America's presidential election this month -- perhaps the most contentious in memory -- underscores the influence of the nation's chief executive in determining the extent of citizens' personal liberties. In March 1799, our outspoken cousin Heinrich "Henry" Schanckweiler, husband of Elisabetha Gaumer, was arrested at the order of President John Adams for speaking out on what he believed to be his legal rights as a taxpayer.
Henry opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, commonly known as the "Gag Law," considered by some as Adams' "reign of terror." The Acts gave Congress the power to deport immigrants and made it more difficult for aliens to vote, and they spelled out disciplinary measures for citizens who would "write, print, utter or publish" comments that the government considered "false, scandalous and malicious."
In March 1799, federal marshals arrested the German-speaking Henry at his log house in Millerstown, Lehigh (formerly Northampton) County, PA, for comments against legislation which he claimed deprived him of his rights. He and other similar offenders were marched to the nearby town of Bethlehem and held as prisoners even as law enforcement officials went into the local Sun Inn to drink beer. A group of Henry's friends, led by John Fries, who was running an armed rebellion against government oppression, surrounded the inn and rescued Henry and the others.
For his role in inciting and supporting the broad insurgence, Fries was sentenced to death by hanging. As Fries had 10 children, one just a newborn, friends circulated a petitioned signed by thousands, asking Adams for a pardon. Popular history suggests that Fries' wife traveled to Philadelphia to present the document to the president. Apparently Adams was merciful, or politically astute, and signed the reprieve. This woodcut image, from Charles A. Goodrich's 1849 book The Child's History of the United States, shows the meeting between Adams, Mrs. Fries and her offspring.
Our Henry eventually was tried and convicted for his outspokenness and spent a year in jail in Philadelphia, paying a fine of $150. More>>>