Carolina Regulator Movements Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Protesting lack of representation in the Western backcountry, the Regulators inspired vigilante insurrections. The movements highlighted the differences between settled colonies and frontier territories. and they contributed to the development of an American vigilante tradition.

Summary of Event

Conflicts between the East and the West, between old established societies and new primitive settlements of the frontier, Frontier;American recurred throughout the history of North America. The breadth and depth of these sectional antagonisms have varied sharply according to time and place. The Regulator movements of the late 1760’s and 1770’s in the Carolinas illustrate the complexity of the phenomenon. [kw]Carolina Regulator Movements (1768-May 16, 1771) [kw]Movements, Carolina Regulator (1768-May 16, 1771) [kw]Regulator Movements, Carolina (1768-May 16, 1771) Regulator movements Vigilantism, colonial America [g]American colonies;1768-May 16, 1771: Carolina Regulator Movements[1870] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1768-May 16, 1771: Carolina Regulator Movements[1870] [c]Colonization;1768-May 16, 1771: Carolina Regulator Movements[1870] [c]Government and politics;1768-May 16, 1771: Carolina Regulator Movements[1870] Husband, Herman Tryon, William Fanning, Edmund Johnston, Samuel Bull, William (1710-1791)

In Maryland and Virginia, the frontier folk harbored no deep-seated grievances against the East. The legislatures, although dominated by tidewater aristocrats, had established counties—with courts, justices of the peace, sheriffs, and representation in the assemblies—and had enacted statutes to build roads and bridges for facilitating trade. In North Carolina, despite the fact that the same political institutions had made their appearance in the piedmont, there was serious regional discord because of the malpractices of local officials and, to a lesser extent, because of high quitrents, inadequate arteries of transportation, and underrepresentation in the legislature.

Sheriffs, by failing to publish the tax rate, collected far more than the law permitted and lined their own pockets in the process. If a Taxation;colonial America taxable person could not pay—and cash was ever in short supply—his property was seized and sold, with the auctions rigged in favor of insiders. There was little opportunity for redress, because corrupt sheriffs acted in collusion with other county officials. These “courthouse rings” charged exorbitant fees for performing routine legal services. The symbol of the people’s unhappiness was New York-born, Yale-educated Edmund Fanning, justice of the peace and recorder of deeds of Orange County.

Although violence erupted as early as 1759 in the Granville District, the initial pattern of the Regulators (a name that the aroused victims of these discriminatory practices borrowed from a simultaneous but separate reform movement in South Carolina) was to lodge formal protests with the governor and the Assembly. Humble in tone and legalistic in concept, these petitions were largely ignored or condemned on the seaboard. Only after many rebuffs did the Regulators broaden their goals to include dividing western counties and instituting secret voting so as to increase their representation in the colonial legislature. New elections in 1769 brought Herman Husband, one of their principal spokesmen, into the Assembly, along with several other Regulators and their sympathizers. Iredell, James James Iredell, a conservative, declared that a majority of the lower house was “of regulating principles.” With their new strength, they won approval for the creation of four new counties in the backcountry.

This measure and other modest reforms concerning officers’ fees and court costs in litigation lacked enforcement at the county level. Violence increased, and in September, 1770, Regulators invaded the Orange County court at Hillsborough, drove out the justices, and tried cases themselves. Fear of rebellion led the assembly to abandon its “regulating principles” by enacting the repressive Johnston Act (1770) Johnston Act against unlawful gatherings and by backing Governor William Tryon in sending a militia army against the Regulators. On May 16, 1771, near the banks of the Alamance Creek, 20 miles from Hillsborough, a motley throng of two thousand farmers gathered to oppose Tryon’s force of fourteen hundred well-armed militias. After desultory firing and ludicrous field movements on both sides, the Regulators fled, each side sustaining nine dead. Many Regulators left the province with their families, moving across the mountains into northeastern Tennessee. The majority accepted the governor’s offer of clemency.

The Regulation ended at Alamance, but in the 1770’s, justices and sheriffs in the piedmont appear to have paid stricter attention to the law in performing their duties, for patriot leaders saw the need to placate the West to achieve unity in the face of the challenge from Great Britain. There is little evidence to indicate that erstwhile Regulators supported the British cause in the American Revolution.

The backcountry of South Carolina was settled somewhat later than that of the Tarheel colony, and its chief grievance was the absence of government rather than the abuses of government that plagued frontier North Carolina. In the 1760’s, newcomers flooded into the backcountry, a region suffering from the aftermath of the Cherokee War (1759-1761) Cherokee War of 1759-1761. Life in the “up country” (a South Carolina expression), precarious at best, threatened a total breakdown in the face of rising lawlessness and social and economic maladjustment. The parishes of South Carolina, the local units of political and ecclesiastical authority, only theoretically extended to the backcountry. There were, it is true, justices of the peace, but their authority was limited to minor civil cases.

The absence of courts in South Carolina’s backcountry meant a visit to Charleston was necessary if one desired to transact any important legal business, and such a visit entailed a week’s journey on horseback or two weeks by wagon from distant stations, such as Ninety-six. In 1767, as roving bands of outlaws terrorized the region while Charleston authorities looked the other way, leading citizens, with the support of other respectable persons, formed an association for “regulating” the backcountry. Dedicated to law and order and the protection of property, the Regulators, by 1768, had dealt harshly and effectively with the criminal part of the population. Many honest men, however, felt the Regulators had gone too far by punishing immorality as well as lawlessness.

An anti-Regulator group, the Moderate movement, brought the excesses of the extremist Regulators to an end and restored control of the area to respectable property owners. A direct confrontation between the Regulators and constituted authority in Charleston never took place, partly because Lieutenant Governor William Bull and others in authority recognized the need to bring tranquillity to the interior. In addition, the Commons House of Assembly finally endeavored to solve backcountry problems, providing more legislative representation and establishing schools. These well-intentioned undertakings ran afoul of British policy and the emerging British-American conflict, but passage of the Circuit Court Act (1769) Circuit Court Act of 1769 ended a major grievance by creating four backcountry courts, with full jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, and provisions for jury trials and the strict regulation of legal fees.


Although there were obvious differences, the broad objectives of the two Regulator movements in the Carolinas were the same. Eschewing theoretical political innovations or radical social leveling, the Regulators asked principally for a redress of specific grievances, for government that was just and responsible, and for the political and legal rights to which freeborn Englishmen were everywhere entitled. Despite initial setbacks, the Regulator movements helped bring about better government in the backcountry of the Carolinas. They also gave witness to the growth of a powerful tradition of popular or vigilante justice that has come to characterize the reaction of Americans to real or perceived failures of courts and police to deal with crime.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Richard M. The South Carolina Regulators. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. A significant monograph contending that the Regulators were upstanding citizens concerned with protecting property rights and restoring order.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, William J. The American South: A History. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. Volume 1 offers a useful survey of conditions on the Southern frontier in the eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dill, Alonzo T. Governor Tryon and His Palace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955. Readable, informative study of the governor who put down the North Carolina Regulators and his times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gipson, Lawrence H. The Rumbling of the Coming Storm, 1766-1770: The Triumphant Empire. Vol. 9 in The British Empire Before the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Devotes two chapters to what the author calls “the struggle for political equality” in the Carolinas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, George Lloyd. The Frontier in the Colonial South: South Carolina Backcountry, 1736-1800. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A history of frontier and pioneer life in the upper Pee Dee region of South Carolina. Chapter 5 examines “The Regulator Movement and the American Revolution.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kars, Marjoleine. Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Kars uses diaries, legal documents, personal accounts of the Regulators, and other materials to explore the rebellion. Includes information on the causes of the conflict and the rebellion’s legacy in North Carolina history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meriwether, Robert L. The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729-1765. Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern, 1940. Meticulous scholarship by a leading authority on South Carolina history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, William. North Carolina Through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. A readable yet scholarly narrative, a third of which is devoted to the colonial period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodmason, Charles. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant. Edited by Richard J. Hooker. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953. Woodmason, an itinerant Church of England clergyman who sympathized with the Regulators, paints a vivid and sometimes amusing picture of life in their region.

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Categories: History