It might come as a surprise for some of us to hear, but there was such an entity as the Anti-Masonic Party. In fact, it was the first third party in the United States and strongly opposed Freemasonry as a single-issue party.
The ideals and the party’s ultimate legacy have given root to many conspiracy theories regarding Freemasonry in the time that has passed, many of which are detrimental to the overarching objectives of the Masonic teachings.
This post will explore some of the effects that Anti-Masonry has had on Freemasonry throughout the past two centuries. We will take a look at some of the organizations and their publications in detail.
The Anti-Masonic Party
Strong opposition to Freemasonry has existed pretty much since the inception of the fraternity. This opposition has been voiced in both religious and political spheres and has originated as a result of several controversial incidents.
The most significant early example of organized opposition to Freemasonry was The Anti-Masonic Party’s formation, also known as the Anti-Masonic Movement, founded in 1828.
The party was a single-issue movement that was founded as a direct result of the disappearance of William Morgan, a former Mason who had become an outward critic of Freemasonry at the time. The party believed that Masons were responsible for Morgan’s disappearance, and they argued that murder was the price paid by Morgan for speaking out.
William Morgan was a bricklayer by trade. He was supposedly preparing to publish a book on the topic of Freemasonry, which would have outed some of the craft’s precious secrets and would have been an extremely unpopular act at the time.
Freemasons in Morgan’s hometown were considered responsible for his disappearance and were ultimately tried and convicted in court for his kidnapping. However, their sentences were deemed too light by those that thought they were guilty.
After the trial, rumors about Freemasonry’s influence on the justice system swept throughout New York and then into New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. All of a sudden, public opinion across America was turning against Freemasonry.
The trial’s results bred contempt and mistrust among many ordinary people who started to see Freemasonry as an entity above the law.
At the time of Morgan’s disappearance, many Masons were prominent businessmen and politicians, which led to many accusations of elitism within the fraternity. It was undoubtedly the case that Freemasonry in America in the nineteenth century was dominated by brothers from the middle and upper classes.
Another issue that the Anti-Masonic party had with Freemasonry was that they saw it as a significant threat to the very fabric of American society, and believed that the teachings and rituals of Freemasonry threatened the principles upon which the country was built.
As the party’s name would suggest, the overarching objective of the movement was to overthrow Freemasonry, and they garnered much support from ordinary people, as they continued to spread stories and conspiracies about Masons. The latter they believed to be complicit in acts that were against the law.
After relative success in the 1828 elections, the Anti-Masons started to adopt positions on other issues of the day, most noticeably supporting internal improvements within America. They gained much support in Vermont and Pennsylvania, and candidates served as Governors and Congressmen in each state.
They began to score several successes in state and local elections, and many other politicians saw the Anti-Mason party as a vote-catching opportunity. As a result, Anti-Masonic newspapers thrived in the heated political atmosphere and ran stories accusing Freemasonry of many heinous acts that further tarnished the fraternity’s reputation.
In September 1831, the Anti-Masonic Party organized a national conference in Baltimore and elected William Wirt as their leader. They even put him forth as a candidate for President, even though he was a former Mason himself. At the same time, they announced a party platform condemning Masonry for its secrecy, exclusivity, and undemocratic structure.
Despite their vehement dislike of Freemasonry, such a stance stood little chance of sustaining in the ever-changing political landscape.
After this convention when the party described much of its political leanings, Wirt won the state of Vermont, which accounted for seven electoral votes during the 1832 election. After this win, the party went into decline, and their single-policy agenda fell by the wayside.
As of the late 1830s, many of their reform agendas had been replaced by antislavery agitation, and their influence and relatability faltered as a result.
The Anti-Masons were also an anti-establishment party, as they promoted an intense distrust of politicians and a vehement dislike of party loyalty. Overall, they were reasonably popular throughout the early-mid nineteenth century until they were eventually fully absorbed into the Whigs by 1840.
The legacy of the Anti-Masonic party
The Anti-Masonic party was the earliest to criticise Freemasonry openly, and their rhetoric gave birth to nascent conspiracy theories about the fraternity. Moreover, the Anti-Masonic party gave rise to many innovations that became accepted practice amongst the political parties in America, most notably nominating conventions and party newspapers.
They also aided the rise of the Whig Party as an alternative to the Democrats. They were vital contributors to the formation of the political ideology that is prevalent in modern-day America.
Unfortunately for Freemasons, the Anti-Masonic party successfully tarnished the names of prominent Masons across America and even halted meetings at lodges across the country.
Following the party’s success, many unfounded conspiracy theories followed, which accused Masons of unlawful acts. It was common for many women to join the Anti-Masonry movement and then force their husbands to resign from the fraternity as a result.
In broader society, life was made difficult for Masons. Lodges were defaced and damaged by members of the public, and public opinion regarding Freemasonry was at an all-time low. Important business relationships between Masons and other community members suffered, and many brothers were even attacked in public if they were known to be Masons.
Because of the significant fallout brought about due to the accusations laid at Freemasonry’s door, many brothers decided to resign from the fraternity to protect themselves and their livelihoods.
This meant that many high-ranking officials within lodges resigned their positions, and several hundreds of lodges ceased operating altogether. It was undeniably a dark chapter in Masonic history, and it was one that was not easy to recover from.
As a result of the movement’s impact on American voters, many people truly believed that Freemasonry was bad for the country and spread falsehoods about Masonic teachings and rituals. Others used the Anti-Masonic message to their political advantage, and simply jumped on the bandwagon and laid siege to Freemasonry when it was already suffering from negative public opinion.
Although the movement died down by the 1840s, much of the damage was already done. Even the most passionate Anti-Masonic supporters were happy with the extent to which they had suppressed Freemasonry and tarnished the name of the institution.
Whatever your opinion about their methods and beliefs, it’s impossible to deny the Anti-Masonic movement’s success. In a relatively short space of time, ten years to be precise, it is estimated that the number of Masons in the United States dropped by more than half, to around 50,000 men.
It took decades for lodges to repopulate and regain momentum, and many Masons were simply traumatised by years of persecution and having their names dragged through the mud. The movement certainly succeeded in ruining the reputation of Freemasonry.
The study of Anti-Masonry by historians
Masonic historians have not made significant inroads into the study of the effects of Anti-Masonry. They have consistently made generalizations articulating that Anti-Masonic actions have been detrimental to the institution’s growth.
When they have looked at the declining numbers of lodges within certain jurisdictions, historians have pointed to the Anti-Masonic movement’s considerable actions as the primary reason for this. However, this is short-sighted, as it doesn’t take into account many of the other important factors that may have contributed to the decline in numbers of Masons during the period that follows the Morgan affair.
During the 1820s and 30s, the Anti-Masonic movement undoubtedly harmed the growth of Freemasonry. However, historians seemingly disregard the fact that there was a significant cholera outbreak in America. It’s difficult to precisely predict how many people died due to the epidemic, but it’s likely to have been very high.
The prevalence of cholera meant that men could no longer congregate and participate in Masonic rituals and ceremonies. This is a significant reason why the institution struggled for numbers in the middle of the nineteenth century.
As well as cholera and other diseases that were a problem during the nineteenth century, the financial depression that existed throughout large parts of the century was also a cause for significant concern and a major reason why Freemasonry numbers dwindled.
This was perhaps a direct result of the ‘removal of the deposits’ from some banks, but whatever the reason, there was a significant financial depression at the start of the 1830s.
As a direct result of the depression, money was at a premium, and men could not pay their dues to their local lodges. That had a knock-on effect on the Grand Lodges operating across the country, as they could not fulfill their Masonic duties.
It is clear, then, with all things considered, that it is overly simplistic to blame the dwindling numbers in lodges in the nineteenth century on the Anti-Masonic movement is inaccurate. At the very least, all the other societal factors that have been mentioned here need to be considered.
To anyone who has studied the state of American society during the nineteenth century, it should be clear that Anti-Masonry alone did not bring about the decline in Masonic strength in America.
That being said, we can see the impact that Anti-Masonry had if we analyze some of the figures from two of the Annual Communications of the time. In 1828, attendance was only slightly affected, as 130 lodges responded, compared with 142 represented in the two Grand Lodges in 1825.
During 1828, only three applications were made for new lodges, and these were the last for some years going forward. In the years that followed, the impact of Anti-Masonry became more apparent.
For example, in early 1829, the first organized movement that attempted to surrender local lodge charters was organized. As a result, six lodges of Monroe County surrendered their charters to the Grand Lodge as a direct result of negative public opinion about the fraternity.
At the 1829 Annual Communication, forty-three fewer lodges were represented than in the previous year. Moreover, the fact that the dues of 23 lodges were remitted indicates that some Masons were not paying their dues.
Conclusion: Freemasonry survived
Although it’s undeniable that Freemasonry suffered a massive blow at the hands of the Anti-Masonic movement, the fact of the matter is that the fraternity survived, and has returned to prosperity today.
It didn’t happen overnight, and there was a long period throughout the second half of the nineteenth century when things didn’t look promising for the future of Freemasonry. That being said, Masons stayed true to their craft and continued regardless of the hardships they faced.