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The First Rebellion

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

It all began so innocently. Charles I, King of England, had been beheaded.


After a nasty English Civil War, the King had been tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death. After his early departure, his son—the heir—escaped to France. Five years later, due to a remarkably bizarre chain of events, a thirty-year-old Charles II was invited to return to the English throne. He promptly accepted… and promptly gave away one million square miles of North America.

Keen on rewarding his loyal financial supporters during his royal exile, the cash-strapped Charles II had determined to gift a chunk of the American continent. With a pompous, royal-selfie (empowering the future Kim Kardashian’s of the world), he named the donation, “Carolina”—derived from Carolus, the Latin equivalent of Charles—and appointed eight Lord Proprietors as owners of the expansive tract (theoretically, his gift included modern-day North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, a good piece of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, the lower tip of Nevada and southern California).

In 1663, Charles’s colossal handout officially became known as the “Carolina Colony."

The Lord Proprietors of Carolina were given the ability to pass laws, sell land, establish towns, raise armies, make war, and by unmistakable extension, seize the land of Native Americans. Most importantly—for today’s story—they were awarded the power to tax their subjects; to charge fees on land ownership and exported goods. And they planned on making a shipload of money.


Taxes—those wonderful, pervasively omnipresent tariffs—were here from the beginning. And even though North Carolina can trace its beginnings to the beheading of a King, “over-bearing taxes” would become the motivating theme of our independently-minded state. This is the story—albeit brief—I intend to tell.


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To create the necessary infrastructure to accomplish their monetary goals, in 1669 the eight Proprietors established a number of rules to govern their new colony. Their rulebook, “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina”, consisted of 120 paragraphs, written in plain—and confusing—British legalese.


Despite the best intentions of the Lord Proprietors, implementing the Fundamental Constitutions did not progress well. The early colonists did not fully understand, or appreciate, the new laws and numerous taxes—particularly the “Plantation Duty” (a hefty tax on any tobacco not shipped directly to England). Owing to a lack of enthusiasm for these monetary burdens, in less than 14-years after its founding, the Carolina Colony had disintegrated into open rebellion; the first tax rebellion—of which there would be many—on the North American continent.


Here’s how it came down…


The newly appointed governor of Carolina, John Jenkins, recognizing the financial burden the Plantation Duty placed on his colonists, decided not to enforce it—a smart move for appeasing his neighbors but a bad move for keeping the Proprietors happy. Upon discovering his deceit, the eight Lords (a leaping) promptly replaced Jenkins with a new governor (Eastchurch) and a new tax collector (Miller). When Eastchurch's departure for Carolina was delayed in England, Miller (who lived in Carolina) appointed himself interim governor and began gleefully collecting taxes—and imprisoning all those who opposed him.


In 1677, John Culpepper led a group of forty civilians in armed response to Miller’s tax-collecting enthusiasm. Arresting Miller and his officials, Culpepper’s rebels took over the government, claiming that Miller had overstepped his authority as “temporary governor.”


Once word reached England, the Proprietors worried that all this bothersome trouble would cause them to lose face with the King… perhaps causing him to revoke his extravagant gift.

In a cunning and significant verdict, Culpepper and his accomplices were acquitted by the courts of England. Claiming that their “riot” was justified, Lord Shaftesbury (one of the Proprietors) defended the rebellion, arguing that the colonists had every right to rebel against Miller’s tax-collecting extremes. Lord Shaftesbury’s support of the rebels reinforced a newly-rooted colonial resentment of British interference, and the seeds of self-government were sown.


Following Culpepper’s Rebellion, as the uprising came to be known, the Proprietors promptly appointed another governor and believed their rebellious colony would eventually settle down.


They were more-than-slightly wrong…


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Today, what’s particularly fascinating about this piece of history is not the universally despised practice of unreasonable taxes (enforced by out-of-touch authority figures); nor Culpepper’s armed rebellion (which eventually culminated in an American Revolution); but the fact that, given the historical temperament of Americans in general, only one of these two political twins (inordinate taxes and rebellion) seems to have survived into the 21st century.


It’s not difficult to guess which has persisted—your annual property tax is a good reminder—but it might be worth asking the quintessential American question: “Whatever happened to rebellion?” (you know, the thing that keeps those out-of-touch authority figures in-check; like the ones who, despite collecting a considerable ransom of tax dollars, have managed to run-up a $46-billion debt for N.C., and $21-trillion debt for our federal government).


Lord knows, we don’t need another armed rebellion (the last thing we need is more people shooting at each other). Yet, in todays political climate, it is somewhat awkward that our massive indebtedness and complex, ponderous tax laws—quizzically requiring payments for things like your pet hound dog or your untimely death—are often countered with no-more-of-an-alarmed response than a shoulder-shrug, and the pressing question: “What are we watching on Netflix tonight?”


If North Carolina’s Culpepper had something to say about our current state of extremes (debts, taxes and debilitating distractions), he might say something like, “trouble ahead, you may want to pay attention.”


Charles I, had he kept his head, would’ve probably added, “… and you know, my dears, it all began so innocently.”


--Ben Fortson


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