Paranoia, conspiracy theory and a plan to make America great again: The Illuminati panic of the 1790s

America was under attack from shadowy foreign conspiracies and imaginary enemies — when John Adams was president

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published March 19, 2017 4:00PM (EDT)


Over the course of the 2016 election, I and other commentators drew parallels between Trump’s conspiratorial ethno-nationalist politics and the brief 1850s emergence of the "Know-Nothings," whose American Party briefly eclipsed the Republicans in rising from the ashes of the dying Whigs. Another less successful third party, the Anti-Masonic Party, emerged briefly a bit earlier than that, from 1828 to 1838. But the earliest example of this brand of paranoid politics actually appeared in the United States of America's first full decade, the 1790s. It didn’t emerge from some populist third-party fringe, but from religious elite leaders close to the heart of the ruling Federalist Party.

The French Revolution had set much of Europe into a panic, and the writings of two authors, John Robison ("Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe") and Abbé Barruel, promoted a continent-wide hysteria over the notion that the revolution had been fostered by a short-lived, extinct organization, the Bavarian Illuminati (1776-1785), allegedly through a French Masonic lodge. In 1798, President John Adams proclaimed May 9 a national “day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in response to this nebulous threat. Jedidiah Morse, a leading conservative Congregationalist minister, preached a scathing jeremiad against the Bavarian Illuminati in response. In doing so, Morse broke with the traditional jeremiad formula with his finger-pointing toward an outside source of evil.  

Two months later, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, echoed Morse’s sentiments in his July 4 address, framing the purported issues in Pat Robertson-style end-times terms. Other prominent New England clergymen joined in as well. Morse gave a second major sermon renewing his accusation on Thanksgiving Day, and finally presented purported evidence in his third sermon on the subject, on April 25, 1799. But the complete lack of any evidence soon caught up with him. Robison had already been widely discredited in Europe, and Morse’s so-called evidence of Illuminati activity in Virginia and beyond proved lacking in any real substance. Caught up in a fierce partisan battle with no ammunition, Morse wisely withdrew, and the episode virtually vanished by the time of the 1800 election.

The whole thing came and went so quickly that it’s long been overlooked. Yet in the classic 1918 study of the episode, "New England and the Bavarian Illuminati," Vernon Stauffer made a cogent argument:

The episode has considerably larger and more important bearings. No man could possibly have awakened such wide-spread concern as the minister of Charlestown succeeded in awakening if it had not been true that significant concurrent and related circumstances gave both setting and force to the alarm which with such stout conviction he sounded.

More than that, however, the Illuminati panic of the 1790s fits into a much larger American pattern. In a chapter on this episode in the 2002 collection "Revolutionary Histories: Transatlantic Cultural Nationalism, 1775-1815," historian Michael Lienesch presents it this way:

By the late 1790s, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic had become certain that this unprecedented plan — this mother of all conspiracies — was well at work, and that at its center, controlling and manipulating events around the world, was the insidious secret society of international intellectuals known as the Order of the Illuminati.

This mode of conservatism was not dominant for long, but arguably it has not gone away either. Aside from the elite origins of conspiracy theory 220 years ago, it’s striking how many similarities there are between the political dynamics of that time and our own today — far too many to simply be a matter of coincidence.

First: A conspiracy of elite puppet-masters is portrayed as the primary obstacle to restoring America’s greatness. Donald Trump’s views in this respect are well known, if not always fully appreciated. Why, for example, was Trump surprised at how complex health care was? Simple: He had always assumed the only real problem with American government was “bad dudes” in high places, which he would get rid of. Today we may think of the 1790s, when George Washington was president, as the epitome of an idealized and uncorrupted America. But that’s not at all how Americans saw themselves at the time, especially as Washington was followed by Adams and the two party factions solidified, leading many to fear for the survival of the republic.  

Adams’ 1798 fast day proclamation was a conventional expression of New England political culture. But Morse’s sermon in response departed significantly from what had normally gone before. As Stauffer explains, there was a long history of New England obsession with moral decay and (so to speak) making New England great again. He cites one early example, “The Result of the 1679 General Synod,” from more than a century earlier. As Andrew Murphy explains in "Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment From New England to 9/11," there was a set formula involved:

The jeremiad proceeds by identifying symptoms of decline, contrasting the degenerate present with a virtuous past, and calling for reform and repentance; all within a scheme in which America plays a key role in God's plans for human history and the progress of the gospel.

In this view, outward evils were to be resisted, of course, but they were not the primary focus. They were only outward signs and reflections of the inward failings of the community and the people who composed it.  This is the sort of response Adams was probably expecting in his fast day call — which gives no hint of looking outward, rather than inward — but it was what Morse delivered. Still, the professed intention was the same: To redeem New England —and by extension, America — from moral downfall. 

Second: The conspiracist case is presented in wild incendiary language, but cannot be backed up with facts. Trump is justifiably notorious for this, from his 2011 forays into birtherism to his announcement speech attacks on Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers “sent” by the Mexican government to his false claim that thousands of New Jersey residents cheered the fall of the Twin Towers. The list goes on and on, while the facts to support his claims never turn up. The same fate befell Morse, but he was not so able to dance away from the consequences, which is why the whole episode ended so quickly.

Once the argument left the confines of the church, and entered the realm of the partisan newspaper wars of the day, the tide turned against Morse, gradually at first, but then overwhelmingly. When Morse finally did provide his supposed evidence, over a year after first launching his charges, it actually hastened the end. The evidence he presented only proved the existence of the Freemason Lodge Wisdom in Portsmouth, Virginia — a well-known fact — not that it had any connection at all with the Illuminati, or that it harbored any subversive intent. (George Washington was America’s leading Freemason at the time.)  Indeed, Wisdom Lodge was “entirely harmless as far as fomenting hostility to the institutions of the country was concerned,” as Virginia congressman Josiah Parker informed Morse in a letter.

Third: The alleged conspirators do not actually exist. While other conspiracy-theory episodes have had at least some foothold in reality — exaggerating threats posed by people who actually existed — the Illuminati scare stands out for the fact that there literally was no such thing. The organization no longer existed in Europe: The Illuminati had been disbanded before the French Revolution, under penalty of death for recruiters -- and banishment and confiscation of property for anyone attending a meeting. It certainly didn’t exist in America, where no known meetings had ever been held. As noted above, America did have Freemasons. It never had organized Illuminati. 

Trump’s conspiracy theories, to be fair, are eclectic. Some of them have some real-world foothold — undocumented immigrants sometimes commit crimes, after all, although at a lower rate than native-born citizens. But that is never enough for Trump, so he added the absurd claim that the Mexican government is intentionally sending criminals to America.

Trump's birtherism was similarly overdone: The original conspiracy theory about Barack Obama's birthplace was not wild enough, so Trump insisted or implied that Obama hadn’t actually gone to school where he said he had, and that all his academic achievements were the result of conspiracy and fraud as well. Trump never even bothered to name the actors in his imaginary conspiracy, as true internet obsessives do. He never named the supposed investigators he sent to Hawaii to check out Obama’s birth certificate either, no doubt because they did not exist.

Fourth: Profound, long-term historical causes for social distress — in which elite failure plays a significant role — are blamed instead on a nonexistent conspiracy. The French Revolution was clearly a product of elite misrule, and the idea of blaming it on a shadowy conspiracy of foreigners was much like Republicans today trying to blame the popular anti-Trump resistance on George Soros. American elites at the time of the Illuminati panic may not have been similarly culpable, but they were frightened by the whirlwind that the French elite had sown. American society suffered nothing similar to the mass immiseration that led to the French Revolution, but there had been erosions of traditional values, which brings us to our next point of similarity.

Fifth: Organic social changes resulting from increased individual freedom, beyond elite control, are portrayed as unnatural and malevolent. This is a long historical process, as described both by Stauffer and Murphy. It had been greatly accelerated by 30 years of war — first the French and Indian War, then the Revolutionary War.  Stauffer’s description of that era, written in 1918, could almost describe post-World War II America, culminating in the tumultuous 1960s:

The secularizing spirit of the post-Revolutionary period … left marks upon the human spirit over which stern and rigorous adherents to the old order wept copiously and long. For one thing, the lives of the men and women of New England were never again to be as barren of diversified interests as they had been in the past. The successful issue of the struggle for political independence had so enlarged the mind of the common man that he of necessity entertained considerations of private desire and of public policy which he formerly would have rejected entirely. The avenue of retreat to the ancient simplicity and seclusion was forever closed.

If counter-subversive conservatives of those days were trying to return to an unreachable past, Trump does them one better: He cannot even clearly identify when America was “great” or what that entailed, still less how he plans to get us back there. In both cases, fantasy takes over from reality: There is no realistic way backward, nor anywhere to get to, so an imaginary past — devoid of all its inherent contradictions — is posited. What stands in the way of returning there? Imaginary enemies and evil but unseen demons, as is fitting for a fairy tale.

Sixth: Social disintegration and loss of cultural identity are blamed in part on the corrupting force of entertainment, which must be tightly controlled. This parallel is less about the specifics of the conspiracist dynamic than about the context in which it takes hold, and the forces it seeks to beat back. Blaming Hollywood for the moral decay of America is not quite a new phenomenon, as Stauffer explains:

As early as the year 1750 the General Court of Massachusetts had found it necessary to enact legislation to prevent stage-plays and other theatrical entertainments. That Puritan standards dominated the situation at the time is evidenced both by the reasons advanced by the framers of the law for its enactment and by the stringent penalties attached to it. The justification of the measure was found in the economic waste, the discouraging effect upon industry and frugality, and the deleterious effect upon morality and religion which stage-plays were believed to exercise.

By the 1790s, public sentiment had shifted radically, and the law was repealed in 1793. But the fears remained, expressed in a different way:

Some who sought to shape the thought and determination of the times recommended the establishment of the theatre as the only possible way of drawing the desires and interests of the people away from grosser and more injurious excitements toward which, it was believed, an alarming growth of frivolity and lack of moral concern was rapidly sweeping the people of New England.

Seventh: Sharply differing views of foreign powers by each party, driven by deep fear and suspicion, blur the lines between foreign and domestic affairs.  Today Democrats and Republicans — or Trump Republicans, at least — have sharply different views about the threats posed by different foreign powers, and how best to respond to them: Russia, China, Mexico, Iran, ISIS, etc. What’s more, both see foreign affairs as much more intimately intertwined with domestic politics than was true in the past.

In the 1790s, things were simpler, but equally threatening to a fragile new nation. The deep divisions over foreign policy were one of the driving forces that led to the formation of the two political parties in the first place. New England and the Federalist Party looked to England as a natural partner, based on shared culture, values and institutions. Democratic-Republicans, stronger elsewhere, were more favorable to France, whose support had been crucial to our success in the Revolutionary War and whose revolution seemed to echo our own.  Under Adams, the U.S. had an undeclared “Quasi-War with France” from 1798 to 1800, and the regional/partisan divide continued long afterward: New England states seriously discussed secession during the War of 1812.  

Eighth: Conspiracy narratives serve as key elements in conservative identity formation. This is perhaps the key point of Lienesch’s chapter, quoted above: Conspiratorial interpretations of events shaped conservative self-understanding on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of the French Revolution, and conservatives came to understand themselves as being at war with that hidden conspiracy. The period did not last long, Lienesch notes.

Writing in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France," Edmund Burke allowed the Society of the Illuminati only a footnote. Yet counterconspiratorial conservatism did not die. Especially in the United States, where repeated waves of immigration and periodic episodes of international intervention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made the boundaries between America and the rest of the world particularly problematic, fears of secret societies reappeared repeatedly, in the anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Mormon agitation of the 1820s and 1830s, in Populist anti-Semitism and Henry Ford's preoccupation with the "International Jew,” and in Joseph McCarthy's charges of communist conspiracy.

Donald Trump — whose mentor Roy Cohn was Joe McCarthy’s chief investigator — is merely the latest in this long lineage. The Bavarian Illuminati are still with us, it seems. Not as an actual entity, but as an all-purpose boogeyman that conservatives cannot possibly seem to do without.

Donald Trump is not a “true conservative,” a shrinking chorus of voices tells us. But history suggests otherwise. Trump represents the true conservative response to this time of crisis, just as Morse and the other counter-Illuminati conspiracists on both sides of the Atlantic represented the conservative response to their time, however rapidly that may have collapsed. Who knows what sort of conservatism comes next?

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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