The trial of John Fries began on April 11, 1799, at the City of Philadelphia, in the Circuit Court of the United States, before United States Supreme Court Justice, James Iredell. His charge to the grand jury was considered impressive. He praised the liberty available to all in this country, as opposed to the “terrible French” for whom liberty was propagated by the sword. The behavior of the French was to be a warning to all. Vigilance was needed on the part of our country to stay at peace. He went on to justify the Sedition and Alien Acts, as signed by Adams, claiming them grossly misrepresented.
Special mention was made of French aliens who were unjustly accused of some crime, merely because they were French. The power of congress to raise armies as well as taxes at a time when the Country may be in need was presented as a power not to be questioned. Trust of the executive branch of the government was a must, realizing that impeachment was the result of any crime committed in this office. The matter of aliens coming to this country, and their possible citizenship was defined, definition of their conduct was given, as well as the act of partial naturalization. He also expounded on the importation of aliens into states and the prohibition of the same. It was stated that under certain conditions, a state could directly or indirectly permit the migration of enemies.
Justice Iredell went on to read the Sedition Act and the objections found in it. This act dealt with crimes against the United States. Among the crimes specified are: murder or larceny in a fort belonging to the United States; an act of felony committed in any place under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States; perjury in any court of the United States; bribing a judge of the United States; and obstructing the execution of any kind of process issuing from a court of the United States. He then extolled the freedom of the press, laying before them the responsibility to see that correct information regarding the processes of the government were given to the people, who could then form their own beliefs. He went into the act of libel by the press and private individuals. Finally, Iredell came to the “House Tax” Act. He stated that since some of the offenders were to be tried for treason, they must have been guilty of a combination of resistance to the law of the United States. He then read a statement to the Grand Jury.
The trial was a political farce from the beginning, filled with high emotion. Fries was probably guilty of the Sedition Act, but the government took the position that this Act was comparable to treason and the penalty outlined by the Congress in the act was not severe enough. The charge to the Grand Jury had set the tenor of this trial: either find Fries guilty, or the government may go down!
A detailed picture of the events is drawn through the testimony of a parade of government witnesses. Fries acts of dissent were offered to the jury: At a meeting in February at the home of John Kline, in Lower Milford a paper was signed by fifty two people. The court so far had not been able to find this paper but knew that John Fries helped in drawing up the paper and that it was unfavorable to the House Tax. The threats against the assessors, the march to Quakertown, the confrontation there with the assessors, the march to Bethlehem and confrontation with the marshals, all were presented in dramatic language to the jury.
On cross-examination, witnesses to the events in Bethlehem agreed that they had seen absolutely no violence or anyone abused, and that after the prisoners had been handed over, the crowd of some 400 dispersed quietly. Philip Schlaugh testified he saw Fries in the doorway of the Sun Inn speaking loudly to his men in the yard. He stated that Fries said “Well, brothers, I went up to the marshal, and asked him about the prisoners, and told him I would have the prisoners, but the marshal told me he dare not give them up willingly; I tell you brothers, we have to pass four or five sentries, but I beg you not to fire first upon them, till they first fire upon us. I expect I shall be the foremost man. I shall go on before you, and I expect I shall get the first blow”.
Jacob Eyerly testified that he was one of the commissioners appointed to execute the tax and he tried to locate proper people to do the assessing. He had no trouble in Luzerne and Wayne counties, but, he did have trouble in Northampton. While in Reading, a Mr. Chapman had informed him there was unrest in Bucks and Northampton counties. Talk in the taverns was vehement. The people wanted to know the names of the assessors so they could persuade them to give up the job, however, assessors for each township were appointed. Their commissions were sent to them, but some assessors refused to serve because their lives had been threatened.
Mr. Eyerly went to Hamilton Township with some assistants and read the law to the people trying to explain it to them. The people were not appeased and he received word from Mr. Heckenwalter, the assessor of Upper Milford, that he had been stopped in his duty by a delegation from the township. He advised that Heckenwalter would meet the township leaders and explain this business to them. When he was within four miles of the place, a friend warned him not to proceed because he may be killed by these violent people. He went to the house of John Schymer where there were 60-70 people. Most wore French cockades of red, white and blue in their hats and only two of this group understood English. The act was read to them in German and they were then told that this was the law.
The crowd said they would not submit and one, George Schaffer, jumped up and said he could be put in jail, but still would not submit. The others said if one went to jail, they would soon get him out. Mr. Heckenwalter was then threatened with a licking and requested safe conduct by Eyerly away from the scene. Heckenwalter was also threatened because of his behavior regarding a “liberty pole” at Millerstown two weeks previous. One of the other assessors, John Romick, said he would not perform his duties for 500 pounds as the people in Millerstown and Upper Milford were very violent.
Testimony was presented from the assessors of Heidelberg, Wiessenburg, Lynn, and Low Hill. The people in these towns had drawn up papers resisting the law. The law was only executed after troops were brought into the towns and quartered there. The same condition prevailed in Penn Township. William Thomas of Bucks County testified that he had been at Jacob Hoover’s on March 6th and had met with about 15 men who went to Jacob Fries’ tavern (Trumbauersville). There they waited to see if Conrad Marks and John Gettman would arrest the assessors when they found them.
These men who were now joined by about another 30 went to Quakertown. In Quakertown, they used their drum and fife, fired guns and gave a cheer. The tax resisters, now armed with either guns or clubs, divided. One party went to Enoch Roberts’ tavern, the other to Zellers’ tavern. Soon, the assessors, Esquire Foulke, John Roderick, and Cephas Childs arrived and Captain Kouder grabbed Foulke and told him to alight from his horse. Jacob Hoover told Kouder not to abuse Foulke. Then Fries told Foulke he wanted to talk to him. George Mumbower had come up, and gave one of them a knock on the back, with the butt of his gun. John and Jacob Hoover objected saying Foulke would get down alone.
Fries then said Foulke had been warned not to assess the houses and demanded to see the papers he had completed. Fries read them, then gave them back to Foulke. Meanwhile in the tavern, Childs was being abused by five or six men. The men were not pleased in having Childs as an assessor since he was not of their township. By now many of the company were drunk, including Captain Kouder.
George Mitchell, of Lower Milford testified there was great discontent about the House Tax. A special meeting was called for February 3rd at the house of John Kline where a paper was drawn up protesting the law and signed by about 50-52 men. Squire Foulke felt the people did not understand the law and he was going to read it to them. A meeting attended by Squire Foulke and Mr. Chapman was arranged for a Saturday at the end of February and the inhabitants who attended were very disorderly. Jacob Kline asked about the purpose of the meeting and he was told that Squire Foulke felt the Germans were ignorant of the law which was to be explained. However, because of the unruliness of the crowd, the law never was read. This was all Mitchell heard of the affair until March 6 when the assessors came to assess his house and the houses of his neighbors. He went with a group from Mark’s tavern on the 7th, and from there to Bethlehem. On March 18, there was a meeting called in the township. A committee was to be chosen from Bucks, Northampton, and Montgomery Counties to decide what was to be done about the tax.
John Fries, who was a wanted man, was at the meeting. There was another meeting held on March 25, at the home of the witness, Mitchell. At this meeting, an assessor was chosen. Fries who was also at this meeting refused to vote for an assessor because he had been against the law from the beginning. It was generally agreed by the majority now to submit to the law.
James Chapman testified he was the principal assessor for twelve townships. The assessor appointed for Lower Milford was a man named Clark who had difficulties with his duties because the people did not like him. It was suggested a meeting be called to inform the people about the law. Chapman saw 10 or 12 people coming to the meeting with sticks and clubs. Most people spoke German and there was talk of democracy, liberty, and of Tories and so forth. Conrad Marks was one of the speakers. Balliett and Eyerly were abused and called rascals and cheats. Chapman then went to Jacob Fries’ tavern to wait for Mr. Foulke. Foulke and Clark went to Mitchell to take the tax rate. After a while, Clark said he could no longer fill the post as it was not safe for him. John Fries then arrived and told Chapman that if he were to send a man to his house, there would be 500 to 700 men under arms here by the morning. There was a troop in Montgomery County and the people in Upper and Lower Milford would organize.
Childs and Foulke arrived and went to Jacob Fries for their dinner. John Fries came in and warned Foulke not to take the rate on another house, or he would be sorry. Assessor, John Roderick testified that most of the twelve townships had been completed except for Lower Milford. There, the assessor, Clark, was afraid to do his job. The other assessors, Childs and Foulke and himself, agreed to go to Lower Milford and do the assessing and they met in Quakertown on March 4 and set out. They had completed 50-60 assessments when they came to the house of Jacob Fries. It was here at dinner that John Fries made his appearance and threat.
The assessors continued their job after dinner, until they came to the land of a Singmaster. On the way down the lane, they were hailed by John Fries and five more men. Fries said that since the assessors would not cease, that he and his men would now take us prisoners. The witness turned his horse to avoid being caught by Fries, and rode off. He stopped and Fries was a little away from him. He said he was surprised Fries would behave like this. Fries only swore, and said if he was on horse, he would catch him. Fries returned to his men and said release Foulke. They would capture the assessors in the morning. On March 6 as the assessors went through Quakertown, they were captured by Fries and his men near Robert’s tavern. When Roderick tried to flee, someone gave the order to fire upon him. He was not hit. He did not know who gave the order to fire.
Cephas Childs, the assessor testified he had been assigned to Bucks County as an assessor and that his territory was Hilltown and New Britain. Milford and Richland were assigned to Clark. However, because Clark did not do his job, Roderick and Childs, with Foulke did the assessing. When he was at the house of David Roberts, he saw Foulke had been taken by Fries’ men into Enoch Roberts’ tavern. Fries came to Roberts’ house and took Childs to the tavern, and there abused both verbally and physically. The men there called him a “stampler” and cursed the government, the laws, the Congress, and also the Constitution. They felt the present government would make slaves of them. They were for liberty, and had many who would join them. They said all of Northampton except the Tories would be with them. Between Quakertown and the Delaware River, there were 10,000 men ready to join them in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. They said they had a letter from General Washington supporting them.
At this time, Fries appeared, and was surprised that his men were being abusive. Fries gave him something to drink, and took the prisoners into another room. He wanted the assessor’s papers. Fries took them and walked away. His men then came again, and were abusive, threatening to shoot him, or beat him up. They were armed with clubs, staves, and guns and swords. Conrad Marks had a sword and was most threatening.
William Thomas then came in and stopped the abuse. He said he knew the assessor. The other men apologized. Fries then came back with his papers, and gave them to him. He was then told to leave the township and not to return to assess or he would be shot. Fries then said they could inform the government as fast as they pleased, but he had 1,000 men who would fight and not submit to this law.
The defense challenged the prosecution by stating that the insurgents only meant to declare that the law did not please them. They wanted to appoint their own assessor. Why was Fries on trial for treason? And since he was on trial for treason, why did the act as passed call for a fine and imprisonment, not to be treated as treason?
John Jamison was then called for the defense. He said he had met Fries after the meeting at Klines’. Fries had told him about the meeting. On March 6, he was at Jacob Fries when many men (some were armed) came in calling for liquor. They asked about the assessors, and then decided to go up to Quakertown. Jacob Fries and the witness then decided to go up also. They went to the inn of Enoch Roberts. From there they went to see Daniel Penrose. When they went out, they saw Mr. Roderick, who was very upset. He told them Fries and his men had captured Childs and Foulke. He begged them to go to town and see if they could help the assessors because they might be killed.
When they arrived they saw Foulke and went to his side. They were going toward Roberts’ tavern when Conrad Marks came and spoke to Foulke. Foulke stated that he would show the people how small he would make the assessments so that they would be satisfied. The defense asserted there was a general fear that unless Fries was found guilty, the troops may be called out again, as there would surely be another insurrection. It was also rumored that the troops were out for blood.
This trial was setting new precedents for the future. The jury deliberated for a period of three hours and returned with the verdict of Guilty. This was not the end of the matter. On May 14, Fries was taken to court to be sentenced to death. However, his attorney introduced evidence that Mr. Rhoad, one of the jurors, had been guilty of prejudice toward the prisoner after he was summoned as a juror. He moved for a new trial. Since a man’s life was at stake, it was agreed that a new trial should be granted. Fries was to stand trial again for treason.
In the summer of 1799 there was an epidemic of yellow fever in the city of Philadelphia, so all the “state prisoners” were removed to Norristown for safety. The small jail, on the southeast corner of Swede and Airy Streets, seldom had more than a dozen prisoners and now it had over 30. A detachment of United States Marine Guards were sent in to guard the jail. The jailer, Sheriff Isaac Wells, did not regard the prisoners as dangerous and released them to work for farmers each day on the promise that they would return at night. None of them attempted to escape.
Fries’ second trial opened on October 11, 1799, first in Norristown and then at Philadelphia. At the end of the trial, Fries said “It was mentioned that I collected a parcel of people to follow up the assessors, but I did not collect them. They came and fetched me out from my house to go with them. I have nothing to say, but leave it to the court”. The jury retired for two hours and returned with a verdict of Guilty.
In the beginning of May, Fries stood before Judge Chase for sentencing. The judge stated that his remarks would also pertain to Hainey and Gettman who were also found guilty on the same charge. Chase told Fries “It is almost incredible that a people living under the best and mildest government in the whole world, should not only be dissatisfied and discontented, but should break out into open resistance and opposition to its laws”. Fries was guilty of being the leader in this rebellion. This had been wickedness and folly on the part of Fries. If the marshal had been killed, murder would have been added to his charge. The punishment of Fries was to set an example for others. Chase hoped he would spend the remainder of his short life making his peace with God. Repentance was not in the grave, but judgment. Therefore, repent now.
Although he would be strictly confined for the remaining days, Fries was to be allowed to speak to any minister of the gospel he wished. As to the other four who were tried for treason, the outcome was varied. Conrad Marks was acquitted with a verdict of Not Guilty. Judge Chase appears to have been upset over this verdict. He called Marks an atrocious offender and guilty beyond a doubt. The two day trial of George Gettman and Frederick Hainey began on Monday, April 28, 1800 and both men were accused of treason. On Wednesday, the verdict was guilty. On the same morning, Anthony Stahler was arraigned for trial on the charge of treason. The next day, the jury found him not guilty, however, he was also tried for conspiracy. Indictments on treason were dropped against Philip Desch and Jacob Klein. Fries, Gettman and Hainey were sentenced to be hung in Bucks County on May 23, 1800. Two days before the execution, President Adams pardoned the three men. He also pardoned all of the other men who had been sentenced.