Protection of lives and property was the primary impetus behind Regulator activities, but the movement also grew out of tensions between frontier settlers and the colonial administration. South Carolina’s backcountry, which included the entire area beyond the coastal parishes, did not have any organized local government apart from justices of the peace whose judicial authority was minimal.
The Regulators were backcountry settlers who banded together in 1767 in response to a wave of crime that swept their region in the aftermath of a disruptive war with the Cherokee Indians (1759–1761). Bandit gangs, including women as well as escaped slaves, roamed the country with little fear of capture. Lacking local sheriffs, courts, or jails and frustrated by the distance and leniency of the colony’s judicial system, Regulators took the law into their own hands. They punished suspected bandits by whipping them, carrying them to the Charleston jail, or escorting them out of the colony. Gradually they expanded their activities to include the regulation of household order. They whipped unruly women and forced the idle to work. Regulators also struggled to control the wandering hunters whose activities threatened farmers. From a backcountry population that included about 35,000 settlers in the mid-1760s, it is likely that between 3,000 and 6,000 men participated in the Regulator uprising.
Protection of lives and property was the primary impetus behind Regulator activities, but the movement also grew out of tensions between frontier settlers and the colonial administration. South Carolina’s backcountry, which included the entire area beyond the coastal parishes, did not have any organized local government apart from justices of the peace whose judicial authority was minimal. On the eve of the uprising, the region had only two representatives in the Commons House of Assembly from the single backcountry parish of St. Mark’s. In 1767 men who identified themselves as Regulators presented a remonstrance to the assembly in which they enumerated long-standing regional grievances. They demanded local courts, jails, and other mechanisms for suppressing crime. They also requested local mechanisms for processing land warrants and increased representation in the assembly. Regulators took steps to win influence in the government and to dramatize their political grievances. During the election of 1768, hundreds of Regulators marched to three lowcountry polling places, where they claimed the right to vote. The following year Patrick Calhoun (the father of John C. Calhoun) traveled to the polls at Prince William’s Parish with a group of armed men, who elected him to the assembly. It is likely that Calhoun was a Regulator.
On the basis of the 118 clearly identifiable Regulators, certain generalizations can be made about the social composition of the movement. Regulators were farmers and small-scale planters. At least thirty-one known Regulators eventually acquired slaves, and at least seventeen eventually owned ten slaves or more. At least two leading Regulators were surveyors–a position that offered significant commercial advantages–and five operated ferries. Five Regulators later participated in the state convention that ratified the United States Constitution. Although the wealthiest and most prominent men in the backcountry were not Regulators, they did sympathize with the movement. In sum, Regulators were ambitious yeomen and aspiring planters who sought to make their region safe for planting, slavery, and commercial activities.
The Regulation provoked a sympathetic and restrained response from Charleston authorities. In November 1767, within a week of receiving the remonstrance, the assembly effectively legalized Regulator activities by establishing two backcountry ranger companies consisting of men who were already active in the uprising. During the same session, legislators began work on circuit court and vagrancy acts. Tensions mounted in early 1768 when several victims of Regula- tor violence sued the perpetrators in the Charleston court. It was only when colonial officials attempted to deliver court processes that they became embroiled in several violent clashes with the insurgents.
The angriest response to the Regulators came from within the backcountry. Early in 1769 a group of men who called themselves “Moderators” organized themselves in opposition to the uprising. Like their rivals, leading Moderators were prosperous, commercially oriented settlers. They were not adverse to demands laid out in the remonstrance, but they resented the Regulators’ increasingly precipitous use of violence. A truce between Moderators and Regulators, negotiated by leading backcountry men on March 25, 1769, signaled the end of the Regulator movement.
By that time Regulators had achieved significant victories. The Circuit Court Act, passed in March 1769, established a system of courts, jails, and sheriffs in four new judicial districts. Had it not been for a protracted dispute with Parliament, the act would have passed earlier. Backcountry men had elected representatives to the assembly, and the colonial government had placed new restrictions on hunters. In 1771 Governor Lord Charles Montagu issued general Regulator pardons. The Regulator uprising signaled regional tensions that would divide South Carolina for years to come, but it also initiated processes of integration that would accelerate with the cot- ton boom and culminate with the reform of the state constitution in 1808.
Brown, Richard Maxwell. The South Carolina Regulators. Cambridge: Belk- nap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.
Klein, Rachel N. Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760–1808. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Woodmason, Charles. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant. Edited by Richard J. Hooker. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953.