Hillsborough Riot (1770)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During the late 1760s, the Regulators of the Piedmont protested political corruption, cronyism, and excessive legal fees.  Of particular importance, the Regulators confronted Governor William Tryon and Edmund Fanning and militia at Hillsborough in 1768.  No violence occurred then because the militia lacked a legal excuse to attack, for events were directed exclusively at Fanning’s actions and fell within the bounds of traditional protest.  The Hillsborough “Riot” of 1770, however, was more noteworthy.

After the first protest at Hillsborough, the General Assembly did little to alleviate Regulators’ problems (it essentially ignored their complaints), and the courts continued to anger Regulators.  Protests seemed not to matter.   The Regulators, therefore, refused to pay taxes.

Violence soon erupted.  On September 22, 1770, Regulators assembled in Hillsborough, in a way that North Carolinians had historically practiced, to disrupt the court and bring attention to political demands.  All was peaceful until March 25, a Monday, when Regulators, armed with clubs and whips, packed the courthouse and asked to be jury members.  They debated for approximately thirty minutes, before the court continued without regarding their requests.  Outside the courtroom, frustrated Regulators attacked a lawyer named Williams (first name unknown) and then reentered the courthouse, seized Fanning, and beat him, too.   Both men eventually escaped, but were soon found.  Under duress, both made agreements with Regulators so that they might go home.  Under duress, too, Judge Henderson continued holding court and promised to continue doing so the next day.  That night, however, he fled town.  The judge’s escape prompted frustrated Regulators to target Fanning.  They ran him out of town, plundered his home, marched with his effigy through Hillsborough, destroyed a church bell donated by him, and ended their violence by breaking merchants’ house windows.

The actions of the Regulators reveal how riots of the 1700s defy modern-day definitions of riot.  According to historian Wayne E. Lee, “They [Regulators’ actions] were legitimate in a way that uncontrolled havoc is not.”   The Regulators acted out of a need 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 did not practice indiscriminate violence and called for a restoration of what they considered order and just rule.

In eastern North Carolina, a modern definition of riot emerged, for in part, government officials and absentee landowners, argue historians, feared the social-leveling effect of the riot.  Sensational news stories overemphasized the violence.  Reports ignored the traditional components of the so-called riot and that the Regulators called for order and not a revolution.   News stories demonized the Regulators, castigated them as traitors, and thereby depicted them as outlaws who did not deserve the application of longstanding rules.    A justified retaliation was in order, argued government authorities.  The stories describing the Regulator protests also fostered a willingness among many North Carolinians to accept military violence to suppress the Regulator Rebellion and even to volunteer for the militia.  At the Battle of Alamance (1771), the militia quelled the Regulator protest.