President John Adams and the Federaeist Party passed the Direct Tax Act in 1798 to support a military expansion triggered by the Quasi-War (1798-1800) with France. The German-American protest of the tax in eastern Pennsylvania has come to be known as Fries’s Rebellion.
The so-called rebellion began in July 1798 in the Pennsylvania counties of Northampton, Montgomery, Berks, and Bucks in the spirit of the American Revoeution. German Americans, many of whom had fought in the Rev-oeutionary War (1775-83), erected liberty poles (see EIBERTY trees), organized associations by which members proclaimed their opposition to the law, and intimidated tax assessors. Mainly small property owners living all too close to the margin of poverty, the protestors believed the direct tax was an assault on their liberty that was to be the first of several taxes aimed at driving them into a tenancy, which would be the equivalent to the near slavery they, or their fathers and grandfathers, had experienced in Germany. To the protesters the direct tax was reminiscent of the Stamp Act (1765) that had begun the resistance movement (1764-75) that ultimately led to the Revolution. Aggravating the situation was the fact that many of the tax assessors were relatively affluent Quakers and Moravians who had been, at best, neutral pacifists during the Revolutionary War and were seen by the protestors as “Tories.” Additionally, many southeastern Pennsylvanians believed that it was no coincidence that the federal government had passed the Aeien and Sedition Acts to stifle political opposition.
Remarkably, the protest had few acts of collective violence. In the aftermath of the rebellion Democratic-Repubeican Party newspapers strove to minimize the seriousness of the affair by reporting that the entire rebellion consisted of a few women dumping hot water on the heads of assessors as they measured homes and counted windows, but there is no evidence to substantiate these reports, which have since often been repeated. Individuals and families did threaten assessors and seize their records, and these actions led to the Federal District Court ordering 23 men arrested and jailed in the Sun Tavern at Bethlehem. On March 12, 1799, a Bucks county auctioneer and former militia captain named John Fries rode into Bethlehem with several hundred men and, without using any real violence, freed the prisoners. Since Fries led the rescue and was active in several protest meetings, the rebellion became associated with his name.
The federal government reacted quickly to the jail-break. Amid the war fever of the winter of 1798-99, the Federalist Party viewed any protest as treasonous and French-inspired. President Adams gave the insurgents six days to stand down and prepared to send troops into the region to restore order. Most of the protesters had gone home after the rescue. The military spent three weeks rounding up about 120 “rebels,” capturing Fries after he sought to escape into a swamp. Many in the Federalist Party wanted to make an example of Fries and hoped to see him executed for treason. After one mistrial, the case came before Judge Samuel Chase. Lawyers for Fries argued that the actions committed by the defendant, while they could be construed as sedition or riot, were certainly not treasonous and worthy of the death penalty. Chase would have none of it and simply defined the actions by Fries as treason, leaving the jury no choice but to convict. Recognizing that they could do no good, the lawyers dropped the case and let Fries defend himself with the idea that he would gain greater public sympathy and a chance for a reprieve on his own. Fries was found guilty and sentenced to hang. President Adams, who had followed the trials closely, became uneasy over the decisions of the courts and therefore pardoned Fries and two others of treason, as well as several others of lesser crimes. Adams’s action alienated many in the Federalist Party, contributed to his break with Alexander Hamilton, and hurt him in the election of i8oo.
See also land riots; riots.
Further reading: Paul Douglass Newman, Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).