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 vengeance 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 This act was repealed in 1802.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 also 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 and a war veteran, having 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, Fries 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 (The Sign of the Red Lion – McCoole’s Tavern) 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.

Escalation. Part 2