John Fries Rebellion
Part 1: The House Tax Rebellion . 1798-1799
In 1797, John Adams was elected President of the United States. A patriotic surge of emotion against France had been developing and during the last days of Washington's term, a treaty with England, known as the Jay Treaty had just been ratified. This was unfavorable to France. In fact, it angered France to the point that she took vengence on American shipping. Diplomatic relations were severed and our nation seemed in a frenzy to go to war against France.
In May, 1797, Adams sent a three man delegation to France to try to avoid a war. Congress decided to prepare for war. The Navy was strengthened, the Marines, inactive since the Revolution, were reactivated and the Army was brought under consideration for strengthening. Ports and harbors were fortified, as if expecting the French to invade immediately. By November, nothing had been heard from the team sent to Paris by Adams and the attitude of the Congress became more belligerent. By mid April, of the following year, rumor had it that the French were going to attack and invade the United States.
Now the Congress needed money to repel this force. The Federalists decided that to raise 2 million dollars, they would enforce a House Tax. This was a direct tax on property, houses and slaves. There were also four bills pushed through and made law, which became know as the Alien and Sedition acts.
These four acts were the most intolerant acts ever passed by a Congress. They were indications of the great amount of suspicion, treachery and division that was rampant throughout the country. They included the Naturalization Act, the Alien Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act. The Naturalization Act raised from five to fourteen years, the amount of time an alien had to reside in this country before becoming a citizen. This act was repealed in 1802. The Alien Act empowered the president to arrest, imprison or deport any alien considered dangerous or treasonable to the country. The Alien Enemies Act empowered the president to arrest, imprison or deport any alien, subject to an enemy power in a time of declared war. The Sedition Act levied a fine of up to $2,000 plus imprisonment, for as long as 2 years for anyone convicted of speaking, writing or publishing anything considered "false, scandalous, or malicious" against the United States government, the President, anyone in the House of Congress; and involvement in any opposition to the execution of national laws, or aiding or attempting to riot, causing insurrections, and unlawful assemblies. These acts were signed into law, May of 1798 and started a chain of events that took place in Bucks, Lehigh, Northampton and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania and are remembered in infamy.
The sum of 2 million dollars was to be raised from the House Tax. Pennsylvania was to contribute $237,000. Since there were very few slaves in the state, the force of the tax fell or rested on dwelling houses and property. This tax became known as the "Window Tax", since the measuring of the size of the windows and the counting of window panes was a part of the assessment. It was known as the "Hot-Water Tax", because housewives poured hot water on the assessors from their second story windows to discourage them while they were counting and measuring. It was also known as the "Milford Tax", since that is where the main opposition seems to have been centered. Finally, it became known as the "John Fries Rebellion", as Fries was considered the ringleader of an armed opposition.
John Fries was born in Hatfield Township, Montgomery County, the son of an immigrant, Simon Fries. He was a cooper. Fries served as a captain in the Continental Army. During the 1794 "Whiskey Rebellion" in western Pennsylvania, he was sent as part of the State Guard to help quell the uprising. In 1794, he also purchased 13 acres and moved into the Trumbauersville area. Although he was a cooper by trade, he became a "crier of public sales" or an auctioneer. He spoke German fluently, as well as English. He became well know in the Quakertown area and seems to have been respected for his attitudes and opinions on political matters occurring outside the local arena.
The House Tax was a reincarnation of the hated "Hearth Tax" in Germany. The hearth tax, was a tax levied on each fireplace and its size. All cooking and heating were done by means of a fireplace. The idea of being taxed on the size of a house, the size and number of the windows in that house and the amount of land owned, was similar to the Hearth Tax. Most of all, it was disliked because it was for the purpose of paying for a non-existent war. The German settlers could not accept nor believe that the President would sign this tax into law. When the bill was signed, they refused to pay the tax.
John Fries became a leader of this opposition. In 1798, he began to lead a band of about 60 armed men around the countryside making it impossible for the newly appointed assessors to complete their task. Assessors were intimidated, run out of town and their lives were generally threatened. Fries' group was successful in keeping the assessors from doing their work in Milford and the surrounding areas. Similar, armed intimidations were occurring in the Northampton area. Pennsylvania's Governor Thomas Mifflin, was embarrassed. On March 5, he sent the militia from Reading into Northampton to arrest members of the renegade bands, as well as those who would not pay the House Tax.
The same day, March 5, Fries again threatened an assessor, warning him that by the next morning, he could have 700 armed men mustered. They would fight this house tax to the bitter end. The next morning, on March 6, he set out to drive the assessors away and if that was not enough, he would take them as prisoners. Fries' group marched from Milford to Quakertown, where they found the assessors. One attempted to ride away, and he was fired upon, but not hit. All three assessors were taken to the tavern of Enoch Roberts and held for some time. One of these was Everard Foulke. Their papers were taken from them and they were released later in the day. One was told to leave the township on threat of death, if he returned.
Enoch Roberts' Tavern in Quakertown . March . 6 . 1799
Fries and his men left Quakertown to return to Milford. It was at this time, that Fries learned of the arrests made in the Millerstown (Macungie) area. Fries went to the inn of Conrad Marx (Marks) with most of his men. They would join with a group of men, reported to be going to Millerstown to free these prisoners. As they proceeded to Millerstown, they met a son of Marx, who told them the prisoners had already been taken to Bethlehem and that they should go home, as the people of Northampton had called out their community home guard, who had remained active since pre-Revolutinary days, and under the command of Captain Henry Jarrett, would free the prisoners themselves. Fries urged his men to stay and go with him to Bethlehem to assist in the liberation.
Two groups set out for Bethlehem on March 7. The Millerstown group, led by Jarrett and Fries' group from Milford. In Bethlehem, word spread that a party was en route to rescue the prisoners. The Marshal with 13 or 14 men, guarding the 19 prisoners at the Sun Inn, in Bethlehem, would be out numbered. He set some of the prisoners free on bail and told them to report into Philadelphia. The Marshal hoped to persuade Fries and Jarrett to return home and leave this matter to the government and sent a delegation to meet them at the Bethlehem toll bridge. Fries told the delegation they would return home with the prisoners, paid the required toll and the group continued to the Sun Inn. A group of 400 surrounded the inn, some were armed and part of the rescue party and some were spectators.
Fries, had felt from the outset, that there might be bloodshed. He ordered his men to wait until he was killed and then attack the inn. Fries was reportedly unarmed and entered the inn to speak with the Marshal and issue his demands for the release of the prisoners. With the numbers and emotion so obviously against him, the only thing the Marshal could do, was surrender the prisoners.
The raid was a success. The men returned to their homes; however, the Marshal immediately sent a report of the events to President Adams in Philadelphia.
Part 3: President Adams' Proclamation of March 12, 1799
Adams ordered troops to be raised from the Lancaster area under the command of Brigadier General William McPherson and capture the rebels. Twelve hundred men were called up for this purpose. They were friends of the government, opposed to these farmers and unfortunately, fond of women and drink. Tales of extreme violence and crudeness came out of the behavior of these troops and they were considered scoundrels by the natives of Bucks and Northampton Counties.
The marshals who had been involved in the incident at the Sun Inn, went to Northampton to make arrests in that area, then returned to Millerstown where they rearrested the original group of prisoners. At the same time, in Bucks County, there were many in the German community, that favored the government and assisted in identifying members of Fries' group to the marshalls. One by one they were apprehended. Fries himself, hid in the area, appearing in public, only when it was safe to do so. But, on April 6, while hiding in brush at Bunker Hill (Rich Hill), he was betrayed by his little dog "Whiskey" (ironically, named and acquired during his participation in quelling the Whiskey Revolt) and he was arrested. Fries was immediately taken to Philadelphia to be tried in Federal Court, along with four of his fellows, for treason. The rest would be tried for high misdemeanors. The charges against these men as follows:
1 Opposition to the House Tax.
2 Hindering the assessors in their duties.
3 Holding unlawful meetings interfering with the execution of the laws.
4 Suppressing the friends of the government or any one who should aid or assist the officials in their duties.
5 To rescue any one arrested by the government.
6 No explanation of the law heeded by the people.
7 Violence as used by the people.
8 Opposing the United States officials while performing their duty.
A total of forty one of the men arrested, lived to be tried in court. Two died in prison. John Fries, George Gettman and Fred Hainey were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The others, tried on various degrees of the high misdemeanors charges, were found guilty except one. Little is known about those who escaped capture. Some left the state and others simply went into deep hiding in most recessed areas of Northampton.*
* Condensed, with permission from: "The Saga of John Fries"
Chapter Seven of: "Richland the Manor, the Township and Quakertown"
A History by the Quakertown National Bank, 1877-1977
Editor and Publisher: Harry Adams . MediaDynamics
Historic Research : Peggy Adams . Pauline Cassel
©1977 Media Dynamics and Adams Apple Press, all rights reserved
Part 2: The Trial
More about the Painting
"Fries's Rebellion . The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution" . Dr. Paul Douglas Newman
Published 2004 . The Penn Press
"The Fries Rebellion" . W.W.H. Davis A.M.
Published 1899 . Republished 1996 . Adams Apple Press
"The Direct Tax of 1798 Upper Bucks" . Harry C. Adams
Published 1994 . Adams Apple Press
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