May 7, 2010

Of Masons and Anti-Masons

Thursday, May 6, 2010
Albert B. Southwick

The Freemasons of America are running an interesting TV ad about their contributions to U.S. history. A man impersonating Ben Franklin urges folks to get more information about the Masons in order to learn how to share in the Masonic efforts to improve society.

I think I know what the pitch is. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were Masons. Masonic rituals are embedded in the American story. The pyramid and the unblinking eye on the one-dollar bill are Masonic symbols. The Masons and the affiliated Shriners and Eastern Star members have done wonderful things over the generations.

Despite all that, the Masons have managed to inspire some powerful enemies over the years. Much of the historical significance of Masonry stems from those clashes.

For instance, I doubt if the current Masonic promotion has much to say about William Morgan and John Quincy Adams.

In 1826 Mr. Morgan, of Batavia, N.Y., was planning to write a book exposing the secret plans of the Masonic Order, but he vanished mysteriously before the book was published. It was widely asserted and believed that a gang of Masons had thrown him over Niagara Falls. Whatever the facts, Mr. Morgan’s disappearance set off a political and social hurricane that swept the nation and made a permanent impression on the U.S. political system. Americans of many different persuasions became convinced that Masonry was a secret society that had infiltrated the American system and had almost become a second government run by Masons for the benefit of Masons. The Morgan affair convinced many that the Masons were ruthless in their ambitions. Their secret oaths and rituals had long caused rumors and gossip, which after 1826 led to various anti-Masonic movements and the establishment of the Anti-Masonic Party.

In 1828 the party fielded candidates for various political offices in certain states. For example, Solomon Southwick ran for governor of New York on the Anti-Masonic ticket. The Anti-Masons were not very successful at the polls, but they certainly stirred things up. In 1831 the Anti-Masons held the first presidential nominating convention in U.S. history, thus establishing a lasting precedent. Their candidate, William Wirt, got only seven electoral votes in the 1832 election, but Masonry and Anti-Masonry became divisive issues throughout the Northeast.

One powerful figure who joined the Anti-Masonic crusade was John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. He seemed acutely concerned with alleged power and influence of Masonry.

Some of the diatribes he leveled against the Masons and their organization seem remarkable. He called it “deceptive and fraudulent” and “one of the greatest moral and political evils under which the Union is now laboring.” His great rival, President Andrew Jackson, was a Mason.

More significantly Mr. Adams asserted that Masonry was “Luciferian” — an astonishing charge to be made by a theological liberal in the 1830s. It implies that the Masons were some sort of Satanic cult.

The Masonic order had its beginnings in the mists of time. Some trace it back to the eras of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Hebrews. More likely it evolved from medieval guilds in the 14th and 15th centuries. Ever since the 1700s, the Masons had been criticized for worshipping Lucifer, the angel who rebelled against God. That and other wild-eyed charges made for a perfect storm of conspiracy theories. The Masons over the years have been accused of atheism, theism, Satanism, paganism, Zionism, agents of a World Government plot, being British stooges and various other intellectual sins and crimes. It was condemned by some prominent people, including Benjamin Disraeli, Millard Fillmore and Charles Grandison Finney, the famed revivalist of the 1840s. Until 1885, the Catholic Church excommunicated any Catholic who joined the Masons.

For a brief period it was a factor in U.S. politics. For one thing, it revived the political career of John Quincy Adams, who had been at loose ends since his defeat for re-election to the presidency in 1828. Although his campaign for the governorship of Massachusetts fell short in 1830, he was elected to Congress in 1832 and remained a member of Congress until his death in 1848. He probably would not have won that first election without the support of the Anti-Masonic Party.

As a student of U.S. history, I had been aware of the long and contentious saga of the Masons, but I had assumed that it was all a long-ago phenomenon. So I was taken aback when I went on the Internet and found that the Anti-Masonic fervor is still alive in some quarters. It has somehow got itself entangled with the Ron Paul movement. Ron Paul is a Libertarian and possible candidate for the presidency in 2012, and probably is unaware of what his more excitable adherents are posting online. But to read about Masonic plans to make the American people unknowingly subject to the crown of England or (even worse!) to World Government is to enter a world of conspiracy and intrigue that is almost 17th century.

I don’t know what Benjamin Franklin would think of all this. That famed son of the Enlightenment put his faith in facts and science. He didn’t go in much for conspiracy fantasies.