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Fries's Rebellion

The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution

By Paul Douglas Newman

Publication Year: 2011

In 1798, the federal government levied its first direct tax on American citizens, one that seemed to favor land speculators over farmers. In eastern Pennsylvania, the tax assessors were largely Quakers and Moravians who had abstained from Revolutionary participation and were recruited by the administration of John Adams to levy taxes against their patriot German Reformed and Lutheran neighbors.

Led by local Revolutionary hero John Fries, the farmers drew on the rituals of crowd action and stopped the assessment. Following the Shays and Whiskey rebellions, Fries's Rebellion was the last in a trilogy of popular uprisings against federal authority in the early republic. But in contrast to the previous armed insurrections, the Fries rebels used nonviolent methods while simultaneously exercising their rights to petition Congress for the repeal of the tax law as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts. In doing so, they sought to manifest the principle of popular sovereignty and to expand the role of local people within the emerging national political system rather than attacking it from without.

After some resisters were liberated from the custody of a federal marshal, the Adams administration used military force to suppress the insurrection. The resisters were charged with sedition and treason. Fries himself was sentenced to death but was pardoned at the eleventh hour by President Adams. The pardon fractured the presidential cabinet and splintered the party, just before Thomas Jefferson's and the Republican Party's "Revolution of 1800."

The first book-length treatment of this significant eighteenth-century uprising, Fries's Rebellion shows us that the participants of the rebellion reengaged Revolutionary ideals in an enduring struggle to further democratize their country.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. ix-xii

On March 7, 1799, nearly four hundred men marched into Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, behind John Fries, to demand the release of seventeen prisoners jailed for resisting a federal tax. Fries (pronounced "Freeze") captained a company of militia from Bucks County, the same unit with which he had served as a Patriot in the Revolution. Two decades later he led a combined...

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Prologue: "The Constitution Sacred, No Gagg Laws, Liberty or Death"

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pp. 1-12

Just days before Christmas 1798, Henry and Peggy Lynn Hembolt hosted a gathering of their neighbors near their Montgomery County paper mill. It was a private party among friends, nine of them in all. As they ate their meal, drank their toasts, and gave thanks for the closing year, their holiday mood turned, however, to political concerns. While they counted republican...

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Chapter 1: Liberty

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pp. 13-47

Scenes similar to the raising of the Hembolts' liberty pole unfolded throughout the upper Schuylkill, upper Perkiomen, and Lehigh valleys during the fall and winter of 1798-99. In Northampton, northwestern Bucks, northern Montgomery, Berks, and Dauphin Counties, Kirchenleute communities hoisted liberty poles and signed Ā«associations" vowing to resist assessment of their...

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Chapter 2: Order

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pp. 48-78

As is clear in the language used by the Lehigh Kirchenleute, liberty was the most significant component of the American conception of republican politics. But it is one of the great historical ironies of the period that, despite the unifying power of the desire for liberty, American Revolutionaries never...

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Chapter 3: Resistance

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pp. 79-111

Competing definitions of republican liberty-the broadening idea of liberty and extensive participation versus the narrowing conception of the need for a deferential ordered liberty-produced the national partisan conflict between Federalists and Republicans and colored local events in the Lehigh Valley in 1798. This competition informed the Lehigh Kirchenleute resistance...

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Chapter 4: Rebellion

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pp. 112-141

After the October county commissioners' meeting in Reading, Seth Chapman scheduled a meeting of his assessors for the upper twelve townships of Bucks County for late December. He had none of the troubles Eyerle had experienced trying to convince his appointees to accept the positions. He appointed his brother James as his principal assessor for the district, and James...

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Chapter 5: Repression

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pp. 142-164

Federalist leaders-Hamiltonians especially-and even Republicans saw insurrection rather than riot or constitutional resistance in 1799. Both viewed the happenings in the Lehigh Valley that year through a set of republican lenses that overcorrected their vision concerning matters of domestic tranquility. But Federalists, especially those obsessed with social order, used Fries's...

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Chapter 6: Injustice

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pp. 165-188

As John Adams found in 1800, it was (and still is) difficult to describe the Kirchenleute tax resistance and the rescue of federal prisoners as an insurrection. While they certainly broke the law, the question is, which laws did they break? It is a far stretch to contend that they committed treason and Ā«levied war" against the government of the United States, as those terms and...

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Epilogue: Die Zeiten von '99

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pp. 189-202

Three and a half decades after President Adams issued the pardons, a decade after his death, and nearly two decades after the death of John Fries, Fries's Rebellion had still not been forgotten. In the autumn of 1836, the nation was caught in the grips of a bitterly contested presidential election between two rival political parties. In the Lehigh Valley, Andrew Jackson's Democrats...


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pp. 203-246


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pp. 247-257


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pp. 257-259

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200980
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812219203

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2011