British Royal Family

British Royal Family
British Royal Family

The British royal family has been the source of numerous conspiracy theories throughout U.S. history. The late colonial and Revolutionary War eras in America were the most prolific periods for conspiracies involving British royals. The bitter struggle for independence established a context in which the general popular opinion in America at this time held, as one pair of historians recently noted, “chronic suspicion of all things British”.

Figures like Benedict Arnold (who fought for the Americans in the War of Independence but then defected to the British) represent the very real danger faced by loyalists for their unpatriotic actions, which often fueled popular intrigue. Yet, during this time there existed substantial loyalty to Britain throughout the colonies, and in some this was the majority sentiment.

In 1766 in Delaware, for example, about half of the 37,000-strong population were in opposition to war with Britain. This group of loyalists was important because it formed a political and cultural countercurrent that would come to dominate politically after the war.

The British royal family has been viewed as a source of conspiracy and intrigue since the early years of the republic, and in particular the attitude of King George III toward the colonists has long haunted the American popular mind. Reparations for loyalists and British creditors were among the important negotiating points for John Jay in his securing of the 1783 Treaty between the United States and Great Britain.

But in the partisan debate over the treaty, opponents made clear their perceived collusion of Jay and the Federalists with the English Crown and wealthy British interests, such that Fisher Ames, in defense of the treaty, asserted that not even a treaty that “left King George his island” and “stipulated he pay rent on it” would suffice critics.

The publication of The Address of the People of England to the Inhabitants of America by Sir John Dalrymple revealed the explicit design of the Crown to develop an aristocratic strata of American society loyal not only to the King’s government but to the Tory social order as well.

The historian Gordon Wood noted the effect was that “every successive step by the Crown, under the guise of a corrupt and pliant Parliament, only confirmed American fears of a despotic conspiracy against freedom”. And during his presidency, George Washington held serious reservations about British motives surrounding subversive and secretive policies designed to negatively impact American interests.

Examples include British Order in Council 6 in November 1793, Pinckney’s dispatch to Randolph on 25 November 1793, and the Dorchester speech in March 1794. Ironically, it would later be the partisan opposition of the Federalists that would echo these same concerns for conspiracies emanating from designs by the British Crown, but allege the Federalists with complicity.

One great conspiracy during the Washington administration involved the allegation that John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others in the Federalist Party were secretly planning to institute a monarchy modeled on the British Crown in America.

The issues of monarchy and aristocratic titles continued to be controversial and the source of continued conspiracy speculation during the presidency of John Adams. Adams was so impacted by these allegations that he made distinct statements to clearly demonstrate his loyalty to existing American constitutional institutions during his Inaugural Address.

Adams was responding to charges such as those made by the journalist James Callender, who authored The Prospect before Us, and for which he was later convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. In The Prospect before Us, Callender accused Adams of “being a toady to English interests, and of wishing to install a monarchy in the U.S.”.

After the early nineteenth century, the British Royal family and British interests and society generally became a less attractive subject of paranoid partisans or conspiracy theorists.

The “special relationship” between the United States and Britain developed and their shared language, common heritage, and cultural, political, and economic interests made them natural allies—indeed the closest of allies, as the United States replaced Britain as the hegemonic power in the West, and assumed maintenance of Western order in the international system. The British royal family have become popular media figures in the United States and a major U.S. tourist asset for Britain.

This relationship has not precluded the continued development of extremist conspiracy theories at the margins of American society today. Among the most bizarre conspiracy theories to emerge in recent years is the claim by A-Albionic Consulting and Research, based in Ferndale, Michigan, that the British royal family is in a secret struggle with the Vatican, dating back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, when Protestants and Catholics were in conflict all over Europe.

A-Albionic alleges that the British royal family and their Jewish internationalist allies are controlling the world supply of drugs and money, and wielding subversive influence over world affairs. Additionally, the political organization of Lyndon LaRouche has echoed these British royal conspiracy plots in their political communications in recent times.

John Brown

John Brown
John Brown

John Brown led an unspectacular life until he was well into his fifties, when he began leading violent antislavery activity in the Midwest. This reached its culmination when he conspired with six northern abolitionists and attempted to lead a slave insurrection in the South by raiding the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

Although it is unclear whether Brown believed he could actually begin an insurrection, he did succeed in pushing the issue of slavery to the boiling point. The violence at Harper’s Ferry, which caused southern fears of future conspiracies, would be one of the key events that set the Civil War in motion.

Brown was born on 9 May 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. Five years later, the family moved to Ohio’s Western Reserve, where Brown grew up, absorbing his father’s Calvinism, strict discipline, and hatred of slavery.

Brown worked a variety of jobs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, including tanning and sheep-farming, and during his life fathered some twenty children. He was never successful in any of his business ventures and in 1842 he declared bankruptcy. In 1848, Brown moved his family, more or less permanently, to North Elba, New York.

In 1848, for a short-lived abolitionist newspaper called The Ram’s Horn, Brown published a satirical essay, “Sambo’s Mistakes,” in which the narrator assumes the persona of a Negro who looks back on a life wasted in submissiveness to whites. Around this time, Brown’s thoughts on slavery began to turn increasingly activist and violent—unlike most abolitionists, he had never made a commitment to nonviolence.

He had met Frederick Douglass for the first time the previous year and told him of his plans to free the slaves. Though Douglass would later decline Brown’s offer to join him in raiding Harper’s Ferry (on the grounds that such a plan was “suicidal”), there is strong evidence that Brown caused Douglass to rethink his own nonviolent abolitionism.

Responding to the Fugitive Slave Act compromise of 1850, which attempted to appease slaveholders and ease North-South tensions, Brown founded the League of Gileadites in 1851, which authorized its forty-four black members to murder slavecatchers.

By the time he attended an 1855 convention of abolitionists in Syracuse, New York, Brown had become an abolitionist zealot who increasingly identified himself and his cause with those of the Old Testament warriors. Later that year, he moved to Kansas (leaving his wife and younger children in North Elba), where six of his sons and a son-in-law had taken up claims on land.

Near Pottawatomie in May 1856, in retaliation for the murder of FreeSoilers by proslavery men, Brown, with three of his sons and a few other men, abducted five proslavery settlers and murdered them, some by broadsword. Neither Brown nor the other men were ever indicted for the massacre.

“Captain Brown,” with his small company of Free-State raiders, continued participating in other militant antislavery maneuvers in the Kansas bushwhacking wars of the 1850s. In December 1858, Brown and his men, in concert with another company led by Aaron Stevens, went into Missouri, ransacked proslavery homes, and freed eleven slaves.

Earlier that year, while in Boston, Brown met secretly with six northern backers of his scheme to invade the South: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, George L. Stearns, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, and Gerrit Smith.

The six backers diverted funds in various ways to support Brown, even though Brown did not supply them with many specific plans; other than a vague notion of attracting slaves as he moved southward from Appalachia, Brown apparently had no developed plan.

All ardent abolitionists, the Secret Six (as they came to be known) thought that even if Brown failed to incite a slave insurrection, his operations, whatever they were, would ignite the powder keg of a civil war that would lead to the end of slavery.

Renting a farm across the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in 1859, Brown planned to seize the federal arsenal there and arm the area slaves that he expected to rise up in the wake of the raid.

Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry seems to have been doomed from the start: Brown’s army—twenty-two men, including Brown, three of his sons, and five blacks—was too small to carry out an invasion of the South. He had little or no definite idea about what to do after overtaking the arsenal, nor did he let the nearby slaves know he expected them to join him after he had taken control.

The actual raid started out as well as Brown could have hoped: he and his men killed the mayor of Harper’s Ferry, took some townspeople hostage, and easily captured the lightly guarded armory complex on the evening of 16 October. But only a few slaves were rounded up by Brown’s men for the insurrection, and one of Brown’s men shot a free black railroad worker.

The next morning, locals began sniping at Brown and his men, and Maryland’s militia occupied the town. By afternoon, eight of the raiders, including two of Brown’s sons, were killed. That night, the marines, commanded by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, arrived, attacked with a battering ram, and captured Brown and his men.

To head off a possible lynching, the state of Virginia quickly indicted, tried, and convicted Brown of treason, murder, and fomenting insurrection. Brown rejected his counsel’s pleas of insanity and was hanged on 2 December in Charleston. Six of his raiders were hanged at later dates.

Brown had left documents in a Maryland farmhouse implicating the Secret Six. Political squabbles ensued after Brown’s execution; the proslavery Democrats (erroneously) believed that the Republicans had something to do with Brown’s raid.

By a combination of the incompetence of the Senate investigative committee and the false testimony of Howe and Stearns (the only two of the Secret Six to show up for questioning), no conspiracy was found, and no one outside of Brown and his raiders was indicted.

Though Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a failure in execution, it further polarized an already divided country. Brown’s raid made southerners afraid that an insurrection by “Black Republicans” was imminent. Secessionist newspapers alleged that Lincoln, if elected in 1860, would, like Brown, incite slaves to insurrection and violence. For many northerners, Brown was a martyr, a portent of a larger war to end slavery.

Brown Scare

The German American Bund marches through New York City in 1939
Brown Scare

The rise of Nazism and the advent of World War II in Europe increased concerns about collective security in the United States. In the context of economic depression, populist demagogues gained mass followings by identifying scapegoats and promising simple solutions.

Given the proliferating numbers of antisemitic and pro-fascist groups and rumors of armed conspiracies against the government, many liberals became anxious about the potential for fascism in the United States.

Influential educators, philanthropists, social scientists, and government bureaucrats questioned the U.S. public’s capacity for making responsible choices, because they believed that totalitarian propagandists were deceiving the public with manipulative propaganda. Although Nazi espionage activity was badly flawed, fears about the persuasive power of Nazi propaganda led to restrictions on freedom of association and communication in the United States.

Employing the politics of guilt-by-association, liberal and leftist activists denounced far-right agitators, isolationists, and anticommunists as Fifth Columnist conspirators. They sponsored forums, issued newsletters, and mustered demonstrations against those whom they opposed. They warned that con men could dupe Americans, that fascism would triumph in disguise. Respectable journalists and influential columnists repeated their claims.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and state un-American committees were created to monitor such activities, and subversive organizations were required to register with the government. Reacting to conservative charges that New Dealers were abetting the Communist conspiracy in the United States, meanwhile, leftists attempted to link conservatives to antisemitic agitators.

In the context of this “brown scare” (a term modeled on the anticommunist red scare), the Roosevelt administration manipulated fears about Nazi spies and saboteurs, prosecuting antisemitic agitators for seditious conspiracy, and charging that isolationists were un-American. In the campaign against foreign subversion, a coercive state apparatus developed, one that would subordinate the government’s role as a protector of liberties to that of maintainer of security.

The brown scare materialized, in part, because Fifth Column fears were based upon plausible assumptions. Memories of German sabotage operations during World War I had not yet receded, and German nationals did play a role in the Nazi conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

Endeavoring to draw the United States closer to the Allies, British intelligence uncovered Nazi covert activities in the Western Hemisphere and generated rumors about potential subversion in the United States. U.S. government investigators broke several Nazi spy rings, exposed clumsy Nazi propaganda efforts, and, after Pearl Harbor, thwarted sabotage missions.

Some rightist groups did advocate violence and overthrow of the U.S. government, and some even established contact with the Nazi regime. In 1941, a Justice Department investigation revealed that George Silvester Viereck, a Reich propaganda agent, had written several speeches for Senator Ernest Lundeen.

With the help of George Hill, a press clerk for Representative Hamilton Fish, Viereck had also secured thousands of congressional frank envelopes, which they used to mail 50,000 reprints from isolationist speeches and Congressional Record excerpts.

Nazi propaganda efforts aimed at recruiting German Americans to a Fifth Column, however, met with utter failure. The Friends of the New Germany, a front organization that endeavored to take over or influence German American community groups and newspapers, only managed to draw in about 5,000–10,000 German citizens and recently naturalized emigrĂ©s between 1933 and 1935.

The group’s coercive tactics infuriated German Americans, drawing negative press coverage and government investigators. Responding to a Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League report on German propaganda, a federal grand jury indicted Friends leader Heinz Spanknoebel for failing to register as a foreign agent, and he left the country in October 1933.

Members of the Teutonia Society formed the German-American Bund, which, unlike Teutonia, received no finances from and had no political ties to Berlin. In 1935, the organization was revitalized under the management of Fritz Julius Kuhn, a recently naturalized citizen who lied about his personal relationship with Hitler in order to gain political standing.

Although the Bund aimed to raise support for the Nazi regime, the group posed little threat to internal security, because an embarrassed Nazi regime repudiated it and, more importantly, the group failed to mobilize support among German Americans.

Congressman Samuel Dickstein, however, charged that Kuhn commanded 20,000 followers, a tenth of whom were preparing for military combat. Representative John Martin declared that those who sympathized with the Bund were traitors.

In 1938, thirty-eight Bundists on Long Island were convicted of failing to register as members of an oath-bound organization. Convicted of larceny and forgery, Kuhn was imprisoned in December 1939. The 2,000 or so remaining Bundists struggled along until Pearl Harbor under a successor, Wilhelm Kunze, who really was a contact for a German espionage ring.

The U.S. demagogue who most clearly expressed sympathy for the Nazi cause was William D. Pelley. Like Kuhn, Pelley claimed that the White House was part of the international Bolshevist conspiracy and that a Jewish oligarchy controlled U.S. diplomacy.

By 1934 he had recruited about 15,000 people to his Silver Shirts, a paramilitary organization that promised to reorganize society along racialist and military lines. Pelley established contact with Nazi propaganda agencies and his Silver Shirts distributed copies of Mein Kampf as well as reprints from Julius Striecher’s Der Sturmer. Despite his admiration for military hierarchy and his advocacy of Jewish ghettoization, however, Pelley’s antisemitism derived from U.S. populist traditions.

Despite the lack of any ties between Pelley and the Hitler regime beyond the exchange of literature and letters, the Silver Shirts, like the Bund and a host of other antisemitic agitators, were pursued by the FBI and exposed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Another oft-mentioned Hitler-sympathizer was Gerald Winrod. A nativist preacher from Kansas, Winrod had been assailing liberal theology, Darwinism, and changing social mores since 1925. He embraced conspiratorial antisemitism after traveling to Europe in 1934.

As his preaching became increasingly antisemitic, subscriptions to his Defender publication, where he lauded the Third Reich as a bulwark against communism, rose from 60,000 in 1934 to 110,000 by 1938. Winrod’s antisemitism, however, remained theological, not racial, and he continued to promote conversion as a solution to the Jewish problem.

His dispensationalist theology—he believed that Jews would unite with a flesh and blood Antichrist whom he expected to appear imminently—was far removed from Nazi ideology. Like Pelley, he celebrated U.S. notions of individualism, the producer ethic, and the gospel of success.

Both Winrod and Pelley, then, grounded their undemocratic politics and bigotry in U.S. traditions. While each either exchanged literature with German propagandists, the Bund, or each other, neither accepted any money from the Nazi regime. Their criticism of the New Deal as a usurpation of power was directly opposed to the National Socialist model of government.

Their reputation as Nazis then, also owes as much to countersubversive fears that antisemitism and paramilitary trappings signaled Fifth Column activity, as to any substantive threat that their organizations posed to Republican institutions or the development of racial tolerance in the period leading up to World War II.

Nevertheless, these and other far-right demagogues met with mail censorship, fund freezing, repatriation, denaturalization, and prosecution. In 1936, Roosevelt ordered the FBI to begin surveillance and in 1938 he gave the Bureau authority to compile files on groups such as the Silver Shirts, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Christian Front. The FBI also began compiling a custodial detention index of persons with Nazi or Communist tendencies.

Agents attended antiwar demonstrations, examined education and employment records, opened first-class mail, and, after receiving authorization in May 1940, began electronic surveillance. The administration also gave the Catholic Church hierarchy a choice that month: silence anti-Roosevelt radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin or watch a sedition trial. Coughlin was silenced.

When Senator Burton Wheeler used his congressional frank to distribute postcards purchased by the isolationist America First organization, Secretary of War Henry Stimson charged that Wheeler was “coming very close to the line of subversive activities against the United States, if not treason” (Smith, 170).

When Charles Lindberg listed Jews as among the three most powerful forces promoting the war in September 1941, the Friends of Democracy called America First a Nazi front, and asked whether Lindberg was a Nazi.

Lindberg was no Nazi, or even an antisemite, but by this time even intimations of antisemitism could be equated with Nazism. Roosevelt had already branded Lindberg a “copperhead” and a “modern Vallandingham,” but the Des Moines speech did irreparable harm to the isolationist cause.

Dissatisfied with an FBI report that America First received no illicit funding, FDR urged Attorney General Nicholas Biddle to bring the issue to a grand jury. In early 1942, the Justice Department produced indictments, under the Espionage Act, of twenty-one far-right opponents of the war, charging them with conspiring to destroy morale in the U.S. armed forces.

The prosecution attempted to link antisemitic agitators such as Pelley and Winrod to George Silvester Viereck and former Bund leaders. It focused on similarities between fourteen themes selected from Nazi propaganda and statements made or published by the defendants. Although the case ultimately ended in a mistrial, it achieved its underlying purpose by forcing the accused to hire lawyers, raise bail, and languish in jail.

The brown scare had three important implications. First, isolationism became an epithet during World War II and until the late 1960s; interventionism became virtually unassailable. Second, the FBI gained the power to investigate subversive activity, ultimately leading to the creation of a national security state. Finally, during the cold war, academics translated brown scare motifs and misunderstandings into social science idiom.

Anxieties about extremism came to color subsequent academic debates about such diverse phenomena as McCarthyism, white supremacy, the Christian Right, and the militia movement, contributing to consensus narratives of U.S. history, and the use of psychiatric theory to explain unpopular ideologies and political behaviors.

Mae Brussell

Mae Brussell
Mae Brussell

Mae Brussell was a broadcaster and influential figure in the conspiracy research community that began to emerge after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. She was born in Beverly Hills in 1922, the daughter of a prominent Los Angeles rabbi and granddaughter of the founder of the I. Magnin department stores.

Brussell lived as an affluent housewife with five children, until the shooting of alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald live on television prompted her into investigating the assassination. She quickly became dissatisfied with the official government conclusion that the murder had been the work of a lone assassin.

She began reading and crossreferencing the complete 26-volume report of the Warren Commission, and started amassing a large collection of newspaper clippings, articles, and books relating to what she came to believe was a vast conspiracy that since World War II has been turning the United States into a fascist regime.

Her argument was partly based on information that was emerging at the time about “Operation Paperclip,” the U.S. government’s wartime plan to rescue Nazi rocket scientists after World War II, but its conclusions went well beyond the commonly established facts. Brussell presented her ideas on a weekly radio show, Dialogue: Conspiracy (later called World Watchers International), on KLRB, a local station in Carmel, California, her new home.

During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote much-discussed articles outlining her thesis in, for example, Paul Krassner’s countercultural magazine, The Realist, and Hustler editor Larry Flynt’s new venture, Rebel magazine (“The Nazi Connection to the John F. Kennedy Assassination”).

In 1983 Brussell’s radio show moved to KAZU in Pacific Grove, California, where she continued until her death from cancer in 1988. In keeping with her theory of a wide-reaching conspiracy within the U.S. establishment, Brussell speculated that her cancer had been induced by the CIA, but no evidence ever emerged.

After her death various factions within the assassination research community sought to establish a permanent archive of Brussell’s writings, notes, and clippings (which began to take on a legendary status), but to date there is only a limited website.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan

An eloquent speaker of Populist tendencies, William Jennings Bryan (D-NE) delivered one of the most famous conspiracy speeches of all time to the Democratic convention in 1896 when he warned big business and those favoring the gold standard, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

Bryan lost the presidential contest to the advocate of the gold standard, Republican William McKinley, essentially ending the bimetallism debate in the United States that had characterized the Progressive era and served as a unifying point for the Populist Party.

Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, studied law at Union College of Law, and practiced in Jacksonville, Illinois, before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska. There, he became active in Democratic Party politics and by the 1890s joined the free silver movement that sought to force the federal government to purchase western silver at inflated prices to expand the money supply.

He won election to Congress in 1890, but in 1894 was defeated in his Senate campaign. At the Democratic convention, where Bryan became a political star, he was one of several pro-silver voices, but clearly the most theatrical. He had honed his oratorical skills by a series of speaking tours and Chatauqua lectures, and even in defeat to McKinley, Bryan remained the undisputed leader of the Democratic Party.

Like other silver advocates, Bryan thought a conspiracy of Wall Street bankers and easterners had forced the gold standard upon debtors to increase in real terms the amount they repaid. In addition, however, antisemitism was widespread in the Populist Party, from which Bryan drew much of his support. Concerns over “Jewish moneyed interests” in New York had aligned many antisemites against the gold standard, and Bryan used what some conspiracy theorists see as coded language to speak to those concerns.

In foreign affairs, however, Bryan toed the anticonspiracy line as an anti-imperialist, resisting U.S. intervention in Cuba. (Even then, his position did not please some Populist supporters, who thought he could have done more. Therefore, in L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz [1900], which is widely viewed as a parable on Populism, most analysts see the Cowardly Lion as representing Bryan.) Bryan’s oratory and his grass-roots support kept him a perennial candidate for the presidency, which he lost to McKinley again in 1900, and to Taft in 1908.

By 1912, a new political star in the Democratic Party had risen, Woodrow Wilson, and at the convention that year, Bryan threw his support behind him. Partly as a reward, Bryan received an appointment as Secretary of State in the Wilson administration. Given Bryan’s support for easy money policies, which were viewed as a response to one conspiracy, it is ironic that he joined an administration that presided over the creation of the Federal Reserve Board, which was criticized by conspiracy theorists as inflationary.

In the area of foreign affairs, Bryan with his noninterventionist views began to clash with the president, who saw in the 1915 sinking of the liner Lusitania a cause of war. Bryan resigned from Wilson’s cabinet because of the president’s response to Germany over the incident, fearing that it committed the nation to war.

Conspiracy theorists tie Wilson’s desire for intervention to a variety of forces, including control by the Bank of England, the British monarchy, or other shadowy characters somehow related to preservation of the gold standard and/or Anglo-American relations. Thus, Bryan, the voice of silver and peace, could not long survive in such a setting. After the war, Bryan opposed the Treaty of Versailles unless it contained the “Lodge Reservations” that kept the United States out of the League of Nations.

Bryan next became famous for his involvement in the Scopes Trial, which was far outside the debates over silver or European intervention. John T. Scopes was a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who violated Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools.

Bryan served as assistant prosecutor in the case and, during the course of the trial, took the stand as an expert on the Bible. According to the mythology generated by Arthur Miller’s play, Inherit the Wind, H. L. Mencken’s newspaper columns, and F. L. Allen’s history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, the defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, embarrassed Bryan and thereby (it was claimed) discredited the anti-evolution position.

Subsequent research has shown that only the East Coast media substantially portrayed the popular version of the events, and that local news coverage thought that Bryan held his ground well in the exchanges. (Scopes was indeed found guilty.)

The Scopes Monkey Trial generated a strain of conspiracy thinking among creationist groups, who have seen the media as deliberately distorting the evidence of evolution based on the developments of the trial. A different conspiracy of sorts involved the publicity surrounding the trial itself—a meeting called the “Drugstore Conspiracy.”

George W. Rappelyea, a local mine owner and coal company operator, saw an opportunity to promote the city of Dayton. He gathered some of the leading figures of Dayton for a meeting in a local drugstore, whereupon Rappelyea agreed to fund Scopes to challenge the evolution law and to bring in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to provide the national attention.

During the trial, fraudulent evidence on the Piltdown Man and the Nebraska Man was introduced as a confirmation of evolution. Bryan died in Dayton, not long after the trial, having crossed the lines between several major conspiracy movements in U.S. history—the gold standard, the British manipulation of U.S. foreign affairs, and the “creation/evolution” debate.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) is a tax-collecting, enforcement, and regulatory arm of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It is the government agency with responsibility for administering America’s federal alcohol, tobacco, and firearms laws, as well as federal laws relating to commercial arson and explosives. It is because of its role in regulating these areas—especially the nation’s firearms laws—that the BATF has often been embroiled in allegations of conspiracy.

BATF headquarters are in Washington, D.C., but most of its personnel and many of its operations are decentralized in regional offices throughout the United States, and even a few stations overseas.

The bureau traces its roots back to the 1790s, but its earliest twentieth-century form is to be found in the Prohibition Unit established within the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Treasury Department in 1920 to enforce the ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol enacted by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919. (The most famous member of the Prohibition Unit was Elliot Ness, the “T-man” who helped topple Chicago mobster Al Capone on tax-evasion charges.) The agency has undergone many changes of name and responsibilities since the 1920s, and it was given its present title in 1972.

Suspicions about the BATF’s alleged involvement in conspiratorial activities have been particularly pronounced since the passage of the Gun Control Act in 1968, which gave the agency extra responsibilities for enforcing the nation’s gun laws. Indeed, it is matters connected with gun regulation such as licensing, gun tracing, illegal firearms possession, and transportation rather than any of its other responsibilities that have provoked the most controversy and concern.

The BATF has often been attacked by gun rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and, since the mid-1990s, various parts of the militia movement, for example. Such groups routinely criticize the BATF as an “out-of-control,” “rogue agency” harassing innocent gun owners and dealers.

Nor are they alone in this. In 1995, Representative Harold Volkmer called the BATF “One of the most Rambo-rogue law enforcement agencies in the United States” (Spitzer, 128). Some gun rights advocates even go so far as to portray the bureau as an organization filled with agents whose real, if hidden, purpose is to disarm the United States.

During the 1990s, the BATF was subject to other conspiratorial accusations largely as a consequence of its involvement in the events at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1991 and Waco, Texas, in 1993. The BATF was the agency that entrapped Randy Weaver into selling an illegal sawn-off shotgun to one of its undercover informants in January 1991 in the hope of turning Weaver into an informer against the white-supremacist Aryan Nations group. It was also the agency responsible for the initial raid on the Mount Carmel complex on 28 February 1993 in an attempt to serve a search warrant on David Koresh, in which four BATF agents and five Branch Davidians were killed.

For much of the Patriot movement, the actions of the BATF (along with those of the FBI) at Ruby Ridge and Waco were evidence of the dangerous and threatening militarization of U.S. law enforcement. They were seen as pointing the way toward a planned crackdown on the rights of gun owners and of dissident voices in the United States in general.

In the spring of 1995 there were widespread rumors that BATF raids to arrest militia leaders and other prominent Patriots were being planned for 25 March. Although some Patriots such as Linda Thompson of the American Justice Federation and “Acting Adjunct General” of the Unorganized Militia of the United States dismissed the rumors as a hoax, others, including Jon Roland of the Texas Constitutional Militia, and the publications the Spotlight and the Resister, regarded the raids as the beginning of the federal government’s planned oppression and a possible prelude to a declaration of martial law throughout the United States.

Representative Steve Stockman wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno with his concerns on 22 March. No BATF raid occurred, but another person who responded to the rumors was Timothy McVeigh; they were instrumental in convincing McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing of 19 April 1995.

There are other, more specific conspiracy theories surrounding the BATF’s involvement with the events at Waco. For example, Linda Thompson’s video Waco II: The Big Lie Continues alleges that three of the four BATF agents who died in the initial raid on Mount Carmel had been bodyguards to President Clinton, and that these agents had been shot “execution style” during the “cover” provided by the raid in order to stop them from revealing what they knew about his activities (Stern, 63).

Another conspiratorial explanation for the failure of the initial raid on the Branch Davidians has been posited by the Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum. It regards the deaths of the four BATF agents as a pretext to justify the subsequent siege of the religious sect so that a national response plan for a future military and police occupation of U.S. society could be tested.

A Treasury Department report into the events at Waco was highly critical of the BATF’s mishandling of the initial raid and of misleading post-raid statements made by some of the bureau’s supervisors. An investigation by Special Counsel John C. Danforth issued in November 2000 concluded that government agents did not engage in a massive conspiracy and cover-up at Waco.

One of the reasons why Timothy McVeigh chose to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was his hatred of the BATF, a hatred that stemmed both from the agency’s role in enforcing America’s firearms laws and its specific involvement with events at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

McVeigh’s criteria for a potential “attack site” required that it be a government building housing at least two of three federal law enforcement agencies from the BATF, FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Murrah Building contained the regional offices of the BATF, the DEA, and—a “bonus” in McVeigh’s view—the Secret Service.

The BATF was one of the agencies responsible for investigating the Oklahoma City bombing and for securing the conviction of McVeigh and his coconspirator Terry Nichols. Yet for many members of the Patriot movement and other conspiracists the BATF is itself implicated in the bombing.

Conspiracy theories expressed by many Patriot groups contend that the BATF had prior warning of the bombing, but chose not to do anything about it, other than make sure that its own agents weren’t in their offices at the time when the bomb (or bombs) went off; that the bombing was a sting operation that went wrong and which has been subsequently covered up; and that McVeigh was a BATF “patsy” being used as part of a larger plan to use the bombing to oppress gun-owners, militia members, and other Patriots.

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

Since many of the conspirators burned much of the evidence before the Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807, the Burr conspiracy has remained shrouded in mystery. Although it may never be known exactly what Burr was planning, or conspiring, in the West in the early 1800s, sufficient evidence still remains that supports the view that Burr, upset at the current demise of his political career, sought to instigate a rebellion in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory with the aim of setting up a new empire in which he could assume a leadership role.

Burr had a notable family history. His grandfather was Colonial America’s noted Great Awakening preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Burr’s father, Jonathan Edwards the younger, was president of Princeton University. Besides having an impressive lineage, Burr was intelligent, talented, and ambitious. During the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Army.

After the war, he studied law and then later practiced in New York. Entering politics in New York in 1789, he served in a variety of offices, including state assemblyman, state attorney general, and U.S. senator. Having assumed a position of political prominence, he threw his hat in the ring in the presidential election of 1800. The election resulted in a tie, with Burr and Thomas Jefferson winning seventy-three electoral votes each.

At that time, the United States Constitution stated that whoever won the election would become president and the candidate who came in second would become vice-president. After the election was deferred to the House of Representatives, Burr was extremely disappointed, because Thomas Jefferson won the race after Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who felt that Jefferson was the least of the two Republican evils, threw his support behind Jefferson.

Vice-President Burr, well aware that Hamilton’s political bargaining had been the deciding factor in his failed bid for the presidency, developed a deep resentment of Hamilton. In 1804, as Jefferson’s second presidential election was looming, Jefferson rejected Burr as a running mate. Burr, still hoping to stay in the political arena, ran for the governorship of New York.

However, after it became painfully apparent that Hamilton had once again foiled Burr’s political ambitions, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Most accounts say that Hamilton fired into the air while Burr fired directly at his target, fatally wounding Hamilton. Hamilton’s death signaled the end of Burr’s political career, and it also led to indictments for murder in New York and New Jersey.

Burr and Hamilton duel
Burr and Hamilton duel

To Burr, in great debt and wishing to put himself beyond the reach of the authorities, the recently acquired Louisiana Territory seemed like the logical place to run to. Burr was aware that many Federalists held the opinion that the Louisiana Territory had been an illegal purchase by the United States, because Napoleon Bonaparte, who had sold it, had no power to do so. At the time of the transaction, the territory was occupied by Spanish troops.

It was not until months after the sale that French troops briefly took possession of the land. What is more, Napoleon had acquired the land from Spain under an agreement that stated that, in return, he would give Tuscany to the son-in-law of Charles IV. Napoleon had, in fact, never fulfilled his side of the bargain. Furthermore, Charles IV had secured a signed pledge from Napoleon that the territory would never be peacefully handed over to a third nation.

Not only was the purchase on shaky ground according to many, but many Federalists also opposed it, because they feared that the new territory would add southwest agricultural states to the union, which could upset the political balance by diminishing political power in the northeast industrial and commercial states. Consequently, Burr felt that he could secure sufficient support in the United States to support a rebellion and ultimate separation of the Louisiana Territory from the Union.

Upon reaching the West, Burr shared his vision with an old friend, U.S. military commander General James Wilkinson. The meeting spurred Burr on, and he secured a loan from a trusting wealthy Irishman named Harman Blennerhassett, which he used to purchase the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in Louisiana, which he intended to use as a base of operations.

Once physical preparations had begun, Burr sought military support for his plan as well. He began by appealing to British agents to send the British Navy to help him blockade the port of New Orleans, but the British were not interested in supporting Burr’s plan. In the meantime, Burr was able to rally together a very well equipped local army of about sixty men. Furthermore, in 1806, Burr traveled through Lexington, Kentucky, recruiting even more soldiers for his army. Having secured a base and a small army, Burr attempted to gain political support in the United States.

As it turned out, Burr’s political connections paid off, and General Wilkinson was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. Encouraged by recent events, Burr intensified his appeals for support from Federalists and Republicans. Although many Federalists despised Jefferson’s administration and many Republicans regretted the Louisiana Purchase for political reasons, very few of them felt that treason was justified.

As word of Burr’s requests spread, therefore, some citizens sent letters to Jefferson accusing Burr of treason, but none of these letters caught Jefferson’s attention as much as the one sent by Governor Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a secret agent for Spain, it seems, had realized that Burr’s scheme was doomed, because it lacked enough popular support, and he attempted to turn Burr in as a way of separating himself from the conspiracy. Jefferson wasted no time and ordered Burr’s arrest.

After getting word that Wilkinson had doublecrossed him, Burr began to dabble with the idea of invading Mexico and creating a new republic, which he could rule over as emperor. But Burr was arrested as he attempted to flee to Florida. He was promptly charged with treason by the grand jury, and tried in Richmond, Virginia.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who was decidedly biased in Burr’s favor, served as the presiding judge in the trial. Marshall’s allegiance to Burr was made apparent when he attended a dinner given by the chief defense team at which Burr was present. On the other hand, Jefferson, who was adamantly in favor of Burr’s conviction, promised pardons to coconspirators willing to testify against Burr.

Marshall, in turn, made the conviction difficult by adopting a very rigid interpretation of treason, which required the testimony of two credible first-hand witnesses of Burr’s treasonous activities. In the end, Burr was acquitted of treason, because the prosecution was unable to supply two witnesses to the crime.

After the trial, still being sought for Hamilton’s murder, Burr borrowed some money from friends and sailed to Europe. During the next four years, he traveled through England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France seeking support for his new plan to conquer Florida. Unable to find willing partners or investors, Burr returned to New York in 1812 to practice law and remained a private citizen for the rest of his life.