The Dawn of the Republic 1785-1815

excerpted from the book

The Tree of Liberty

A Documentary History of Rebellion
and Political Crime in America

edited by Nicholas N. Kittrie and Eldon D. Wedlock, Jr.

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998


Fugitives from Law and from Slavery (1793)

The United States Constitution gave legal validity to slavery, restrained states from emancipating slaves escaped from other states, and articulated the right to repossess fugitive slaves. The detailed machinery for the execution of this right, the Fugitive Slave Act, was created by the Second Congress on February 12,1793. Upheld by the Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539 (1842), the 1793 act was later amended by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a more severe measure resulting from a series of compromise resolutions proposed by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Congress relied on state authorities for rendering fugitives from the law but invoked federal process for the repossession of runaway slaves. Thus, the power of the United States government sustained the institution of slavery outside the boundaries of the slave states. Additionally, those who acted to hinder the recapture of slaves were subject to criminal punishment by the United States. The vigor with which this law was or was not enforced provided one point of friction between the Union and the various states, as well as among states.


The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794)

In 1790, at the suggestion of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the federal government assumed the entire domestic debt from the Revolutionary War, which the states had not been able to service. The undertaking of this substantial load compelled government to seek new revenues.

The March 3, 1791, excise tax on domestically produced spirits stirred up the western counties of Pennsylvania, which contained a quarter of the nation's stills. The back-country farmers considered the tax, ranging from nine to twenty-five cents per gallon, particularly unjust, because it affected the sole product that they were able to transport profitably over the rugged Allegheny mountains to the markets of Philadelphia and the East Coast. The tax also reminded the settlers of hated English excises including the odious Stamp Act, opposition to which had fueled the movement toward revolution. The fact that western distillers accused of violating the excise law were to be tried in Philadelphia aggravated the situation. The trip was time consuming and expensive, and the law was reminiscent of the acts of Parliament requiring that certain crimes in the colonies be tried in England. In 1794, Congress provided that these charges could be heard in the local state court, as well as the federal court in Philadelphia, but it was too late. A series of summonses commanding appearance in Philadelphia had already been issued and subsequently served. Angry western settlers directed their wrath at the federal marshals seeking to serve process. Several were tarred and feathered and forced to swear not to serve federal process in the western counties.

John Fries's Rebellion (1799-1800)

The first federal excise tax imposed on spirits (1791) led to the Whiskey Rebellion. A different tax imposed within the same decade, to satisfy Hamilton's desire to strengthen the federal government and to finance an expected war with France, gave rise to the similar rebellion of John Fries in 1799. A venue cryer with quickness of wit, Fries became a leader in the opposition. He represented the German-speaking populations of northern and southeastern Pennsylvania by opposing the collection of the new tax "based on the evaluation of lands and dwelling houses and the enumeration of slaves within the United States." When disorderly resistance to the tax led to the mobbing and threatening of the tax collectors, the federal authorities made several arrests. The rebels held local meetings and decided to rescue the prisoners.

Their elected leader, John Fries, proceeded to Bethlehem at the head of an ill-equipped column of about 140 men. Under the threat of arms, the marshall released the prisoners and the irregulars dispersed. But reports of the events reached President John Adams, and although all resistance to the law had ceased, Adams convened his cabinet and issued a proclamation accusing the insurgents of treason and ordering them to lay down their arms. John Fries was arrested, and federal troops proceeded to harass the local inhabitants suspected of opposition to the government...

The Greatest Crime That Any Man Can Commit (1800) (John Fries)

John Fries, leader of the anti-tax rebellion, was indicted and tried for treason. Alexander Dallas, a leading Jeffersonian who later would become Madison's secretary of the treasury, defended Fries. His first trial ended in a mistrial, but at the second trial before Justice Samuel Chase and Judge Richard Peters, Fries was convicted and sentenced to death. John Fries's lawyers withdrew from the trial on the grounds that Judge Chase's injudicious conduct made it impossible for them to defend their client. On advice of counsel, Fries rejected substitute counsel and defended himself... (The jury brought in a verdict of guilty.)

How Should the Pennsylvania Insurgents Be Treated? (1800) (John Fries)

Fries submitted a petition requesting forgiveness. He raised objections on the grounds that Justice Chase had tried the case in Philadelphia, in contradiction of the United States' laws requiring a crime to be judged in the county in which it was committed. He also claimed Justice Chase unreasonably limited the arguments of counsel, precipitating their resignation from the case.

The Adams cabinet, taking refuge in the letter of this law, unanimously advised that Fries be hanged. Secretary of the Treasury Wolcott urged that the whole state should be cleansed, since Pennsylvania was "the most villainous compound of heterogeneous matter conceivable." President Adams, however, overruled his cabinet and pardoned John Fries and his followers. Adams's ... considered not only the penitence and the character of the condemned men, as in any other pardon, but also the public effect of the decision and the degree of danger to the country posed by the crime.

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