October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
A second instance of rebellion, known as the Fries Uprising, took place in Pennsylvania in March, 1799, this time in three eastern counties: Northampton, Bucks, and Montgomery. The issue was a direct federal property tax passed by Congress in 1798 in anticipation of war with France. A roving auctioneer named John Fries successfully raised several hundred men to oppose the government’s efforts to collect the tax. After they had chased the tax collectors from the area and freed three tax dodgers from the Bethlehem jail, President Adams proclaimed the uprising treason and sent in the militia to put it down. The troops found no insurrection—the armed men had long ago dispersed—but did capture Fries and two of his lieutenants, who were brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to hang.
Informed of the death penalty imposed on Fries, Adams assembled his Cabinet for direction. The Cabinet unanimously opposed the extension of pardon, but Adams decided to “take on myself alone the responsibility of one more appeal to the humane and generous natures of the American people.” He pardoned the three condemned men and on May 21, 1800, extended a “full, free and absolute pardon” to virtually all the remaining insurrectionists.
With the onset of the second war with Great Britain in 1812, Congress authorized a 166,000-man army to be drawn primarily from the state militias to supplement the seven-thousand-man Regular Army. Three New England states refused to comply with Congress’ request, and elsewhere recruiting proved difficult. In 1814, following two years of disastrous defeats that culminated in the burning of the city of Washington, President Madison asked for a congressional draft of forty thousand men. Both houses passed separate bills, but before the differences between them could be ironed out, the war ended and the draft issue was dropped.
On three separate occasions (February and October, 1812, and June, 1814) Madison attempted to bring the small Regular Army up to strength by offering a general pardon (as President Jefferson had done in October, 1807) to any deserters who reported for duty within four months of the proclamation date.
No general pardons were granted to deserters after the war had ended. The only postwar amnesty was directed to the Barataria pirates. For some years prior to 1814 about eight hundred pirates under the command of the notorious Lafitte brothers had plied their trade along the Gulf coast until in September, 1814, the U.S. Navy closed their base at Barataria in the bayous south of New Orleans. Under indictment for piracy, the Baratarians nonetheless refused a bid to join with the British and offered instead to help in the defense of New Orleans. A reluctant Andrew Jackson finally accepted their services, and the “hellish banditti” (as he called them) were instrumental in defeating the English troops.
Acting on a petition from the I/uiisiana legislature and convinced in his own mind that the pirates had “abandoned … the worse cause for the support of the best,” Madison concluded that they could “no longer be considered as objects of punishment, but as objects of a generous forgiveness.” Accordingly, on February 6, 1815, he tendered a “free and full Pardon” to any accused pirate who could produce written proof from the governor of Louisiana that he had taken part in the successful defense of New Orleans, provided no act of piracy had taken place after January 8, 1815.
Because Congress had lately redrafted the military code, repealing the death penalty for deserters in peacetime, President Jackson issued an executive order on June 12, 1830, extending “free and full pardon … to those who at the date of this order stand in the character of deserters.” All those in prison were freed and returned to duty. Those still at large and those under the death sentence were ordered discharged and prohibited from all future military service. Wrote Jackson, “… the ranks of the Army should be composed of respectable, not degraded materials.”
Nearly fifty thousand troops for the Mexican War were raised entirely from volunteers. There were no conscripts, and the state militias were not called on to serve. Despite formidable opposition to the war in New England the government had little difficulty in filling the ranks. President Polk later told Congress that the war had proved again that it was unnecessary to have a large peacetime army. “Unlike what would have occurred in any other country,” he said, “we were under no necessity of resorting to drafts or conscriptions. On the contrary, such was the number of volunteers who patriotically tendered their services that the chief difficulty was in making selections and determining who should be disappointed and compelled to remain at home.”
There was no general pardon for deserters at the war’s end.