Part 5: The Trial: Justice Iredell’s Opening Statement

United States Supreme Court Justice, James Iredell’s statement to the Grand Jury, April 11, 1799, at the City of Philadelphia, in the Circuit Court of the United States:

“The only species of treason likely to come before you is that of levying war against the United States. There have been various opinions and different determinations on the import of those words. But I think I am warranted in saying, that if in the case of the insurgents who may come under your consideration, the intention was to prevent by force of arms the execution of any act of the Congress of the United States, together (as for instance the land tax act) the object of their opposition calculated to carry that intention into effect, was levying war against the United States, and of course an act of treason. But, if the intention was, merely to defeat it’s operation in a particular stance, or through the agency of a particular officer, from some private personal motive, though a higher offense may have been committed, it did not amount to the crime of treason.

The particular motive must however be sole ingredient in the case, for if combined with a general view to obstruct the execution of the act, the offense must be deemed treason. With regard to the number of witnesses in treason, I am of the opinion that two are necessary on the indictment as well as upon the trial in court. The provision in the Constitution, that the two witnesses must be to the same overt act (or actual deed) constituting the treasonable offense was in consequence of a construction which had prevailed in England, that though two witnesses were required to prove an act of treason, yet if one witness proved one act, and another witness another act of the same species of treason, (as for instance the levying of war) it was sufficient; a decision which has always appeared to me contrary to the true intention of the law which made two witnesses necessary; this provision being, as I conceived, intended to guard against fictitious charges of treason, which an unprincipled government might be tempted to support and encourage, even at the expense of perjury, a thing much more difficult to be effected by two witnesses than one. (See Article III section 3 of the U.S. Constitution)

An act of Congress which I have already read to you (that commonly called the Sedition Act) has specially provided in the manner you have heard, against combinations to defeat the execution of the laws. The combinations punishable under this act must be distinguished from such is in themselves amount to treason, which is unalterably fixed by the constitution itself. Any combinations therefore, which before the passing of this act, would have amounted to treason, still constitute the same crime. To give the act in question a different construction, would do away altogether the crime of treason as committed by levying war, because no war can be levied without a combination for some of the purpose stated in the act, which must necessarily constitute a part though not a whole of the offense.

Long, gentlemen, as I have detained you, for which the great importance of the occasion, I trust, is just apology, it will be useful to recollect, that ever since the first formation of the present government, every act which any extraordinary difficulty has occasioned, has been uniformly opposed before its adoption, and every act practiced to make the people discontented after it; without any allowance for the necessity which dictated them, some seem to have taken it for granted that credit could be obtained without justice, money without taxes, and the honour and safety of the United States only preserved by a disgraceful foreign dependence. But, notwithstanding all the efforts made to vilify and undermine the government, it has uniformly rose in the esteem and confidence of the people. Time has disproved arrogant predictions; a true knowledge of the principles and conduct of the government has rectified many gross misrepresentations; credit has risen from its ashes; the country has been found full of resources, which have been drawn without oppression, and faithfully applies the purposes to which they were appropriated; justice is impartially administered; and the only crime which is fairly imputable is, that the minority have not been suffered to govern the majority, to which they had as little pretension upon the ground of superiority of talents, patriotism, or general probity, as upon the principles of republicanism, the perpetual theme of their declaration.

If you suffer this government to be destroyed, what chance have you for any other? A scene of the most dreadful confusion must ensure. Anarchy will ride triumphant, and all lovers of order, decency, truth, and justice be trampled under foot. May that God whose peculiar providence seems often to have interposed to save these United States from destruction, preserve us from this worst of all evil! And may the inhabitants of this happy country deserve this care and protection by a conduct best calculated to obtain them.”

The response to this long charge which had little to do with John Fries, was as follows: “Sir: The Grand Jury of the Circuit Court of the District of Pennsylvania, having heard with great satisfaction, the charge delivered to them, on the opening of the court. At a time like the present, when false philosophy and the most dangerous and wicked principles are spreading rapidly, under the imposing garb of Liberty, over the fairest counties of the Old World, they are convinced, that the publication of a Charge, fraught with such clear and just observations on the nature and operation of the constitution and laws of the United States will be highly beneficial to the citizens thereof.

With these sentiments strongly impressed on their minds, they unanimously request that a copy of the said charge may be delivered to them, for publication; especially for the information of those, who are too easily led by misrepresentations of evil disposed persons, into the commission of crimes ruinous to themselves, and against the peace and dignity of the United States.” The above was signed by the members of the Grand Jury – not one of whom was a German or of German descent. It was read on May 15, 1799 and judge Iredell answered, consenting to have it published and distributed.

“The Grand Inquest of the United States of America, for the Pennsylvania District, upon their respective oaths and affirmations, do present John Fries, late of the County of Bucks, in the District of Pennsylvania, he being an inhabitant of, and residing within, the said United States, to wit, in the district aforesaid, and under the protection of the laws of the United States, not having the fear of God before his eyes, not weighing the duty of his said allegiance and fidelity, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, wickedly devising and intending the peace and tranquility of the said United States to disturb, on the Seventh day of March, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and ninety nine, at Bethlehem, in the County of Northampton, in the district aforesaid, unlawfully, maliciously, and traitorously did commit, imagine, and intend to raise and levy war, insurrection and rebellion against the United States; and to fulfill and bring into effect the said traitorous compassings, imaginations, and intentions of him the said John Fries, he, the said John Fries afterward, that is to say, on the seventh day of March in the said year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and ninety nine, at the said County of Northampton in the district aforesaid, with great multitude of persons, whose names at present are unknown to the Grand Inquest aforesaid, to a great number, to wit, to the number of one hundred persons and upwards, armed and arrayed in a warlike and hostile manner, that is to say, with guns, swords, clubs, staves and other warlike weapons, as well offensive as defensive, being then and there unlawfully maliciously, and traitorously assemble and join themselves together against the said United States, and then and there, with force and arms, did falsely and traitorously, and in a warlike and hostile manner, array and dispose themselves against the said United States, and then and there, with force and arms, in pursuance of such their traitorous intentions and purpose aforesaid, he the said John Fries with the said persons, so as aforesaid traitorously assembled, and armed and arrayed in manner aforesaid, most wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously did ordain, prepare and levy public war against the said United States, contrary to the duty of his said allegiance and fidelity, against the constitution, peace, and dignity of the said United States, and also against the form of the act of the Congress of the said United States, in such case made and provided.” (signed) William Rawle, Attorney for the Pennsylvania District of the U. S. A.The prisoner, John Fries, was now brought before the bar and pleaded not guilty. *

President Adams Second Proclamation. Part 6

* 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, 1877-1977Editor and Publisher: Harry Adams . MediaDynamicsHistoric Research : Peggy Adams . Pauline Cassel
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