Article — From the November 1964 issue

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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The Jesuit Threat

Fear of a Masonic plot had hardly been quieted when the rumors arose of a Catholic plot against American values. One meets here again the same frame of mind, but a different villain. The anti-Catholic movement converged with a growing nativism, and while they were not identical, together they cut such a wide swath in American life that they were bound to embrace many moderates to whom the paranoid style, in its full glory, did not appeal. Moreover, we need not dismiss out of hand as totally parochial or mean-spirited the desire of Yankee Americans to maintain an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society nor the particular Protestant commitments to individualism and freedom that were brought into play. But the movement had a large paranoid infusion, and the most influential anti-Catholic militants certainly had a strong affinity for the paranoid style.

Two books which appeared in 1835 described the new danger to the American way of life and may be taken as expressions of the anti-Catholic mentality. One, Foreign Conspiracies against the Liberties of the United States, was from the hand of the celebrated painter and inventor of the telegraph, S.F.B. Morse. “A conspiracy exists,” Morse proclaimed , and “its plans are already in operation . . . we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts, or our armies.” The main source of the conspiracy Morse found in Metternich’s government: “Austria is now acting in this country. She has devised a grand scheme. She has organized a great plan for doing something here. . . . She has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money, and has furnished a fountain for a regular supply.” Were the plot successful, Morse said, some scion of the House of Hapsburg would soon be installed as Emperor of the United States.

“It is an ascertained fact,” wrote another Protestant militant,

that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.

Lyman Beecher, the elder of a famous family and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in the same year his Plea for the West, in which he considered the possibility that the Christian millennium might come in the American states. Everything depended, in his judgment, upon what influences dominated the great West, where the future of the country lay. There Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly. . . . ” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.”

[1] Many anti-Masons had been fascinated by the penalties involved if Masons failed to live up to their obligations. My own favorite is the oath attributed to a royal archmason who invited "having my skull smote off and my brains exposed to the scorching rays of the sun."

Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths,[1] the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.

Anti-Catholicism, like anti-Masonry, mixed its fortunes with American party politics, and it became an enduring factor in American politics. The American Protective Association of the 1890s revived it with ideological variations more suitable to the times—the depression of 1893, for example, was alleged to be an international creation of the Catholics who began it by starting a run on the banks. Some spokesmen of the movement circulated a bogus encyclical attributed to Leo XIII instructing American Catholics on a certain date in 1893 to exterminate all heretics, and a great many anti-Catholics daily expected a nationwide uprising. The myth of an impending Catholic war of mutilation and extermination of heretics persisted into the twentieth century.

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.

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  • 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).


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