Who were the Antimasons and why were they so popular in the 1830s?

The Revolutions of the late eighteenth century in Europe and the United States are inevitably bound up with the history of Freemasonry. This is because many of the most prominent revolutionaries were members of Masonic Lodges, or drew upon ideas of governance and Reason which had been touted by Masons as essential to their movement. In addition, Masonry offered a semi-secret link between established money and new money, and a way for men to validate their social mobility with established rituals and a common fraternal bond that involved the promotion and protection of each other (women were not added to this structure until the 1850s, and then in a separate order). Masons were and are Deists who were opposed to Churches, particularly of the Catholic sort, and hierarchical, to the point of obsessive secrecy and obscurity in their higher rites. Nevertheless, many prominent American leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Andrew Jackson were open about their membership of the movement, and occasionally (such as at the dedication of the Washington monument or in the planning of Washington, DC) Freemasons performed their rituals openly in the expectation that their inseparability from the American regime would be acknowledged. They were in fact so confident of their position in the USA that they incorporated Masonic symbols and terms into both the Great Seal of the United States and, later, the dollar bill. In time, however, they were met with opposition, the most notable of which can be found in the Antimasonic Party that held sway from around 1824 to 1840 in the USA.

There are two distinct ways to treat this Antimasonic movement. One is that outlined by David Brion Davis in his history of American conspiracies. Davis saw the Antimasons as both an outgrowth of social insecurity and a rejection of laissez-faire individualism and dissent. He linked this to the economic growth of the United States, but also to the problems of popular adherence to common values in the absence of traditional common bonds. Therefore, to Davis, being opposed to secret Masonic elites was a way of demonstrating nativist adherence to the Constitution and opposition to European corruption. It was a kind of statement of popular sovereignty and transparency in the time of Jacksonian democracy. Davis also settles the Antimasons in a tradition, which stretched backward to early modern England and forward to Anticatholicism and Antimormonism.

Davis’ thesis is also borne out by the nature of the area in which the Antimasons emerged and held sway. Western New York, the Ohio Valley and Pennsylvania in the 1820s and 30s saw not only intense Protestant religious revival but also the emergence of the Mormon movement, the Millerites, Spiritualism, and the Shaker movement. More urban areas saw the growth of the polygamous and sexually radical Oneida Society. This challenge to protestant tradition was met not with ministers or priests, since the west had never been Episcopalian or Catholic, but with a ferocious evangelicalism. It is not a great leap to move from the protestant evangelical revival, which stressed republicanism, the challenge of holding to traditional ideas of Americanism, and the threat of radical groups, and the Antimasons. Indeed, in many cases, the Antimasonic movement was the same as the Presbyterian and traditional protestant evangelism of the period, even unto the preachers of both causes.

Interestingly, the term ‘moral panic’ seems to have been coined in the ‘middle period’ of the Antimasonry movement, by a quarterly called the Christian Spectator in England. However, it became current in sociological circles nearly a century and a half later, following Stanley Cohen’s formulation of a commonly perceived, subversive, and validated threat to social behaviour and cultural values that requires an activist response. Davis’ book, which was published one year before Cohen’s 1972 study, does not of course use the term, but that is what he is describing when explaining the Antimasons.

The second way to treat the Antimasonic movement is that associated with Daniel Walker Howe. It places the Antimasons in an historical and political context. Like Davis, Howe points out that the Freemasons, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, had come to suggest metropolitan sophistication, status, trust, and republican elitism. By contrast, the Antimasons were overwhelmingly concentrated in small towns and rural areas, and were typified by their wide reading of pamphlets, specialist and small press publications, and popular newspapers. They were tenant farmers, not landlords, and supporters of Womens’ rights; they were protestant evangelicals and dissenters. Specifically, they emerged as democrats (in the wider sense) opposed to Andrew Jackson, who was a senior Mason, in an area of western New York which was outwith the control of political elites. Antimasonry allowed a voice for those who were suspicious of Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Andrew Jackson, but who nurtured the sort of frontier ideology that would later create the Republican party. As individuals moved through the Ohio Valley, or into Vermont, or through Pennsylvania, they naturally became attracted to such a movement in proportion to their antagonism for the Democrat party. In John Quincy Adams they found, strangely, a spokesman who for all his family history abjured their perceived enemies and made them respectable

This explanation is further buttressed by the understanding that, as with many of the early States, New York politics were heavily factionalised. The Era of Good Feelings and the rise of the Democratic-Republican Party as the single dominant national group had not created a consensus so much as shifting alliances of mutually suspicious factions, of the sort that Madison would have recognised from the Federalist Papers. One such faction were those who were ‘for’ the Erie Canal, a work of internal improvement that would specifically benefit New York State. The Canal, constructed between 1817 and 1825, had divided Governor DeWitt Clinton and the pro-canal side against supporters of Jackson, Jefferson, and Van Buren, who had denounced it. When it succeeded, the Clinton faction and their leader parted, because Clinton sought to work with national leaders. However, Clinton was careful not to antagonise his former rural and backwoods supporters. This allowed the Antimasons to ‘slip through’ as opponents of the existing order who wanted a more traditional take on the revolutionary inheritance, and is in itself a powerful explanation of how the Antimasons managed to prosper for ten years.

The two explanations for the rise of the Antimasons are not incompatible, though Howe’s is the more convincing. They run alongside the reality that the Antimasons were also ‘popular’ because they organised their popularity. It was they who invented the idea of a national nominating convention, who deployed the press in an organised partisan way, and who developed the idea of a party platform. These innovations, which were picked up by Van Buren and the Jacksonians, also form part of the explanation of why the Antimasons persisted.

It is noticeable how many future political organisers and radical republicans, such as Thaddeus Stevens or Thurlow Weed, learned their trade with the Antimasons. Stevens, of course, became the great radical Speaker of the House and abolitionist; Weed was the eminence grise of New York and then national politics as his candidate, William Seward, advanced; and Seward himself was a delegate to the 1830 National Convention of the Anti-masons.

This combination of innovation and ambition was what distinguishes the Antimasons from, for example, the Popish plot of the 1680s in Britain, or the nativist or Antimormon programmes of the twenty years succeeding 1826. The Antimasons had coalesced, as had the popish plot, around a tale of abduction and murder involving a masonic ‘defector’, William Morgan, who was removed from prison and ‘disappeared’ (possibly in the Chilean sense of the word) in 1826. It is not surprising that this disappearance formed the substance of the first paragraphs of the Antimasons’ 1830 platform.

But the Antimasons were not focussed single-mindedly on the Morgan affair; indeed it was secondary and offered as proof for their main concerns, or at most catalytic. This is an ironic fact of the movement, which really cannot be gainsaid. For instance, the most successful presidential contender the Antimasons ever put forward, William Wirt, was a Mason, and one who defended individual masonry so long as it was declared, and  in the open. The Antimasons were democratic protestants fighting for the most protestant of concerns, clarity in public life, so that the good and bad which they saw as inseparable from the personal might be better distinguished and not hidden behind the hypocrisy of collective interests and secret deals that looked to outcomes rather than causes.

More than anything else, the Antimasonic platform noted the need for a transparent civil society of informed and open citizenship. It called for this in the justice system, especially in the matter of sheriffs and juries, and spoke to the revolutionary inheritance of public committees that sought to combat corruption. The Antimasons were against secrecy, and the automatic presumption of aid and influence which they perceived to operate between Masons.

The Antimasonic solution was openness and the principle of direct election. Delegates to the Antimasonic convention in Philadelphia in 1830 were enjoined to demonstrate a trust in the efficacy of the ballot box, and of the need to elect every official. This was a linking theme in protestant reform movements, from the revolution through to the Progressive era, and one that also illustrates the wider appeal of the Antimasons. This was a point made extensively by William Slade of Vermont, a delegate to the 1830 convention, who noted the connection of national independence with moral and intellectual character. Antimasons were used to hearing this point made, since speakers like Lebeus Armstrong, a peripatetic Presbyterian minister who spoke for their cause, had long drawn the connection between Masonic rituals and monarchy.

As Daniel Howe points out, Van Buren, Jackson and Clay could simply not argue with the Antimasons’ appeal as Masons. Those anti-Jacksonians who held sway in the epicentre of events, New York, such as Governor Clinton, could not afford to intervene either, since they drew votes from the movement. The Antimasons slipped in through the political opening offered by elite weakness, and counterposed it with a blend of resilience from the new American economy and society of the 1830s, and concilience with the revolutionary tradition.

This combination was electorally successful between 1828 and 1834. The Governors of Vermont and Pennsylvania from 1831 and 1835 respectively were anti-masons; the presidential nominee of 1832, William Wirt, won nearly 8% of the vote from a standing start; and at various times the Antimasons elected 39 Representatives to Congress. They also began the careers of many prominent later Whigs. By the time of their second convention in 1834, however, their popularity was waning.

This wane helps to explain their earlier success. The Antimasons won, as noted above, when the ‘establishment’ was unprepared or unready to respond. Once Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson began to organise parties, borrowing techniques from the Antimasons and elsewhere, the movement found itself under threat. In addition, by 1834, the core argument of the party that there was a knot of anti-American conspirators who could be definitively identified by Masonic membership had been heavily diluted by Jackson’s wars against Bankers, by the growth of abolitionism, and indeed by the anti-Jacksonianism and anti-Catholicism of the likes of Samuel Morse and Thomas Cole. Other targets, which tended to dissolve the Antimasonic coalition had emerged. This meant that a movement that had previously crossed class and gender lines, rather than being representative, was now fissile.

By 1840, the Antimasons were reduced to co-nominating William Henry Harrison (with a separate vice-president) on a fusion ticket which they hoped could throw the vice-presidential election into the Senate. Such fusion tactics, which would be tried again by the Liberal Republicans in the 1870s, are usually a mark of desperation. Indeed, the plaintive tone had already emerged with the 1834 convention platform, which urged delegates to ‘persevere’ in the face of persistent set-backs. In their last hurrah, in 1840, the Antimasons made no nomination but by that time they were in any event functioning as a subdivision of the Whig Party, which had perfected their methods and which had a broader appeal.

In a larger sense, though they split up, the Antimasons did not go away. As late as 1860, William Seward—almost the nominee of the Republican Party in that year—was apparently seeking signed statements from alleged former conspirators in the murder of William Morgan at the Republican convention (if Thurlow Weed, to whom Seward was very close) is to be believed. Former Antimasons dissipated and reformed, predominantly as abolitionists and republicans. This was possibly because they made the logical connection between their view of republicanism and the need to abolish slavery. Few became prominent in the anti-immigration movement, and fewer still in anti-Mormonism, though historians have from time to time sought to paint the Antimasons as anti-everything. They were in fact protestant insurgents in a time of change who stole a march on the large parties with a modernised form of traditional rhetoric. They were popular for as long as they could get away with it.