1799 Two Hundred Years Ago

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On April 4 a detachment of five hundred soldiers marched from Philadelphia into Bucks and Northampton Counties, Pennsylvania, to put down a revolt against the United States government. The force was overwhelming, and the campaign, which brought together state militia, federal regulars, and even a company of artillery, had been prepared meticulously for weeks. There was only one problem: By the time the soldiers arrived on the scene, there was no longer any rebellion.

The source of the unrest had been an unpopular new tax on land, houses, and slaves. Congress had enacted the tax to pay for its military buildup against a presumed threat from France. To calculate the value of houses, assessors had been hired to record the dimensions, building material, and size and number of windows. In eastern Pennsylvania the local German farmers took great exception to this echo of the feudal European customs they had fled. Angry Hausfrauen poured boiling water on assessors as they stood beneath their windows taking measurements, giving the affair its alternative name, the Hot Water War. Agents appointed to collect the tax (almost all non-Germans and many of them unpopular locally to begin with) were reviled and intimidated into resigning. By early March federal marshals had found it necessary to arrest about twenty prominent citizens for nonpayment.

The leader in fighting the tax was a Bucks County man named John Fries. Years before, Fries had served in the Revolution, and as a militia captain he had helped suppress the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Now, once again, he was a rebel himself. As much as anything else, Fries seems simply to have enjoyed making speeches and leading soldiers. With the glibness and volubility that made him a successful auctioneer, he gathered an irregular force of 100 to 150 lightly armed men. On March 8 they descended on the Sun Tavern in Bethlehem, where the prisoners were being held. Confronted by superior force, the marshals released them, and everyone went home.

Over the ensuing weeks, with the excitement over, resistance to the tax faded and most citizens grudgingly paid. In the meantime, however, word reached the federal capital of Philadelphia about the Pennsylvanians’ defiance of the law. Alexander Hamilton, the Army’s inspector general, jumped at the chance to assert the federal government’s authority and burnish his own credentials. He bustled about giving orders, appointing officers, and dispatching troops. Four weeks after the Sun Tavern affray, the soldiers finally arrived and found no sign of any uprising. They contented themselves with cutting down liberty poles, raiding hostile newspaper offices, and harassing rebel sympathizers. They then tracked down and arrested Fries (who hid in a swamp until his barking dog, Whiskey, revealed his location) and five dozen alleged fellow insurrectionists and delivered them to federal authorities for trial.

Fries was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. In 1800, however, President John Adams—against the unanimous advice of his cabinet—granted him a pardon. Adams quite understandably felt that executing someone for a mere riot would breed more animosity than respect for the federal government. Meanwhile, as the prospect of a fight with France receded, the war tax became even more unpopular. Citizens saw themselves forced to pay a tax to support an army whose sole job was to force them to pay the tax.

The main effect of the Fries Rebellion was to weaken President Adams. The Republican opposition continued to fault him for the burdensome tax as well as the hated standing army and its ham-fisted tactics. At the same time, hard-core Federalists—supposedly his allies—excoriated the President for his weak response to the insurrection, especially the pardons. In retrospect the affair proved to be one of many cases in which the Federalists, who had looked so strong in the wake of the XYZ affair a year before, over-played their hand and gave the Republicans ammunition that would soon topple them from power.