Fries' Rebellion of 1799

The Last of Three American Tax Revolts

Illustration of a Tarred and Feathered Government Tax Assessor
Illustration of a Tarred and Feathered Government Tax Assessor. Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1798, the United States federal government imposed a new tax on houses, land, and slaves. As with most taxes, nobody was very happy to pay it. Most notably among the unhappy citizens were Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who owned lots of land and houses but no slaves. Under the leadership of Mr. John Fries, they dropped their plows and picked up their muskets to launch Fries’ Rebellion of 1799, the third tax rebellion in the then-short history of the United States.

The Direct House Tax of 1798

In 1798, the United States’ first major foreign policy challenge, the Quasi-War with France, seemed to be heating up. In response, Congress enlarged the Navy and raised a large army. To pay for it, Congress, in July 1798, enacted the Direct House Tax imposing $2 million in taxes on real estate and slaves to be apportioned among the states. The Direct House Tax was the first – and only – such direct federal tax on privately-owned real estate ever imposed.

In addition, Congress had recently enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted speech determined to be critical of the government and increased the power of the federal executive branch to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”

John Fries Rallies the Pennsylvania Dutch

Having enacted the nation’s first state law abolishing slavery in 1780, Pennsylvania had very few slaves in 1798.

As a result, the federal Direct House Tax was to be assessed throughout the state based on houses and land, with the taxable value of houses to be determined by the size and number of windows. As federal tax assessors rode through the countryside measuring and counting windows, strong opposition to the tax began to grow.

Many people refused to pay, arguing that the tax was not being levied equally in proportion to the state’s population as required by the U.S. Constitution.

In February 1799, Pennsylvania auctioneer John Fries organized meetings in Dutch communities in the southeastern part of the state to discuss how to best oppose the tax. Many of the citizens favored simply refusing to pay.

When residents of the Milford Township physically threatened federal tax assessors, preventing them from doing their job, the government held a public meeting to explain and justify the tax. Far from being reassured, several protestors, some of them armed and wearing Continental Army uniforms, showed up waving flags and shouting slogans. In the face of the threatening crowd, the government agents canceled the meeting.

Fries warned the federal tax assessors to stop doing their assessments and leave Milford. When the assessors refused, Fries led an armed band of residents that eventually forced the assessors to flee the town.

Fries’ Rebellion Begins and Ends

Encouraged by his success in Milford, Fries organized a militia, which accompanied by a growing band of armed irregular soldiers, drilled as an army to the accompaniment of drum and fife.

In late March 1799, about 100 of Fries’ troops rode toward Quakertown intent on arresting the federal tax assessors. After reaching Quakertown the tax rebels succeeded in capturing a number of the assessors but released them after warning them not to come back to Pennsylvania and demanding that they tell U.S. President John Adams what had happened.

As opposition to the House Tax spread to the rest of Pennsylvania, federal tax assessors in Penn resigned under threats of violence. Assessors in the towns of Northampton and Hamilton also asked to resign but were not allowed to do so at the time.

The federal government responded by issuing warrants and sending a U.S. Marshal to arrest people in Northampton on charges of tax resistance. The arrests were made largely without incident and continued in other nearby towns until an angry crowd in Millerstown confronted the marshal demanding that the marshal not arrest a particular citizen.

After arresting a handful of other people, the marshal took his prisoners to be held in the town of Bethlehem.

Vowing to free the prisoners, two separate groups of armed tax rebels organized by Fries marched on Bethlehem. However, the federal militia guarding the prisoners turned away the rebels, arresting Fries and other leaders of his now-failed rebellion.

The Rebels Face Trial

For their participation in Fries’ Rebellion, thirty men were placed on trial in federal court. Fries and two of his followers were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged. Swayed by his strict interpretation the Constitution’s often-debated definition of the crime of treason, President Adams pardoned Fries and the others convicted of treason.

On May 21, 1800, Adams granted general amnesty to all participants in Fries’ rebellion stating that the rebels, most of whom spoke German, were “as ignorant of our language as they were of our laws” and that they had been duped by the “great men” of the Anti-Federalist Party who opposed granting the federal government the power to tax the personal property of the American people.

Fries’ Rebellion was the last of three tax revolts staged in the United States during the 18th century. It was preceded by Shays' Rebellion from 1786 to 1787 in central and western Massachusetts and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in western Pennsylvania. Today, Fries’ Rebellion is commemorated by a state historical marker located in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, where the revolt began.

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Longley, Robert. "Fries' Rebellion of 1799." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2018, thoughtco.com/fries-rebellion-tax-revolt-4151992. Longley, Robert. (2018, May 2). Fries' Rebellion of 1799. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fries-rebellion-tax-revolt-4151992 Longley, Robert. "Fries' Rebellion of 1799." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fries-rebellion-tax-revolt-4151992 (accessed May 26, 2018).