Conspiracy theories will almost certainly play a role in the 2020 elections – look no further than those who thrived immediately after the botched Iowa caucus and those who are now either panicking or threatening a coordinated public response to them Undo coronavirus pandemic. A recent text message convinced countless people across the country that the president was only a few hours from the closure of all businesses, including grocery stores – a story that spread like wildfire without the support of mainstream news or government sources.
The spread of conspiracy theories may feel new – a by-product of social media, Russian disinformation campaigns, and a demagogic president who has built a political identity on birtherism. But since the beginning of American democracy, wild, unproven theories have blossomed, which are often even adopted by influential leaders. And the 1800 elections show how these theories can thrive and even postpone elections long before Twitter contains fake news and viral text messages.
Where did Dwight and his contemporaries get their ideas about the Illuminati? The real Illuminati was founded by an angry Bavarian Jesuit named Adam Weishaupt. Weishaupt, professor of canon law at the famous University of Ingolstadt, was disillusioned with the Catholic Church in 1776. He believed that only a secret society could spread secular, rationalist ideas in a repressive, religious environment and founded a small group based on the Freemasons model, with which he hoped one day to found a new society based on a rational government without religious influence was based.
Weishaupt recruited young nobles for his new group and was looking for both rich and impressive acolytes. The group gradually expanded from a few dozen to several thousand. In 1784, Duke Charles Theodore of Bavaria banned all secret societies in the hope of specifically suppressing the Illuminati. Two years later, his police raided several high-profile members’ homes, seized heretical essays that defended atheism and suicide, promoted counterfeiting and abortions, drafted plans to involve women, and claimed that the Illuminati had power over life and death. Sunlight proved to be a strong disinfectant, and as soon as it was illuminated, the Illuminati dissolved.
Weishaupt’s organization might have been completely lost as a small footnote to history if it hadn’t been for a French priest named Augustin Barruel trying to understand in 1797 how his country had gone from an apparently stable Catholic monarchy to a violent atheist regime, such a short one Time. How had the ideas of philosophers such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had long bawled against the excesses of the monarchy and the church, so successfully undermined the old order? Barruel concluded that they had relied on a secret Illuminati network that ignorant Freemasons used to spread their unholy message.
Barruel’s conspiracy theory assumed that the entire French Revolution was not a history of exuberant democracy that fell into an unpredictable chaos, but a carefully coordinated plan by philosophers who had long populated the French countryside with subversive agents, a function of what Barruel did Freemasonry called “Illumination”: the union of Masonic secret and secular revolution.
Although the Bavarian Illuminati were dead in the mid-1780s, Barruel’s insinuation gave their new life. The whispering of these dangerous atheists found its way to England with the publication of John Robison’s 1797 brochure. Evidence of a conspiracy against all religions and governments in Europe, which was carried out in the secret assemblies of Freemasons, Illuminati and reading societies. Robison was a Freemason himself and feared that the irreligious Illuminati would have gained control of the Masonic organization and perverted it. They were now working to “exterminate all religious institutions and overthrow all existing European governments”.
Robison’s warnings about the Illuminati reached the United States at a vulnerable time. The Americans still formed their more perfect union and were acutely vulnerable to foreign interference. But in the late 1790s, that fear was broken by party politics. Federalists feared that France’s revolutionaries were trying to turn the Americans against their emerging government, while Jefferson Republicans feared that Britain would retake its former colonies.
Federalists like Dwight’s New England was particularly prepared to receive news of an ungodly network of spies and invaders. Calvinist remains of the original Puritans (including Congregationalists and Presbyterians) still dominated New England politics, and they were careful about any attempt to separate the Church and the State. They supported her husband John Adams in re-election against Republican Thomas Jefferson, a deist who at times seemed to be atheism (while Jefferson believed that Jesus Christ was an enlightened prophet, he was known to reject both the resurrection and the miracles of the Gospels from as mythology). This, along with his generally positive attitude towards France after the revolution, made him a likely candidate for the subversion of the Illuminati. On July 4, Timothy Dwight’s brother Theodore said: “I don’t know who belongs to this society in this country, but if I wanted to make proselytes illumatism in the United States, I should first contact Thomas Jefferson, Albert, Gallatin [a U.S. House Representative from Pennsylvania and future Treasury Secretary under Jefferson]and their political staff. “
But after the federalists worked to stir up public fear of the Illuminati infiltrating into the United States, they might not be prepared for how quickly this paranoia would turn against them. Had they known, they might have been friendlier to a man named John C. Ogden. A little-known and long-forgotten preacher, Ogden, had tried for years to settle in New England, but repeatedly spoke out against what he believed to be the power structure of the congregational clergy, and left New England in 1793 for New England, York and Philadelphia. He began bitterly to publish a number of anonymous articles in the anti-federalist Philadelphia newspaper Aurora, published by William Duane, who would later become a powerful legislator in Pennsylvania and Secretary of the Treasury under President Andrew Jackson.
Ogden’s series was about a conspiracy that he allegedly exposed. The New England of Morse and the Dwight brothers may have been publicly against illumatism, Ogden argued, but it was all a front: she were secret Illuminati indeed, and it was she– not Thomas Jefferson – who were out to destroy America’s young democracy.
Ogden achieved this reversal by targeting Timothy Dwight, whom he called the “Pope of New England,” and assuming that he used his position at the head of Yale to infiltrate the American higher education system and indoctrinate youth. Long before the modern right-wing attack on “liberal college professors”, Ogden Dwight accused “pervert”[ing] a public literary institution for the purpose of the party; and wish[ing] to expand the impact and oppression of this nation’s ecclesiastical establishment, ”he cleverly insinuated that colleges are subversive breeding grounds where impressive young people are misled.
By November 1799, Ogden had intensified his attacks, moving from anti-Catholic to anti-illuminatory rhetoric. Behind this structure of anti-democratic indoctrination was allegedly a dark cabal that wanted to suppress religious freedom in favor of an open hierarchy, with the New England Federalists having the say. He acted out the American’s distrust of what looked like a Pope, then blurred it with the conspiracy theories that Dwight and Morse had already set in motion. Ogden argued that the Congregational Clergy in New England “have and do not have too close an affinity for the Illuminati societies in Europe [to] as part of the same: at least if professor Robeson [sic] and Abbé Barruel are to be believed, they must be Sister companies.What mattered, he understood, was simply the hint that there was a power structure behind the scenes that was pulling the strings.
The Illuminati bugbear worked to unite a series of interrelated partisan attacks: the federalists advocated a top-down hierarchy, they opposed freedom of religion and civil liberty, and their love of democracy was insincere. And with the claim that these motives were deliberately hidden by this secret society, Ogden and Aurora defused possible defenses. Of course, Dwight would argue against the Illuminati, they argued; The more passionately he and other federalists spoke out against them, the more it became clear that they were secretly members and tried to keep everyone from smelling.
Ogden understood that the Illuminati could represent something far more original than just atheism. Secret societies were frightening because they required a group of foreign invaders whose motives could never be fully known.
It was easy to portray the tightly knit structure of New England’s politics as a largely secret company controlled by some wealthy, well-connected people. Ogden’s conspiratorial accusations were not only made by the Aurora, but spread in sympathetic newspapers from New York to Baltimore. Even some who did not repeat his specific Illuminati allegations accepted his general contempt for the political class of New England – the Richmond tester called Connecticut “Priest Ridden” and “clogged with prejudice”. At republican gatherings across the country, members roasted not only Thomas Jefferson, but also Aurora Editor William Duane (for “His Efforts That secret plans from a smart Aristocracy ”) and to the“ Spiritual Illuminati of New England ”:“ May their ambitious views on the formation of a union between church and state never be realized. “
While Dwight first saw the Illuminati as threat to religion, ogden and the Aurora had successfully transformed it as an unholy union of a secret state religion and the lever of the government.
Ogden had helped create paranoia about organized religion in the early republic that helped make Adam’s reelection fail. In the early days of the Republic, each state determined its own election day, so the 1800 presidential election ran from April to October. When the vote ended, Jefferson had won, though John Ogden no longer saw it – he died in late September. But his job was done.
Was Ogden’s conspiratorial whisper campaign decisive? In a bitter, hard-fought election, too many factors played a role in saying how important the choice was Auroras Part was in all of this. But the Auroras The Illuminati attacks were partially successful because they cooperated with the general attacks against Adams’ attempt to connect the government with religion. After calling for a national day of fasting and prayer in 1799, opponents accused him of trying to establish Presbyterianism as a single dominant religion, fueling fears of a government-mandated belief.
Years later, he bitterly complained to Benjamin Rush about the general suspicion “that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed to be a national church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and church project. The secret whisper went through all the sects: “Let’s have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anyone, whether philosophers, deists, or even atheists, and not a Presbyterian president.” Nothing is more feared than the national government, which interferes with religion. ”Ogden revealed a crucial lesson about democracy: once paranoia is unleashed, it is impossible to control and remarkably easy to trace back to its source.
In his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, Richard Hofstadter stated that American democracy was uniquely vulnerable to conspiracy theories. But what made Hofstadter wrong more than anything else was his belief that such conspiracy theories were a marginal part of American democracy. He ultimately believed that a “responsible elite with political and moral autonomy” could limit these excesses of belief and quarantine them on the fringes of culture. But Dwight, Morse, and their colleagues were never marginal actors, and neither was the Philadelphia Aurora a smaller publication.
More than two centuries later, conspiracy theories did not come from the outskirts, but from media jugglers like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, and from the President of the United States and his allies. American citizens need facts, and media and social media companies must of course act responsibly. However, we may also have to accept that democracy makes us all a little paranoid and be wary of how it affects not only our fellow citizens, but also ourselves.