Conspiracy Theories Have Always Been Part of Our Contentious Elections

And sometimes they work.

George Washington warned the nation about the danger of political parties in his Farewell Address in 1796. Two years later, in his retirement, he may have been convinced that the partisan Thomas Jefferson was part of the Illuminati.

In this week’s episode of the podcast, we explore the American Illuminati panic of the late 1790s and its role in the Election of 1800 before welcoming our guest, historian Mark Cheathem, author of several books including Andrew Jackson, Southerner and The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson – and the teacher of a course on conspiracy theories in American history at Cumberland University.

Listen now if you want to avoid spoilers:

The Illuminati in America

The Illuminati was a very real group in Bavaria in the 1780s, started by Johann Adam Weishaupt, a German professor and philosopher. In his buttoned-down society, Enlightenment ideas couldn’t be discussed or promoted out in the open so he formed a secret club modeled off the Freemasons. It grew to a few thousand members before the authorities outlawed any secret groups. The Illuminati was, by all rational accounts, effectively quashed then in 1787.

But the problem with a secret group dying is that it’s hard to tell if it’s really dead or just…more secret? A perfect storm of Enlightenment thinking and revolution clashing with monarchies and religion helped spread the rumor that the Illuminati was not only not dead, but it was thriving and had incited the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

It didn’t take much to spark fear in the hearts of Americans that nefarious foreigners were trying to take over the country. Federalist preachers from New England accused Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party of being part of the Illuminati. If he won the Election of 1800, they said, your daughters would become “concubines of the Illuminati.”

Replying to a strong proponent of the Jefferson’s-party-are-Illuminati theory named G.W. Snyder, George Washington wrote to clarify that he too believed the theory, but he did not think Freemasons were a part of it. He wrote:

“It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Iluminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more fully satisfied of this fact than I am. The idea I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or the pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of seperation). That Individuals of them may have done it, and that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects—and actually had a seperation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Washington believed the founder of the Democratic societies in the United States was part of an Illuminati plot to separate people from their government. He doesn’t say who this leader is. I’m thinking possibly Edmond Genet, French minister to the United States, but I’m really leaning toward Thomas Jefferson. At this point there was no love lost between the two, and Washington was cursing Jefferson’s name the night before he died. (For his part, Thomas Jefferson thought these conspiracy theories were ridiculous – the “ravings of a Bedlamite” – though he did think Weishaupt’s ideas were pretty cool.)

The Democratic-Republicans responded by implementing the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” defense and accusing the New England Federalists of being the real Illuminati. It worked.

More people gravitated to the idea that the New England Federalists were scheming to codify their religion onto the nation and control everyone. The Federalists’ accusation effectively bounced off Jefferson like rubber and stuck to the Federalists like glue.

John Cosens Ogden’s 1799 pamphlet turned the tables on the New England Federalists with its “I know you are but what am I?” approach. Both its indefatigable title and dynamic typesetting evoke an 18th century version of an email grandpa pounded out during a commercial break for the Tucker Carlson show.

The Corrupt Bargain

Mark Cheathem’s religious upbringing included some beliefs that he didn’t really identify as conspiracy theories until he was an adult, and it really clicked in graduate school that ideas he was brought up with did not seem to be shared by most of the people around him. This led to a fascination with conspiratorial thinking and his idea to teach a course on it at Cumberland University.

He believes a key reason people believe in conspiracy theories is because it gives them a sense of control in an often out of control world. The question of control was at the root of the conspiracy we focus on in this episode – The Corrupt Bargain.

The Election of 1824 was a mess to begin with. When the Federalist Party finally fizzled to a whimper, the nation was left with one political party and “The Era of Good Feelings.” It might have felt good for a hot minute, with it soon devolved into in-fighting and five candidates vying to take the party in their own direction. Those candidates were war hero General and Senator Andrew Jackson, Adams family scion and successful Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Georgia Senator and recent stroke victim William H. Crawford, Kentucky statesman and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and Southern nightmare factory John C. Calhoun. The frontrunners were Adams and Jackson, and as everybody knows, Andrew Jackson was the people’s choice.

Jackson won the most electoral votes and the most popular votes, but because no one won a majority of the electoral votes the election was thrown to the House of Representatives to choose among the top three electoral vote winners (Jackson, Adams, and Crawford.) Lest the people have much power, the House doesn’t simply vote for a winner and the person with the most votes wins – that would be far too democratic. Instead, each state delegation in the House gets one vote – a process that takes the popular representation of the House chamber and chokes it with the Senate’s disproportionately “equal” kink.

The House made John Quincy Adams the winner of the 1824 election and the sixth president of the United States.

But Jackson was clearly the people’s choice, and the backroom deal to put Adams in power was nothing short of stealing the presidency from the people of the United States! Right?

Not exactly. There are two problems with this.

  1. The process was set up to overrule the will of the people; the system was working as intended. Nothing was stolen from anyone.
  2. Despite everything you’ve heard, Andrew Jackson was probably not the people’s choice.

Let’s dig into that second point a little more.

Andrew Jackson was not the people’s choice in the Election of 1824 – if by “people’s choice” you mean the person preferred by most voters. In his book The One-Party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson, and 1824’s Five-Horse Race, Donald Ratcliffe argues that the official popular vote totals cannot be relied upon because 25% of the states did not have people vote directly for presidential electors; they had legislators select their state’s electors. So the popular vote totals that you’ll find if you look up the Election of 1824 only represent 18 of 24 states. Ratcliffe’s data suggests that if you include what the popular vote would have been if those other 6 states – especially New York – had direct voting, then Adams would have easily overcome his 25,000 vote deficit and won the popular vote.

But as we all know, the popular vote means nothing. Jackson had a plurality of the electoral vote, a plurality inflated by the moral depravity of the three fifths compromise.

We don’t discuss that popular vote math on the podcast, but we do get into the deal Cheathem believes was struck between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay – if Clay used his influence in the House to give Adams the presidency, Adams would name Clay as his Secretary of State, the best stepping stone to the presidency at the time. It’s debatable whether they ever made such a deal, but Cheathem makes a strong case that they both had good reasons to.

Building on the corrupt bargain battle cry, “Little Magician” Martin Van Buren used his coalition-building power to create the first modern political party, the Democratic Party, and he and Jackson rode that wave to the White House.

Cheathem thinks the Corrupt Bargain conspiracy theory is not just a theory but a real conspiracy. It’s not a stretch to say that the lessons of its success could be applied to an unfounded conspiracy theory like the Big Lie. His hope in his class is that he can help students understand the history of conspiracy theories and make connections to the past, for example seeing how a modern political movement like the demonization of immigrants has a long history in the US with different players in the same nativist game.

He wants students to think rationally about what they hear, to question and look for the evidence – especially when it comes to claims about nefarious secret plots.

You can learn more about Mark Cheathem at JacksonianAmerica.com.

Listen now:


Image: Altered 1844 political cartoon “The Little Magician Invoked” featuring Martin Van Buren summoning spirits to predict the election outcome for the Democratic or “Loco Foco” party.
“Illuminati” by Jeffrey L. Pasley, Conspiracy Theories in American History, Volume 1, Editor Peter Knight, 2003.
Popular Preferences in the Presidential Election of 1824” by Donald Ratcliffe, Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 1 (2014).
A Not-So-Corrupt Bargain” by Sharon Murphy, Common Place: The Journal of Early American Life, Issue 16.4, September 2016
To George Washington from G. W. Snyder, 22 August 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 2 January 1798 – 15 September 1798, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 554–557.] A View of the New-England Illuminati Who are Indefatigably Engaged in Destroying the Religion and Government of the United States; Under a Feigned Regard for Their Safety–and Under an Impious Abuse of True Religion by John Cosens Ogden, 1799
See also: “George Washington Encounters the Illuminati” by J. L. Bell, Boston 1775


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