Digital Collections Spotlight #50: Fries’s Rebellion

Posted March 22, 2024 in Digital Access

Digital Collections Spotlight #50: Fries’s Rebellion

This month marks 224 years since eastern Pennsylvania was embroiled in a conflict over taxation known as Fries’s Rebellion, which culminated in a standoff at the Sun Inn in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. As such, it seems an appropriate time to highlight this item from our library collection, a 19th century book concerning the trials of the leader and namesake of the dispute, John Fries (1750-1818).

Titled “The Two Trials of John Fries, on an Indictment for Treason;” and published in 1800, this volume is not a book about the events in the usual sense of the word, rather it is primarily a transcription of the trials themselves based on shorthand notes taken by Thomas Carpenter[1], who was presumably in attendance. It also includes briefer descriptions of the trials of other people involved in the conflict.

Fries’s Rebellion was the third of a series of conflicts over taxation and government authority[2] that the young nation faced in the last decades of the 18th century. The impetus was a tax on real estate and slaves that was levied by Congress in order to pay for a build up of the military during the Quasi-War[3] (1798-1800), a conflict with the French First Republic. In Pennsylvania this tax was primarily based on land and homes, with the value of a home determined by size and number of windows. This tax quickly proved extremely unpopular due to concerns over the legality of the tax and actions of the tax assessors. John Fries, an auctioneer, became a leader amongst those opposing the tax and led an armed group that tried to drive tax assessors out of the region. The most famous incident of the conflict came in March of 1799, when Fries led an armed group to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and surrounded the Sun Inn where some of his allies were being held after being arrested by government officials, who were released without violence.

Fries’s Rebellion ended with the widespread arrest of the rebels, including John Fries, by federal troops and militia sent into the area by President John Adams. As described by this volume Fries was tried in federal court in Philadelphia on charges of treason twice[4] and was convicted and sentenced to death both times. However, President Adams pardoned him and issued a general amnesty for all involved, with John Fries returning to his auctioneering career until his death in 1818.

This small hardcover book offers a fascinating period account of Fries’s Rebellion as well as a detailed look at the operations of the legal system of the time and is an invaluable resource for anyone researching this tumultuous period of early American history.

[1] We found several people by that name involved in the American Revolution but this appears to have been a different Thomas Carpenter.
[2] The earlier conflicts were Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts and the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, both between 1786 – 1787.
[3] The Quasi-War was prompted by the US government refusing to honor treaties and debts after the French Revolution, it was primarily a naval conflict and ended with a new treaty with Napoleon Boneparte.
[4] He was given a second trial as the defense successfully argued that there had been irregularities, including an openly biased juror, in the original trial.

Image: Eab 193, Moravian Archives Bethlehem