Article — From the November 1964 issue

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

( 2 of 7 )

Illuminism and Masonry

I begin with a particularly revealing episode—the panic that broke out in some quarters at the end of the eighteenth century over the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati. This panic was a part of the general reaction to the French Revolution. In the United States it was heightened by the response of certain men, mostly in New England and among the established clergy, to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt. Its teachings today seem to be no more than another version of Enlightenment rationalism, spiced with the anticlerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria. It was a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason. Its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges.

Americans first learned of Illuminism in 1797, from a volume published in Edinburgh (later reprinted in New York) under the title, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Its author was a well-known Scottish scientist, John Robison, who had himself been a somewhat casual adherent of Masonry in Britain, but whose imagination had been inflamed by what he considered to be the far less innocent Masonic movement on the Continent. Robison seems to have made his work as factual as he could, but when he came to estimating the moral character and the political influence of Illuminism, he made the characteristic paranoid leap into fantasy. The association, he thought, was formed “for the express purpose of rooting out all religious establishments, and overturning all the existing governments of Europe.” It had become “one great and wicked project fermenting and working all over Europe.” And to it he attributed a central role in bringing about the French Revolution. He saw it as a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”

These notions were quick to make themselves felt in America. In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, delivered a timely sermon to the young country, which was then sharply divided between Jeffersonians and Federalists, Francophiles and Anglomen. Having read Robison, Morse was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s and the 1830s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati. But whereas the panic of the 1790s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultraconservative point of view, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States, and was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. Although anti-Masonry happened to be anti-Jacksonian (Jackson was a Mason), it manifested the same animus against the closure of opportunity for the common man and against aristocratic institutions that one finds in the Jacksonian crusade against the Bank of the United States.

The anti-Masonic movement was a product not merely of natural enthusiasm but also of the vicissitudes of party politics. It was joined and used by a great many men who did not fully share its original anti-Masonic feelings. It attracted the support of several reputable statemen who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it. Still, it was a folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly.

The Paranoid Style in Action

The John Birch Society is attempting to suppress a television series about the United Nations by means of a mass letter-writing campaign to the sponsor, . . . The Xerox Corporation. The corporation, however, intends to go ahead with the programs. . . .

The July issue of the John Birch Society Bulletin . . . said an “avalanche of mail ought to convince them of the unwisdom of their proposed action—just as United Air Lines was persuaded to back down and take the U.N. insignia off their planes.” (A United Air Lines spokesman confirmed that the U.N. emblem was removed from its planes, following “considerable public reaction against it.”)

Birch official John Rousselot said, “We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.”

—San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1964

As a secret society, Masonry was considered to be a standing conspiracy against republican government. It was held to be particularly liable to treason—for example, Aaron Burr’s famous conspiracy was alleged to have been conducted by Masons. Masonry was accused of constituting a separate system of loyalty, a separate imperium within the framework of federal and state governments, which was inconsistent with loyalty to them. Quite plausibly it was argued that the Masons had set up a jurisdiction of their own, with their own obligations and punishments, liable to enforcement even by the penalty of death. So basic was the conflict felt to be between secrecy and democracy that other, more innocent societies such as Phi Beta Kappa came under attack.

Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, it was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law. Masonic constables, sheriffs, juries, and judges must all be in league with Masonic criminals and fugitives. The press was believed to have been so “muzzled” by Masonic editors and proprietors that news of Masonic malfeasance could be suppressed. At a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault, Masonry was attacked as a fraternity of the privileged, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices.

Certain elements of truth and reality there may have been in these views of Masonry. What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. Anti-Masons were not content simply to say that secret societies were rather a bad idea. The author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man. . . . It may truly be said to be Hell’s master piece.

was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His book "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1964. This essay was adapted from the Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford University in November 1963.

More from Richard Hofstadter:

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • fool on the hill

    A coherent discussion of the wiing nuts who are always with us. Pray for common sense and sanity. It is in short supply.

    • DavidHarley

      “Common sense” is usually wrong. Consider the obvious truth of the Sun going round the Earth.

      • Sarmad Chaudhry

        Common sense isn’t “usually” wrong. It CAN be wrong at times, like in your example, but I think you’d have a hard time providing more examples where common sense fails rather than succeeds.

  • paralyzed

    There’s a new book out that uses Hofstader’s analysis as a foundation for looking at the alliance between neoconservatives and the Christian Right and the emergence of the Tea Party. It’s called America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party, by Robert Horwitz. Check it out.

  • David Woody

    Totally uncited work that says such nonsense as “Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt.” Really? 1776? Major fail.

    • Claude Jacques Bonhomme

      Actually, the quote you ridicule is correct. The Illuminati movement started in 1776 in Bavaria (even Wikipedia will tell you that, with a quote). This article in lay language is based on both a lecture and a Pulitzer-winning book chock full of literary references, and is cited at the end of the article.

    • Geek Cream

      What are facts?!

      Said a Republican “Daily”.

      • Mark Jones

        If you worship Ron Paul and or are a 9-11 truther, facts are a photo with words added in PhotoShop. Or a YouTube video.

  • Esperanza’s Servant

    Richard Hofstadter was one of my academic heroes at University and he
    persists to this day with his uncanny prescience about the
    sociopolitical paradigm of America today. This essay is 50 years old and
    just as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1964. Read, learn, mark, and
    inwardly digest this magisterial essay.

  • leadingedgeboomer

    Happy to have been pointed to this essay. Long ago I read Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” and it’s time to read it again.

  • Ryan England

    Funny how little things have changed since this was written. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party could stand in for Bob Welch and the Birchers quite easily.

  • Jason Hops

    So are the Tibetans “paranoid” when they protest their genocide? No.

    ONLY White countries + millions of non-Whites + forced assimilation = White genocide. #WhiteManMarch

    • pantherburns

      You’re right. You are paranoid.

  • obbop

    The USA federal government was intended by the Founders to be owned and operated by an elite class.

    From its inception the USA has been in a state of class warfare with the intensity increasing greatly around 1972.

    What will be the spark igniting the inevitable much-needed Revolutionary War Two?

    • snaketrapper

      Hans Hoppe shows that there is no reason to sit back and wait for some spark – here:

  • JimGlover

    Are the anonymous paranoid? I admit much paranoia and in these times when hackers (The Interview) can set off international sanctions amounting to war without proof because it would be too hard to prove or reveal “national security secrets”. I blieve Paranoia is everywhere… fear is how we are controlled and if one is not at all paranoid one must be immune to reality.

    Reality after all like truth is perception and we perceive from our own personal point of view, and in this world public perception is controlled by powerful groups and interests. What is the War Economy, and big party politics and but political Psy-op wars motivating Domination and victory with increasing intake of the Paranoid Style inherited from most religious and all political traditions?!

    Just a hint about why Jefferson was so feared, He did not believe in “The Virgin Birth” while he liked the message and life of Jesus and other heros of History. Another thing can be said of the Paranoid style… it generates much great art and change, reform, and even revolution while trying to remain above it all is boring at best. Each side tends to think the other is the paranoid ones. For me, fear like courage is human and they are interdependent and part of our evolution.

  • Bob Cuddy

    I read this book back in college in the early seventies and found it again this week. Hofstadter’s analysis of the pseudo-conservative movement is incredibly prescient and still important for giving us an historical context for the political phenomenon we see in America today. It would appear that the “wing-nuts”, like the poor, will always be with us.

    • sjdowling

      Yes, but now those wing-nuts have a major political party. The poor should be so organized.

  • DavidHarley

    We are all apt to fall into the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and confabulation. That is why we are rarely able to take seriously the arguments and emotions of our opponents.

    Clear thinking is rarely to be found, and those who try to practise it, to understand and explain the positions of those with whom they disagree, are usually condemned by all concerned.

  • C. Carr

    I am grateful for my History Professors at Villanova University. Drs. Joseph George, Henry Rofinot and Dr. Bhodan Procko. They carefully presented the material on 19th and 20th century US History. They spoke with enthusiasm about history and invited us to come in small groups and discuss current and historical events. From there, it was an easy road to Hofstadter, Leuctenberg, Manchester and some of our finest historical minds. They have been a compass for me and others for over 50 years.

  • Stogumber

    Hofstadter suffers from the (widespread) tendency to essentialize and exaggerate the difference between himself and his opponents. Basically we are all the same man, and so we can quietly acknowledge the good in the other (even in Robert Welch, all the more in Chodorov).
    And Hofstadter suffers from his nearness to the power elites. His elites are always benign and at worst inept to the situation, whereas his peoples are always to be distrusted (which represents the traditional standpoint of the Court Jew).


October 2015

Lives by Omission

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lifting as We Climb

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cattle Calls

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Getting Jobbed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content