Fries's Rebellion

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 6

In 1800 William W. Woodword, a Philadelphia publisher, used shorthand notes taken by Thomas Carpenter to produce a report of John Fries's two trials for treason.


John Fries was an auctioneer from rural Pennsylvania who led a small group of tax protesters in what came to be known as Fries's Rebellion. He was tried and convicted of TREASON but was eventually pardoned.

Fries served as a captain in the Continental Army during the WHISKEY REBELLION of 1794. He then returned to Pennsylvania to resume his life there. In 1798, Congress authorized the collection of property taxes to replenish funds depleted by the Whiskey Rebellion and to finance an anticipated war with France. Revenue officers were sent to all parts of the United States to assess the value of homes, land, and slaves for taxation. The tax assessment was well publicized and understood in urban areas, where most residents paid little attention to the assessors' activities. However, in the rural regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, where many residents spoke and read only German, many people were unaware of Congress's action and were resentful and fearful of the inquisitive assessors. They responded by attacking the revenue officers, both verbally and physically. Their treatment of the assessors was dubbed the Hot Water War, after an incident in which a woman dumped a bucket of hot water on a revenue agent.

The Pennsylvanians' protests escalated until a group of residents took several revenue officers captive and held them until they had satisfactorily explained their actions. Upon their release, the officers arrested twenty-three men for insurrection. Fries and a group of men who believed that the property tax was a deprivation of liberty took up arms and liberated their detained comrades. When the group resisted orders from President JOHN ADAMS to disperse and to allow the federal officers to carry out their duties, Fries and its other leaders were arrested for treason.

Fries was brought to trial in 1799, before Judge Richard Peters, of the Pennsylvania District Court, and Justice JAMES IREDELL, of the Supreme Court. Fries's defense counsel argued that their client's offense was a simple protest that perhaps could be characterized as SEDITION, but certainly did not rise to the level of treason, a capital crime. They contended that, in a free republic, the treason charge should be reserved...

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