Historical Markers
The Fries Rebellion of 1799 Historical Marker
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The Fries Rebellion of 1799

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Main and Broad Sts., Quakertown

Dedication Date:
May 16, 2003

Behind the Marker

The acrylic on canvas painting, dramatizes the events of March 6, 1799. The tax resistors had marched from Milford to Quakertown where they confronted the tax assessors. Assessor Everard Foulke is being pulled from his horse by Daniel Fries, John Getman and George Mumbauer while the tax protesters jeer. William Thomas, Jacob and John Hoover are depicted in front of the tavern; Frederick Heaney, John Fries, Capt. Kouder and Conrad Marks stand on the tavern's porch. Assessor Chephas Childs attempts an escape.
The Confrontation, Enoch Roberts' Tavern in Quakertown, March 6, 1799, by James...
On July 9, 1798, a Federalist-controlled Congress voted for a new federal tax on lands and houses, the latter to be assessed by the number of windows. Many Pennsylvanians found the new tax especially obnoxious, for its percentage increased progressively in accordance with assessed value, and many farms in long-settled northeastern Pennsylvania were substantial indeed. The law also said that the tax had to be paid in gold or silver, which was at a premium, and thus cost the taxpayers more than their assessed valuation to obtain.

Congress passed the tax at the same time that the United States was engaged in an undeclared naval war with France, and at a time when the Federalists who controlled Congress viewed domestic opposition to its policies as treason rather than legitimate dissent. In addition, President Adams made the mistake of appointing ex-Tories and Quaker pacifists to collect the tax for northeastern Pennsylvania. The mostly German population of this region had loyally supported the Revolution, and despite their reputation as the "Dumb Dutch" were well aware of their political rights. marker Protests against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Congress also passed that June to suppress dissent flowed in from all over the state.
The <i>Old Sun Inn</i> on Main Street. This building dates from Bethlehem's earliest colonial days in the mid Eighteenth Century
The Old Sun Inn, Bethlehem, PA, circa 2000.

By early 1799, loud protests against the tax were gaining momentum in Northampton, Berks, and to a lesser degree Montgomery and Bucks counties. Angry citizens set up Liberty Poles, as they had back in the 1770s in protests against the British taxes that led to the American Revolution. Others poured hot water on the collectors, assaulted them, and destroyed their records. When sheriffs under federal court order arrested twenty-three ringleaders and confined them in the Sun Tavern in Bethlehem, a crowd of more than 100 men led by John Fries of Milford Township in Bucks County, an auctioneer of Welsh descent, marched to Bethlehem and freed them on March 7. The crowd was willing for the twenty-three to be tried, but insisted on trials in the local community, which would have guaranteed a verdict of innocent, rather than Philadelphia, where a guilty verdict was almost certain.
Oil on canvas of John Admas, head and shoulders, facing right.
John Adams, by Charles Willson Peale, 1791-1794.

"Fries Rebellion" terrified the Federalists in Philadelphia. Convinced that Fries and his followers had committed treason, President Adams requested that the Philadelphia militia capture them. Led by the light cavalry, a group of wealthy men who paid for their own horses and equipment, the militia moved out, rounded up the leading protestors, and tracked down Fries by following his dog "Whiskey" into a swamp where Fries was hiding.

The federal government charged forty-five of them with treason, then prosecuted Fries and four others for treason and seventeen for lesser crimes. The courts then sentenced Fries and three others to death. President Adams pardoned them, however - against the advice of every member of his cabinet - after he concluded that Fries and his followers were guilty only of "riot and rescue," not of making war on the government with the intent to overthrow it, as his "high" Federalist supporters had suggested.

In the end, President Adams himself was the "rebellion's" big loser. His pardons angered other leading Federalists and fueled their plot to undermine his re-election. And his suppression of the "rebels" - who saw themselves as nothing more than the sort of traditional tax protestors the Pennsylvania legislature had winked at since the 1780s - won him the animosity of the Pennsylvania Germans, who had previously voted Federalist. In the election of 1800, they turned out en masse for the Jeffersonian Republicans and were instrumental in ensuring that the Pennsylvania legislature, which chose Pennsylvania's presidential electors, would be overwhelmingly pro-Jefferson. Had Adams carried Pennsylvania, he would have been re-elected.
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