History Podcasts

The Anti-Masonic Party

The Anti-Masonic Party

The Anti-Masonic Party was the original third party to be active on the national scene. Popular opinion in America generally opposed secret organizations, but Freemasonry largely escaped this scrutiny because so many prominent citizens were members.Exemption from criticism ended for the Masons in 1826. In that year a bricklayer from Batavia, New York, William Morgan, disappeared. Ties between Morgan’s disappearance and the Masons were never established, but critics use the event to turn their wrath on the fraternal organization.The result was a rapid shrinking of the Masonic structure. The number of lodges dropped from 507 in 1826 to just 48 six years later.Anti-Masonic fervor was especially strong in New York State, where the political machine, the Albany Regency, was run by Martin Van Buren, a Mason. Opposition was led by William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed, who attempted to stir up the democratic ire of the poorer elements of New York society. In that year, Weed launched the Rochester Anti-Masonic Enquirer.In September, 1831, the anti-Masonic Party held a national convention in Baltimore and nominated William Wirt as their presidential candidate for the following year. Running against the popular Andrew Jackson, Wirt did poorly, winning only the seven electoral votes of the state of Vermont. Their prime impact had been to drain votes away from Henry Clay.Around 1834, the Anti-Masonic Party began a rapid disintegration with some of its members helping to establish the new Whig Party and others migrating to the Democratic Party.

Anti-Masonic party

Anti-Masonic party, American political organization that rose after the disappearance in W New York state in 1826 of William Morgan. A former Mason, Morgan had written a book purporting to reveal Masonic secrets. The Masons were said, without proof, to have murdered him, and in reaction local organizations arose to refuse support to Masons for public office. In New York state Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward attempted unsuccessfully to use the movement, which appealed strongly to the poorer classes, to overthrow Martin Van Buren and the Albany Regency. Anti-Masonry spread from New York to neighboring states and influenced many local and state elections. At Baltimore, in 1831, the Anti-Masons held the first national nominating convention of any party and issued the first written party platform—innovations followed by the older parties. The vote for their presidential candidate, William Wirt, mostly hurt Henry Clay. Usually the Anti-Masons in national politics acted with the National Republican party in opposition to Jacksonian democracy, and in 1834 they helped to form the Whig party.

See W. B. Hesseltine, The Rise and Fall of Third Parties (1948) L. Ratner, Antimasonry (1969).


Having considered the conditions which made the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party possible, attention will be directed to the party's political activity in various states. It is not intended to make an extended survey of this phase of Anti-Masonic history, but it is necessary to follow the cause of Anti-Masonry in the states to serve a background for the national Anti-Masonic party, which is intended to occupy the place of chief importance in this paper.

The first steps to organize a political party out of the opposition to Masonry aroused by the Morgan incident, were taken in February, 1827, when meetings were held at Batavia and at several other towns in western New York, and it was resolved to withhold support from Masons seeking election to public offices. Thus began a political organization which spread rapidly throughout the rural districts of western New York. Rochester became the centre from which the doctrines of Anti-Masonry were propagated. Little success was attained in the election of that year. (19) Thurlow Weed and other leaders in New York made attempts to unite the Adams men and the Anti-Masons in the election of 1828, but were frustrated by the more radical of the latter who nominated Solomon Southwick for governor. He polled 33,335 votes, while Judge Smith Thompson, the National Republican candidate, received 106,415 votes, and Martin Van Buren, who was elected governor, received 136,783 votes. The Anti-Masons elected seventeen assemblymen and four state senators. The vote on presidential electors showed that the western part of the state had given Adams sixteen electors while Jackson received twenty from the state. (20)

The year 1829 was marked by a state convention which met February 19, 1829, at Albany. The most active men at this gathering were Southwick, Weed, Whittlesey, Granger, Seward, Holley, Maynard, Tracy, and Ward. One of the most significant events of this convention was the resolving, on Feb. 20, to hold a national convention at Philadelphia, September 11, 1830. The election of 1829 was on the whole favourable to the Jackson party, though the Anti-Masons made slight gains in the state legislature. By this time true Anti-Masonry had come to mean Anti-Jacksonism. The National Republicans and Anti-Masons were united on most questions, opposing the administration forces on the leading questions of the day and both supporting the "American System," - the national bank, the tariff, and internal improvements. (21)

The New York Anti-Masons showed surprising strength in the election of 1830, their candidate for governor, Francis Granger receiving 120,361 votes and Emos Throop, the Democratic candidate, receiving 128,892 votes. The fact that many Masonic adherents of Clay in eastern counties voted for the Democratic candidate rather than for Granger was all that assured the election of Throop. The election of 1831 produced little excitement. The greatest source of excitement was absent, since the "Morgan trials" had been ended by the statute of limitations. About thirty members of the party were elected to the state assembly. (23) In the election of 1832 the Anti-Masonic party in New York came out with the same platform as the National Republicans, namely, "The American system." The two parties united in supporting the same electoral and state tickets, though the state conventions of each nominated the presidential candidates put forward by their respective national conventions. In spite of this coalition, the Democratic party carried both the electoral and state tickets in the fall of 1832. (24)

In Pennsylvania, the various German sects, - Mennonites, German Reformed, Amish, Dunkards, Moravians, and others the presence of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians the Quakers and other religious sects and the dislike of the people of the Western part of the state for the Democratic state administrations' policy in regard to internal improvements, supplied fertile soil for Anti-Masonic propaganda. Efforts were made to organize the party in the western part of the state as early as 1827. Participation in the election of 1828 was ineffective. The election of 1829 showed the Anti-Masonic party well established in the state. The party candidate for governor, Joseph Ritner, polled 49,000 votes, while fifteen members of the house and one member of the state senate, as well as one congressman, were elected. (25) Ritner was president of a state convention held at Harrisburg, Feb. 26, 1830, while Thaddeus Stevens appeared as a delegate. The election of that year gave the Anti-Masons six congressmen, four state senators, and twenty-seven members of the house. (26) The Anti-Masonic state convention which met at Harrisburg, February 22, 1832, nominated Ritner for governor and endorsed the party's candidates on the national ticket. The state administration was condemned and it was charged that Governor George Wolf, a Democrat and a Mason, had brought the state government under Masonic influences. The coalition was in evidence in that state also, but nevertheless, the Democrats were victorious in the election. (27)

Though Pennsylvania and New York were the two strongest Anti-Masonic states, several other states were active in the movement. The movement was strong in Vermont but this was without much effect since the state was of little importance in national political affairs. The Anti-Masonic party was first really organized in this state at a convention held August 5, 1829. The chief significance of the movement in Vermont is that this state was the only one carried by the Anti-Masonic candidate for President in the election of 1832, William Ward. The party's candidate for governor, William A. Palmer, was also elected by the legislature after forty-three ballots, the popular election having proved indecisive. (28) Anti-Masonry as a political movement, had its beginning in Massachusetts on November 1, 1828, though as a social movement it existed earlier. The party first showed strength in the election of 1830 when it elected three state senators and about twenty members of the house. The political strength of the party in this state was, however, negligible. (29)

Political Anti-Masonry was introduced into Ohio in 1829, but it was not marked with such bitterness as characterized the movement in other states. This state lacked the great party questions and the indifferences between sections which characterized Pennsylvania. The party failed to prosper and had, in 1831, only fifteen members in the legislature. In 1832, a coalition of Anti-Masons and National Republicans was formed, but was unsuccessful. (30)

In 1829, the Anti-Masonic party appeared in Rhode Island, but it did not gain any strength until 1831. The party's vote was insignificant, but was important locally because the Anti-Masons held the balance of power. (31)

The Anti-Masonic Party appeared in Connecticut in 1828. In February, 1829, a state convention was held. A coalition with the National Republicans in 1832, enabled the party to elect sixty-seven members of the lower house of the legislature, eight state senators, and one United States senator. (32)

The Quakers in New Jersey early took up the Anti-Masonic cause. The vote in this state was light, the vote for Wirt in 1832 being only five hundred. (33)

New England emigration to Michigan territory carried Anti-Masonry with it. The party made its appearance here in 1828 and showed its strength the next year by electing John Riddle as the Territorial Delegate to Congress.

Besides the states mentioned, political Anti-Masonry appeared in Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, Alabama, Maryland, and North Carolina. Its career in these states was ephemeral, and the party never prospered in any of them. (34)

2. Freemason Symbols Aren’t What You Think.

Freemasons have long communicated using visual symbols drawn from the tools of stonemasonry. The 𠇊ll-Seeing Eye,” or Eye of Providence, while not designed by Masons, has been used by the group to represent the omniscience of God. The most well-known Freemason symbol, “The Square and Compasses,” depicts a builder’s square joined by a compass. The “G” at its center remains subject to dispute some experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, believe the “G” in the symbol’s center represents geometry, a critical field to the first Freemasons, while others believe it represents God, the “Grand Architect of the Universe.” The Square and Compasses remains a popular symbol on Masonic rings.

There’s another, lesser-known Masonic symbol drawn from nature: the beehive. “Masons were originally working men who were supposed to be as busy as bees,” says Jacob. 𠇊nd the beehive symbolizes the industriousness of the lodge.”

The Masonic square and compasses symbol is seen on the main floor wall at the headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Washington, D.C.

The Anti-Masonic Party

The Anti-Masonic Party, sometimes Movement, was the first successful third party in American history.

The history of the Anti-Masonic Party starts with the Morgan Affair which occurred in Batavia, New York. It was alleged Freemasons from the local lodge killed an individual named Morgan who had become angry with the lodge and threatened to publish all of the "secrets" of Freemasonry. Morgan disappeared from the town and it was claimed lodge members drowned him in the Niagara River. No sign of Morgan was ever found.

The idea a group of Freemasons killed someone who spoke out against them resonated with people. It was during this time with the westward movement of settlers and the industrial revolution, many people started to become distrustful of government and long standing institutions like the Freemasons. There was also a religious revival going on at the time, a period known as the Second Great Awakening. The area of western New York was in what was called the Burned-over District, a phrase coined to indicate all of the "fuel" (people to convert to new religions) had been "burned" (converted).

Initially the Anti-Masonic movement was confined to western New York in the Burned-over District. Before long it began to spread, less for the original reasons which occurred in Batavia with the Morgan Affair, and more because of Andrew Jackson. Anti-Jacksonians needed a cause to rally people around, the fact Jackson was a prominent Freemason and often spoke about the fraternity gave the failing National Republican party what they needed. The Anti-Masonic movement became less about stopping Freemasonry and more about defeating Jacksonian Democrats.

Before long the Anti-Masonic Party created some innovations unheard of at the time in American politics. One innovation was party newspapers, one of those papers starting in 1829 was the Albany Journal in it the paper attacked Martin Van Buren. In one paragraph the words "dangerous," "demagogue," "corrupt," "degrade," "pervert," "prostitute," "debauch" and "cursed" were found. Another innovation was Nominating Conventions.

The first Nominating Convention in the history of the United States was held by the Anti-Masonic Party for the 1832 presidential elections. The party nominated William Wirt who, by his own admission, had made it through to his Fellowcraft degree. There is some evidence, despite Wirt's denial, he did receive his Master Mason degree. The evidence is questionable though and he probably did not receive it. Despite Wirt's party affiliation he did defend Freemasonry at the Anti-Masonic Convention where he was nominated. Wirt stated "I was myself initiated into the mysteries of Freemasonry. I never took the Master's degree, but it proceeded from no suspicion on my part that there was anything criminal in the institution, or anything that placed its members in the slightest degree in collision with their allegiance to their country and its laws. I have thought and repeatedly said that I considered Masonry as having nothing to do with politics, and nothing has surprised me more than to see it blown into consequence. . . ."

Wirt carried just over 7% of the popular vote in the National Election as well as all of the electoral college delegates from Vermont.

Overall the Anti-Masonic Party had little success. They elected a Governor in Pennsylvania as well as a Governor, Lieutenant Governor and other high level elected positions in Vermont. In some states they did get members into the state Legislatures, although never enough to make any real changes. They never were able to get an Anti-Masonic Party member into the United States Congress.

In 1838, the Anti-Masonic Party held it's third and final nominating convention. At the convention they nominated William Henry Harrison, who was later nominated by the Whigs, the same party where most Anti-Masonic Party members had already migrated. When this happened the Anti-Masonic Party did not nominate another candidate and the party ended after only being around 10 years.

In 1872 there was a resurgence of the Anti-Masonic Party, this time it was a religious base fueling the party. The second Anti-Masonic Party ended in 1888.

The Anti-Masonic Party - History

The Whig coalition drew strength from several earlier parties, including two that harnessed American political paranoia. The Anti-Masonic Party formed in the 1820s for the purpose of destroying the Freemasons. Later, anti-immigrant sentiment formed the American Party, also called the “Know-Nothings.” The American Party sought and won office across the country in the 1850s, but nativism had already been an influential force, particularly in the Whig Party, whose members could not fail to notice that urban Irish Catholics strongly tended to support Democrats.

Freemasonry, an international network of social clubs with arcane traditions and rituals, seems to have originated in medieval Europe as a trade organization for stonemasons. By the eighteenth century, however, it had outgrown its relationship with the masons’ craft and had become a general secular fraternal order that proclaimed adherence to the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Freemasonry was an important part of the social life of men in the new republic’s elite. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay all claimed membership. Prince Hall, a free leather worker in Boston, founded a separate branch of the order for African American men. However, the Masonic brotherhood’s secrecy, elitism, rituals, and secular ideals generated a deep suspicion of the organization among many Americans.

In 1820s upstate New York, which was fertile soil for new religious and social reform movements, anti-Masonic suspicion would emerge for the first time as an organized political force. The trigger for this was the strange disappearance and probable murder of William Morgan. Morgan announced plans to publish an exposé called Illustrations of Masonry, by One of the Fraternity Who Has Devoted Thirty Years to the Subject. This book purported to reveal the order’s secret rites, and it outraged other local Freemasons. They launched a series of attempts to prevent the book from being published, including an attempt to burn the press and a conspiracy to have Morgan jailed for alleged debts. In September, Morgan disappeared. He was last seen being forced into a carriage by four men later identified as Masons. When a corpse washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario, Morgan’s wife and friends claimed at first that it was his.

The Morgan story convinced many people that Masonry was a dangerous influence in the republic. The publicity surrounding the trials transformed local outrage into a political movement that, though small, had significant power in New York and parts of New England. This movement addressed Americans’ widespread dissatisfaction about economic and political change by giving them a handy explanation: the republic was controlled by a secret society.

In 1827, local anti-Masonic committees began meeting across the state of New York, committing not to vote for any political candidate who belonged to the Freemasons. This boycott grew, and in 1828, a convention in the town of LeRoy produced an “Anti-Masonic Declaration of Independence,” the basis for an Anti-Masonic Party. In 1828, Anti-Masonic politicians ran for state offices in New York, winning twelve percent of the vote for governor.

In 1830, the Anti-Masons held a national convention in Philadelphia. After a dismal showing in the 1832 presidential elections, the leaders of the Anti-Masonic Party folded their movement into the new Whig Party. The Anti-Masonic Party’s absorption into the Whig coalition demonstrated the importance of conspiracy theories in American politics. Just as Andrew Jackson’s followers detected a vast foreign plot in the form of the Bank of the United States, some of his enemies could detect it in the form of the Freemasons. Others, called nativists, blamed immigrants.

Nativists detected many foreign threats, but Catholicism may have been the most important. Nativists watched with horror as more and more Catholic immigrants (especially from Ireland and Germany) arrived in American cities. The immigrants professed different beliefs, often spoke unfamiliar languages, and participated in alien cultural traditions. Just as importantly, nativists remembered Europe’s history of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. They feared that Catholics would bring religious violence with them to the United States.

In the summer of 1834, a mob of Protestants attacked a Catholic convent near Boston. The rioters had read newspaper rumors that a woman was being held against her will by the nuns. Angry men broke into the convent and burned it to the ground. Later, a young woman named Rebecca Reed, who had spent time in the convent, published a memoir describing abuses she claimed the nuns had directed toward novices and students. The convent attack was among many eruptions of “nativism,” especially in New England and other parts of the Northeast, during the early nineteenth century.

Many Protestants saw the Catholic faith as a superstition that deprived individuals of the right to think for themselves and enslaved them to a dictator, the pope, in Rome. They accused Catholic priests of controlling their parishioners and preying sexually on young women. They feared that Catholicism had the potential to overrun and conquer the American political system, just as their ancestors had feared it would conquer England.

The painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, for example, warned in 1834 that European tyrants were conspiring together to “carry Popery through all our borders” by sending Catholic immigrants to the United States. If they succeeded, he predicted, Catholic dominance in America would mean “the certain destruction of our free institutions.” Around the same time, the Protestant minister Lyman Beecher lectured in various cities, delivering a similar warning. “If the potentates of Europe have no design upon our liberties,” Beecher demanded, then why were they sending over “such floods of pauper emigrants—the contents of the poorhouse and the sweepings of the streets—multiplying tumults and violence, filling our prisons, and crowding our poorhouses, and quadrupling our taxation”—not to mention voting in American elections?

The Conspiracy Theory That Spawned a Political Party

Historians still disagree about the legacy of the 200-year-old Anti-Masonic Party, but one aspect of the paranoid political movement shouldn’t be overlooked: it began in reaction to an actual conspiracy.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!

Good, Christian American families were whipped into a hysteria over a shadowy, secretive — and possibly even satanic — cabal subverting our nation’s democracy, conspiring against justice, and performing bizarre, blasphemous rituals.

This may sound like a modern, paranoid movement on social media, but it’s actually describing a 200-year-old conspiracy theory in the U.S. that alleged that men in the growing Freemasonry fraternity were engaged in a nefarious plot to exert unchecked control over the republic. The Anti-Masonry movement grew to become the first “third party” in the country’s history, permanently altering American politics during a transformative political realignment that would see new parties, ideals, and democratization of the U.S. system.

The spread of Anti-Masonry and its attendant conspiracy theories were aided by the simultaneous religious revivals sweeping across the states, and the movement’s transference into the political sphere met with other opponents of Andrew Jackson. But an important aspect of this conspiracy theory has often been overlooked: it began in reaction to an actual conspiracy.

Subscribe and get unlimited access to our online magazine archive.

No other modern historian has spent as much time digging into the history of Anti-Masonry as Kathleen Smith Kutolowski. Born and raised in a small town in Genessee County, New York, she collected otherwise untouched Masonic data from the region, offering a more complete picture of 1820s New York and demystifying the period of supposed hysteria.

Kutolowski’s father belonged to a Masonic lodge. When she began writing her dissertation on the general political development of the area in the 19th century, she says, “I kept running into Masons as political leaders, right down to candidates for county coroner.” She analyzed the records of Genessee and nearby counties and found that Masons were not necessarily the upper-class elites that many had thought they came from a variety of backgrounds, economic statuses, and denominations.

This was in line with her discovery that there were many more Masonic lodges in Western New York than anyone else had cared to document.“Masonry was a more widespread phenomenon than people understand, and they dominated political office,” she says.

In the 1820s, Freemasonry enjoyed explosive growth in cities, towns, and even small villages in the Northeast. Tens of thousands of Masons had established hundreds of lodges in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and they held “influential civic positions out of proportion to their numbers,” according to Kutolowski’s research. Many of the founding fathers, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, had been Masons. In New York especially, Masons held power. But the popular movement against them arose because of the ways they wielded it, particularly in Genessee County in 1826.

That summer, a man named William Morgan announced his plans to publish a sort of Freemasonry tell-all with the Batavia Republican Advocate publisher David Miller. Morgan had attended some local Masonic meetings and claimed to be a longtime member, although the latter was unsubstantiated. His exposé was to be called Illustrations of Masonry, and the Masons at the Batavia lodge became obsessed with stopping him.

They began to harass Morgan and Miller. The sheriff of Genessee County, a Mason, complied with his fraternity and arrested Morgan several times on petty debt charges. Another gang of Masons attempted to ransack and set fire to Miller’s offices. In September, Morgan was sitting in jail in Canandaigua when a stranger bailed him out. Upon release, the writer was ambushed by several Masons and forced into a closed carriage. They drove him to Fort Niagara, and he was never seen again.

Most historical analysis of Anti-Masonry focuses on Morgan’s disappearance as a fairly simple explanation for the birth of the movement, but Kutolowski explored the circumstances around the incident more thoroughly, saying, “The important event was not necessarily the kidnapping itself, but the cover-up that followed.”

Though Morgan’s kidnapping and (likely) murder were an outrage, the Masonic subterfuge that was to come would only exacerbate any extant public perceptions that the fraternity posed a legitimate threat to freedom.

For more than four years, trials and grand jury investigations kept the “Morgan Excitement” in the news and on Americans’ lips. Dozens of Masons were eventually indicted, but not without obstruction from Freemason police officers, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and clergy. Once-Mason and well-regarded New York publisher William Leete Stone thoroughly documented every moment of the Morgan affair at the time in his Letters on Masonry and Anti-Masonry … , maintaining that “the men engaged in this foul conspiracy, thus terminating in a deed of blood, belonged to the society of Freemasons.” Stone tracked the indignant public protest and subsequent legal action over Morgan’s disappearance, but, as he wrote, “they soon found their investigations embarrassed, by Freemasons, in every way that ingenuity could devise.” In the Genessee grand jury trials of 1826-27, five of the six foremen were Masons, including one who was implicated in the scandal. The juries — picked by sheriffs at the time — were full of Masons, or their brothers or sons, and the few Masons who spoke out against the fraternity’s militant protection of its own were expelled from their lodge. Similar circumstances stalled or obstructed justice in Ontario County trials as well.

While the obvious perpetuation of injustice at the hands of Masons generated plenty of reasonable Anti-Masonic sentiment, the more fervent among the movement spun irresistibly fascinating webs of accusations against the fraternity. Kutolowski says that “protest did not leap full-blown from the kidnapping to beliefs about Satanic conspiracies,” but a market for the latter seemed to open up nonetheless.

Morgan’s manuscript was published a few months after his disappearance, and, while it offered an abundance of detail on Masonic practices, the book failed to live up to its sensational promise as “a master key to the secrets of Masonry.” It was soon eclipsed by legions of articles, books, speeches, and entire Anti-Masonic periodicals that disclosed — often fallacious — claims regarding the fraternity’s evils.

In Danville, Vermont, the local paper North Star (not to be confused with Frederick Douglass’s publication of the same name) published a message from the Genessee Baptist Convention in 1828: “That Free Masonry is an evil, we have incontrovertible proof and this appears from its ceremonies, its principles, and its obligations.” A few months later, the Star reprinted (from Morristown, New Jersey’s Palladium of Liberty) one Mason’s “renunciation” from Freemasonry, colorfully painting the fraternity’s membership as men “whose hands reek with the blood of human victims offered in sacrifice to devils, or who worships a Crocodile, a Cat or an Ox.” Such dramatic renunciations by supposed ex-Masons were regular fixtures in Anti-Masonic papers, and lists bearing the names and towns of recent Masonic renouncers often accompanied them.

An 1831 issue of Vermont’s Middlebury Free Press featured a fictionalized dialogue between the mythic demons Belphagor and Beelzebub in which they boast of their Satanic sway over Freemasonry (“That bulwark of our empire on earth!”) and delight in their ungodly machinations against the republic (“ — that post, well-fortified, in our enemy’s country, from whence, at pleasure, we may make successful inroads upon his friends and people!”) .

Anti-Masonic fervor wasn’t contained to printed communications it manifested in real-world violence as well. Though Freemasons had traditionally marched in annual St. John’s Day parades, their celebration in Genessee County in 1829 was met with Anti-Masons who threw rocks at them. Then, protesters ransacked a Royal Arch Chapter headquarters. Freemasons were spooked — particularly those in Genessee County, where 16 of the 17 lodges and two chapters soon dissolved. But for many Anti-Masons, public renunciations and even dissolution of local Masonic charters was not enough. They held that Freemasonry must be abolished, that its mere existence — even if it was weakened and relegated to the shadows — was proof that their work was yet unfinished. Wilkes-Barre’s Anti-Masonic Advocate expressed as much in 1832: “To overcome this evil is a work of intelligence, and a work of time. We have scotched the snake, not killed it. We have forced it to hide in darkness — but though unseen, it is not less dangerous.”

Anti-Masonry’s entrance into electoral politics was swift: the spring after Morgan’s kidnapping saw Anti-Masonic candidates for office in Genessee County. “Their level of organization was amazing,” Kutolowski says, “right down to school district committees, taking a social issue to the ballot box.” Since Anti-Masons viewed the fraternity as an existential threat to the budding country’s republican values, they turned to grassroots democratic mobilization to uproot it.

The Anti-Masonic Party grew into a national force vying for power up and down the ballot in the 1830s. It was the first such third party in the country, dwarfed by the National Republican Party (later the Whigs) and the Democratic Party. The Anti-Masonic Party held the first presidential nomination convention of any political party in U.S. history in Baltimore in 1831, choosing former U.S. Attorney General William Wirt for their ticket. Wirt garnered more than 100,000 votes (almost eight percent of the popular vote) and won the sole state of Vermont in the 1832 election. The party also elected Vermont’s governor along with plenty of local and state seats, but it fizzled out over the course of the decade.

The question of the Anti-Masonic Party’s legacy is anything but settled among political historians. Was it all a righteous democratic force for justice or a cynical conspiracy cult? Many have according to Donald J. Ratcliffe.

But two-time Pulitzer-winner Richard Hofstadter, writing on the “paranoid style” of American politics in Harper’s in 1963, allowed that Anti-Masonry “was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism.” Other histories have also credited the Anti-Masons for enshrining democratic processes as a populist force for “equal rights, equal laws, and equal privileges.” Author and historian Ron Formisiano examines the populist aspects of Anti-Masonry in his book For the People … . He says that Anti-Masonry has received similar unfair treatment as other American third parties in the 19th century, reduced to “movements of bigotry” without consideration for the complexity therein. He claims the Know Nothing Party is similarly derided and misunderstood in modern times in spite of its connection with important, democratizing reforms.

The kneejerk labeling of Anti-Masons as religious zealots and reactionaries has met resistance as historians like Kutolowski have more closely examined the circumstances around the movement.

Kutolowski says the Anti-Masonry movement had “an enormous role in the development of American political culture.” In addition to pioneering democratic political party operations like the national nominating convention, Kutolowski points to the party’s championing of reforms like making kidnapping a felony and ending the appointment of jurors by sheriffs, as well as their backing of economic goals that would become mainstream, like antitrust laws. After its dissolution, much of the movement’s supporters would turn to the cause of anti-slavery.

With regard to the Anti-Masons’ primary goal — the complete abolition of the fraternity — they were, of course, unsuccessful. Though the reputation of Freemasonry was tarnished for decades, Mason lodges still operate in the U.S. and around the world. Masonic history of the Anti-Masons has often cast the phenomenon as a paranoid, discriminatory crusade. Even in recent years, members of the “ancient and honourable order” have occasionally decried public “misconceptions” about their organization, namely regarding the inconsistent inclusion of women among lodges.

The popular movement against Masons is long over, but in the age of social media — one in which virtually any conspiracy theory can take root — anti-Mason rhetoric is still out there. The charges leveled against Masons indiscriminately by internet users are much more complicated than those out of Western New York a few centuries ago. Conspiracy theorists on social media have woven anti-Masonic theories into the lore of “QAnon,” along with many other theories regarding a cabal of satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles and the Trump administration’s heroic crusade against them. Such posts might call attention to Masonic-seeming symbols in photographs of the British royal family or in the logos of Gmail or government seals. The implication is that Freemasons (along with Illuminati, Hollywood, Democrats, and Jews) exert far-reaching influence in government and culture and hint at their schemes with cryptic numerology. Recent studies have documented enormous spikes this year in social media users spreading the baseless QAnon theory, leading to several platforms taking steps to remove such content.

Kutolowski has not followed much recent news about QAnon or current conspiracy theories around Freemasonry, but she says they could be with us for a long time. She is adamant that the Anti-Masons of the 1820s and ’30s — unlike Pizzagaters and QAnons — have been branded unfairly as wacky conspiracy theorists by historians and journalists. She recalls the words of an Anti-Masonic town leader, defending the veracity of their cause: “All the evidence of historic demonstration will be necessary to convince those that come after us that the record is true.” But, as Kutolowski’s work might demonstrate, the existence of such evidence is not necessarily enough someone must be willing to seek it out.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now

The Anti-Masonic Party’s Attempt to Outlaw Freemasonry in America

It’s no secret that Freemasonry has its many outspoken and vehement critics across society. From the leaders of the Catholic church to social and political commentators, there are many people willing to openly chastise Freemasonry for a whole variety of reasons.

But in the early nineteenth century in America, there was actually a single-issue party that had the sole objective to denounce and eventually outlaw Freemasonry in America. Let’s take a look at the story behind the formation of the Anti-Masonic party.

The origins of the Anti-Masonic Party.

Founded in 1828, the Anti-Masonic Party [also known as the Anti-Masonic Movement], was established as a direct response to the disappearance of whistle blower William Morgan.

Morgan was a former Mason who was about to publish a book revealing the secrets of Freemasonry, before he mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Society in general pointed the finger at Masons and believed that his disappearance was the price he paid for speaking out against the fraternity and daring to reveal its secrets.

Freemasons were tried and ultimately convicted for Morgan’s kidnapping, but the sentences they received were deemed too light, and it bred significant resentment towards the way in which the justice system at the time viewed Freemasonry.

As public opinion turned against Freemasonry in the wake of the trial, the Anti-Masonic party was formed to try and channel this resentment and put an end to Freemasonry’s influence in the upper echelons of society.

The party also considered the values and teachings of Freemasonry to be contrary to those of the United States, and they couldn’t see how the two could co-exist harmoniously. They achieved relative success in the 1828 elections and began to take a position on the many other topical issues of the day.

By 1831, the Anti-Masonic party had gained popularity in various states, most notably Vermont and Pennsylvania. At their party conference in Baltimore of that year, they elected William Wirt as their leader, who became an extremely vocal and outspoken critic of Freemasonry in America.

Despite initial rousing successes [particularly Wirt winning the state of Vermont], their single-issue agenda wasn’t enough to convince everyday voters of their suitability for government. After less than a decade in the limelight, the Anti-Masonic party dissipated and focused more on anti-establishment rhetoric, before being fully absorbed by the Whig party in 1840.

Was the party successful?

While they failed in their overall aim of outlawing Freemasonry in America, the Anti-Masonic movement was undoubtedly influential with certain voters in parts of the US. Their stance on the exclusivity and secrecy of Freemasonry struck a chord with regular people, and they were the first to openly criticize the Craft over a sustained period of time. It would be fair to say then, that the Anti-Masonic party upset the natural growth of Freemasonry in America in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was successful in altering public opinion towards the Craft as a direct result of their one-issue mandate.

The Mysteries of the Masons

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

To this day, nobody knows the true fate of Capt. William Morgan. A failed businessman and citizen of generally low repute, Morgan was abducted from his home, in the town of Batavia, New York, in the early morning of Sept. 11, 1826. He soon found himself in a Canandaigua jail cell, about 50 miles away, imprisoned for a debt of $2.65. The whole ordeal was doubtless confusing to Morgan, a man best known for his drinking. It likely became even more confusing when a stranger paid his bail. But that man had no intention of setting him free. Morgan emerged from the jail only to be forced into a carriage, reportedly screaming out “murder” while he was being dragged away.

This is the last anyone ever saw of Morgan, about whom little else is certain. Some said that he was not really a military captain, while others claimed that he had earned that title in the War of 1812. Others asserted that both theories were technically true: That he fought the British in 1812 as a pirate seeking plunder and was granted a pardon for his misdeeds by the president after the war. What we do know is that whatever happened to him, trapped inside that northbound carriage and fearing for his life, Morgan never came back.

Over the next few years, the details of Morgan’s abduction would slowly come to light, setting off a political firestorm and giving rise to the first third party in American politics. Evidence suggested that Morgan’s abduction was carried out by members of a secret organization known as the Masons. Americans soon came to believe in the existence of a Masonic plot to overthrow society from within the country’s very existence, many proclaimed, was now in jeopardy. What began as an obscure crime in upstate New York would spark one of the first episodes of political hysteria in American history, laying the foundation for a long line of political crusades to come.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The story of Morgan’s disappearance begins in the summer of 1826, when a new era was dawning in the nation’s history. Fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, the last of America’s founding generation was dying off—a turning point highlighted by the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the Fourth of July that year. What would become of America’s “great experiment” in democracy without the presence of the founders?

In upstate New York, then on the outer edges of America’s frontier, two men were occupied with a different question: how to secure personal fame and fortune. The first was David C. Miller, the publisher of Batavia’s Republican Advocate. Miller’s was an opposition paper, pitted against the policies of New York’s governor, DeWitt Clinton. Though he’d run the journal for more than a decade, he was still a struggling newspaperman searching for higher circulation. The second was William Morgan, who had moved his family restlessly throughout the countryside, working first as a brewer, now as a stoneworker, hauling his wife, Lucinda, and two young children from one failed venture to the next. Only two years earlier, Morgan had written of his desperation: “The darkness of my prospects robs my mind, and extreme misery my body.” The two men made an odd pair, but what they lacked in common background they shared in common circumstance—and now in common goals. Over that summer the two hatched a plan to expose to the world the inner workings of the secret society of Freemasons.

How, exactly, the two first came into contact is not known, but neither was held in high esteem by his community. According to one source, Miller was known to be a man “of irreligious character, great laxity of moral principle, and of intemperate habits” much worse things were said about Morgan. Not surprisingly, both men harbored deep-seated animosity toward Freemasonry, which served as a symbol for the establishment class.

Freemasonry is thought to have originated in England and Scotland sometime in the 1500s as a trade organization made up of local stoneworkers, but it soon took on a philosophical air. The triumph of reason began to be a focal point of the organization, as did dedication to deism, or the Enlightenment belief that the existence of God is apparent through observation and study rather than miracles or revelation. Over the centuries, the fraternity of Masons would expand throughout the world, as would its ceremonies and rituals, which involved strange symbols and oaths—in addition to its more benign emphasis on civic-mindedness, religious tolerance, and communal learning. The group met in secret.

Masons were overwhelmingly men of middle- and upper-class status—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—who had the time and leisure to join what amounted to a social club for the well-to-do. Many of the founding fathers had been Masons, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin—indeed, 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution claimed membership in the fraternity. In the years between America’s founding and 1826, Masonry had only grown more powerful, especially in New York. Gov. DeWitt Clinton was not only a Mason but had also been the grand master of the Grand Lodge of New York and the highest-ranking Mason in the country. By one estimate, more than half of all publicly held offices in New York were occupied by Masons.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Miller first hinted at some type of forthcoming revelation in an article published in the Advocate in August 1826. He had discovered the “strongest evidence of rottenness,” he wrote, evidence that compelled him and an unnamed collaborator, “to an act of justice to ourselves and to the public.” This bombshell was a book, to be compiled by Morgan and printed by Miller, detailing Masonic rituals and misdeeds at the highest levels of power. Morgan wasn’t a member of the Masons, but he had convinced other Masons that he was and had been granted access to a neighboring Masonic lodge. Morgan was thus able to witness the Masons’ ceremonies, recording their doings in a manuscript.


Here, for the first time in more than eighty years, is a detailed study of political Antimasonry on the national, state, and local levels, based on a survey of existing sources. The Antimasonic party, whose avowed goal was the destruction of the Masonic Lodge and other secret societies, was the first influential third party in the United States and introduced the device of the national presidential nominating convention in 1831.

Vaughn focuses on the celebrated "Morgan Affair” of 1826, the alleged murder of a former Mason who exposed the fraternity's secrets. Thurlow Weed quickly transformed the crusading spirit aroused by this incident into an anti-Jackson party in New York. From New York, the party soon spread through the Northeast. To achieve success, the Antimasons in most states had to form alliances with the major parties, thus becoming the "flexible minority.

After William Wirt's defeat by Andrew Jackson in the election of 1832, the party waned. Where it had been strong, Antimasonry became a reform-minded, anti-Clay faction of the new Whig party and helped to secure the presidential nominations of William Henry Harrison in 1836 and 1840. Vaughn concludes that although in many ways the Antimasonic Crusade was finally beneficial to the Masons, it was not until the 1850s that the fraternity regained its strength and influence.

William Preston Vaughn, professor of history at North Texas State University, is the author of Schools for All: Blacks and Public Education in the South, 1865-1877.

The Populist Parties and Their Conspiracy Theories, Part I: The Anti-Masonic Party

The fundamental philosophy of populist parties and movements, be they left or right, is “A small group of people have a disproportionate amount of power in society, it is to the detriment of the public, and we must do something about it.” This philosophy resounds with populism that surrounds support for Donald Trump and the condemnation of “elites” and “Washington insiders”. Trump’s views as well as his entertaining and embracing of conspiracy theories are not at all new to populist movements. They characterize them and have done so since the formation of the first such party, the Anti-Masonic Party.

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president but Andrew Jackson was a rising political figure who himself had a lot of support from working people and was himself a populistic candidate, but his status as a Mason made him suspect for some. An event of that year would put the issue at the forefront of national attention, and that was what happened to a Batavia, New York brickmason named William Morgan. Morgan’s life is surrounded in controversy, including his reliability and his fate. He claimed to have been a Master Mason in Canada and appears to have attended at least one meeting in Rochester. Morgan publicly announced he was going to publish a book, Illustrations of Masonry, that was apparently going to have exposed all their secret workings after an apparent conflict with other Masons. This was a violation of an oath of secrecy that Masons take of the proceedings of such meetings, and several of them in Batavia made their displeasure public. He and his publisher, David Cade Miller, were subsequently subjected to threats and harassment as well as an attempted arson of Miller’s newspaper office. After being jailed for not paying a loan and apparently stealing a shirt and tie by the sheriff, Morgan was released by his publisher and then jailed again, with two men subsequently abducting Morgan from jail and taking him to Fort Niagara, never to be seen again. Although his fate is technically unknown, he is widely believed to have been murdered by Mason extremists.

The story of William Morgan made headlines, and conspiracy theories about the Masons spread like wildfire. There were public protests, a Masonic lodge was ransacked, and parading Masons were pelted with rocks. Thus, was birthed the Anti-Masonic Party, which was of course against the Masons and secret societies overall. They believed that the Masons were engaged in a conspiracy to control the American government and were as a group strongly Christian and anti-elite. They opposed Andrew Jackson, a Mason, and had some young political activists who would later play more significant roles in American politics, such as Millard Fillmore, Thurlow Weed, Thaddeus Stevens, and William H. Seward. Stevens denounced the Masonic Lodge as “a chartered iniquity, within whose jaws are crushed the bones of immortal men, and whose mouth is continually reeking with human blood, and spitting forth human gore” (Medved).

The Anti-Masonic Party also arose during a time of social and economic change as the frontier was expanding and white settlers were moving west, thus resulting in great uncertainty and angst as social capital declined. Major political players took advantage of the scandal to attack their opponents, with John Quincy Adams condemning Andrew Jackson for being a Mason himself. He would run for governor of Massachusetts on its ticket in 1833. In the 1828 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party won five seats in Congress, the first time a third party had done so. Two years later, they gained twelve more seats. They did especially well in the states of New York and Vermont and many voters vowed not to vote for any candidates who were Masons to curb their influence. Some even sought the end of Freemasonry altogether, with the Anti-Masonic Advocate of Wilkes-Barre holding, “To overcome this evil is a work of intelligence, and a work of time. We have scotched the snake, not killed it. We have forced it to hide in darkness — but though unseen, it is not less dangerous” (Gilmore). However, by 1831 many in the party had come to regard not Freemasonry the greatest threat, rather President Andrew Jackson himself. One leading member, Samuel Miles Hopkins, even admitted that in the last election he had voted for anti-Jackson candidates, even if they were Masons (Burt). The party had adopted additional positions, including support for protective tariffs and internal improvements. They succeeded in pushing making kidnapping a felony, called for anti-trust laws, and many prominent members would be known as fierce opponents of slavery. In 1832, the party nominated former Attorney General William Wirt for president, a protege of Thomas Jefferson and a former Mason himself who differed from party platform by defending the Masons, and they only won the state of Vermont. Their numbers again grew in the House, to 25. However, the 1834 and 1835 elections reflected the weakness of the party at this point, with them only retaining five seats. In the 1838 and 1839 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party retained no seats. Anti-Masons had moved to the Whig Party and in 1840 backed William Henry Harrison, who had earlier aligned himself with the Anti-Masons. The party dissolved in December of that year.

William Wirt, Anti-Masonic Presidential Candidate, 1832.

Although the idea of Masons trying to take over America was a conspiracy theory, the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s disappearance do point to an actual conspiracy…in the form of a cover-up. Although only a few Masons perpetrated the kidnapping and likely murder, many prominent people in Batavia and in New York politics altogether were Masons, including the sheriff who arrested Morgan twice. Prominent Masons even went as far as to defend Morgan’s fate as something he deserved. Freemasons also impacted the trials surrounding Morgan’s disappearance, as Nicholas Gilmore (2020) notes, “In the Genessee grand jury trials of 1826-27, five of the six foremen were Masons, including one who was implicated in the scandal. The juries — picked by sheriffs at the time — were full of Masons, or their brothers or sons, and the few Masons who spoke out against the fraternity’s militant protection of its own were expelled from their lodge. Similar circumstances stalled or obstructed justice in Ontario County trials as well”. The sentences handed down for the kidnapping ranged from only one month to two years. According to historian Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, “Masonry was a more widespread phenomenon than people understand, and they dominated political office” (Gilmore). New York’s governor at the time, DeWitt Clinton, was himself a high-ranking Mason and at one time the top ranking member in the nation. Eleven men were found to have been involved in the kidnapping of Morgan, but they were given light sentences. No murder convictions were handed down as no body was found. Anti-Mason political victories resulted in the end of sheriffs picking jurors.

The next post will be about the American Party, but it’s more common and derided name is the “Know Nothing Party”.

Burt, A. (2015, May 15). The Mysteries of the Masons. Slate.

Gilmore, N. (2020, October 26). The Conspiracy Theory That Spawned a Political Party. The Saturday Evening Post.

Medved, M. (2008, July 23). A Long Tradition of Fringe Parties and Paranoia. Townhall.

The Disappearance of William Morgan. Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research.

List of site sources >>>