Fries's Rebellion

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Fries's Rebellion

John Fries was an auctioneer from rural Pennsylvania who led a small group of tax protesters in what came to be known as Fries's Rebellion. He was tried and convicted of Treason but was eventually pardoned.

Fries served as a captain in the Continental Army during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. He then returned to Pennsylvania to resume his life there. In 1798, Congress authorized the collection of property taxes to replenish funds depleted by the Whiskey Rebellion and to finance an anticipated war with France. Revenue officers were sent to all parts of the United States to assess the value of homes, land, and slaves for taxation. The tax assessment was well publicized and understood in urban areas, where most residents paid little attention to the assessors' activities. However, in the rural regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, where many residents spoke and read only German, many people were unaware of Congress's action and were resentful and fearful of the inquisitive assessors. They responded by attacking the revenue officers, both verbally and physically. Their treatment of the assessors was dubbed the Hot Water War, after an incident in which a woman dumped a bucket of hot water on a revenue agent.

The Pennsylvanians' protests escalated until a group of residents took several revenue officers captive and held them until they had satisfactorily explained their actions. Upon their release, the officers arrested twenty-three men for insurrection. Fries and a group of men who believed that the property tax was a deprivation of liberty took up arms and liberated their detained comrades. When the group resisted orders from President John Adams to disperse and to allow the federal officers to carry out their duties, Fries and its other leaders were arrested for treason.

Fries was brought to trial in 1799, before Judge Richard Peters, of the Pennsylvania District Court, and Justice James Iredell, of the Supreme Court. Fries's defense counsel argued that their client's offense was a simple protest that perhaps could be characterized as Sedition, but certainly did not rise to the level of treason, a capital crime. They contended that, in a free republic, the treason charge should be reserved for the most extreme cases of armed attempt to overthrow the government.

Defense counsel's pleas for freedom of expression of political sentiment did not convince members of the jury, who were probably influenced by Iredell's and Peters's instructions. In those instructions, Peters equated opposing or preventing the implementation of a law with treason, and Iredell agreed with him. Fries was found guilty, but was granted a new trial when the court learned that before the trial began, one juror had expressed a belief in his guilt.

Fries's second trial took place in April 1800, before Justice Samuel Chase, of the Supreme Court, and Judge Peters. Determined to expedite the second trial, Chase took the unprecedented step of preparing an opinion on the law of the case. Before the trial began, he distributed copies of his summary to the defense attorneys, the district attorney, and the jury. Chase made it clear that his opinion represented the court's view of the law of treason and that the defense would not be permitted to present lengthy arguments to the contrary, as it had in the first trial.

Outraged that the court had prejudged their client's case, Fries's attorneys withdrew from the case. Fries chose to proceed to trial without benefit of Legal Representation. He was again found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. However, after studying the case, President Adams pardoned him and the other insurgents. Soon after his pardon, Fries was promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel in the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, militia.

Justice Chase's conduct in Fries's second trial was harshly criticized as indirectly depriving Fries of counsel. The justice's actions were used against him in 1805, in an unsuccessful Impeachment proceeding.

Further readings

Elsmere, Jane Shaffer. 1979. "The Trials of John Fries." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103 (October).

Presser, Stephen. 1978."A Tale of Two Judges…." Northwest ern University Law Review 73 (March/April).

Cross-references

Whiskey Rebellion.