The Regulators

Resisting Provincial Corruption

Complaints in the West

Handwritten document from the War of RegulationEleven years before the American Revolution broke out, European-Americans in what then was the western half of North Carolina were upset with:

  • tax policies and assembly representation that favored the eastern half;
  • unfair court fees, which were not standardized and usually not even published by the sheriffs;
  • stealing of much of the tax money those sheriffs collected, a problem the royal governors acknowledged;
  • land practices that gave advantages to the rich;
  • aggressive debt collection by outsider merchants, who gained control of the courts with the help of large landowners and thus unfair influence over lawsuits;
  • corrupt county officials allowed to hold multiple offices; and
  • the cost of the mansion Royal Gov. William Tryon built at public expense in New Bern—as one Regulator declared, “We want no such House, nor will we pay for it.”[1].

Farmland was taxed at the same rate across the colony even though crop yields were higher per acre in the east. There was also a tax per person. Westerners tended to have larger families, in part to provide farm labor instead of slaves (for economic and/or moral reasons), so again this hit them harder.[2] As for representation, in the 1766 Provincial Assembly, four counties around Albemarle Sound had 21 delegates for “3,300 white male taxables,” but four counties in the west had only nine for 5,776 such men.[3]

The protestors adopted “the Regulation” for their association’s name, from a group formed in South Carolina for protection against an outlaw band. That group had forced the creation of a court system on the S.C. frontier. In April 1768, one set of N.C. “Regulators” took over the Anson County Courthouse (near today’s Wadesboro) and wrote what became known as the “Anson Regulators Protest Paper.” In it they complained about how taxes were levied and said that “no people have a right to be taxed without by consent of themselves or their delegates.” This somewhat garbled statement was the first formal complaint in the colonies against “taxation without representation” sent to British authorities, and relates to the fact county officials were appointed instead of elected.

A Fatal Shift Toward Violence

Title page from "An Impartial Relation" by Husband
“An Impartial Relation” by Herman Husband

The Anson group had equally radical supporters in other counties. A milder approach was supported by a group in the Sandy Creek area southwest of modern Burlington, perhaps softened by the influence of pacifist Quakers there. In fact, a Quaker named Herman Husband wrote political tracts in support of the Regulators so forcefully, the colonial authorities wrongly accused him of being a leader of the group.

By early 1768, many of the protestors were refusing to pay their taxes, as Edmund Fanning wrote Tryon in April. Fanning, clerk of court for Orange County, was the most hated county official, and probably among the most corrupt. Tryon likely first heard the term “regulators” in that letter. Fanning warned that they were threatening to disrupt the quarterly court session in Hillsborough the next week. Fanning proposed arresting four of the suspected ringleaders, but feared defeat if the Regulators then attacked[4]: Only 120 militia soldiers had mustered when hundreds were called out, and many of them openly supported the “Mob” or were neutral.[5] Tryon responded by ordering all of the militia leaders in the province to send troops to Fanning if he called for them.[6]

Photo of a grass-covered field with trees behind it and farm buildings beyond them on the horizon
Former land of Herman Husband (AmRevNC photograph)

Thus fortified, Fanning got a warrant for the arrest of Herman Husband on the charge of “stirring up an Insurrection.”[7] A party of 27 men went with the sheriff to Husband’s home south of modern Greensboro and arrested him, along with one other man, the day before the court was to meet in Hillsborough. After hundreds of Regulators appeared near town, Fanning released Husband, and eventually they agreed to leave.

In late June, responding to a Regulator petition, the governor sent a letter claiming that he would address all complaints. He also answered their question about the 1767 tax rate per “taxable” person. Unlike today, when all tax rates are published, the rate was not clearly stated by corrupt officials wanting to keep some of the takings. In early July, Tryon made a quick trip to Hillsborough from the capital at Brunswick Town, expecting that his letter had calmed things down. But the disturbances continued. Back in Brunswick, trying to appease the Regulators, Tryon issued a proclamation ordering that fee tables be posted in public offices, and forbidding officers from collecting amounts beyond those on the tables.

Tryon returned to Hillsborough in early August, only to learn that 500 Regulators had gathered to the west, intent on marching on town. Enough militia gathered to halt the immediate danger, but Tryon headed to Salisbury and Charlotte to get more volunteers. Many men hesitated, backing the Regulators. But Tryon eventually gathered hundreds and marched back from Salisbury to Hillsborough, through the heart of the protestors’ country. Along the way, four Regulators appeared with a letter asking Tryon not to bring the brigade’s cows through their region, claiming locals had been stopping cattle drives to prevent the spread of disease.[8] He warned them he would increase the guard on the cattle and not to interfere with the march.

Once in Hillsborough with around 1,400 men, Tryon gave a list of demands to the 800 Regulators, perhaps far more, who appeared once again near town. The Regulators could not agree on a response and left. Herman Husband had returned for his trial on the charges from May. Warned that officials intended to hang him if convicted. Husband decided to leave. But another Regulator convinced Husband to stand trial, and Husband was acquitted. The man he was arrested with and two others were found guilty and fined. At the same session, Fanning was convicted of charging more than twice the allowed amount to register five deeds, and was fined a trivial amount per deed.[9]

Drawing of Gov. Tryon and army
A fanciful 1901 depiction of Gov. Tryon and his militia (who did not have uniforms)

When the court session was over, the troops went home. The campaign had cost the colony £4,845[10], equal today to $860,000.[11]

The March 1769 session was threatened by Regulators as well. Husband was on trial yet again, along with the closest thing to a leader the Regulators had, James Hunter, each charged with insurrection. But they were acquitted for lack of evidence.[12]

After other protests and petitions did not get results, a mob disrupted an Orange County court session in September of 1770, threatened a judge, freed prisoners, and attacked Fanning, as detailed on our Hillsborough page. When the court refused to meet the next year, Tryon, a veteran of the French & Indian War of the 1750s, gained approval from the Provincial Assembly to call for volunteers from existing militia regiments. In May he marched them from New Bern via Hillsborough toward Salisbury, picking up more men as he went (see Tryon’s March). This led to the fateful Battle of Alamance which brought the movement to its end.

Connection to the Revolution

Though some people think of this “War of Regulation” as a preview of the American Revolution, historians point out the complaints were specific to North Carolina and directed at the provincial government, not the King of England or its Parliament. A Granville County petition makes this clear: “‘it is not our mode or form of Government, nor yet the body of our laws, that we are quarreling with, but with the malpractices of the Officers of our County Courts, and the abuses which we suffer by those empowered to manage our public affairs…'”[13]

Also, many later Patriots fought in Tryon’s army against the Regulators. Perhaps the most direct connection between these actions is that military experience gained on both sides in the first contributed to the skills of militia on both sides during the Revolution. That is the primary reason this site includes a Regulators Tour.

More Information

[1] Harris 1768.

[2] ‘Article from the Boston Chronicle…’ 1768.

[3] Butler 1776.

[4] Fanning 1768.

[5] Nash 1768.

[6] Tryon, William, ‘Circular Warrant…’ 1768.

[7] Lloyd, Thomas, ‘Warrant…’ 1768.

[8] ‘Letter from the Regulators to William Tryon, 1768.

[9] Troxler 2011.

[10] “Account of Expenses for the Militia Assembled at Hillsborough…” 1768.

[11] Nye, Eric, ‘Currency Converter, Pounds Sterling to Dollars, 1264 to Present’

[12] Troxler 2011.

[13] Ganyard 1978.