Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution

Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution

Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution

Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution


In 1798, the federal government levied its first direct tax on American citizens, one that seemed to favor land speculators over farmers. In eastern Pennsylvania, the tax assessors were largely Quakers and Moravians who had abstained from Revolutionary participation and were recruited by the administration of John Adams to levy taxes against their patriot German Reformed and Lutheran neighbors.

Led by local Revolutionary hero John Fries, the farmers drew on the rituals of crowd action and stopped the assessment. Following the Shays and Whiskey rebellions, Fries's Rebellion was the last in a trilogy of popular uprisings against federal authority in the early republic. But in contrast to the previous armed insurrections, the Fries rebels used nonviolent methods while simultaneously exercising their rights to petition Congress for the repeal of the tax law as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts. In doing so, they sought to manifest the principle of popular sovereignty and to expand the role of local people within the emerging national political system rather than attacking it from without.

After some resisters were liberated from the custody of a federal marshal, the Adams administration used military force to suppress the insurrection. The resisters were charged with sedition and treason. Fries himself was sentenced to death but was pardoned at the eleventh hour by President Adams. The pardon fractured the presidential cabinet and splintered the party, just before Thomas Jefferson's and the Republican Party's "Revolution of 1800."

The first book-length treatment of this significant eighteenth-century uprising, Fries's Rebellion shows us that the participants of the rebellion reengaged Revolutionary ideals in an enduring struggle to further democratize their country.


On March 7, 1799, nearly four hundred men marched into Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, behind John Fries, to demand the release of seventeen prisoners jailed for resisting a federal tax. Fries (pronounced “Freeze”) captained a company of militia from Bucks County, the same unit with which he had served as a Patriot in the Revolution. Two decades later he led a combined force of armed light horse, riflemen, and infantry into the peaceful Moravian village, marching in step to the cadence of fife and drum in defiance of the federal authority he had once fought to establish. Federal Circuit Court Judge Richard Peters had warranted the arrests of the seventeen prisoners in question for obstructing the fledgling national government’s very first attempt to lay a direct tax on property. In 1791 the federal government had levied an indirect tax, an excise on spirituous liquors, and western Pennsylvanians had risen up in rebellion in 1794, impeding the officials and mustering an army. The Direct Tax Act of 1798 was a levy on lands, dwelling houses, and slaves. It used a progressive rate that taxed wealthy homes at higher percentages than modest ones but taxed improved farmlands more than the uncultivated holdings of speculators. In 1798–99, it was eastern Pennsylvanians, especially German Lutherans and the German Reformed, who rebelled. This standoff, which has come to be known as “Fries’s Rebellion,” was the culmination of seven months of tax resistance and political opposition to other odious federal legislation, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, exorbitant military expenditures, and the creation of a peacetime standing army, all of which the Federalist Party implemented to provide national security from the threat of war and invasion by France during the Quasi War.

This is thus the story of a rebellion, but not of an insurrection. It was a rebellion in a figurative sense, as a popular, localized resistance movement against perceived injustices by aggrieved citizens who employed logical but illegal methods and Revolutionary ideals, but not in a literal way as an attempt to make war against the government. Inhabitants of western Massachusetts and western Pennsylvania were insurgents in 1786 and 1794, engaging in military actions against state and federal authorities. In the former case, thousands of Yankee farmers assaulted the federal armory at Springfield attempting to force the Massachusetts government into a convention to rewrite the state’s . . .

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