchants and government officials headquartered in the east; there were fine homes and finer furnishings. The coastal plain was the home of many colonists of English birth or descent; the Church of England was strong; there was a natural feeling of unity with the mother country. Just as in the backcountry, the east had its share of poor farmers, but here such men were a minority. Thus, within the single colony of North Carolina, there was a division of population, bridged only by the few settlers in the piney-woods plains separating east and west. There were two life styles, two generally different levels of education, two ideas of the good life. And because there was so little trade or communication between the two groups, the gulf widened rather than narrowed. Although there were fundamental differences between the population of the east and west, there was one government for the colony. By the mid-1700s this government was controlled by the British crown and its agent, the royal governor. The king and his council issued instructions to the governor, who carried out these instructions through a variety of colonial agencies. The governor also maintained a council, composed of men selected by the king or appointed on the governor’s recommendation. The council met with the governor to decide important matters of state; it also served as the upper house of the colonial assembly.

The lower house of North Carolina’s colonial assembly was called the “House of Burgesses” or simply the “assembly.” Its members were elected by the male taxpayers of individual counties or towns. Lawmaking was a somewhat complicated process, since the governor, council, and house all possessed veto power over a bill. Even if all three approved of a measure, they could be overridden by the king and his councilors. They were also complications regarding land in the colony. In the southern half of the province, land was granted directly by the king’s agents. Settlers here registered their claims with the colonial government, paying small fees for surveys and certificates. But since the king owned all this land, settlers were required to pay a yearly fee for land rent. These fees were called “quit-rents,” because they “quit” the king from laying any other claim on their land. Land in the northern half of colonial North Carolina belonged to Lord Granville and the section was therefore known as the “Granville District.” Here lands were registered and quit-rents collected by Granville’s own agents. Unfortunately, these agents failed to manage the land properly—grants were not recorded, quit-rents were seldom collected, and in one area, no land office was in operation. Colonial North Carolina’s court system also operated in some confusion. Two separate courts that ruled on land grants, large debts, and certain other matters were both staffed by the governor and his council. Important civil and criminal cases were decided in the Superior Courts, which met twice per year in each colonial district. Officers of this court included the colony’s chief justice and several associate justices, and the court was officially known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery.

The court which most directly affected the everyday lives of the colonists was the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions held four times per year in each county. This court’s judges were justices of the peace—appointed by the governor and council after recommendation by assembly members. There were over 500 J.P.s in North Carolina in 1767; a minimum of three was necessary to hold a single court session. Other officers in the county court included the register, sheriff, and clerk of court. The latter was appointed by high colonial officials, and it was his duty to sign and certify many court records and documents. The sheriff was selected by the governor after being nominated by the justices of the peace. Sheriffs and their appointed deputies arrested and jailed suspects, supervised elections, and collected the public taxes. These taxes included the poll tax—a fixed amount collected for each white male over 16 and each slave over 12. The poll tax was increased from time to time to finance military expeditions or pay other special expenses. Also collected were county taxes imposed for the building of courthouses and roads, and the parish tax for the upkeep of Church of England ministers. The sheriff kept 8 percent of his collection in payment for his duty. The most striking differences between the colonial governmental system and later state systems was the fact that officials were not paid salaries. Instead, most of them were allowed to collect a set fee for each piece of work they performed. These fees, including some for the governor, were published in a law dated 1748, and were modified and amended throughout the colonial period.

North Carolina’s colonial government was similar to other English institutions of the period, and was not particularly unfair or unjust in its principles or organization. It granted the people certain rights few other governments offered-trail by jury, election of representatives, government by a fixed code of law, the right to petition for redress of grievances. What those in the “Regulator movement” would protest would not be the principles of the government, but the day-to-day operations, which they believed to be in violation of these principles. Indeed, the backcountry men who became Regulators had (or claimed) a firm allegiance to the crown. They also had a host of problems to face-some caused by government, some by circumstance. First, there was the basic problem of money—backcountry men saw little of it. The few items they could not grow or make-salt, gunpowder, etc. were usually paid for in trade goods. There was very little hard money in the entire province; little gold or silver coin worth its face value. Easterners traded warehouse receipts among themselves, the value of the receipt being the worth of the goods stored, but westerners had no such warehouses. Moreover, the colonies were not allowed to issue paper money for use outside the individual colony itself. Therefore, a North Carolina merchant would pay for imported goods either with agricultural or forest products, or would be forced to send hard money—a practice that drained the colony of such currency. From time to time North Carolina assemblies issued paper proclamation money to be used within the province, but such money was worth only as much as the currency that backed it. The colony attempted to back this money with the collection of extra poll tax. Not only were the extra taxes erratically collected, but the proclamation money itself was often counterfeited, so that it came to be worth only half its face value. Since backcountry men did little trade using money, even proclamation script was scarce in the west.

The backcountryman’s lack of money was especially distressing at tax collection times taxes could be paid only in money and not in trade goods. If the western farmer could produce no cash, the sheriff seized household or farm goods, sold them, and used the sale money to pay the tax. Usually, some neighbor could loan a small sum of money, but farmers were hesitant to borrow in advance. Moreover, taxpayers were supposed to pay at central locations. If the sheriff was forced to visit the farmer, he could legally collect an extra amount for his “distress.” In such cases, having traveled thirty or forty miles on horseback, the sheriff or his deputy was usually in no mood to wait around while the farmer scurried off to borrow money—goods would be seized and carried off. Another problem in the backcountry was the attitude of both officials and citizens. The officials usually were not dishonest, but they did owe their jobs to higher-ups, and their loyalty followed suit. The chain of governmental appointments led to the king himself, near the upper end was a group of intelligent, educated men–aristocrats. Even as they were, on the whole, dedicated to the public good, they looked on their colonial offices as means for advancement in government services. Strictly speaking, the offices themselves were gifts from the king—property—but definite responsibilities were attached to these offices. Lower down the official chain were petty officers whose basic honesty was sometimes questionable. Sheriffs, especially, were suspected of embezzlement of public tax collections and similar funds. Even Governor Tryon accused the sheriffs of fraud.

Set against the government officials were backcountry farmers. Many of these men had originally moved into the colony to escape rising property costs farther north. They had little formal education; they were stubborn and often rigidly religious. That government officials should take what seemed outrageous sums merely for doing “a little writing” was to the backcountry men basically dishonest. Though far removed from the eastern center of government, and officials were loathe to travel to the west, where roads were few and inns and taverns even fewer. Accordingly, up until the Regulation, officials did little to supervise their backcountry agents. Overall, the provincial government functioned in jerks and starts. The location of the border between North and South Carolina was a hotly-debated matter for many years; the law limiting the size of individual land grants was suspended for several influential Englishmen; Lord Granville’s land officers maintained no western district office for five years. Out of touch with the backcountry, the province’s government leaders failed to understand the extent and exact nature of the western settlers’ problems until it was too late to prevent mob actions and violence.

Links for further information:
The Battle of Alamance
Governor Tryon’s Amnesty Proclamation


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by steve on September 7, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    look at hitorycentral.com for any cross referances of Us history from the spnaish conquistidors to the liberation of Iraq. It has extra info on the rev. war and the civil war.

  2. Posted by BACfrom4th on September 8, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    It is interesting to read an account of the taxation collection. In most of history, they protray the British as these evil people that were out to get the colonists; when they wee most often hones men trying to make their way in the world, that were reporting to corrupt people. So much anger was directed at the tax collectors, when more of it should have been directed at the people making the laws.

  3. Posted by steve on September 25, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    that is almost as weird as the salem witch trials

  4. […] the Regulators were defeated.  See  http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/nc/ncsites/Alamance.htm or this previous post on the blog for more […]

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