The fundamental philosophy of populist parties and movements, be they left or right, is “A small group of people have a disproportionate amount of power in society, it is to the detriment of the public, and we must do something about it.” This philosophy resounds with populism that surrounds support for Donald Trump and the condemnation of “elites” and “Washington insiders”. Trump’s views as well as his entertaining and embracing of conspiracy theories are not at all new to populist movements. They characterize them and have done so since the formation of the first such party, the Anti-Masonic Party.
In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president but Andrew Jackson was a rising political figure who himself had a lot of support from working people and was himself a populistic candidate, but his status as a Mason made him suspect for some. An event of that year would put the issue at the forefront of national attention, and that was what happened to a Batavia, New York brickmason named William Morgan. Morgan’s life is surrounded in controversy, including his reliability and his fate. He claimed to have been a Master Mason in Canada and appears to have attended at least one meeting in Rochester. Morgan publicly announced he was going to publish a book, Illustrations of Masonry, that was apparently going to have exposed all their secret workings after an apparent conflict with other Masons. This was a violation of an oath of secrecy that Masons take of the proceedings of such meetings, and several of them in Batavia made their displeasure public. He and his publisher, David Cade Miller, were subsequently subjected to threats and harassment as well as an attempted arson of Miller’s newspaper office. After being jailed for not paying a loan and apparently stealing a shirt and tie by the sheriff, Morgan was released by his publisher and then jailed again, with two men subsequently abducting Morgan from jail and taking him to Fort Niagara, never to be seen again. Although his fate is technically unknown, he is widely believed to have been murdered by Mason extremists.
The story of William Morgan made headlines, and conspiracy theories about the Masons spread like wildfire. There were public protests, a Masonic lodge was ransacked, and parading Masons were pelted with rocks. Thus, was birthed the Anti-Masonic Party, which was of course against the Masons and secret societies overall. They believed that the Masons were engaged in a conspiracy to control the American government and were as a group strongly Christian and anti-elite. They opposed Andrew Jackson, a Mason, and had some young political activists who would later play more significant roles in American politics, such as Millard Fillmore, Thurlow Weed, Thaddeus Stevens, and William H. Seward. Stevens denounced the Masonic Lodge as “a chartered iniquity, within whose jaws are crushed the bones of immortal men, and whose mouth is continually reeking with human blood, and spitting forth human gore” (Medved).
The Anti-Masonic Party also arose during a time of social and economic change as the frontier was expanding and white settlers were moving west, thus resulting in great uncertainty and angst as social capital declined. Major political players took advantage of the scandal to attack their opponents, with John Quincy Adams condemning Andrew Jackson for being a Mason himself. He would run for governor of Massachusetts on its ticket in 1833. In the 1828 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party won five seats in Congress, the first time a third party had done so. Two years later, they gained twelve more seats. They did especially well in the states of New York and Vermont and many voters vowed not to vote for any candidates who were Masons to curb their influence. Some even sought the end of Freemasonry altogether, with the Anti-Masonic Advocate of Wilkes-Barre holding, “To overcome this evil is a work of intelligence, and a work of time. We have scotched the snake, not killed it. We have forced it to hide in darkness — but though unseen, it is not less dangerous” (Gilmore). However, by 1831 many in the party had come to regard not Freemasonry the greatest threat, rather President Andrew Jackson himself. One leading member, Samuel Miles Hopkins, even admitted that in the last election he had voted for anti-Jackson candidates, even if they were Masons (Burt). The party had adopted additional positions, including support for protective tariffs and internal improvements. They succeeded in pushing making kidnapping a felony, called for anti-trust laws, and many prominent members would be known as fierce opponents of slavery. In 1832, the party nominated former Attorney General William Wirt for president, a protege of Thomas Jefferson and a former Mason himself who differed from party platform by defending the Masons, and they only won the state of Vermont. Their numbers again grew in the House, to 25. However, the 1834 and 1835 elections reflected the weakness of the party at this point, with them only retaining five seats. In the 1838 and 1839 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party retained no seats. Anti-Masons had moved to the Whig Party and in 1840 backed William Henry Harrison, who had earlier aligned himself with the Anti-Masons. The party dissolved in December of that year.
An Actual Conspiracy?
Although the idea of Masons trying to take over America was a conspiracy theory, the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s disappearance do point to an actual conspiracy…in the form of a cover-up. Although only a few Masons perpetrated the kidnapping and likely murder, many prominent people in Batavia and in New York politics altogether were Masons, including the sheriff who arrested Morgan twice. Prominent Masons even went as far as to defend Morgan’s fate as something he deserved. Freemasons also impacted the trials surrounding Morgan’s disappearance, as Nicholas Gilmore (2020) notes, “In the Genessee grand jury trials of 1826-27, five of the six foremen were Masons, including one who was implicated in the scandal. The juries — picked by sheriffs at the time — were full of Masons, or their brothers or sons, and the few Masons who spoke out against the fraternity’s militant protection of its own were expelled from their lodge. Similar circumstances stalled or obstructed justice in Ontario County trials as well”. The sentences handed down for the kidnapping ranged from only one month to two years. According to historian Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, “Masonry was a more widespread phenomenon than people understand, and they dominated political office” (Gilmore). New York’s governor at the time, DeWitt Clinton, was himself a high-ranking Mason and at one time the top ranking member in the nation. Eleven men were found to have been involved in the kidnapping of Morgan, but they were given light sentences. No murder convictions were handed down as no body was found. Anti-Mason political victories resulted in the end of sheriffs picking jurors.
The next post will be about the American Party, but it’s more common and derided name is the “Know Nothing Party”.
Burt, A. (2015, May 15). The Mysteries of the Masons. Slate.
Gilmore, N. (2020, October 26). The Conspiracy Theory That Spawned a Political Party. The Saturday Evening Post.
Medved, M. (2008, July 23). A Long Tradition of Fringe Parties and Paranoia. Townhall.
The Disappearance of William Morgan. Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research.