Federal Property Tax of 1798--Results
Bill Long 10/14/07
A Little Rebellion in Pennsylvania
One of the strange ironies of our history is that the great tax revolt of 1799, one of the first in American history, occurred in PA not because the tax was any more onerous in PA than in other places, but because of when the assessments were made. The assessors finally got to work valuing land there around the first week of March 1799. At that time there was a narrow window of about three weeks when the men of the area (Bucks and Northampton Counties near Philadephia) were idle--the Winter snow had melted and it was too early to plant the crops. Thus, snow didn't hinder movement nor did Spring demand their planting of crops. The idle men were hanging around taverns; they became aware of the presence of federal assessors, and they chased them out of their area. Rebellion ensued, people were arrested, and a posse of men led by German-American John Fries went up to Bethlehem to release about two dozen men who had been arrested and imprisoned. No weapons were brandished, no shots were fired, and no one was injured in the release.
Fries was a charismatic man who tried to eke out a living as a farmer and auctioneer. As a result, his voice was well-known throughout the area. Here is a homey description of Fries, taken from a book on great American trials.
"John Fries was a farmer's son. He began life as a cooper's apprentice, joined the army, saw some service in the militia, went out with the troops to put down the Whisky insurrection and was now traveling up and down the country as a vendue-crier or auctioneer. No man in all his region was better known. The sight of him as with his dog Whisky at his feet, he stood upon the tail of a cart or the bottom of an upturned barrel ringing his bell and calling in a strange mixture of English and German for a bid on an iron spoon or an ancient lamp was familar to the people of every town. The delight of the people was to attend vendues. To be able to call by name each one of the crowd who hears him was the delight of every vendue crier and in this Fries seems to have been the most expert...
Doesn't this put some nice flesh on the skeleton of tax law? Well, after things simmered down, President John Adams ordered federal troops into the area to suppress the (by now non-existent) rebellion. They arrested Fries, and within a month the grand jury had indicted him for treason, a capital offense. He was tried in the federal Circuit Court in Philadelphia with one Supreme Court Justice (Iredell) and the District Court Judge (Peters) hearing the case. The narrative takes more than 140 pages in the aforecited book. Though convicted of treason and sentenced to death, he was granted a new trial because one of the jurors hinted at his bias. Then, one year later, with Justice Chase of the US Supreme Court and Judge Peters of the District court hearing the case, he was convicted again of treason and sentenced to death. It is here, however, that, we must pause a moment.
The Second Fries Trial (1800)
The reason the second Fries Trial only takes about 30 pages in the book is that Justice Chase felt he had to "move his docket along" and therefore handed a legal definition of treason to the attorneys in the case which would have included the conduct engaged in by Fries. Here is how it is described in our trial book.
"This trial has an historical importance which the first one did not have: for the presiding judge, Samuel Chase, was afterwards impeached before the Senate of the United States for the manner in which he conducted it. He began by reading to the prisoner's counsel his view of the law and plainly told them that there was no use their arguing to the jury their views as to what was treason, as his mind was fully made up on the question. Nor would he allow counsel to refer to English authorities, which he delcared had no application in this country. The lawyers for Fries protested, but it did no good and so they both withdrew from the case...."
Chase "magnanimously" then said he would act as counsel for the accused, but I put the word in quotation marks because the jury sentenced him to death again.
A Word on the Last Chapter of Our Saga
There is still so much to say. We need to know the variety of possible definitions of treason being argued at this time in American society, and we also need to consider more carefully all eight charges brought against Justice Chase. These are subjects of other essays. Suffice it to say for now that if you begin studying tax law in the way suggested in these last four essays, you may find that everyone starts becoming excited not only about tax law but about the study of law in general. On second thought, that might be too much for legal education to bear...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long