“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The First Third Party

How the Anti-Masons Challenged Secrecy and Elites

In 1826 William Morgan, a 52-year-old Freemason and printer from Batavia, New York, became dissatisfied with his local lodge and announced his intention to publish the details of Masonic rituals. When his plan became known, however, Morgan was seriously harassed. That September he was seized by unknown parties, taken to Fort Niagara, and never seen again.

Although Morgan’s fate is unknown, it was widely believed at the time that he had been kidnapped and killed by fellow Masons, a suspicion that only increased the existing hostility toward the order and led to the formation of the first national third party in the United States.

Spreading rapidly from upstate New York across New England and west, the Anti-Mason movement introduced innovations like nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms. By 1831 the new political party was so popular that Vermont elected an Anti-Mason governor, demonstrating both the depth of public opposition to elite power and how far a single-issue movement can go.

Morgan’s disappearance led more people to conclude that Freemasons were not loyal citizens. Since most Masons were judges, businessmen, bankers and politicians, ordinary folks began to view the group as a powerful, anti-democratic secret society. Others suspected links to the occult and ceremonial magic. One persuasive argument was that the secret oaths administered by lodges could bind members to favor each other over “outsiders.” When the trial of the alleged Morgan conspirators was mishandled and Masons successfully blocked further inquiries, even more concluded that they controlled key public offices, abused their power to promote the interests of the fraternity, and were violating basic democratic principles.

Popular outrage spread as people decided to challenge what they now considered a conspiracy. In western New York, citizens attending mass meetings in 1827 resolved not to support any Mason for public office. The National Republicans, heirs of the Jeffersonian faction, were weak in New York at the time, and shrewd political leaders used anti-Mason feelings to create a new party to oppose the rising “Jacksonian Democracy,” which favored a more powerful president, expansion of the right to vote, a patronage system, and geographical expansion. The fact that Andrew Jackson was a high-ranking Mason and frequently praised the Order further fueled suspicion. One of the most prominent Anti-Masons was former President John Quincy Adams, who wrote a series of stern letters condemning the institution after Morgan’s disappearance.

Numerous Anti-Masonic papers were published, school readers and almanacs were distributed, and Anti-Mason book stores and taverns opened. In some churches it became a religious crusade. The excitement soon extended as far west as Northeastern Ohio. In some parts of that state, lodge halls were destroyed by mobs; property and records were carried away, Masons were ostracized and their businesses closed.

A national anti-mason organization was planned as early as 1827, when New York leaders attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Henry Clay, a former Mason, to renounce the Order and head the movement. His slippery reply to an inquiry about his opinion of the group was that he had become a Freemason as a young man, but hadn’t given the order any attention for a long time. In fact, Clay was a former Grand Master but the growth of an opposition movement had led him to practically disown it.

In the 1828 elections the new party proved unexpectedly strong, eclipsing the National Republicans in New York State. Within a year it had broadened its base, becoming a champion of internal improvements and protective tariffs. In August 1829 Anti-Mason delegates met in Montpelier for what became Vermont’s first political convention.

When an Anti-Mason convention met in Philadelphia in September 1830 it adopted the following platform:

“The object of Anti-Masonry, in nominating and electing candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency, is to deprive Masonry of the support which it derives from the power and patronage of the executive branch of the United States Government. To effect this object, will require that candidates besides possessing the talents and virtues requisite for such exalted stations, be known as men decidedly opposed to secret societies.”

One of the leading Anti-Masons was Thaddeus Stevens, a Vermont native of Danville who made his name in Pennsylvania and later emerged as a leading abolitionist, founder of the Republican Party, and post-Civil War activist for civil rights and stiff retribution against the south. Attending the Anti-Mason Party’s first national convention, he attracted notice with his strong speeches and oratorical style. In one of them, “On The Masonic Influence Upon The Press,” he deplored the lack of publicity given to the convention and attributed that as well to Masonic influence.

“Look around,” Stevens proclaimed. “Though but one hundred thousand of the people of the United States are Free Masons, yet almost all the offices of high profit and honor are filled with gentlemen of that institution. Out of the number of judges in the State of Pennsylvania, eighteen-twentieths are Masons; and twenty-two out of twenty-four states of the Union are now governed by Masonic chief magistrates. Although not a twentieth part of the voters of this commonwealth, and of the United States are Masons, yet they have contrived, by concert, to put themselves into eighteen out of twenty of the offices of profit and power.

In 1833 Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature on the Anti-Masonic ticket, where his legislative talents quickly showed themselves. An excellent debater with a devastating wit that cut his opposition to shreds, he knew how to maneuver behind the scenes – and bide his time.

Vermont’s Anti-Mason Moment

William A. Palmer was no newcomer to politics. He was a popular Jeffersonian Democrat and former judge who had already represented Vermont in the US Senate by the time he ran for governor on the Anti-Mason ticket in 1831. Vermonters had elected another Anti-Mason to Congress and chosen more than 30 members of the movement to represent them in the General Assembly. Still, it was a shock to the establishment when Palmer led in the popular vote. It took nine ballots in the state legislature before he won.

The next year in Baltimore the national party conducted the first presidential nominating convention in US history. Anti-Masonic candidate William Wirt, a former Mason, subsequently won 7.78 percent of the popular vote – and Vermont’s seven electoral votes. William Slade, who would later become Vermont governor as a Whig, was sent to Congress as an opponent of Masonry and slavery.

Since the state still had one-year terms of office, Palmer ran and won again, but still could not attract a majority of the vote. This time it took 43 legislative ballots before he was re-elected.

In 1834, he won on the first ballot, but only because the other political parties, anticipating the collapse of the Anti-Masons, were competing to win over its constituents. Palmer also led in the 1835 vote. But this time he couldn’t convince the legislature. After weeks of wrangling and 63 ballots the lawmakers declared themselves deadlocked and turned to Silas Jenison, a former Anti-Mason official and winner of the Lieutenant-Governor’s race. The rest of the Anti-Mason ticket was endorsed by the Whigs.

The opposition to Palmer was due primarily to his Democratic leanings and a belief that he intended to support Democrat Martin Van Buren for president the next year.

Gridlock in Vermont’s General Assembly over Palmer’s elections became so disruptive that it led to a Constitutional Convention and the amendment that created the State Senate. Criticism of the unicameral legislature wasn’t new and proposals for a second chamber dated back to 1793. But in 1836 the idea of reducing the power of the House finally achieved critical mass. The Convention stripped it of “supreme legislative power.”

Crucially, bankers backed the change, mainly with the expectation that two chambers would be easier to handle, circumstantial evidence that in opposing the Masons the movement was also confronting the banks. The general public mainly thought the House had become too arrogant, intransigent and uncooperative.

Governor Palmer believed that secret societies were “evil.” But he didn’t take radical stands in his public speeches. In his first inaugural address, he declared the intention to appoint only men who were “unshackled by any earthly allegiance except to the constitution and laws,” and suggested legislation to prohibit the administration of oaths except “when necessary to secure the faithful discharge of public trusts and to elicit truth in the administration of justice.” He wanted to “diminish the frequency” of oaths because of the “influence which they exercise over the human mind.”

For Vermont Anti-Masons, the use of secret oaths represented an invasion of the “civil power of a sovereign state” and a violation of liberty. In June 1833, at the height of movement, the Anti-Mason State Convention passed a dozen resolutions defining its position. The first of these, underlining a core commitment to accountability, said “that an institution which veils itself in secrecy and shrinks from the light of truth and public scrutiny – which imposes in its midnight recesses, partial monopolizing, immoral and illegal oaths, backed by the penalty of death upon its votaries – which confers upon its members aristocratic and kingly titles, directly in the face of the constitution – and which aims in its organization, its obligations, and its whole spirit, at the erection of a privileged order in the land, at the expense of the equal rights of the rest of the community, is anti-republican in all its features and deserving the execration of every friend of his country.”[1]

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, the high point of Thaddeus Stevens’ Anti-Mason period came on January 18, 1836. Prominent Masons who had previously refused to appear before his committee in the Pennsylvania legislature were being compelled to testify. Among them were ex-Governor George Wolf; George M. Dallas, who was Masonic Grand Master of Pennsylvania at the time and ten years later became Vice President under James Polk; and Joseph R. Chandler, editor of the United States Gazette, published in Philadelphia. When ordered to answer questions the three powerful men refused.

In response they and 23 other witnesses were placed in the custody of the House Sergeant-at-Arms. After several days, when some of the Whigs broke with the Anti-Masons, the prisoners were released and Stevens’ campaign ended.

In 1835, when the State Anti-Masonic Convention endorsed William Henry Harrison for President, Stevens initially refused to accept it because Harrison wouldn’t pledge to use the government to go after the Masons. By then he stood almost alone in trying to press the Anti-Masonic agenda on a national basis. Due to his dogged efforts to keep the party alive, he could not secure enough support to be elected to Congress until 1848.

Vermont’s Anti-Masons ultimately succeeded in forcing the lodges to close – at least for a while. But that left the state party with less reason to exist, In 1836 Vermont’s Anti-Mason leaders, including future governor Slade, joined the new, anti-Jacksonian Whig Party.

In Pennsylvania, following the election of an Anti-Mason governor a state convention was held in Harrisburg to choose Presidential Electors for the 1836 election. The Pennsylvanians picked Harrison for President. Vermont’s convention followed suit. But when national Anti-Masonic leaders couldn’t even get Harrison to say that he definitely was not a Mason, they called a separate convention. Held in Philadelphia in May 1836, it was a divisive gathering. A majority of the delegates agreed that the purpose of the party remained anti-masonry but opted not to back a national ticket.

Anti-Mason Joseph Ritner was governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1838. By the end of his time in office the organization was in seriously decline, its members gradually uniting with the Whigs and later the Republicans. The party’s third and final National convention was held in Philadelphia’s Temperance Hall in November, 1838. Almost entirely engulfed by the Whigs, the gathering unanimously supported Harrison for President and Daniel Webster for Vice President. When the Whig National Convention chose Harrison and John Tyler, the Anti-Masons did nothing and soon vanished.

[1] Proceedings of the Anti-Masonic State Convention, Montpelier, June 26-27, 1833, Knapp & Jewett Printers.