History • Fries Rebellion
The majority of US population knows nothing of this important part of our nation's history. Knowledge of the Milford Rebellion or Fries Rebellion could easily have been lost had it not been for W.W.H. Davis who published his work in 1899 (work done forty years earlier before the Civil War), of the events "interesting in themselves, but too suggestive of the friction between the people and their newly established government." This passionate conflict caused many to take up arms and spread terror such as in a discovered letter threatening, "I say in case of an outbreak I will burn your house and your barn and will shoot you and your brother dead… you are never safe in your house." Fear was real and deeply felt by Americans uncertain of the fate of their fledgling government. The war may have ended, but aggressions continued beyond the presidency of Washington.
The Jay Treaty calmed tensions with Great Britain, but raised suspicion in France and among Jefferson's Democratic-Republican party who thought the Federalists were trying to move back towards monarchy. The French monarchy, whose support was essential to American independence, was being strangled by its own war debt and was subsequently toppled by the bloody French Revolution. Soon the French Navy and privateers began capturing American merchant ships and an unstable United States government found itself in an undeclared "Quasi-War" with no navy to stop marauders from cruising the entire length of the Atlantic seaboard.
War was imminent. It was a time of viscous slander, open wounds, hatred and suspicion. Congress passed the "Alien and Sedition Act" that allowed deportation and harsh punishment of those posing threat to the government. John Adams was called a despot. The nobility of the American Experiment was too often lost in ugly power politics. It was in this context that The Fries Rebellion unfolded.
The rebellion was led by local German settlers who feared a return to the oppression they had left in Europe. The 1798 tax, often known as the "Window Tax" was the first federal tax on houses, buildings and slaves. Because of the protests, Upper Bucks and Northampton counties became the center of national attention. The arrest of a few of the leaders of the tax protest roused John Fries and his German speaking neighbors who rescued their friends from the federal marshals at Bethlehem. Eventually the militia was sent to arrest the leaders of the rebellion, who were taken to Philadelphia and jailed. After two long trials Fries and two others were sentenced to be hung. President John Adams pardoned them before the execution could be carried out.