America’s difficult economic situation has generated often contradictory reactions and proposed solutions. One part of America blames the big banks. Another points to the government. Still others, with a more subtle insight, find fault with the combination of big government and big corporations.
All this reminded me of the protests during the 1760s and early 1770s in Piedmont North Carolina called the Regulator Rebellion. The Regulators made specific demands to address political corruption, cronyism, and excessive legal fees by the colonial government, headquartered in New Bern. Despite their name, Regulators wanted less government, not more.
Many know the Battle of Alamance (1771) ended the Regulator Rebellion — yes, Piedmont farmers and North Carolina militia actually fought each other. But a series of protests preceded the fight: the Hillsborough Confrontation (1768) and Hillsborough Riot (1770).
The Regulator Rebellion started in 1766 with the formation of the Sandy Creek Association. This group protested Sheriff Edmund Fanning, an evolving symbol of local political corruption. The association petitioned and called for government to restore order and perform its legitimate role. In reply, Fanning declared the association an "insurrection." In fear of being charged with treason, the group disbanded.
The problems continued, so more targeted yet drastic measures took place. The Regulators formed in 1768 and refused to pay taxes until rates were lowered. When Sheriff Hawkins (first name unknown) seized a farmer’s horse because he could not pay taxes, approximately 80 Regulators captured the sheriff. They took Hawkins to Hillsborough and made him sit backward on the mare while riding through town. The protest was by and large nonviolent.
Although seemingly riotous by modern standards, the Regulators’ actions, argues historian Wayne E. Lee, "lent an aura of legitimacy to their behavior." They targeted their actions and did not loot. Regulators hoped to shame corrupt officials and remind them to stick to the legitimate roles of government. Simply put, Regulators wanted to garner respect for their position and prompt their government to address grievances.
The response, however, was not expected. The militia was mustered to suppress the Regulators (though fewer than expected volunteered), and on May 1, 1768, Regulator leaders Herman Husband and William Butler were arrested. Political corruption, cronyism, and excessive legal fees continued.
Regulators kept protesting, but to no avail. So they refused to pay taxes, and violence erupted on Sept. 22, 1770.
Armed with clubs and whips, Regulators packed the courthouse and demanded to be jury members. After a 30-minute debate, Judge Richard Henderson continued the court and ignored Regulator requests. Outside the courtroom, frustrated Regulators attacked a lawyer named Williams (first name unknown) and then re-entered the courthouse, seized Fanning, and beat him.
Both men escaped, but were soon found. Under duress, both made agreements with Regulators so they could go home. Under duress, too, Henderson continued holding court and promised to keep it in session the next day. That night, however, he fled town. The judge’s escape prompted Regulators to target Fanning. They ran him out of town, vandalized his home, marched through Hillsborough with his effigy, and shattered the windows of merchants’ houses.
The Regulator Rebellion reveals how riots of the 1700s defy modern-day definitions. Historian Lee wrote that the Regulators’ actions "were legitimate in a way that uncontrolled havoc is not." Regulators sought to have specific demands met. Fanning could have been killed, but he was not. Regulators could have destroyed the courthouse, but they did not. They could have looted indiscriminately, but they did not. They called for a restoration of what they considered order and just rule.
Even if the Regulators’ protests were not extralegal, the colonial government did little to address their concerns. The tensions increased until May 16, 1771, when the North Carolina militia defeated the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance.