The frontiers of early America were notoriously hard to control. While states, nations, and tribes fought epic battles, agricultural communities removed from the cities of the eastern seaboard found themselves caught in a sweeping economic and political transformation.
In an effort to defend themselves and assert their rights against what they saw as a conspiracy of the eastern elite, backcountry homesteaders and squatters formed regulator groups—extralegal organizations designed to provide local order and defend the interests of the community against both internal and external threats.
As the regulator movement grew, governors, merchants, and soldiers began to see frontiersfolk as a threat to the stability of the frontier, and thereby to American order as a whole.
As the eighteenth century progressed, European settlement pressed westward and wars opened new lands to settlement, prompting eastern elites to expand their political and economic hold on the profitable American backcountry. These attempts fueled rural communities’ fears of a plot to deprive farmers of their rights to freehold land and self-governance.
Backcountry inhabitants tended to view reinvigorated tax collection, expansion of capitalist ideas of land value, and the consolidation of distant centers of political power as direct threats to their liberties and homesteads.
Eastern proprietors and merchants, they argued, conspired to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of their fellow subjects. While this conflict paused and shifted in various ways through the political upheavals of the American Revolution, the core conflict remained consistent throughout the majority of the eighteenth century.
In response to what they perceived as a growing autocratic threat, local committees, militia units, and other groups of organized frontiersfolk took the law into their own hands in newly aggressive ways. These groups formed the backbone of a regulator movement that, while disjointed in places, collectively used both passive resistance and open force of arms to defend their rights.
While the activities of groups in the regulator movement proved predominantly peaceful, media attention at the time and historians since have tended to focus on the violent manifestations of this conflict.
Some of these notable flash points were, in chronological order, the New Jersey antiproprietary movement (c.1667–1755), the New York anti-rent movement (c.1753–1766), the “Paxton Boys” Regulation (c.1763–1773), the North Carolina Regulation (c.1764–1771), the South Carolina Regulation (c.1767–1769), the “Green Mountain Boys” movement (c.1770–1784), Shays’ Rebellion (c.1780–1787), the Whiskey Rebellion (c.1780–1794), Fries’ Rebellion (c.1799), and the resistance of Maine’s “Liberty Boys” (c.1790–1810).
Whether punishing vagrants, killing Native Americans, or resisting the established government, these groups shared common methods, ideals, and sometimes personnel. Centering their arguments in common-law traditions of local governance and property ownership, regulators claimed rights to land and property that stood in direct contrast to the deeded and surveyed claims of distant capitalists.
Agrarian essayist William Manning summed up a common regulator argument in The Key of Liberty (1799): “Labor is the sole parent of all property ... therefore no person can possess property without laboring, unless he gets it by force or craft, fraud or fortune, out of the earnings of others” (Merrill and Wilentz, 135–136).
This philosophy, which placed property rights firmly in the hands of those white men who physically worked the land, pitted regulators against an array of speculators, surveyors, Native Americans, and magistrates. Political and economic power, regulators argued, should lie in the hands of white male heads of households, not distant governments or deed holders.
Regulators’ assertions of white male power equally threatened outsiders without gainful employment, surveyors, tax collectors, and local elites who sought to enforce the law of colonial, state, or federal authorities.
While, in keeping with long-standing British traditions of popular protest, regulatory violence generally focused on destruction of property, in the racially charged atmosphere of the eighteenth-century frontier vigilante attacks on indigenous people, massacres, and massive organized jailbreaks for the perpetrators of such violent crimes also characterized the resistance of many regulators.
Native Americans were particularly targeted as competing landholders (without legitimacy, as indigenous traditions of land use did not conform to regulators’ definitions of labor and improvement) and threats to homestead security during the waves of “Indian wars” that swept the West through the mid-eighteenth into the nineteenth centuries.
The specific frontier conditions that spurred regulator activity waned with General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s crushing victory over a Shawnee-led Native American coalition at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
With the frontier effectively “opened” for American settlement, some pressure lifted from western settlements, slowing the need for organized resistance. Regulator actions and philosophies, however, lingered on, later informing southern vigilantism in the wake of Reconstruction and the late-nineteenth-century Populist movement.
Traces of regulator language and action continue as part of U.S. culture and conspiracy theory in both left- and right-wing, violent and nonviolent radicalism—influencing, for example, the Granger movement, the protest movement against the Vietnam War, and the late-twentieth-century militia movement.