Following the American Revolution, some critics began to voice their suspicions of Freemasonry as a secret society, and these concerns eventually led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party in the late 1820s.
Modern Freemasonry began in 1717 in England as a social organization built on the ancient traditions of the medieval masons’ guild. It developed its own social hierarchy, with a complex system of lodges, titles, and rituals, and within a few years it began to spread abroad, coming to America by 1730.
Over the next century, its aims of social camaraderie and moral education attracted a largely middle-class membership in America that eventually numbered in the tens of thousands, including such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and other political and military leaders of the day.
However, in the later eighteenth century critics voiced concerns about its overtly English origins, and its use of grandiose titles (which was said to smack of discredited European aristocracy). Especially suspect was its strict code of secrecy, which was claimed to be enforced by the threat of a brutal death and to be nothing less than a cover for a foreign plot and moral debauchery.
After the French Revolution, many Americans became alarmed over the excesses of the new French government and its seeming rejection of the religious establishment, and paranoia over supposed ties between Freemasonry and France superseded earlier doubts about the society’s English origins.
In 1798, the Reverend Jedidiah Morse, a conservative Massachusetts pastor opposed to French ideas, delivered a sermon that linked Freemasonry to the evils of the French Revolution by way of a conspiracy theory that a secret society of Illuminated Masons, or Illuminati, had been formed in Germany to overthrow the institutions of government and church, and that Freemasonry was a secret society working to spread that subversion to the United States.
Since some members of his own congregation were Masons, Morse was careful to distinguish between good and bad Masons, as did later anti-Masons, but the idea that their fellow citizens were part of a foreign plot proved hard to swallow for most Americans. Although the clamor over the Illuminati conspiracy did not last long, it did serve as a precursor to the more pronounced outbreak of anti-Masonry yet to come.
The event that led directly to the creation of the Anti-Masonic Party was the abduction and apparent murder in 1826 of Captain William Morgan of Batavia, New York. Having announced his plans to publish a book that would expose the secrets of Freemasonry, Morgan was seized by parties unknown and taken to Fort Niagara.
From there he disappeared forever, and the later discovery of a body fed speculation that he had been murdered, although the body could not be positively identified as his. When those suspected of foul play went on trial, they were exonerated or given light sentences, inspiring a number of anti-Masonic groups to conduct their own private inquiries.
A conspiracy theory about Morgan’s demise was formulated and widely distributed, including claims that prominent Masons had abducted and murdered him and, through their social and political influence, allowed the guilty parties to avoid punishment for the crime and induced the press to remain silent about the true facts of the case.
An anti-Masonic social movement quickly sprang up, first in New York and then in other northeastern states, and attracted members especially from the agricultural classes, who mistrusted the largely middle-class Masons, and among church members who saw Freemasonry as a rival to organized religion.
The anti-Masons especially objected to the secrecy practiced by Freemasonry, arguing that it was incompatible with democratic principles and served as a shield for the various illegal acts and outrageous plots of which Masons were suspected. Thus was born the first of a succession of nativist movements that spread through the United States in the nineteenth century, each with its own brand of prejudice.
Having emerged as the first widespread social movement in the history of the United States, anti-Masonry transformed itself into the first of America’s third parties as it attracted support from those who were politically opposed to President Andrew Jackson, a Mason.
Among the leading anti-Masons in New York were Thurlow Weed, a journalist who took over the editorship of the Anti-Masonic Enquirer in 1829, and William Seward, who would later become Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state.
Anti-Masons started their own newspapers, organized local and state societies, and in 1832 ran their own candidate, William Wirt, for president of the United States against Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, also a prominent Mason. A former U.S. attorney general, Wirt doubted that Clay could win, and hoped that his own candidacy would unite the opponents of Jackson, but in the Electoral College he succeeded in carrying only the state of Vermont, where the anti-Masons established themselves as the largest political party.
A quarter of New Englanders voted anti-Masonic, but the poor national showing of the anti-Masons in the election of 1832 led to their rapid deterioration as a movement. Some of their younger leaders, Weed and Seward among them, joined the new Whig Party and eventually went on to become prominent members of the Republican Party, where a moral fervor against slavery substituted for their earlier antipathy to Freemasonry.
The anti-Masons provided a model, flawed as it was, for those who would cast suspicion on secret societies, and in the mysterious fate of William Morgan they found inspiration for a complex conspiracy theory that could bear comparison with those surrounding U.S. political assassinations of the late twentieth century; but for all their efforts, they did little to endanger the existence of Freemasonry.