History may not repeat itself exactly, but dependably it leaves us lessons for similar times, even when the real story is not what we were expecting.
On Memorial Day weekend, some 4,000 enthusiastic race fans descended upon Ace Speedway in Alamance County. They were mostly just tired of isolating at home, they said, although some most assuredly were making political statements. The owners of the racetrack were the real scofflaws, defying Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order to help protect all North Carolinians from COVID-19. Whether aggrieved or just bored, those who gathered took a risk bigger than they likely imagined and undoubtedly different from what they knew as fact. And, although a little ahead of the 250th anniversary and unbeknownst to most, they were following in local historic footsteps, likely hoping for a better outcome than their predecessors. Time will tell.
Two-and-half centuries ago, the then-backcountry of North Carolina was aflame with angry citizens during the Regulator movement, a pre-Revolutionary uprising unique to North Carolina. And before we recount that history here, know that “the good guys” lost and that those in power prevailed. And — spoiler alert — after their defeat, many of the rebelling Regulators were not, in fact, leaders of the later rebellion. Indeed, North Carolina’s leading patriots for the Revolution came from among the landed gentry who defeated these Regulators. Ouch!
During the 1760s, people on the frontier of North Carolina found dealing with the colonial government a challenge. The royal governor and the Assembly had sent agents into the backcountry to operate on behalf of the government, which was centered among the aristocratic, slave-holding planters and merchants along the coast from Albemarle Sound down to Brunswick Town. Sheriffs, tax collectors and land agents nearest to the power brokers were held to account by these lawmakers. But, on the frontier, free-wheeling agents took egregious advantage of the pioneering sorts. Some folks had to purchase their land twice because of poor or deceitful record-keeping. Sheriffs foreclosed on property for taxes due and then sold the confiscated goods for personal profit. And the courts were infected with corrupt lawyers and with judges meting out decisions of questionable justice.
Led by pamphleteers and schoolmasters, these citizens had been vocal for years about regulating their own affairs. They had protested demonstrably in 1768, but in late September 1770, 150 Regulators armed with sticks and switches stormed the courts at Hillsborough and disrupted the rule of law. They forced Judge Richard Henderson from the bench, chased lawyers through the streets, held mock trials and wrote profanities in the court records. They attacked one of the leading figures of Hillsborough, the arrogant and much despised Edmund Fanning, dragging him from the courthouse by his heels, bouncing his head on every step. Acting out anarchy, these Regulators terrorized Hillsborough.
As backcountry turmoil continued, the Council encouraged action. In spring 1771, Royal Gov. William Tryon led militiamen out from New Bern. (His home and government house there — derided as “Tryon’s Palace”— was paid for by an onerous tax imposed in 1768 upon all citizens.) These 1,400 colonial militiamen were North Carolina citizens serving the royal colony’s interest to quell this uprising on the frontier. It threatened the safety of North Carolina society and the sanctity of colonial law.
About 2,000 Regulators gathered without much of a plan and marched out to a field along Great Alamance Creek to confront the approaching North Carolina militia. Tryon gave the Regulators’ leaders a chance to step back, but they refused. When the shooting started on May 16, the colonial militia routed the Regulators in two hours. They captured one, James Few, and hanged him the next day.
In June, 14 Regulators were put on trial in Hillsborough before Judge Richard Henderson. Of the 12 men convicted, six were hanged on June 19, on a knoll to the east of the courthouse, a site commemorated today with a marker placed by the Colonial Dames in America.
This precursor event of the American Revolution will be commemorated in September and the following spring by the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough and the Alamance Battleground State Historic Site. On those occasions, we hope North Carolinians can gather safely — respectful of each other’s health and welfare — to reflect on this tragic history from our early struggle with the idea of “we the people” and remembering an important lesson: Anarchy can sometimes masquerade as freedom, but true liberty is freedom matched with responsibility.
Wear a mask. Look out for one another. “We” are grateful.