Jacksonian Volcano : Anti-Secretism and Secretism in 19th Century American Culture
University of Cincinnati
This work argues that the anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s was the first Northern political movement, a direct ancestor of the anti-slavery movement that would come to dominate Northern politics some thirty years later. Though anti-Masons billed themselves as a national movement, their anti-elite rhetoric, clandestine defense of African-Americans, and embrace of democratic-republican equality drove Southerners to see them as a movement of dangerous fanatics as threatening as the nascent anti-slavery cause. Anti-Masonry was closely affiliated with anti-Catholicism, nativism, and anti-Mormonism, and shared with them a tendency towards xenophobia and anti-secularism. But, I argue, the anti-Masonic movement was at its core driven by democratic unease at the power of unanswerable elites rather than fear of a powerless Other, ultimately putting them closer to the anti-slavery side of the evangelical cultural production of the 19th century. Additionally, this dissertation argues that the anti-Masonic case against Masonry, one grounded in the unknown dangers of secret elites gathering together for their mutual benefit, was not fundamentally misplaced. Masonry in the Jacksonian period had indeed become a heavily ritualized alternative to religion, an exclusive white male body that provided economic security for its members at the cost of insecurity for those `outside the tent'. And just as anti-Masonry was fundamentally Northern, Masonry became a fundamentally Southern organization by the outbreak of the Civil War, the kind of middle-class white male solidarity that it endorsed paving the way for pro-slavery Masonic invasions of Cuba, heavy Masonic membership in the states of the old Confederacy, and ultimately the 'triumph' of postwar Masonry came as a result of the larger evangelical Northern cause being abandoned by the voting public in the postwar period. Anti-Masonry began as a fringe movement among New England Protestants in the 1790s and slipped into obscurity in the 1890s as a fringe movement among Midwestern Protestants. But even here, in the period of anti-Masonry most dismissed by historians, the present work argues there is a root of legitimate cultural criticism in anti-Masonry. The anti-Illuminism of Jedidiah Morse and Timothy Dwight was a plausible response to the internationalist threat of the revolutionary French republic in the late 1790s, albeit one that would ultimately fail thanks to structural problems with mobilizing an electorate against Jeffersonian democracy. At the same time, Jonathan Blanchard's postbellum anti-Masonry failed because the `culture war' of the antebellum period had largely been brought to an end by the Civil War itself. Though Blanchard pointed to connections between Masonry and the Klan, as well as accurately made connections between Masonic culture and Southern culture, the postbellum Northern public was ready to embrace the kind of white unity rhetoric embedded in Masonry. But even with Blanchard's defeat and the decline of anti-Masonry into irrelevance, the story was not over. The first 'third party' in American history, the anti-Masonic legacy of Northern populist mobilization in the name of Christianity remains with us today in the American public sphere.