By: Colin Dickey Published online: iNFOVi News
Date: March 29th 2020
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On July 4, 1798, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University and one of the most powerful men in New England, delivered a sermon at his college entitled “The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis.” The present crisis, he explained, was a new and terrifying threat to the young democracy: the Illuminati. Fears of the secret society had been growing for the past year, and Dwight now warned the “ultimate objects” of this group were nothing less than “the overthrow of religion, government, and human society civil and domestic. These they pronounce to be so good, that murder, butchery and war, however extended and dreadful, are declared by them to be completely justifiable, if necessary for these great purposes.”
Dwight, a Federalist, was hardly alone. Among the others sounding the alarm on the Illuminati were other well-known Federalists, including his brother Theodore, a prominent lawyer, and pastor and geographer Jedidiah Morse (known as the “father of American geography,” as well as the literal father of telegraph inventor Samuel Morse), who authored a sermon in 1798 warning that the Illuminati sought to “root out and abolish Christianity, and overthrow all civil government.” Morse’s text, in turn, received supportive letters from both George Washington and former Supreme Court Chief Justice and governor of New York John Jay for his efforts in bringing light to the subject.
Morse, the Dwight brothers and their allies were soon mobilizing opposition against Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, calling him the candidate of none other than the Illuminati. But they couldn’t have anticipated what came next: Their own conspiracy theory, once unleashed in the world, was turned back on them, upending the 1800 election and demonstrating the unique vulnerability of American democracy to conspiracy theories—especially during times of pitched cultural and ideological warfare.
Conspiracy theories will almost surely play a role in the 2020 election—look no further than those that thrived in the immediate aftermath of the bungled Iowa caucus, and those that are now either causing panic or threatening to undo a coordinated public response to the coronavirus pandemic. One recent text message convinced untold numbers of people across the country that the president was just hours away from shutting down all businesses, including grocery stores—a story that spread like wildfire without support from any mainstream news or government source.
The promulgation of conspiracy theories can feel new—a by-product of social media, Russian disinformation campaigns and a demagogic president who built a political identity on Birtherism. But from almost the beginning of American democracy, wild, unproven theories have flourished, often even coming to be embraced by influential leaders. And the 1800 election shows just how those theories thrive and can even shift elections, long before Twitter, fake news and viral text messages.
Where did Dwight and his contemporaries get their ideas about the Illuminati? The real Illuminati was founded by a disgruntled Bavarian Jesuit named Adam Weishaupt. A professor of Canon Law at the famous University of Ingolstadt, by 1776 Weishaupt had become disillusioned with the Catholic Church. Believing that only a secret society could spread secular, rationalist ideas in a repressive, religious environment, he founded a small group modeled on the Freemasons, with which he hoped to someday found a new society altogether, based on a rational government free from religious influence.
Weishaupt recruited young noblemen for his new group, seeking acolytes both rich and impressionable; gradually, the group expanded from a few dozen to several thousands. In 1784, Duke Charles Theodore of Bavaria banned all secret societies, hoping specifically to suppress the Illuminati. Two years after that, his police conducted raids on the houses of several high-profile members, confiscating heretical essays that defended atheism and suicide, promoted counterfeiting and abortion, sketched out plans to include women and claimed the Illuminati had power over life and death. Sunlight proved a powerful disinfectant, and, once illuminated, the Illuminati dissolved.
Weishaupt’s organization might have been entirely lost to history as a minor footnote if not for a French priest named Augustin Barruel, who in 1797 tried to make sense of how his country had gone from a seemingly stable, Catholic monarchy to a violent, atheist regime in such a short time. How had the ideas of philosophers like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had long railed against the excesses of the monarchy and the church, so successfully undermined the old order? Barruel concluded that they’d relied on a secret network of the Illuminati, who used unwitting Freemasons to spread their unholy message.
Barruel’s conspiracy theory posited that the entire French Revolution was not a story of exuberant democracy descending into unpredictable chaos, but rather a carefully orchestrated plan by philosophers who’d long seeded the French landscape with subversive agents, a function of what Barruel termed “the Illuminization of Freemasonry”: the union of Masonic secrecy and secular revolution.
Though the Bavarian Illuminati may have been dead by the mid-1780s, Barruel’s insinuation gave it new life. Whispers of these dangerous atheists found their way first to England with the publication of John Robison’s 1797 pamphlet, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe Carried on in the Secret Meetings of the Freemasons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. A Freemason himself, Robison worried that the irreligious Illuminati had gained control of the Masonic organization and perverted it, and were now working to root “out all the religious establishments, and overturning all the existing governments of Europe.”
Robison’s warnings of the Illuminati reached the United States at a vulnerable time. Still forming their more perfect union, Americans felt acutely vulnerable to foreign interference. But by the late 1790s, this anxiety had broken along partisan lines. Federalists feared that France’s revolutionaries were bent on turning Americans against their nascent government, whereas Jeffersonian Republicans worried instead that Great Britain was scheming to reclaim their former colonies.
The New England of Federalists like Dwight was in particular primed to receive news of a godless network of spies and invaders. Calvinist remnants of the original Puritans (including Congregationalists and Presbyterians) still dominated New England politics, and they were wary of any attempt to separate church and state. They supported their man John Adams for re-election against the Republican Thomas Jefferson, a Deist who at times seemed to verge into atheism (while Jefferson believed Jesus Christ to be an enlightened prophet, he famously refused both the Resurrection and the miracles of the Gospels as mythology). This, combined with his generally positive attitude toward post-Revolution France, made him a likely candidate for Illuminati subversion. That July 4, Timothy Dwight’s brother Theodore proclaimed, “I know not who belonged to that Society in this country, but if I were about to make proselytes to illumatism in the United States, I should in the first place apply to Thomas Jefferson, Albert Gallatin [a U.S. House Representative from Pennsylvania and future Treasury Secretary under Jefferson], and their political associates.”
But having worked to stoke the public’s fear of the Illuminati’s infiltration of the United States, the Federalists were perhaps not prepared for how quickly this paranoia would be turned against them. Had they known, they would have perhaps been kinder to a man named John C. Ogden. A little-known and long-forgotten preacher, Ogden, had tried for years to establish himself in New England, but repeatedly spoke out against what he saw as the entrenched power structure of the Congregationalist clergy, and in 1793 he left New England for New York and Philadelphia. Embittered, he began publishing a series of anonymous articles in the anti-Federalist Philadelphia paper, the Aurora, published by William Duane, who would go on to become a powerful lawmaker in Pennsylvania and secretary of the treasury under President Andrew Jackson.
Ogden’s series was about a conspiracy he claimed to have uncovered. The New England of Morse and the Dwight brothers may have been publicly against Illumatism, Ogden argued, but this was all a front: They were in fact secret Illuminati, and it was they—not Thomas Jefferson—who were bent on destroying America’s young democracy.
Ogden achieved this reversal by turning his sights on Timothy Dwight, whom he began calling the “Pope of New England,” insinuating that he was using his position at the head of Yale to infiltrate America’s higher education system and indoctrinate the youth. Long before the modern, right-wing attack on “liberal college professors,” Ogden was accusing Dwight of “pervert[ing] a public literary institution to the purposes of party; and wish[ing] to extend the effect and oppression of ecclesiastical establishment through this nation,” slyly insinuating that colleges were subversive breeding grounds where impressionable young people were being led astray.
By November of 1799, Ogden had stepped up his attacks and shifted from anti-Catholic to anti-Illuminati rhetoric. Behind this structure of anti-democratic indoctrination, he alleged, was a sinister cabal bent on suppressing the freedom of religion in favor of an overt hierarchy, with New England Federalists in charge. He played off of Americans’ inherent distrust of anything that looked like a pope, and then blurred it with the conspiracy theories that Dwight and Morse had already set in motion. New England’s Congregationalist clergy, Ogden argued, “bear too near an affinity to the Illuminati Societies of Europe, not [to] be viewed part of the same: at least if Professor Robeson [sic] and Abbé Barruel are to be believed, they must be sister societies.” What mattered, he understood, was simply the insinuation that there was a power structure behind the scenes pulling the strings.
The bugbear of the Illuminati worked to unite a series of interlinked partisan attacks: The Federalists advocated a top-down hierarchy, they opposed religious and civic freedom and their love of democracy was insincere. And by alleging that these motives were deliberately obscured by this secret society, Ogden and the Aurora defused any potential defenses. Of course Dwight would speak out against the Illuminati, they argued; the more fervently he and other Federalists spoke out against them, the clearer it was that they were secretly members, trying to throw everyone off the scent.
Ogden understood that the Illuminati could represent something far more primal than simply atheism. Secret societies were terrifying because they presupposed a group of foreign invaders whose motives could never be fully known.
It was easy to paint the tight-knit structure of New England politics as a mostly secret enterprise controlled by a few wealthy, well-connected individuals. Ogden’s conspiratorial accusations were carried not just by the Aurora, but spread in sympathetic newspapers from New York to Baltimore. Even some who did not repeat his specific Illuminati insinuations adopted his overall contempt of New England’s political class—the Richmond Examiner called Connecticut “Priest Ridden,” and “muzzled by its prejudices.” At Republican gatherings throughout the country, members toasted not just Thomas Jefferson but Aurora editor William Duane (for “his endeavors to unveil the secret plots of a crafty aristocracy”) and to the “Clerical Illuminati of New-England”: “May their ambitious views in forming a union between church and state, never be realized.”
While Dwight had first seized on the Illuminati as a threat to religion, Ogden and the Aurora had successfully re-cast them as the unholy union of a secret state religion and the levers of government.
Ogden had helped manufacture a paranoia around organized religion in the early republic that helped doom Adams’ re-election. In the early days of the republic, each state determined its own election day, so voting for the 1800 Presidential election lasted from April until October. By the time voting was over, Jefferson had won, though John Ogden was not alive to see it—he died in late September. But his work had been done.
Did Ogden’s conspiratorial whisper campaign tip the scales? A bitter close-fought election, there were too many factors were at play to say how crucial the Aurora’s part was in all of this. But the Aurora’s Illuminati attacks were successful in part because they worked in tandem with mainstream assaults against Adams’ ham-handed attempt to wed government with religion. After he called for a national day of fasting and prayer in 1799, opponents accused him of trying to instill Presbyterianism as a single, dominant religion, stoking fears of a government-mandated faith.
Years later, he would complain bitterly to Benjamin Rush of a general suspicion “that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an establishment as a national church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical project. The secret whisper ran through all the sects, ‘Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.’ Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.” And in doing so, Ogden revealed a crucial lesson about democracy: paranoia, once unleashed, is impossible to control, and remarkably easy to turn back upon its source.
In his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter posited that American democracy was uniquely prone to conspiracy theories. But what Hofstadter got wrong more than anything was his belief that such conspiracy theories are a fringe part of American democracy. He believed, ultimately, that a “responsible elite with political and moral autonomy” could curtail these excesses of belief, quarantining them at the fringes of culture. But Dwight, Morse and their colleagues were never fringe actors, nor was the Philadelphia Aurora a minor publication.
Over two centuries later, once again conspiracy theories come not from the fringes but from media juggernauts like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, and from the president of the United States and his allies. American citizens need facts and for media and social media companies to act responsibly, to be sure. But we might also need to accept that democracy makes us all a touch paranoid, and to be on guard for how it affects not just our fellow citizens, but ourselves, too.