What Was the Regulator Movement? History and Significance

Battle of Alamance Postcard
Battle of Alamance. Image From North Carolina Museum of History; Postcard Circa 1905-1915, by artist J. Steeple Davis. J. Steeple Davis / Public Domain

The Regulator Movement, also called the War of the Regulation, was an insurrection in the British-American colonies of North and South Carolina from around 1765 to 1771. In two separate movements—one in South Carolina and another in North Carolina—armed settlers confronted colonial officials over issues of excessive taxation and lack of defense and law enforcement. Since it mainly targeted British officials, some historians consider the Regulator Movement to have been a catalyst to the American Revolutionary War in 1775.

Key Takeaways: The Regulator Movement

  • The Regulator Movement was a series of uprisings over excessive taxation and lack of law enforcement in the British colonies of North and South Carolina from 1765 to 1771.
  • In South Carolina, the Regulator Movement protested the failure of British government officials to maintain law and order in the western frontier backcountry.
  • In the North Carolina Regulator Movement, settlers in the inland agricultural communities fought against unfair taxes and tax collection methods imposed by corrupt British officials.
  • While the South Carolina Regulator Movement succeeded, the North Carolina Regulator Movement failed, with its members being routed in the Battle of Alamance that ended the War of the Regulation.
  • Some historians consider the Regulator Movement a catalyst to the American Revolution. 

Who Were the Regulators?

During the early 1760s, the population of the British colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina grew rapidly as colonists from eastern cities migrated to the western frontier in hopes of finding new opportunities. Originally composed mainly of farmers in an agricultural economy, the influx of merchants and lawyers from the eastern colonies disrupted the economic, political, and social systems of the Carolinas. At the same time, Scottish and Irish immigrants were populating the backcountry. The strains of rapid growth in such a culturally diverse community inevitably led to friction between colonists and overseeing British officials, many of whom had become corrupt and ruthless.

By the mid-1760s, this friction boiled over into two separate Regulator Movement uprisings, one in South Carolina, the other in North Carolina, each with a different set of causes.

South Carolina

In the South Carolina Regulator Movement of 1767, settlers sought to restore law and order to the backcountry, and establish local government institutions controlled by colonists rather than British officials. Angered by the failure of local British authorities to protect the colony’s western frontier from roving bandits, a group of large planters and small farmers organized the Regulators Association to provide law enforcement in the backcountry. Sometimes employing vigilante tactics, the Regulators rounded up outlaws and established local courts to try them and carry out the punishment.

Seeing their problems being resolved for them at no cost to the Crown, the British governor and colonial assembly did not attempt to stop the movement. By 1768, order had largely been restored, and in 1769, the South Carolina colonial legislature passed the Circuit Court Act, establishing six district courts to maintain law and order in the backcountry. After the British Parliament approved the act, the South Carolina Regulators disbanded.

North Carolina

The Regulator Movement in western North Carolina was driven by very different issues and was violently opposed by Britain, eventually resulting in the War of the Regulation.

A decade of drought had plunged the inland agricultural community into a severe economic depression. Crop losses robbed farmers of both their main food source and only means of income. Forced to buy food and supplies from newly arrived merchants from the eastern cities, the farmers soon fell deeply into debt. With no personal ties to the farmers, the merchants were quick to take them to court to collect their debts. To the growing disgust of the farmers, the local courts had become controlled by “courthouse rings” of wealthy British judges, lawyers, and sheriffs who often conspired to confiscate the farmers’ homes and land as settlement of their debts.

British Royal Governor William Tryon confronts North Carolina Regulators in 1771
British Royal Governor William Tryon confronts North Carolina Regulators in 1771. Interim Archives/Getty Images

Conditions in North Carolina grew more volatile in 1765 when King George III named British Army General William Tryon as governor. Tryon’s tax collectors, military officers, sheriffs, and judges worked together in ruthlessly extorting excessive, often falsely-assessed, taxes from the backcountry farmers.

On June 6, 1765, as the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of Liberty was protesting the British Stamp Act, Nutbush township planter George Sims delivered the Nutbush Address, in which he called on local residents to join him in protesting the actions of the provincial and county officials. Sims’ call to action led to the formation of the Regulator Movement in North Carolina.

The War of Regulation

Strongest in Orange, Anson, and Granville counties, the Regulators began by petitioning the provincial legislature to recall and replace its British-appointed court and government officials with local residents. When this failed, the Regulators publicly pledged to pay only legally levied taxes and to respect only the will of the majority. Now growing in popularity and influence, the Regulators won control of the provincial legislature in 1769. However, with Governor Tryon against them, they failed to accomplish their goals. Frustrated at the political level, the Regulators' resolve to win the support of the people through public demonstrations grew even stronger. 

Peaceful at first, the Regulators’ protests slowly grew more violent. In April 1768, a band of Regulators fired several shots into the Hillsborough township home of Edmund Fanning, Governor Tryon’s despised personal lawyer who, although convicted of extorting money from local residents, had remained unpunished. Though Fanning was unharmed, the incident set the stage for the far more violent riots to come.

In September 1770, a large band of Regulators armed with clubs and whips entered Hillsborough, broke up and vandalized the colonial court, and dragged its officials through the streets. The mob continued to make its way through the town, destroying shops and public property. Eventually reaching Edmund Fanning’s estate, the mob looted and burned down his house, beating him badly in the process.

Battle of Alamance Creek: ‘Fire and Be Damned!’

Outraged by events in Hillsborough, Governor Tryon, with the approval of the colonial Assembly, personally led his well-armed and trained militia from the provincial capital of New Bern to the western backcountry intent on permanently ending the Regulator Movement.

Governor Tryon's militia forces firing upon the Regulators during the Battle of Alamance, the final battle of the War of the Regulation.
Governor Tryon's militia forces firing upon the Regulators during the Battle of Alamance, the final battle of the War of the Regulation. Interim Archives/Getty Images

Camped along Alamance Creek west of Hillsborough on the morning of May 16, 1771, the Regulators made one final attempt to negotiate with Tryon. Assured by his military advantage, Tryon agreed to meet only if the Regulators dispersed and surrendered their weapons within the hour. After they refused, Tryon threatened to open fire on them unless they dispersed immediately. When Regulator leader James Hunter famously replied “Fire and be damned!” Tryon launched his successful attack in what became known as the Battle of Alamance.

In barely two hours, Tryon’s 2,000 soldiers routed the untrained and lightly armed Regulators. Taking cover behind rocks and trees, the Regulators removed their casualties from the battlefield promptly, allowing for no documented count of their losses. However, seven alleged Regulators were executed, while another six were pardoned by King George III as recommended by Tryon. Within weeks, nearly all of the former Regulators had sworn their allegiance to the royal government in return for full pardons.

The American Revolution

The extent to which the Regulator Movement and the War of the Regulation served as catalysts to the American Revolution remains an issue of debate.

Some historians argue that the Regulator Movement foretold the coming independence movement’s resistance to British authority and unfair taxation in the Revolution. Several former Regulators were known to have fought for independence in the Revolution, while some of the Regulators’ adversaries, such as Edmund Fanning, supported the British. Also, the fact that North Carolina Governor William Tryon continued to serve as a British army general during the Revolution creates a connection between the War of the Regulation and the American Revolution.

Other historians suggest that not all of the Regulators were anti-British Patriots, but were simply loyal British subjects seeking to reform corruption and excessive taxation in their local governments through acts of civil disobedience.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Bassett, John Spencer (1895). "The Regulators of North Carolina (1765-1771).” Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/bassett95/bassett95.html.
  • “The Nutbush Address (1765).” North Carolina History Project, https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/the-nutbush-address-1765/.
  • Klein, Rachel N. “Ordering the Backcountry: The South Carolina Regulation.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 1981, doi:10.2307/1918909, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1918909?seq=1.
  • Engstrom, Mary Claire. “Fanning, Edmund.” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1986, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/fanning-edmund.