Following Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787) and the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), Fries's Rebellion was the last in a trilogy of popular uprisings against taxing authorities after the American Revolution. The federal government had imposed its first Direct Tax in 1798 to fund a military program for defense against France during the Quasi-War. The French launched naval attacks upon America's Atlantic shipping after the United States in 1794 negotiated Jay's Treaty with Britain, with whom France was at war. The Direct Tax was a levy on lands, dwelling houses, and slaves, and the Federalist Adams administration appointed placemen to take the rates.
In eastern Pennsylvania, Federalist patronage fell to Quakers and Moravians, local minorities who had abstained from participation in the Revolution while their more numerous German Lutheran and Reformed neighbors had supported the Patriot cause. With the tax, the local ethno-religious political battle assumed national significance as resisters connected it with what they believed was a broader, Federalist Party assault upon the people's liberty that included the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) and the creation of a peacetime standing army. John Fries and his neighbors believed they had learned valuable lessons from the mistakes of the Shays and Whiskey rebels. Fries and other leaders had marched westward under George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. In 1798 they aimed to prevent what they perceived to be an unconstitutional tax through a combination of traditional and constitutional means. They drew upon the rituals of crowd action—affirmed during the imperial crisis and the Revolution—and nonviolently stopped the assessments while pleading with their representatives and petitioning Congress to repeal the tax law as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts. During the earliest days of the Republic, while James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were testing the theory of state nullification, the Fries rebels were asserting that the people themselves retained that right.
The rebellion occurred when some resisters liberated their neighbors from a federal marshal in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on 7 March 1799. The Adams administration quickly quashed the revolt with military force, but the story did not end there. Federalist mishandling of the affair accentuated existing intra-party divisions. While Adams had advocated the use of militia, the commanding general of the professional Provisional Army, Alexander Hamilton, and Secretary of War James McHenry had employed regular forces instead. When Adams pardoned John Fries just hours before his scheduled execution in May 1800, he alienated himself from most of his cabinet during a tight reelection campaign. The resisters went on to capture control of local government, help the Democratic Republicans win Pennsylvania, and throw the Keystone State to Jefferson in the Revolution of 1800.
Bouton, Terry. "A Road Closed: Rural Insurgency in Post-Independence Pennsylvania." Journal of American History 87 (December 2000): 855-887.
Paul Douglas Newman