Monday, June 24, 2024

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Remembering the history of the Battle of Alamance


Comments from 50 years ago on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Alamance by then-Governor Bob Scott at Alamance Battleground State Historic Site

By Bob Scott
N.C. Governor, 1971

[Editor’s Note: The selection of the name “Alamance” for the new county is attributed to Mrs. Giles Mebane, who wished to honor the Battle of Alamance, fought in 1771. For a background on that encounter between “Regulators” and the British, we include the following excerpts from then-Governor Bob Scott’s speech at the bicentennial observance in 1971, 50 years ago. Scott was himself an Alamance County native son.]

Two hundred years ago…on these acres, there occurred a tragic confrontation between North Carolinians which left 18 dead, scores wounded and six to be hanged later. What caused 2,000 citizens of Orange and surrounding counties to take up arms against their own government? What caused North Carolinians to engage in what was, in effect, a brief civil war?

The Regulator Movement has been misinterpreted and misrepresented throughout history.

Earlier writers tended to glorify the Regulators as “small-D” democrats, seeking freedom from British rule. Yet, in none of the contemporary documents do we find any evidence that these citizens had any notion of independence.

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Indeed, in the words of one Regulator, it was not “the form of government, nor yet the body of our laws, that we are quarreling with.” It was, he said, “the malpractices of the officers of our county courts, and the abuses which we suffered by those empowered to manage our public affairs.” Thus, the Regulators were opposing abuses in the administration of the law, not the laws and the Royal government.

Under British rule, North Carolinians theoretically enjoyed the rights of Englishmen. The form of government was probably as “democratic” as any on earth at that time. Even so, compared with our representative form of government today, North Carolinians in 1771 had little say-so about their government.

All of the officials—from the governor down to the lowest county officials—were appointed by the King or his deputy, the governor. Landholders could vote only for their representatives in the Lower House of the Assembly, and usually a few influential men in each county (called the “courthouse ring”) controlled even that election. Thus, the people could do little to influence the administration of the colony or to correct abuses.
Many of these abuses were real. Others were imaginary or exaggerated.

One of the chief complaints related to the fee system under which every official document record at the courthouse required the payment of a fee to the lawyer who drew up the document and to the official who recorded it.

Illiteracy was widespread, and some of the local leaders were unscrupulous in complicating the proceedings in order to collect additional fees. Court actions also involved fees, and these fees mounted as court cases were postponed. Taxes, too, were heavier on the rural landowner than on the county seat officials and businessmen, for there was no tax on income.

The up-country people were mostly farmers who traded their homegrown commodities for the provisions brought in from the eastern part of the colony. There was little hard money (“specie”) in the entire province, and the Regulators seldom saw any of it.

Instead, what little money they had was in “script” (paper money which was often worth only about half its original value). Yet, all taxes in the Regulator country had to be paid in cash.

If a farmer could not produce the necessary cash, the sheriff seized his household and farm goods and sold them—often at a very low price—to a member of the “courthouse ring.” Furthermore, taxes were supposed to be paid at a few central locations, and if the sheriff had to visit the farmer, he could collect an additional amount for his “distress.”

It should be kept in mind that the Piedmont counties were large and the county seats were a long distance from the homes of most of the residents. For instance, Orange County in 1770 comprised, in addition to the present day Orange, all or part of Rockingham, Caswell, Person, Guilford, Alamance, Durham, Randolph, Chatham, Wake, and Lee. Every long trip to the courthouse in Hillsborough tended to be an unpleasant one, for as one commentator has said, with a little exaggeration, “as soon as counties were organized on the frontier, sheriffs, clerks, registers, and lawyers swooped down upon the defenseless inhabitants like wolves. But it was undoubtedly the gulf between the officials of the colony and the people of the upcountry counties that led to the ill-tempered Battle of Alamance. The Regulators appealed for more honest and fair administration of government, but their petitions always seemed to be held up on the Royal governor’s desk or in the General Assembly. Government was remote, but the abuses that the people felt were close.

They suffered an embarrassing military defeat. Yet they brought attention to their complaints, and the provincial government thereafter was indeed more attentive to the upcountry citizens. Even so, we can no more condone their violence than we can condone similar violence two hundred years later.

I will leave it to the historians to debate the lessons to be learned from the Battle of Alamance, but I will remind you today that there is a lesson to be learned from the actions of the citizens of Alamance County and the state of North Carolina in saving this historic battlefield for the enjoyment and education of the present and future generations.

As early as 1880 the people of this county erected here a monument — the large granite monument that you can see across the way. In 1909, there was formed an Alamance Battleground Company. In 1939, the county acquired additional land, in 1952 the 54 acres were transferred to the state of North Carolina.

Beginning in 1955, the General Assembly provided for the development of Alamance Battleground as a State Historic Site under the administration of the State Department of Archives and History, and in 1961 the visitor center was dedicated. The original cost of the building was shared by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, Alamance County citizens, and a legislative appropriation.

Many of us were here a few years ago when the Allen House was moved to the grounds.

Today we officially open the enlarged improved visitor center, the funds for which were provided by the 1969 General Assembly.

I call attention to this lesson to show how an important chapter in the history of our state has been saved. Because the citizens of Alamance cared, and because the significance of the battleground was impressed upon the state government, and these acres have been set aside for permanent preservation.

Perhaps it is ironic that this battlefield, which once was the scene of confrontation between the citizens and a government that did not respond readily to the needs of the people, now serves as an example of the accomplishments of a government that reflects the needs and desires of our people in the 20th Century.

Alamance Battleground State Historic Site is, therefore, a proper monument to the Regulators, for it demonstrates to all the world that the efforts of the Regulators were not in vain — that 200 years later their descendants live under a government which respects the principles for which they dared risk their lives.

See related story in this week’s (May 13) edition:

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