As with most allies throughout the history of this nation, the United States was quick to turn on the French following the successful Revolution against the British. The main point of contention this time was the simple fact that the government of the United States owed a large amount of money to the nation of France. With the recent forceful change of leadership in France from monarchy to republican in nature the politicians ruling in Washington decided to use this change as a chance to ignore the debts they had incurred.
The French began seizing our trading vessels and refused entrance to the new ambassador. This started the two year naval conflict called the Pirate Wars or Quasi-War. It was undeclared as a war but was still a war for all intents and purposes. To fund this attempt to flex their newly minted muscles on the international scene Washington passed a new set of taxes amounting to $2 million dollars, in 1798. This tax was levied against homes and slaves. With the same pen congress passed a law making it illegal to protest the tax calling it sedition and threatening harsh punishments. These two acts were called, the Direct House Tax of 1798 and the Alien and Sedition Acts.
In Pennsylvania the farmers who rarely owned slaves were being charged taxes based on the number of windows their property had. This led to many being upset yet again that a government they had placed in power and given the miracle of the constitution to would do such a thing to them. Again however, Congress used the newly minted Constitution to support this direct tax and the sedition act. A certain individual named John Fries, a Pennsylvania auctioneer, decided to try collective reasoning using the people most affected by these new taxes and this is where the story begins.
It began in February 1799, one of the coldest months of the year in Milford Township located in the upper corner of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Men gathered together to drink a beer and listen to the popular local auctioneer John Fries make his argument regarding the new taxes that were forcing so many to be colder and hungrier then normal this winter. The men grumbled and complained until Fries offered everyone a round on his coin, a true luxury these days. As they drank they listened to him tell them that they were not alone. Fellow farmers and neighbours all over South-Eastern Pennsylvania were suffering as they did now.
“Its our money!” he stated in a voice loud enough to raise the dead, the men cheered and raised their half empty mugs sloshing a bit and swaying as they stood. The question remained unspoken but on the minds of every man here, what would happen if the government which had already put down two other rallies without much bloodshed decided to enforce their new laws banning their speech. “They wont do nothing to us, look at those others with that corn whiskey thing.” one boisterous soul exclaimed. “Nah, if we do this lets do it using the uniforms we wore when we fought the redcoats!” another shouted. Fries looked around and held his hands out, “We can do this without violence, but if it comes to that, let them feel our steel!”
Over the next few days Fries warned many tax collectors that they should quit now to avoid bloodshed. Almost to a man they laughed at this smoothly dressed man and laughed, “What are you going to do” they would say back and the doors slammed in his face. It was almost March, the river ice was breaking up and the men were beginning to feel the blood in their legs and arms again. The last meeting had resulted in a group of them voluntarily agreeing to meet together in front of the Milford Township tax hall when the government representative came to talk to them. Some dressed in their marching best, others waved flags emblazoned with slogans like, “Give me Liberty or give me Death” and all of them were armed. The meeting was a miserable failure with the government stooge being shouted off stage and drowned out by the angry farmers and family men gathered against them.
The greys of February faded and the green began to show as March rolled in. Those who had attended the recent protests believed that the only way to ensure the tax assessors and the government took them seriously was if they ran them out of their homes and towns. A small band of locals gathered and marched to Quakerstown where they rounded up the tax assessors who had fled Milford Township. They were able to arrest several of them and with a stern warning and without undue violence released them to take a message back to the American king or president as some believed he was. The message was an easy one to remember, “Dont come back!”
Quickly the government responded even as their responses fanned the flames of continued rebellion from the family men who had gathered to ensure their families survival continued. They sent Federal Marshals and began arresting people involved with the rebellion across South-Eastern Pennsylvania. The charges were tax resistance, and the people became angrier still. It was in Millerstown that the people decided that this would not happen any more. A crowd of people, old men, young men, women and children gathered to prevent the marshals from taking any more of their people. On his way out with his men the Marshal was able to arrest a couple other men and quickly fled back to Bethlehem.
Two groups of farmers gathered up their weapons and pursued the government kidnappers back to Bethlehem. With a little over 400 men many armed the forces led by John Fries forced the marshal to give back the men he had taken, this was accomplished without using force though the threat of potential harm to the marshal and his band of 19 or 20 men was readily apparent. King (president) Adams quickly called up a force of 1200 men to march on the rebels in Pennsylvania. Over the course of a few weeks had succeeded in rounding up John Fries and approximately 30 of his associates.
During the time spent by the pro government troops there were numerous reports of rapes, murders and much theft and looting of farmers and individuals living in Bucks and Northampton Counties. Not much more is known of the actual actions taken during this time, only that the people living in those counties often helped the rebels and staunchly opposed the government hit squads sent to regulate them. After their arrests the individuals involved were all convicted of treason and sentenced to be hung until dead. As a result of a large public outcry the President quickly pardoned them and this page in history was carefully ignored by most texts until it has almost faded from the memories of America.
I relate this story in the form above because it is essential to understand that the Patriot Act and all the other recent laws that have been called “unconstitutional” are in fact just as constitutional as any other ever passed, and not nearly as bad as some that were passed mere months after the constitution was ratified. More importantly there are many who believe as I do that the constitution itself is as much the problem as the people interpreting it. We are individuals, and to have freedom no government can claim control over our actions and lives. What will it take you to say enough?
Free the mind and the body will follow.
- W.W.H. Davis (The Fries Rebellion, 1798-99)