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Tax Rebel John Fries Brings On Hot Water War of 1799

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 16 2011 12:11:13 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 05 2011 01:15:58 AM CDT

Bethlehem's Sun Inn has seen a lot of history. Distinguished visitors stopped here, Washington, Franklin and Adams among them. But in 1799 it was forced into a strange role as a temporary prison for a group of local people who were accused of treason. How all this happened says a lot about both local and national history.

In the 1790's you could not have found a more patriotic group of people in America than the Pennsylvania Germans. How did they end up finding themselves regarded as traitors, dragged to prison and only saved from the gallows by a presidential pardon? It all began over a foreign war and the politics of taxes in the then U.S. capitol of Philadelphia.

In the 1790's Europe was at war. England, America's former mother country and France, her ally in the Revolution that had since had a revolution of its own, were making troubles for the U.S. on the high seas. To show that it meant business, the U.S. government, tired of being bullied because it was a neutral, decided to build some frigates.

To do this, taxes had to be raised to pay for the ships. So it was decided that the government should impose a direct tax. This was the first time the U.S. government had ever done this.

When word got out among the Pennsylvania Germans that a tax was to be raised it caused a stir. Since the end of the Washington administration and the election of John Adams as president there had been a growing movement of support toward Thomas Jefferson's new Democratic - Republican Party. They denounced the Federalists for being aristocrats and for looking down on the common people. And the Federalists in Pennsylvania did not help themselves by generally having a condescending attitude toward the Pennsylvania Germans.

The tax itself was actually small. Most folks would have had to pay a one time levy of less than $1. Some historians claim it was the fault of the language barrier. Many Pennsylvania Germans, they argue, could not read and those who could, could not read English. They were, these scholars argue, unaware that this was a lot different then what the British had tried to do.

But historian Paul Douglas Newman, author of the recent, "Fries Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle of the American Revolution," disagrees.

"These people were not the "dumb Dutch" stereotype that some historians claim," says Newman. "They had serious concerns about what they saw as an attempt to take away their hard-won freedoms."

The chief embodiment of the rebellion was John Fries. As an auctioneer, originally from what is now Quakertown, he traveled from one local community to another and had made many contacts. By no means a radical, he had just been angered by the high-handed nature of the tax collectors.

When the government tax men arrived they were met with deep suspicion. "The assessors exceeded their directive and counted the windows in houses," writes Macungie historian Dale Eck. "Counting of windows was not part of the assessment, but it raised suspicion that it was being done for some future taxation."

The leader of the Macungie rebels was David Schaeffer. And he was not the only one in his family who felt strongly about the issue. His wife, who had just had a child, was outraged when she heard that windows were being counted. She took boiling hot water and threw it out the window on the assessors, thus giving the uprising the nickname "Hot Water War." Other women followed her lead and even poured the contents of chamber pots on the luckless tax man.

The rebellion came to a head on March 7, 1799. Fries led 140 Pennsylvania Germans to the Sun Inn to free 12 tax resisters being held by Federal Marshall Col. Samuel Nichols. According to Newman, Fries used a combination of threats and persuasion to talk the badly outnumber Nichols to give up his prisoners.

Having won their release, Fries thought the rebellion was over. He returned home as did the rest of his supporters. But the Federalists in Philadelphia were convinced they were dealing with something on the order of the French Revolution. Adams ordered the militia of several counties out to bring in Fries and the tax rebels. This they did, Fries being discovered when his dog Whiskey barked near his hiding place.

When one tax rebel asked a Federalist justice of the peace what his fate would be he was told he would be tried "and in two weeks you will be in hell, sir." A treason trial was indeed held, and the chief prosecutor was Samuel Sitgreaves, Northampton County's congressman and an expert in the field of impeachment and treason.

The trial was almost complete when it was discovered that one of the jurors had stated his dislike of Fries before the trial. So a mistrial was declared and a new trial held. All of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to hang. But John Adams, who thought the men were ignorant and deluded, granted all of them a presidential pardon. This drew on him the outrage of the conservative members of his party, and a favorable judgment from history. But Adams' mercy came too late for Macungie tax rebels David Schaeffer and Michael Schmoyer, who died in prison of yellow fever.

The elections of 1800 brought an end to the national political life of the Federalists and to the political career of Sitgreaves, who never held public office again. Fries returned to his auction trade.

And many years later after photography had been invented, someone had the good sense to take a picture of David Schaeffer's wife, long since remarried and known as Grandy or Granny Miller. She died in 1855.