If ever a family man needed a dependable firearm, it was in backwoods, upcountry mid-1700s North Carolina. The colony’s Royal Governor had just opened the area to settlement for an influx of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants, and besides forests full of bear and panther, the Cherokee were only a few miles further west and colonial relations with them were volatile. But dangerous though things were, wild beasts and warriors weren’t the backwoods families’ only worries. They earned very little hard money, raising most of what they lived on and acquiring much of the rest by barter with neighbors, but they still had to pay taxes in coin to their county sheriffs—and it’s doubtful one could find a crookeder set of “good ol’ boys” anywhere. Even Governor William Tryon admitted that his upcountry sheriffs were among the worst embezzlers he had ever seen, and if they could successfully cheat the Governor himself we can only imagine their treatment of small farmers when they wanted to seize land for themselves. Upcountry North Carolina small landowners were truly between a rock and a hard place.
On, then, to the first American instance of gun control. About 1768 several upcountry farmers organized a “Regulation” to oppose the land-stealing of the sheriffs. At first these “Regulators”didn’t rebel against Governor Tryon, much less King George; they only demanded fair treatment and equable taxation from their county officials, and referred to themselves as “Tories.” But then the agitator Herman Husbands got involved with the movement. You’ll remember Husbands and the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion from last week’s column: he had himself convinced that the Second Coming would occur in colonial America, complete with the Holy City descending, and in order to realize this dream he was entirely willing to incite his listeners to his own hysteria—and their own violence. After Husbands joined the Regulation, his Doomsday predictions increasingly turned the group anarchic and savage.
Luckily, Husbands wasn’t the only upcountry religious voice. Baptists there were in plenty, and their leader, old Elder Shubal Stearns, whose musical pulpit style is still copied throughout Southern Appalachia today, was a pacifist strictly opposed to any anti-government violence. Among his younger preachers was Elijah Craig, also mentioned last week, and Elnathan Davis, whom Stearns likewise closely shepherded in the ministry, was moderator of a large church on Haw River. In 1769 Davis’ congregation passed a resolution that any member taking up arms against the standing government should be excluded from fellowship. Regulation response was swift: Regulators promptly invaded the homes of every Haw River Church member, including Davis, and confiscated their rifles and muskets. One assumes they rationalized disarming their opponents, but the fact remains that the Regulators enacted the very first, and for years the only, recorded instance of gun control in American history. Ironically, once the American Revolution began, Regulator tales mixed with those of the Revolution and nowadays these gun thieves are often lionized as pre-Revolutionary patriots.
The Regulator anarchy couldn’t last. After Husbands’ listeners destroyed the town of Hillsboro and burned Superior Court Justice Richard Henderson’s barn and stables (the same man for whom Daniel Boone was then exploring Kentucky), Governor Tryon led an army west and defeated them at the Battle of Alamance Creek in May 1771. Afterward there was heartbreak to spare. Five Regulator leaders were hanged, the majority of Shubal Stearns’ Baptists simply gave up trying to live in North Carolina and went further west to Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, and ultimately Kentucky, and that fall Stearns himself died—possibly of grief. Herman Husbands ran like a turkey to Pennsylvania just before the Battle of Alamance, saving his own skin while his hearers fell on the battlefield and died on the gallows. One wonders how much Husbands’ fate in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion involved karma, but old Preacher Stearns probably would have quoted Galatians 6:7 : “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
Even more sadly, the questions raised by the Regulators’ actions are still disputed. Would any God-and-Liberty-mouthing paramilitary “patriot” group in America today act differently than the Regulators if they managed to seize power—up to and including confiscating firearms from citizens who opposed them? And after all this time, haven’t we had our fill of Doomsday predictions by lunatics claiming a direct line between God’s voice and their ears? Apparently, not enough people think so. And I fear that before it’s all over we’ll relearn a hard lesson our Carolina ancestors took to heart more than two centuries ago.
Next week, I’ll try to wind up this issue with something closer home and, hopefully, a little more cheerful.