Johnston Riot Act

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

As the Regulator protests concerning excessive legal fees and what Regulators considered excessive government meddling increased in number, frequency, and intensity during the late 1760s, especially after the 1768 Hillsborough Courthouse protest, fear gripped the people in eastern North Carolina.  Royal Governor Lord Tryon, for one, worried that Regulators might resort to more violence and thereby undermine his rule.  In his opening remarks at the 1770 House Assembly, Tryon regarded the “Injuries Offered to His Majesty’s Government at and since the last Hillsborough Court” as one of the four most pressing issues facing the colony of North Carolina.  After he had Herman Husband arrested earlier that year, he particularly feared a Regulator raid on New Bern to free the Regulator leader from incarceration.   

Samuel Johnston introduced the Riot Bill, and by January 10, 1771, both houses of the Assembly eventually approved it.  On January 15, Governor Tryon signed it and legitimated An Act for Preventing Tumultuous and Riotous Assemblies, and for the More Speedy and Effectually Punishing the Rioters, and for Restoring and Preserving the Public Peace of This Province.

This law was similar to the English Riot Act of 1714, but it gave government additional powers and helped foster a change in attitude that equated riotous behavior with insurrection.  According to historian Wayne E. Lee, the act not only enlarged governmental power but also “defined the rules of violence and response” and in many ways laid the “groundwork legitimating the potential violence to come.”  By late February 1771 news of the Act had reached the Piedmont backcountry, and instead of curbing Regulator protest, the law prompted increased Regulation protest; disgruntled Regulators became enraged and added the Johnston Riot Act to their list of grievances.

The Act included provisions, some of which were similar to rules governing runaway slaves, that breached English Common Law.  The act, for one, made it a felony for those in unlawful assemblies (defined as ten or more people), who did not disperse within an hour after receiving an order from a judge or a sheriff to do so.  The act allowed law enforcement to use force without investigation—deputies were not prosecuted for maiming or killing rioters. The act also allowed for the establishment of emergency courts and declared rioters, who remained at large for 60 days, to be outlaws.   Once rioters were declared outlaws, officials had the authority to seize and sell their property and hunt down the protestors.  The law was also applied retroactively and thus made participants in the Hillsborough riot subject to the act.  Further angering the Regulators, the Johnston Riot Act allowed Governor Tryon to raise militia at public expense to execute the law.

The Act was to remain in effect for one year.   It was invoked, as required by law, before the Battle of Alamance (May 16, 1771) ensued.  The Regulators had gathered near a field near Alamance to protest government corruption and excessive fees.   The implementation of the Act gave enough time for some Regulators, including Herman Husband, to escape before being fired on or captured.