President John Adams and the Fries Rebellion, 1786-1787
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Fries Rebellion, also called Fries’ Rebellion, the House Tax Rebellion, the Home Tax Rebellion and, in Deitsch, the Heesses-Wasser Uffschtand, was an armed tax revolt among Pennsylvania Dutch farmers between 1799 and 1800. It was the third of three tax-related rebellions in the 18th century United States, the earlier two being Shays’ Rebellion (central and western Massachusetts, 1786–87) and the Whiskey Rebellion (western Pennsylvania, 1794). It was commemorated in 2003 with a Pennsylvania historical marker erected in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, where it first erupted.
When the Quasi-War with France threatened to escalate in 1798, Congress raised a large army and enlarged the navy. To pay for it, Congress in July 1798 imposed $2 million in new taxes on real estate and slaves, apportioned among the states according to the requirements of the Constitution. It was the first (and only) such federal tax.
Congress had also recently passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, criminalizing dissent and increasing the power of the executive branch under John Adams.
In July 1798, during the troubles between the United States and France now known as the Quasi-War, the US Congress levied a direct tax (on dwelling-houses, lands and slaves; sometimes called the Direct House Tax of 1798) of $2 million, of which Pennsylvania was called upon to contribute $237,000.
There were very few slaves in Pennsylvania, and the tax was accordingly assessed upon dwelling-houses and land, the value of the houses being determined by the number and size of the windows. The inquisitorial nature of the proceedings, with assessors riding around and counting windows, aroused strong opposition, and many refused to pay, making the constitutional argument that this tax was not being levied in proportion to population.
Pennsylvania auctioneer John Fries organized meetings, starting in February 1799, to discuss a collective response to the tax. As an itinerant auctioneer, Fries was well acquainted with the German-Americans’ issues in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. This was important because the three counties in which the opposition was centered (Bucks, Northampton, and Montgomery) were heavily populated by German immigrants who, as Chernow notes, were “generally uneducated and easily misled by rumors, such as the notion that President Adams planned a wedding between one of his sons and a daughter of George III.”  Many advocated resistance in response to the tax. In Milford township, particularly, assessors were unsuccessful in completing their tax assessments due to intimidation. At a meeting called by government representatives in an attempt to explain the tax in a way as to defuse tensions, protesters waving liberty flags, some armed and in Continental Army uniforms, shouted them down and turned the meeting into a protest rally.
The assessors at first determined to continue their work in Milford. Fries personally warned the assessors to quit their work, but they ignored the threat. He then led a small armed band that harassed the assessors enough that they decided to abandon Milford for the time being.
In early March, a local militia company and a growing force of armed irregulars met, marching to the accompaniment of drum and fife. About a hundred set off for Quakertown in pursuit of the assessors, whom they intended to place under arrest. They captured a number of assessors there, releasing them with a warning not to return and to tell the government what had happened to them.
Opposition to the tax spread to other parts of Pennsylvania. In Penn, the appointed assessor resigned under public threats; the assessors in Hamilton and Northampton also begged to resign, but were refused as nobody else could be found to take their places.
Federal warrants were issued, and the U.S. Marshal began arresting people for tax resistance in Northampton. Arrests were made without much incident until the marshal reached Macungie, then known as Millerstown, where a crowd formed to protect a man from arrest. Failing to make that arrest, the marshal made a few others and returned to Bethlehem with his prisoners.
Two separate groups of rebels independently vowed to liberate the prisoners, and marched on Bethlehem. They prevailed without violence, and freed the tax resisters who had been arrested. In response to this action, President John Adams called out a force of federal troops and local militia. They marched into the rebellious counties and began making wholesale arrests of the insurgents. John Fries was among the men captured.
Thirty men went on trial in Federal court. Fries and two others were tried for treason and, with Federalists stirring up a frenzy, were sentenced to be hanged. President John Adams pardoned Fries and others convicted of treason. Adams was prompted by the narrower constitutional definition of treason, and he later added that the rebels were “obscure, miserable Germans, as ignorant of our language as they were of our laws”  and were being used by “great men” in the opposition party. He issued a general amnesty for everyone involved on May 21, 1800.
Historians are agreed that the Federalists overreacted and mishandled a small episode. The long-term impact was that the German-American communities rejected the Federalist Party.
- “PHMC Historical Markers Search” (Searchable database). Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2014-01-25.
- Chernow, Ron (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York, NY: Penguin. p. 578.
- Davis, chapter 2
- Davis, chapter 3
- Davis, chapter 4
- “The Fries Rebellion of 1798-99”. 2011. Retrieved August 23, 2012.
- Davis, chapter 5
- Gross, David M. (2014). 99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance Campaigns. Picket Line Press. p. 81.
- Adams had called out the militia, then went home to Massachusetts and left all operations to others.
- Paul Douglas Newman (10 March 2005). Fries’s Rebellion: the enduring struggle for the American Revolution. U. of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 164–78.
- Robert A. Hendrickson (1985). The rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton. Dodd, Mead. p. 515.
- Adams, Charles, Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts That Built America (Free Press, March 1998)
- Bouton, Terry. “‘No Wonder the Times Were Troublesome’: the Origins of the Fries Rebellion, 1783-1799,” Pennsylvania History (2000) 67#1: 21-42 online
- Churchill, Robert H. “Popular Nullification, Fries’ Rebellion, and the Waning of Radical Republicanism, 1798-1801,” Pennsylvania History (2000) 67#1: 105-14 online
- Davis, W.W.H. The Fries Rebellion (1899) online
- Dimmig, Jeffrey S. “Palatine Liberty: Pennsylvania German Opposition to the Direct Tax of 1798,” American Journal of Legal History 2001 45(4): 371-390
- Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism (1996) pp 696–700
- McCormick, Thomas Denton (1959). “Fries, John”. Dictionary of American Biography. IV, Part 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 34.
- Newman, Paul Douglas. Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (2005), the standard scholarly study
- Newman, Simon. “The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutionary Politics, Fries’ and Gabriel’s Rebellions, and the Fears of the Federalists.” Pennsylvania History 67.1 (2000): 5-20. online
- Newman, Paul Douglas. “Fries’s Rebellion and American Political Culture, 1798-1800.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 119.1/2 (1995): 37-73. online
- Newman, Paul Douglas. “The Federalists’ Cold War: The Fries Rebellion, National Security, and the State, 1787-1800.” Pennsylvania History 67.1 (2000): 63-104. online
- Pfleger, Birte. “‘Miserable Germans’ and Fries’s Rebellion: Language, Ethnicity, and Citizenship in the Early Republic,” Early American Studies: an Interdisciplinary Journal 2004 2(2): 343-361
- Ridgway, Whitman H. “Fries in the Federalist Imagination: a Crisis of Republican Society,” Pennsylvania History 2000 67(1): 141-160 online
Originally published by Wikipedia, 04.02.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.