Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Spoiler Alert: The Secrets of the Freemasons and the Birth of Third Party Politics

By Joey Duggan, Associate Historian at Preservation Studios

After witnessing the birth of the status quo during his presidential tenure, George Washington predicted a grave outcome for the nation based on the emerging system of political parties in his farewell address:

... they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.1

Foregoing his advice, American politicians have cast their lot with one political party or another ever since. Through many iterations, voters have almost unilaterally accepted the political party system, and the restrictied options it presents. Binaries in which two parties dominate the democracy have, for the most part, defined American elections since Washington’s unheeded warning, with a few more complex exceptions throughout the nineteenth century. The Federalist/Democratic-Republican split, the Whig/Democrat split, and most recently, the Republican/Democrat split have all offered voters a choice between “this” and “that.”

“But what if ‘this’ just doesn’t do it for me, and I really can’t get down to ‘that’?” This age old question arose again last fall as voters weighed their options for the presidential election. Americans more in line with establishment party politics criticized this inclination, citing their belief that the “spoiler effect,” or the splitting of votes between a major-party candidate and a third-party candidate with similar values, could tip the balance in favor of another major-party candidate with antithetical values. The most notorious example of the spoiler effect in recent history occurred during the presidential election of 2000, in which Green Party candidate Ralph Nader allegedly drew sympathetic votes away from Democrat Al Gore and delivered the election to Republican George W. Bush. Hoping to avoid the same fate for their candidates, major-party supporters on both sides of the aisle cautioned their less committal peers against “throwing their votes away” on third-party candidates with minimal chances of securing America’s highest elected office.

Nevertheless, estimates place the percentage of the popular vote in favor of third-party candidates in the 2016 Presidential Election somewhere between four and five percent.2 While third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party are not necessarily leading America’s march into the future, they’re still marching to their own beat, and a few million Americans decided to dance along. Despite accusations of spoilage, these third-party voters actually participated in a long-standing tradition of dissent in American politics. It just so happens that the roots of this tradition lie here in Western New York.

The history of third-party politics in the United States stretches back to the life of a single man and his rivalry with a well-established fraternal organization. When William Morgan, a black sheep amongst the ranks of the Freemasons in Western New York, threatened to reveal the secrets of said organization’s initiation rites in 1826, he sparked a series of events with ramifications on a national scale. Morgan and his family settled in Batavia, New York sometime in the 1820s, where he worked as a bricklayer. Hoping to join the Freemason lodge in Batavia, Morgan claimed that he had belonged to lodges in several of the other places in which he had spent time throughout his life. The Freemasons of Batavia did not accept his claims and refused to allow him entrance into their chapter of the society. In an act of retribution, Morgan threatened to publish an exposé detailing the clandestine undertakings of the Freemasons.
The Assassination of William Morgan by Pierre
Méjanel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several conflicting accounts muddle the events that followed Morgan’s transgression: even today, different interest groups offer their own version of the story. In 1826, Morgan was arrested for an alleged failure to repay a loan and jailed in Canandaigua. Morgan made bail, but his freedom did not last him very long. The final reports of Morgan’s whereabouts placed him in Niagara County, where a group of agitated masons may have kidnapped him. The haze of history obscures the details of his life after his disappearance, which may have ended thereafter in the Niagara River, or years later in one of the many places across the world where later eyewitnesses claim to have spotted him. In Lewiston, New York, stories still persist that Morgan spent the night in the historic Frontier House on his way to his fate, and the echoes of his possible footsteps through the town still resonate in the historical memory of the area. The ambiguity of his fate encouraged the spread of rumors that often pointed to the wretchedness of the masons.

Word of the drama spread, and the sensational events fractured associations on every level of society. Incensed members of the public, already wary of the ill-understood organization, demanded retribution for the murder of Morgan, while community leaders took varying positions on Masonic activity. The ensuing uproar split social organizations in places like Lewiston, where the dissenting voices within First Presbyterian congregation delayed the construction of the community's first church building and nearly dissolved the organization entirely. Some masons from high society renounced their alignment with the Freemasons in order to wield this dissent, creating a populist movement that coalesced in the Anti-Masonic Party. It was the first established third party in the United States, and in a flurry of grassroots support, candidates who took up this anti-elitist cross won positions in the elections of 1828, including several seats in the House of Representatives. After the unexpected success of its single-issue politicking, the Anti-Masonic Party filled out its platform with nativist policies.

The political saliency of the Anti-Masonic Party culminated in the Presidential Election of 1832. The waxing of third-party politics determined the outcome of this election in more ways than one. The The Nullifier Party, a third party that formed shortly after the Anti-Masonic Party, ran John Floyd as their candidate and carried South Carolina. Meanwhile, in a show of third-party force, Vermont voted Anti-Mason, contributing to incumbent Andrew Jackson's landslide victory over Henry Clay. Irony tinged Jackson's successful reelection campaign: the President of the United States was himself a Freemason. The party's activity waned following the 1832 elections, and the newly formed Whig Party absorbed most of its members by the end of the decade.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast portrays Jacksonian Democracy
Image courtesy of Mercury Academic

The Anti-Masonic Party and their efforts to dismantle the establishment might seem dated and frivolous to the modern wit, but the pattern of third-party dissent they inaugurated still persists today. More established third parties, such as the Green Party and the Libertarian Party as mentioned above, maintain a degree of political saliency, while lesser known single-issue parties, such as the Prohibition Party (opposed to the sale and consumption of alcohol) and the Humane Party (devoted to the protection of the rights of animals), continue to endorse major-party candidates, and even on rare occasions, run their own candidates.
There’s nothing quite like a single-issue party, so get in touch with your inner blacksheep, and vote Preservation in this year’s election.
1. Lillian Goldman Law Library, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” Avalon Project, (Accessed October 13, 2017).
2. Dan Arel, “After 2016 drubbing, what’s next for third parties?,” The Hill, (Accessed October 13, 2017).

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