the rise of antimasonry in america -- 3/30/15

Today's selection -- from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe. Many of our founding fathers were Freemasons, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. But an incident in 1826 brought about the demise of the movement. In 1826, a man named William Morgan attempted to publish a book about the secret rituals of Freemasonry, much to the horror and strong objections of the masonic community. After his home was ransacked for the manuscript, Morgan disappeared. His kidnappers, including the Sheriff of Niagra County, were Freemasons who were never fully prosecuted, due to the protection and collusion of other Masons. Thus began the rise of Antimasonry as the first "third party" in American politics.

"Freemasonry, introduced into America from Britain in colonial times, had been an important force in the young republic. Its members had constituted a kind of republican elite, with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington prominent among them. The international Masonic brotherhood satisfied longings for status, trust, and metropolitan sophistication in an amorphous new society; its hierarchies and secret rituals offered a dimension lacking in the stark simplicity of much of American Protestantism. Freemasonry promoted the values of the Enlightenment and new standards of politeness. Its symbols of the pyramid and the eye had been incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States. Its ceremonies graced many public occasions, including the dedication of the United States Capitol and the construction of the Erie Canal. But in the Morgan episode, Masonic commitments of secrecy and mutual assistance led to disastrous consequences. To be sure, the Masonic brotherhood succeeded in the short run, protecting members from legal punishment and preventing Morgan from publishing all but the first three degree rituals, which appeared in print a month after his disappearance. But, as American Masonry's most recent historian has shown, 'it lost the larger battle in the court of public opinion.' During the decade after the Morgan affair, thousands of brothers quit the order and hundreds of lodges closed. Although Freemasonry recovered its numbers after the Civil War, it never recovered the influence it had wielded in the first fifty years of independence.

Detail from The New England Anti-Masonic
Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1835.
Depicting Morgan's murder by Freemasons.

"Reaction against the Morgan crime and (even more) its cover-up led to the formation of an Antimasonic movement. Concerned citizens pressed for judicial investigations of Morgan's disappearance and more information about Freemasonry. But Antimasonic speakers were harassed and their publishing outlets persecuted by local authorities who belonged to the order. Masons and Antimasons disrupted each other's meetings and vandalized each other's property. The conflict soon acquired a political dimension. Since the Morgan episode had occurred in western New York state, the Antimasonic movement arose in an area of strong support for DeWitt Clinton, the People's Party, and John Quincy Adams. President Adams and his New York campaign manager, Thurlow Weed, showed clear sympathy with the Antimasons; Martin Van Buren and his Albany Regency, on the other hand, treated the movement as a threat. Governor Clinton, a prominent active Mason, could not afford to alienate the Antimasons and trod a fine line, mostly leaving the problem to local authorities. Andrew Jackson was a Mason, but so were a few of the Adams Republican leaders, including Henry Clay. Eventually, the Antimasonic movement organized as a third party but supported Adams in the presidential race of 1828. The party elected members to the New York legislature and spread to neighboring states, notably Pennsylvania, Ohio, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

"The Antimasons became the first third party in American history. Once organized as a political party, Antimasonry developed a political image and stands on other issues. The participants saw themselves as restoring moral order and transparent democracy, defending the little people against a secret cabal with ties to machine politics. Antimasonry appealed to the same attitudes that had been fostering increased democratization of American politics, such as the elimination of property requirements for voting and the popular election of presidential electors. The Antimasons took advantage of the opportunities for influencing public opinion provided by the growth of the printed media. Strongest in rural areas and small towns, their movement nurtured a provincial suspicion of metropolitan and upper-class values (Masonry was strongest in the cities). In their own time and since, the Antimasons have been accused of fanaticism, demagogy, and 'paranoid delusions.' It seems more accurate to see them as responding to real provocation and reviving a tradition of popular political participation going back to the American Revolution and the English 'commonwealth men.' The Antimasons often supported tenant farmers against landlords. They welcomed the participation of women in their movement, contrasting it with Masonry, which was then all male. (When the Masons created their own women's branch, the Order of the Eastern Star, in 1852, it helped defuse such criticism.) Many Antimasons eventually moved into antislavery. Antimasonry would remain an identifiable force in American politics for years to come. ...

"In 1831, the Antimasons would be the first political party to hold a national convention, a practice that evangelical reform movements had pioneered. The convention seemed a more democratic means of selecting a nominee than the congressional caucus, and the other political parties quickly adopted it. While Martin Van Buren has often been credited with creating the modern American political party, in fact his rivals the Antimasons made an important contribution too. Van Buren's concept of party was primarily concerned with organization and patronage. The lasting contribution of the Antimasonic movement to America was a concept of party politics that combined popular participation with moral passion. Antimasonry proved to be a precursor of the Republican Party of the 1850s, devoted to halting the spread of slavery. It can also be likened to the Progressive movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, which would favor popular participation against corruption and secrecy in government and would share something of the same Protestant moral tone."


author:

Daniel Walker Howe

title:

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

publisher:

Oxford University Press

date:

Copyright 2007 by Oxford University Press

pages:

267-270
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