Abbé Barruel

Abbé Augustin de Barruel
Abbé Augustin de Barruel
French ex-Jesuit Abbé Augustin de Barruel (1741– 1820) has the dubious honor of being the father of modern conspiracy theory. His four-volume Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism contains all the elements that continue to characterize conspiracy narratives today including “evidence” of a shadowy cabal orchestrating world events behind the scenes and “proof” of a direct lineage of malfeasance stretching from antiquity to the present.

According to David Brion Davis, Barruel’s Memoirs represent the first “rigorous” application of conspiracy theories, and as such were highly influential on his and subsequent generations.

Barruel became a Jesuit in 1756, but by 1762 anti-Jesuit feeling in France had become so strong he was to leave his homeland to travel for several years, returning only in 1773 when he left the church at the time the order was suppressed. The events of the French Revolution caused him to take refuge in England in 1792, during which time he met John Robison, the Scottish scientist whose Proofs of a Conspiracy would be published the same year as the first volume of Barruel’s Memoirs in 1798.

In the Memoirs, Barruel claimed the French Revolution was brought about intentionally by secret societies, which included the Jacobins, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati and Enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire, Diderot, and the philosophes.

In Barruel’s mind, the antimonarchy, anticlergy philosophes were the direct descendents of the secret medieval guilds who made up the order of the Freemasons. Presenting an accessible explanation for the causes of the French Revolution, the Memoirs were extremely influential and were translated into nine languages by 1812; the French edition remained continuously in print until 1837.

The first two volumes of the Memoirs lay the blame for the French Revolution specifically at the feet of the French Enlightenment thinkers, whose alarming philosophy espoused, among other things, a breaking down of national boundaries, overthrowing the monarchy, and establishing a democracy based on merit.

Volumes three and four trace the historical antecedents for these schools of thought, finding that the Illuminati ultimately pull the strings: The secrets of the Lodges constitute the basis of the Revolution under the title of the Rights of Man. The first article declares man to be equal and free; that the principle of all sovereignty essentially resides in the people; and that law is nothing more than the expression of the general will.

Such had been for nearly half a century the doctrines of Argenson, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. These principles of pride and revolt had long since been the ground-work of the mysteries of every class of Sophister, Occult Mason, or Illuminee; and now they decorate the title page of the revolutionary code.

This fear of Enlightenment thinking struck a particular chord in the nascent United States, where Barruel’s and Robison’s texts were cited as proof, indeed, of the dangers threatening the new republic. New England clergyman Rev. Jedidiah Morse was instrumental in bringing anti-Illuminati feeling into the political sphere with his series of sermons in 1797–1799, which cited the French Revolution as proof of the dangers of radical thought, and neatly aligned Jeffersonian politics with the Illuminati.

Although later Barruel’s position would change, the first edition of the Memoirs is not antisemitic, nor does it contain any reference to Judaism; at the time the Jewish community in France was marginalized, with no political influence, and therefore was not perceived as a threat.

Events after the revolution would change that: the French National Assembly in 1791 ended legal restrictions on Jews, which was seen by many as incontestable proof that, as the revolution directly benefited the Jewish community, it must have been caused by Jewish plotting.

At this time Barruel’s antisemitic views had not been published, but such was his profile and influence that his verbal endorsement of them was enough to guarantee their acceptance as truth. Jews began to be seen as the ultimate power behind all secret societies, leading to the confused notion that the Freemasons were Jewish, and, ultimately, to the creation in the early twentieth century of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forged document purporting to outline secret Jewish rituals.

Barruel was not without his detractors, but responded to his critics using many of the tactics of later conspiracist thinking. The preface to volume four defends his position at length, using the very fact of his critics’ existence as further proof of the Jacobin/Illumanti plot (an argument along the lines of “you think that because that’s what the Jacobins want you to think”); if all else failed, Barruel simply accused his critics of being members of the Illuminati themselves. In a series of letters defending his position against the philosopher Montesquieu, Barruel concludes the philosopher is clearly an Illuminee for disagreeing with him.

Barruel’s text was vastly influential and impossible for his contemporaries to ignore; even his detractors were forced to take him seriously enough to refute his arguments at length, and the Memoirs were written about and discussed by leading literary and philosophical figures of the day, including Shelly, Thomas de Quincey and Edmund Burke in England, and George Sand and Gerard de Nerval in France.

As Pipes states, the book’s combination of secret societies and antisemitism set the “template” for conspiracy fears that exists to this day. The book has rarely been out of print, and continues to have its supporters among right-wing conspiracist groups such as the John Birch Society.

Its most recent publishers market the book as an accurate historical document, and describe Barruel as “one of the few authors on the French Revolution to be specific in the people he names, the intrigues he recounts, and the supporting documentation he provides”. However, the last word should be given to Thomas Jefferson, who, on reading the book when it was first published, dismissed it as “the ravings of a Bedlamite.”