Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” and the Creation of a Revolutionary Precursor in Backcountry North Carolina

Few insurrectionist movements have caused more interpretive dissent than the North Carolina War of the Regulation. Considered by many historians today to have been a catalyst for the American Revolution, this rebellion, often referred to as the Regulator Movement, pitted frontier farmers against colonial officials between 1765 and 1771. Principle grievances of the agrarian Regulators were land access and a lack of western title offices, perfidious officials in the judicial system, tax policy, and colonial representation.

By about 1740, a great tide of intercolonial migration had swept through backcountry North Carolina. The northwestern counties of Orange and Rowan, in particular, registered significant increases. In 1747, these counties had fewer than two hundred inhabitants; by 1769, the number had increased to almost thirty thousand. This influx of new settlers, searching for cheap land and religious freedom, emigrated from the Middle Colonies (predominantly Pennsylvania), Maryland, and Virginia. Their arrival exacerbated socioeconomic divisions between the “western” piedmont farmer and the “eastern” colonial official.

A slew of merchants and lawyers arrived in the western counties to capitalize on the growing population. There was a fine line between profit and predation, which was often crossed. Citizens began to take up arms against colonial officials, whom they perceived as oppressive, corrupt, and tyrannical. The revolt came to a head on May 16, 1771 at the Battle of Alamance, in which Governor William Tryon soundly defeated a larger Regulator force, effectively quelling the rebellion.

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In 1770, North Carolina Superior Court judge Richard Henderson detailed an account of the “riot,” asserting that the Regulators were “abandoned to every principle of virtue and desperately engaged not only in the most shocking barbarities but a total subversion of the [colonial North Carolina] Constitution.” This negative interpretation continued through the decades, with historians referring to the Regulators as a “mob, hating property and culture, delighting in violence and impatient of all legal restraints.” Quite simply, historiography followed the belief voiced so eloquently by contemporary anti-Regulator Henry Eustace McCulloch, who called the backcountry insurgents a “pack of Unmannerly Sons of Bitches.”

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Plaque from larger monument to the Regulators at Alamance Battleground

Nevertheless, with the onset of the Progressive Era (roughly 1890-1920), a fissure between historians began to form. Some began to see the Regulators and their plight in a more sympathetic light, going so far as to view them as “a devoted band of patriots who at Alamance fired the opening gun of the American Revolution.” How and why did such disparate views on a century-old conflict arise with the onset of the Progressive Era? Though the debate on the Regulators continues to this day, situating their story within the relatively new field of history at the turn of the twentieth century provides a possible (and partial) answer to this complex question.

In 1894, John Spencer Bassett provided what remains today the standard interpretation of the Regulator Movement in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association (AHA). Bassett was intent on proving that geography was the root source of the conflict, naturally creating two distinct societies that vied for power as economic opportunity and population simultaneously increased in the backcountry. The east, which provided provincial government officials interested in little more on the frontier than taxation, was typified by large plantations of a gentry class similar to that of tidewater Virginia. The west, in contrast, typified a land of subsistence farmers. Thus, Bassett’s argument presented a clean dichotomy based on the geography, economy, and political institutions of colonial North Carolina.

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Seal of the AHA

To present this interpretation in the AHA’s Annual Report was no small thing. It was only in the 1870s that major universities began appointing professors to a distinct field of history. Recognizing that a distinct field was forming, a few professors proposed the creation of an organization “to establish high professional standards for historical training and research.” In 1884 at the annual meeting of the American Social Science Association (ASSA) in Saratoga, New York, several “professors, teachers, specialists, and others interested in the advancement of history in this country” voted to establish the AHA as a separate organization. Since its founding in 1884, the AHA has remained at the forefront of devising and revising the field of history as an academic discipline in the United States. In its early years, it comprised a small but growing faction of historians intent on sharing their ongoing scholarship and theories amongst like-minded individuals. Included in the Annual Report only a decade after the AHA’s founding, Bassett’s geography-oriented Regulator theory would have been widely recognized upon publication, and remains today the standard interpretation of the movement.

Though purely a colonial movement in which there was no intent to rebel against the monarchy, more recent historians have been eager to worm this interpretation into the mould of the American Revolution because of their similar grievances with the government. Consequently, predatory lawyers, merchants, and corrupt local officials—the Regulators’ antagonists—have become amalgamated with the British Crown during the Revolution. Viewing the Regulation as a precursor to the War for Independence is a function only afforded to us by hindsight. Participants in the movement could not have known that a struggle for independence and the concept of a “nation” lay just around the corner. As historian D. Andrew Johnson suggests, we would be wise to divorce the colonial Regulation from its association with the Revolution. Instead, we should study it “on their own terms: as a western agrarian uprising against the policies and power of the colonial eastern elite.”penguin-books-great-ideas-the-significance-of-the-frontier-in-american-history

Though Bassett does not explicitly link the Regulation to the Revolution, his scholarship provided a framework for such future arguments. One more piece to the puzzle will illustrate why and perhaps how this was done. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner laid out his seminal “Frontier Thesis” that would revolutionize historical thought on the correlation between the American frontier and American identity. According to Turner, the tidewater part of the South—playing the antagonists in Bassett’s interpretation—“represented typical Englishmen, modified by a warm climate and servile labor, and living in baronial fashion on great plantations.”

The Middle region (Middle Colonies of PA, NY, NJ, and DE), from which backcountry North Carolinians would emigrate, “was less English than the other sections.” Turner claimed it represented a “composite nationality which the contemporary United States exhibits, that juxtaposition of non-English groups, occupying a valley or a little settlement, and presenting reflections of the map of Europe, in their variety. It was democratic and nonsectional, if not national.” Turner assertively and simply stated: “Thus it became the typically American region.”

Turner believed that through rugged individualism, self-sustainability, and the erosion of traditional European customs, American democracy and American identity were formed on the frontier by this type of composite frontiersmen. The fluidity of the frontier offered a “perennial rebirth” to settlers. Its “continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society [furnished] the forces dominating American character.” Turner’s work fused Bassett’s geographic dichotomy with that of his own quest for American identity. Naturally, historians came to view rebellious movements on the frontier as distinctly “American,” and coastal responses as distinctly “British.” It is perhaps no coincidence that Turner presented his thesis in a paper entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to the American Historical Association at their 1893 annual meeting in Chicago.

The fusion of Bassett’s work on the Regulation with Turner’s far-reaching take on American identity organically generated a notion that the Regulator Movement was a precursor to the American Revolution. Such a connection illustrates the fluidity of historical thought and the significance of the AHA as a platform for historical discussion at the turn of the century. It is irrefutable that Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” though criticized for a panoply of reasons by modern historians, left an indelible impact on the field of history. Its contribution to a revision, or perhaps distortion, of North Carolina’s Regulator Movement represents just one case study in the midst of copious examples indicative of his work’s enduring impact.

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Lithograph, circa 1905-1915, illustrating the prevalence of Alamance’s “Revolutionary” significance

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Interested in North Carolina history? Read about the unique topography of the Outer Banks and the crucial role resident ‘Bankers’ played in the American Revolution here.

Enjoy reading about Turner’s Frontier Thesis? See how conceptions of frontier and wilderness transformed a theme park in eastern Tennessee here.

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Sources:

D. Andrew Johnson, “The Regulation Reconsidered: Shared Grievances in the Colonial Carolinas,” in The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 114, no. 2 (Apr., 2013): 132-154.

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Frontier in American History, 1920, Reprint, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2009.

James P. Whittenburg, “Planters, Merchants, and Lawyers: Social Change and the Origins of the North Carolina Regulation,” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 2 (Apr., 1977): 215-238.

www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/brief-history-of-the-aha

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