John Fries

     In1798 the Federal Government anticipating a war with France and needed to raise money to support this cause created a new federal property tax to include land, buildings and slaves.  There were few slaves in Pennsylvania however, the tax on buildings was assessed according to how many windows there were on each building and by the windows size. This tax created resentment  because the population felt it was not being levied in proportion to the population. The way the assessors rode around counting windows infuriated the population. Resentment grew towards John Adams and his administration.  The Infuriated German farmers of Bucks, Northampton and Montgomery Counties began to rebel by chasing off assessors. Under John Fries leadership hundreds of farmers took up arms against the County to  prevent the assessors from doing their jobs and to run them out of the County. In response to public threats the Pennsylvania assessor resigned his position. In response to these threats the government called out Federal and Militia forces to round up and arrest the insurgents. John Fries was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.  In April of 1800 John Adams pardoned him and others by a general amnesty for all whom participated in the rebellion. This situation caused Adams to lose his bid for his second term as President of the United States. 

    John Fries was no stranger to rebellion,Just four years before in 1791 he took part in the Whiskey Rebellion where thousands of Pennsylvania farmers took up arms to protest the imposition of an excise tax on distilled spirits. This "Whiskey Rebellion" was the largest organized resistance against federal authority between the Revolutionary War an the Civil War and was one of only three such rebellions in the United States. A number of the insurgent's were prosecuted for treason in what would become the first such legal proceedings in the United States, which would set the parameters for defining treason.

    The excise tax was established in 1791 to reduce the national debt. Cash was seldom used in western Pennsylvania in the late eighteenth century but whiskey was gold. Locals used it not only for trading, but for cooking, medicine, and of course for drinking.  Over a three year period tax collectors where beaten, shot at, terrorized, intimidated, humiliated and one even had his home burned to the ground. By 1794 the excise tax in Pennsylvania was mostly uncollected, and so the government stepped in and began making arrests. Many were charged with federal offenses which included high treason. Upon learning that most of the rebels arrested did not instigate the rebellion President Washington pardoned each of them.