Title: From Riots to War: Public Violence in Eighteenth-Century North Carolina
Name: Wayne E. Lee

Asst. Prof. of History
University of Louisville

Year: 1998
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

Societies license legitimate violence. Colonial and Revolutionary era North Carolina, like other societies, held powerful norms defining specific "types" of violence along a wider spectrum of public violence (e.g., the practice of riot or the way of war). Public violence was therefore neither spontaneous nor uncontrolled; it was strongly shaped by the norms for the type of violence in play. One key component of those norms, for all types of public violence, was restraint. Violence did not proceed to absolutes. This restraint arose not only from political calculations of means appropriate to ends, but from deeply ingrained and widely understood cultural definitions of legitimate violence. In colonial North Carolina the relative potency and breadth of the political public lent those norms weight; they constrained individuals and strongly patterned violence. To restate: norms of legitimacy established patterns of behavior (subject to improvisation or to changes in material conditions).

These research conclusions are derived from an analysis of riot and war in colonial North Carolina. Colonial North Carolinians derived their basic "habits" of riot from British precedent, but materially reshaped them to fit the conditions of colonial life. My work examined three riots from the mid-eighteenth century, and then turned to the better known case of the Regulators (1768-1771). Colonial society's norms of violence significantly shaped the course of the Regulator movement. Restrained, communicatory violence (the "careful riot") had cultural legitimacy, and the Regulators carefully patterned their actions according to traditional rules of violent protest. This said, however, structural factors related to the new colonial environment (a partial slave economy, strained class relationships, geography) combined with circumstance to undermine the Regulators' legitimacy and escalate the situation from protest to war.

This shift to war laid the groundwork for the second part of my research, which analyzed the Revolutionary War in North Carolina as another form of public violence. North Carolinians' way of war was an amalgam of European military formalism, adaptive and reactive responses to contact with native Americans, and the ideology and institution of the militia. North Carolinians struggled to fight a virtuous war, and indeed their sense of the proper "way of war" did condition the violence of the war. Nevertheless, the unstable relationship of those precedents, particularly the cultural legitimacy of retaliation in the hands of an institutionally weak militia, ultimately led to the ugly "militias' war" of 1780-82. In contrast, the Continental Army's war was more successfully restrained, in part because of the different set of precedents and motivations which informed it.

Bibliography: Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001).
Lee, Wayne E. Restraint and Retaliation: The North Carolina Militia and the Backcountry War of 1780-82, in War and Society in the American Revolution, eds. John Resch and Walter Sargent (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, forthcoming, 2004).