Many early histories of the War of Regulation, which culminated in the May 16, 1771 Battle of Alamance, paint a picture of a Regulator named James Few as a man of either a simple or unstable mind who was unjustly executed. Upon deeper examination, many of the claims made in these histories have inconsistencies and holes. Some of these have likely explanations while others point to a legend built around a far more complex individual.
In a video I created about the North Carolina Regulators and the Battle of Alamance, I made reference to the first Regulator executed by Royal Governor William Tryon as a “mentally unstable, 25-year-old carpenter.” A descendant of James Few, the subject of that statement, questioned this assessment. When you put your work out publicly, this is to be expected. It was a very civil exchange, and I provided the research that led to this statement, but it compelled me to dig deeper into the man known as James Few.
As I reviewed the popular history, I began to notice that he had become a near mythological figure, more than a footnote, but less than the subject of a biography. I also noticed some interesting inconsistencies between the myth and the man behind it. I began to see that James Few was a far more complex man than much of history has acknowledged.
James Few’s part in the Regulator story as told by most historians is that he was captured immediately following the Battle of Alamance and was hanged the next day, without benefit of trial, in the presence of the other captured Regulators, to be an example and send a chill down their spines. Further, Governor Tryon singled him out after he was pointed out by one of his officers, Col. Edmund Fanning, for this punishment. Fanning was a public official in Hillsborough who had his house torn down during a riot by Regulators the year before. Fanning alleged that Few took part in the destruction. These histories dispute Few’s presence at the riot, instead alleging that Fanning had designs on Few’s fiancé, possibly having even seduced or raped her.
To complicate the lack of due process accorded James Few, these histories raise various questions about Few’s mental competence. William Saunders’ The Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. IX, states that James Few was a “poor half-witted creature.” The Centennial History of Alamance County, 1849-1949 states that he was a “a poor demented young man.” In A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, E. W. Caruthers wrote that Few “was in a state of insanity,” a charge that was reiterated in William Edward Fitch’s Some Neglected History of North Carolina: Being an Account of the Revolution of the Regulators and of the Battle of Alamance, the First Battle of the American Revolution.
Joseph Seawell Jones referred to Few as “a religious maniac” in A Defence of the Revolutionary History of the State of North Carolina from the Aspersions of Mr. Jefferson. The Reverend Francis L. Hawks referred to him as a “victim of insanity,” but attributed it to “wrongs” he had endured. Hawks alleged this was brought on by Fanning’s (referred to in his text as “one of Tryon’s proud minions”) “ruining the woman to whom he was betrothed.” Fitch wrote that Fanning had “seduced” the young woman. A Memorandum from Superior Court at Hillsborough written July 5, 1819, stated that Fanning had “debauched” the young woman.
Here is where the questions and inconsistencies begin. These historical records seem to present Few as being engaged at the time of his execution. Fitch wrote that “he was engaged to be married to a young lady whom Fanning seduced.” As historian Francis Nash pointed out, James Few was a married man with three-month-old twins at the time, so that would seem to contradict the fiancé narrative. Despite the original texts never saying so explicitly, historian Marjoline Kars plausibly states that the “seduction” occurred “before Few married her.”
This suggestion raises the question of the paternity of the twins, especially in light of statements that the young fiancé had been “ruined” by the event. This was first raised and dismissed by Nash in 1903. Nash recounts that ten years later, the Few family moved to Georgia and James Few’s widow, Sarah Woods Few, remarried to a British or Tory officer. The ardent patriot family, Few, were not going to allow the children to be raised by British or Loyalists. Col. Benjamin Few, James’ brother, went to Hillsborough and took the children back to Georgia, where he raised them as his own. Nash believed that had there “been the slightest doubt about the paternity of these children, the Fews would not have removed them to Georgia and taken them into their own hearts and homes,” believing that Benjamin Few and his wife “would not have taken spurious children into their own family.”
The descriptions of the mental competency of James Few are also greatly varied in their particulars. Some accounts brand him a “lunatic.” Other accounts refer to him as insane. Hugh Williamson’s History of North Carolina said that he “had better claims on a mad house.” Yet others refer to him as a “religious fanatic” or “religious maniac.” Other references include “wretch,” “demented,” and “half-witted.”
The scattered descriptions create difficulty in deciding exactly the mental disability from which James Few is supposed to have suffered. Whether he was insane, developmentally challenged, or a religious zealot, all of these seem to indicate a man who was relatively harmless, but the real question is whether these depictions are even true. Because on the subject of Few’s mental state, leadership abilities, and the threat posed by his prowess, the inconsistencies only deepen.
All assessments of Few’s mental state seem to stem from a single statement in a letter he wrote to Regulator leader Herman Husband. Nash made note of this statement saying “there is an extravagant sentence in one of his letters, and men say he is crazy, an imbecile, an idiot.” In the statement, Few declared that he believed that “he was sent by heaven to relieve the world from oppression; and that he was to begin in North Carolina.” This certainly is an outlandish statement, but that alone does not indicate insanity. History is full of eccentric individuals who had unusual beliefs and today might be labelled as “conspiracy theorists” who were some of the most effective people of all time. Also, this statement could simply be the workings of a man with a flair for the dramatic or an overinflated sense of self-worth. Historian Marshall DeLancey Haywood points out that “greater men,” such as Oliver Cromwell, have held such beliefs about themselves without being labelled as lunatics.
What of the characterizations of his being “half-witted,” “an imbecile,” or “an idiot” which would seem to indicate an individual with severe learning disabilities and likely a low IQ? It seems unlikely that William Few, Sr. would have spent money educating a son with such low intellectual potential. Clearly, he was a man of letters, evidenced by this correspondence among the possessions of Herman Husband.
The characterization of Few as an ordinary man among the Regulators who fell victim to the blood lust of Tryon, Fanning, and their soldiers appears to not withstand closer scrutiny. The Men of Mark biography of his brother, Benjamin Few, describes James as being a “Captain of the Regulators.” Professor John S. Bassett of Trinity College (forerunner of Duke University) wrote that James Few was “a visionary man” and indicated that he had been an active Regulator.
Haywood wrote that Few was “far from the lunatic that historians have represented him to be” and was instead “of a fanatical turn religiously” in reference to the statement in his letter to Herman Husband. Moravian academic and historian John Henry Clewell quoted a Moravian diary of the time which referred to James Few as “a fine young fellow.” It paints a rather heroic image of Few, saying that he passed up several opportunities to save his own life. Twice he was offered the chance to take an oath of allegiance, which he refused. He was “urged to yield” to the oath one last time with the rope around his neck, but still refused. Counter to the other depictions of Governor Tryon as heartlessly seeking vengeance, the diarist wrote that “the governor turned aside with tears in his eyes as the young man was swung into eternity.” The diarist was a resident of one of the Moravian settlements near modern day Winston-Salem, likely Bethabara or Old Town where many Regulators sought refuge following the battle, including their leader Herman Husband. This account was most likely told to the writer by one of the Regulators. Like their Quaker and Mennonite cousins, Moravians of that day were noted for truthfulness, so the likelihood of this account being faithful to the story as related is high.
Author and attorney Arthur Dudley Vinton raised James Few to a status approximating a patron saint to the anarchist movement in his article “The First American Anarchist” in the Magazine of American History in 1886. He wrote that Few was “sober” and “industrious.” He further wrote that Few’s “personal character seems to have been beyond reproach.” These assessments of James Few as an anarchist are unsourced and seem dubious. Other Regulators submitted to authority during and after the American Revolution. Some remained loyal to the crown, despite their rebellion to Tryon’s taxes, while others joined the cause of independence. Indeed, Few’s Patriot brothers were highly placed militia officers and one, William Few, Jr., was a signer of the United States Constitution. These hardly seem to be the actions of people with anarchist tendencies.
James Few also appears to have not been as harmless as the legends built around him depict. Nash called him “one of the most active and energetic of the Regulators” and noted that, contrary to accounts of earlier historians, he “took a leading, and no doubt malign part in the Hillsboro riot of September, 1770.” He backs up this claim by pointing out that a “true bill had been found against him at New Bern” on the affair. Indeed, this was the case, as supported by colonial court documents reprinted by Saunders of March 11, 1771. William Nelson, acting governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation on April 25, 1771 listing eight individual Regulator leaders by name, among them James Few. He wrote that the named subjects “have fled from the Justice of that Province [North Carolina], and it is apprehended that they may attempt to take Refuge in the Southern Counties of this Colony” and ordered “all Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, & other Officers, civil & military, within this Dominion” to apprehend and bring these people to justice, should they be found. His listing among those Governor Nelson wished to have arrested, and the true bill returned by a grand jury in North Carolina for his role in the destruction of Fanning’s house during the Hillsborough Riot, indicates that the Royal governments of the colonies had more than a passing awareness of James Few. Quite to the contrary, it would seem to indicate that they considered him a threat.
This evidence added with the roles his brothers played as important officers and political figures in Georgia during the Revolution, seems to indicate a man far more formidable than the mostly-harmless and slightly feeble sort North Carolina history has portrayed him as being. So, why has he not been depicted as a great leader and warrior on par with Herman Husband, James Hunter, Benjamin Merrill, Robert Messer, Rednap Howell, or James and Enoch Pugh?
The answer likely lies in the difference of his execution from the others. James Few was hanged without due process and he was hanged first. Rednap Howell and Herman Husband both fled north from Tryon’s justice and the others faced trial before being hanged. Traditionally, history has held James Pugh as being hanged, but modern research indicates it was his brother Enoch who faced the gallows in Hillsborough.
Despite Tryon’s claims that Few’s hanging was covered under the Johnston Act, passed after the Hillsborough Riot, the unilateral decision to hang him without trial did not sit well with his fellow North Carolinians. At this point, further vilifying Tryon was in the best interest of the Regulators, so making James Few appear to be far more innocent and harmless served their collective purpose. By downplaying Few’s leadership status, his execution appears out of proportion with others and as more of an act of vengeance. The hanging of a relatively innocent and fairly harmless man who was a victim of the timing and circumstance of his capture, was not a good look for Tryon.
Next is the question of the mental stability and competence of James Few. Why would the Regulators and early historians raise such questions if untrue? It has long been taboo in English Common Law to execute the insane and those with developmental handicaps. This dates back to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and had become accepted that it was “cruel to execute idiots, lunatics, and the insane.” By depicting James Few as harmless, incapable of understanding his punishment, and being punished for personal reasons beyond the scope of his actual crimes, the Regulators created several ethical, political, and legal issues for Tryon which were bound to cause outrage in the colony.
While the hanging of James Few did not trigger a rallying cry like the massacre at the Alamo, or the sinking of the USS Maine, it certainly was akin to a pebble in the shoes of colonists unhappy with unfair taxation, lack of due process, or other perceived abuses of their rights as Englishmen. Anyone who tries to continue walking with a pebble in his shoe will eventually stop to remove it. James Few may not have been insane, but he probably was a zealot for the cause of freedom. So, knowing that his role likely contributed to the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of 1775 and eventually the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, would likely have brought him great satisfaction.
History has relegated James Few to the position of being more than a footnote, but less than a biography. Most accounts accord him no more than two paragraphs, with the fullest coverage being the three-page appendix in Francis Nash’s Hillsborough history. Nonetheless, a rich mythology was crafted which elevated James Few to the status of legend. To gain a full understanding, one must piece together the various accounts and reconcile the nuances they present.
In the end, James Few was probably not the mentally challenged, simple man who was little more than an innocent bystander in the great saga of the War of Regulation that history has painted him to have been. A broader and deeper examination reveals a man far more complex and formidable. Sadly, that man is easy to overlook.
J. Keith Jones, “NC Regulators in the Battle of Alamance,” March 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LfpTV6FQ6E.
E. W. Caruthers, A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, D.D.: near Sixty Years Pastor of the Churches of Buffalo and Alamance. Including Two of His Sermons; Some Account of the Regulation, Together with the Revolutionary Transactions and Incidents in Which He Was Concerned; and a Very Brief Notice of the Ecclesiastical and Moral Condition of North-Carolina While in Its Colonial State(Greensborough, NC: Printed by Swaim and Sherwood, 1842), 158; William Edward Fitch, Some Neglected History of North Carolina: Being an Account of the Revolution of the Regulators and of the Battle of Alamance, the First Battle of the American Revolution(New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1905), 229.
Joseph Seawell Jones, A Defence of the Revolutionary History of the State of North Carolina from the Aspersions of Mr. Jefferson(Boston: C. Bowen,1834), 88; Francis L. Hawks, “Battle of the Alamance and War of the Regulation,” in Revolutionary History of North Carolina in Three Lectures: To Which Is Prefixed a Preliminary Sketch of the Battle Alamance(Raleigh, NC: William D. Cooke, 1853), 37; William S. Powell, James K. Huhta, and Thomas J. Farnham, The Regulators in North Carolina: a Documentary History, 1759-1776(Raleigh, NC: State Dept. of Archives and History, 1971), 570.
Francis Nash, Hillsboro, Colonial and Revolutionary(Raleigh, NC: Edwards and Broughton, 1903), 95; Marjoleine Kars, Breaking Loose Together: the Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina(Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003) 258.
J. S. Jones, A Defence of the Revolution, 54; Marshall DeLancey Haywood, Governor William Tryon and His Administration in the Province of North Carolina, 1765-1771: Services in a Civil Capacity and Military Career as Commander-in-Chief of Colonial Forces Which Suppressed the Insurrection of the Regulators(Raleigh, NC: E.M. Uzell, 1903), 133.
L. D. Carman, “Benjamin Few,” in Men of Mark in Georgia: a Complete and Elaborate History of the State from Its Settlement to the Present Time, Chiefly Told in Biographies and Autobiographies of the Most Eminent Men of Each Period of Georgia’s Progress and Development(Atlanta: A. B. Caldwell, 1907), 76.
John Henry Clewell, History of Wachovia in North Carolina. The Unitas Fratrum or Moravian Church in North Carolina during a Century and a Half-1752-1902. From the Original German and English Manuscripts and Records, Etc. With Plates(New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902), 109, 111.
Michael Clemente, “A Reassessment of Common Law Protections for ‘Idiots,’” The Yale Law Journal124, no. 8 (June, 2015): 2755-6, www.yalelawjournal.org/note/a-reassessment-of-common-law-protections-for-idiots.