The “Window Pane Tax”
The Federal Direct Tax of 1798, popularly called “the window pane tax,” precipitated an event called Fries (pronounced “freeze”) Rebellion which has been described as “a sort of comic opera that provided excitement here in Montgomery County for some months in 1798 and 1799.”
By 1798 the French aristocratic class had lost their heads, literally, and much of Europe was at war. The U.S. had concluded treaties with England and was in a sort of undeclared naval war with France. War fever was in the air and the government began preparations for military action which including passing four laws called the “Alien and Sedition Acts.” These laws, critics claimed, were aimed at stifling criticism of the government; and indeed, all but one were later found to be unconstitutional and repealed. One of the four, called “The Alien Enemies Act,” is still in place.
War preparations take money. In 1798 an act was passed by Congress providing “for the valuation of lands and dwelling houses and the enumeration of slaves within the United States” with the purpose of raising the money through taxation. The taxation turned out to be mild and the burden light. Properties assessed at less that $100 were exempt; $100 to $500 (which were the majority) paid one-fifth of one percent of the valuation. So a house valued at $200 (which was not uncommon) paid forty cents. As the houses and lands increased in value, the rates were increased in proportion until houses valued at several thousand dollars were paying one per-cent of the value. In comparison the annual taxes levied by Montgomery County at that time were much higher, generally ranging from $5.00 to $15.00 for an average farm.
Interestingly, there was nothing in the instructions of the assessors to count windows and lights (panes) from which the tax got its popular name. They were instructed to “assess” houses, lands, and slaves, but some of them took it on themselves to count and enumerate windows as part of their assessments. The fact that window panes were being counted created suspicion in the people that this was not going to be a one time only tax.
To the German farmers, this new tax was reminiscent of the odious “hearth tax” in the old country whereby a tax was levied according to the size and number of hearths a house contained. Also the money was being raised for a war that didn’t exist which further raised suspicion and opposition.
At that time there lived a resident of Milford Township near the Montgomery County line whose name was John Fries. He made a living “crying vendues” (as an auctioneer), and his occupation carried him throughout Montgomery, Bucks, Northampton, and Lehigh counties where he had gained a wide acquaintance and popularity among the German population.
Fries was an outspoken critic of a federal tax. He organized assemblies where the new tax and the government that created it were loudly denounced. He organized a group of about 60 armed men who prevented the assessors for doing their work. Fries claimed he could have 700 men at arms within a day. Liberty Poles were erected in village and town squares and the spirit of rebellion was in the land. The tax also became known as the “hot water tax” as housewives poured boiling water from second story windows on the assessors below.
Alarmed, in the spring of 1799 the U.S. government decided to quell the disorder by bringing the new sedition acts into play. Pennsylvania and New Jersey were ordered to ready their militias. Five hundred militiamen entered Bucks County while nine troops of Pennsylvania cavalry were called into service in Montgomery County. Brigadier General William Macpherson was assigned command of the “army” and they rendezvoused at Springhouse Tavern, which was located on the Bethlehem Pike near the present day Gwynedd Mercy College. From this headquarters General Macpherson issued a printed explanation in German of the tax which only seemed to further agitate the disaffected regions.
Finally taking action, the cavalry captured Fries and other leaders in Sellers’ Tavern, now Sellersville; and continued on to Quakertown, Macungie, and Reading while arresting more that a score of persons along the way. On April 23 they arrived back in Philadelphia. With Fries and other leaders under arrest, the “rebellion” subsided.
In May of 1799 the United States Court in Philadelphia convicted Fries of treason. He obtained a new trial, but an outbreak of yellow fever caused Fries and his associates to be transported to the prison in Norristown. Public sentiment was undoubtedly with the Fries party as the county sheriff, Isaiah Wells, permitted them to go out and work on farms during the day, keep whatever they earned, and returning to the jail at night.
Fries was tried again in April of 1800, again found guilty of treason and received the sentence of death by hanging. A short time later President Adams pardoned Fries and all the others arrested because of their service in the Revolutionary War.