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Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. By Marjoleine Kars (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2002) 286pp. $49.95 cloth $19.95 paper
The North Carolina Regulator movement and its climax in the Battle of Alamance in 1771 has received relatively little full-scale scholarly attention in recent years: Kay's 1976 claim for the class basis of the movement, Ekirch's countervailing work in the early 1980s, and Jones' 1983 dissertation on Herman Husband remain the major works on the subject. 1 This is an ironic academic fate for a social and religious movement that now appears to be paradigmatic of the much better-known rural protest movements of the post-Revolutionary years. As Kars reveals in Breaking Loose Together, the history of the Shays' and Whiskey rebellions was, in significant respects, a retelling of the story of the North Carolina Regulation.
The Regulators were unlikely rebels. Most had migrated from rural Pennsylvania to the North Carolina backcountry; a minority had come as immigrants directly from northwestern Europe. Primarily farmers and artisans, they came in hopes of finding fertile land and establishing the modest competency that a family farm guaranteed.
But the North Carolina backcountry also attracted another sort of interest—the Earl of Granville (who inherited the northern half of the colony from his mother), tidewater politicians, colonial officials, and, most tenaciously, land speculators. As Kars shows, the ensuing quests for competency and the unbridled pursuit of wealth set the backcountry on edge and made it one of the most potentially explosive regions in late colonial America.
What was potential became real almost overnight in the heated economic and political atmosphere that enveloped the English Atlantic world during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. In western North Carolina, contentiousness took on a uniquely frontier form as [End Page 97] eastern forces of wealth and established power sought to secure their hold on backcountry land and politics. Openly ignoring the needs, conditions, and concerns of the migrants and immigrants who had recently settled and developed the region, tidewater and overseas elites set about reclaiming recently developed land by challenging squatters and purchasers in court and by sending corrupt officials and tax collectors to the region who lined their pockets at the migrants' expense.
Openly exploited, seeing the promise of rural competency dissolve before their eyes, and driven by the unbending righteousness of evangelical religion, backcountry farmers responded in ways that fit their view of the world. English citizens in a British colony, they demanded redress from the tidewater legislature and equity in local courts. They received neither. As failed attempt followed failed attempt, an increasingly desperate and angry group of farmers created the Regulation, which closed courts, intimidated corrupt officials, and armed themselves in defense of their liberties. Viewed in the tidewater as nothing better than frontier ruffians, the provincial government declared the Regulators in rebellion and mounted a military expedition to reestablish its control over the region. The result was tragic and predictable: Despite the Regulators' surprisingly effective guerilla campaign, the provincial elite eventually triumphed at the Battle of Alamance, summarily executing some of the leaders on the spot and hanging the rest following a brief and predictable trial.
The story of the North Carolina Regulators will seem unremarkable to those familiar with backcountry unrest during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It requires a certain discipline to recall that this rebellion, not the Shays' or the Whiskey Rebellion, set the terms of backcountry resistance to conscious and recurrent exploitation. The singular value of Kars' book is its establishment of the Regulation as the first and paradigmatic example of politico-military action taken to defend a frontier vision and way of life that was different from, and potentially at odds with, the drift of late colonial society. Delving deeply into the archives and putting the methodologies of social and cultural history to creative and effective use, Kars has put the North Carolina Regulation at the forefront of...