Yesterday was Tax Day. I dutifully finished filling out all the forms, wrote my checks and got everything into the mail. This time of year always causes me to reflect on the relationship between me, the government and my money. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I have a few ancestors who reflected on that very same relationship.
Conflict over taxes is nothing new. Every political cycle we discuss and debate taxes. I remember when the first President Bush fatefully clipped the words “Read my lips, no new taxes.” I can’t remember a political season when talk of taxes wasn’t bandied about.
Taxes and the role of government have been at the root of our most significant moments as a nation. When the colonies broke away from Great Britain, it was after many years of exorbitant taxes and an interfering government. When the South left the North, the right of the government to intervene in people’s lives was a key bone of contention.
Differences over taxes and the proper role of government can easily turn ugly. In the 1760s in North Carolina, it turned deadly.
The new settlers in the western backcountry of North Carolina took umbrage at the treatment they received from the elites in the east and the officials who were over them. Their sheriffs and other local leaders were acting in ways that were corrupt, autocratic, arbitrary and cruel.
To protest such unreasonable treatment, first the people spoke out and then they acted out. When their verbal requests were not respected or honored, they began to harass the officials and demand justice. A laborer named Richard Kneely publicly confronted Justice of the Peace John Oliphant and sarcastically said “so, Mr. Oliphant twas you did me jusuthice today and it was by you I unjustly lost my Cause in Court.” A justice of the peace in Rowan County was beaten and another was cursed. It’s possible one of those brought up on charges for being “Rioters, Routers and Disturbers of the Peace” in September 1764 was my six-times-great grandfather Samuel Withrow.
For much of the 1760s, the protests went on; people made their discontent known. But it was in the spring of 1771 that everything came to a head. Under the leadership of a Quaker from Maryland named Herman Husband, a few thousand farmers and laborers from the western counties of North Carolina came together to defend themselves against the Colonial militia that was called out to quell the riots.
Governor William Tryon, one of the worst of the offenders as far as high-handedness and abusive rule goes, called out the militia and confronted the protesters in May of 1771. Husband and his followers–now called Regulators–refused to disperse and what followed was a disaster. Several men were killed on each side (the numbers are disputed, but probably 10 or 20 each); scores of men were wounded.
The Regulators, who were known as “an association for regulating public grievances and abuses of power,” were defeated at the so-called Battle of Alamance. Thousands were pardoned after signing an oath of allegiance to the colonial government, but six of them were hanged for treason. One of these, my eight-times-great uncle James Pugh, came calmly to the gallows and asked the governor for the opportunity to speak. Governor Tryon allowed Pugh to talk, so he proceeded to tell the crowd that his blood would be as good seed sown on good ground, which would produce a hundredfold. His words foreshadowed the coming Revolution that would change America forever.
My eight-times-great uncle James Pugh, my six-times-great grandfather Joshua Hadley and undoubtedly many other of my ancestors who lived in western North Carolina at the time stood up to an unjust government. James and Joshua fought for their beliefs in the Battle of Alamance; James even ended up giving his life for what was important to him. And then just a few years later, many of my ancestors would fight in the Revolution to secure their freedom and ours.
You can read more about the Regulator Rebellion in Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina by Marjoleine Kars.