Regulator Dispute Literally Made North Carolina a Battleground State

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

North Carolina has a political history of being a battleground state. (Few things are outright new.) Tar Heels may be surprised to learn, however, that North Carolinians, with opposing opinions, once unfortunately settled their political debate on an actual battleground—the Battle of Alamance (1771).

The Regulator Rebellion lasted from 1768-71. (There had been prior distrust of the royal government, but it intensified after the 1759 Enfield Riots.)  Opposition increased exponentially in the late-1760s. Many started to consider the North Carolina royal government as duplicitous.

Hailing mainly from the Piedmont, Regulators criticized what they deemed excessive legal fees and increasing and excessive government meddling in private matters. They also criticized what they considered political corruption and cronyism. The royal government and many in eastern North Carolina (including some future American founders), however, thought differently.

A particular complaint regarded the construction of Tryon Palace, one of the largest and most ornate buildings in colonial North Carolina. Many Regulators threatened not to pay any taxes to fund its construction, a project that lasted almost four years. Although not ostentatious by modern standards, many Piedmont farmers considered Tryon Palace to be lavish; they lived in one or two-room dwellings.

Reverend Shubal Stearns of Randolph County and other Sandy Creek Baptists took umbrage with the colonial government. And their religious and political views fostered a defiance of government establishment. They called and petitioned for the royal government to perform its legitimate function. The notorious Sheriff Edmund Fanning labeled their actions as an insurrection. The Association, therefore, disbanded to avoid treasonous charges.

The Regulators formed in 1768, and many chose not to pay taxes. As a result, property, including horses, was seized, and farmers’ livelihoods were threatened. They then took targeted action, in particular making a local sheriff ride a horse backwards in Hillsborough by hoping to shame those they considered unlawful government officials. Fanning, however, intensified the situation by labeling them “Rebels” and “Insurgents.”

In 1770, Regulators assembled once again in Hillsborough–this time to disrupt the court and bring attention to political demands.  In March, Regulators, armed with clubs and whips, packed the courthouse and asked to be jury members. The court ignored their requests. Outside the courtroom, frustrated Regulators attacked a lawyer 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, and Judge Henderson agreed to continue holding court the next day.  The judge fled town, however.  As a result, agitated Regulators targeted Fanning.  They ran him out of town, plundered his home, marched with his effigy through Hillsborough, and destroyed a church bell donated by him.

The political (and some historians have argued religious) conflict ended on a Piedmont field. Earlier in 1771, the Assembly passed a Riot Bill—riots were defined differently then than now. The act made it unlawful for assemblies—ten or more people—that did not disperse within an hour after the reading of the bill.  Law enforcement avoided punishment for hurting and even killing rioters, and among other things, the bill allowed for the establishment of emergency courts and the declaration of rioters as outlaws.

The Riot Bill was invoked before the Battle of Alamance occurred. There, Piedmont farmers clashed with North Carolina militia, mainly composed of eastern North Carolinians. Although the Regulators outnumbered the militia, they were outgunned and out maneuvered. After two hours, Regulators fled the field, and Royal Governor Tryon and militia had settled the political dispute.

Shortly afterward, six Regulators were hanged as an example, and amnesty was offered to all who pledged an oath of allegiance.

Although current politic debates in North Carolina can be heated, the Old North State, thankfully, is not a literal battleground state.