For most of its history, the United States has had a two-party system. From Federalists and Anti-Federalists to modern Democrats and Republicans, there are usually always two political parties dominating the US government at any given time.
Since the 1820s, the United States has also had a plethora of third parties who challenge the two-party system. Although these parties rarely achieve much national power, many of them have had a significant impact on the political and partisan dynamics of the United States. This was the case with the very first third party, the Anti-Masonic Party, founded on the conspiracy theory that an elite group of Freemasons secretly controlled the US government.
Freemasonry is suspected
Freemasons were a popular fraternal order during colonial times, and prominent Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were involved in Freemason societies. These societies would have evolved from true masonry guilds; Yet by the 18th century, Freemason societies had become social clubs for elite white men in Europe and the 13 colonies.
Freemasonry continued to grow in the United States during the first two decades of the 19th century, in part because it was a good way for people who wanted to enter politics to network, says Mark Schmeller, professor of history at Syracuse University.
“It’s a way for professional men, newspaper editors and politicians to get to know each other,” he says. “So if you’re embarking on a political career, it’s a pretty good idea to join a Masonic lodge.” Notable members of the 1820s included Henry Clay, who became Secretary of State in 1825, and Andrew Jackson, who became President in 1829.
The Freemasons’ secret initiation ceremonies, which outsiders were not supposed to be aware of, helped fuel suspicion about the group. In 1826, a stonemason named William Morgan alleged that he planned to publish an expose on Freemasons. His subsequent disappearance that year, and rumors that Freemasons had murdered him to prevent his exposition, was a catalyst among people who were already suspicious of the order. Some suspected that Freemasons might even try to destroy the American republic, the institution of Christianity, or both.
Around 1828, a group of men in New York who opposed Freemasonry as well as the emerging Jacksonian Democratic Party that dominated the state created a new party: the Anti-Masonic Party. Because it never gained the same national following as the two major parties of the day—the Jacksonian Democrats and the National Republicans (which became the Whigs in 1833)—historians consider it America’s first third party .
Scroll to continue
WATCH VIDEO: What was the Jacksonian Democracy Party?
Anti-Masonic fever sweeps the nation
The idea that Freemasons were secretly running the government – and perhaps trying to destroy it – may have seemed compelling at the time given that there were so many political elites in Freemason societies. . Conspiracy theories “don’t have to be completely wrong,” says Andrew Burt, author of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States. “And in fact, it’s the half-truth that makes them so dangerous.”
As such, the Anti-Masonic Party attracted many members who became prominent politicians over the next several decades. These included William H. Seward, who would later become Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State; Thaddeus Stephens, who became an influential abolitionist in the House of Representatives; and Millard Fillmore, who became president in 1850.
Although the party remained small, it fueled growing anti-Masonic sentiment and led to the closure of many Freemason societies. Some churches have threatened to expel parishioners unless they leave the Freemasons. When President John Quincy Adams ran for re-election in 1828, he found it necessary to declare, “I am not, never have been, and never will be a Freemason.” After losing the election, Adams even joined the Anti-Masonic Party for a time.
Conspiracy theories are popping up about other bands
In addition to fueling opposition to Freemasonry, the Anti-Masonic Party’s theories about Freemasons have contributed to the rise of conspiracy theories about other groups, says Mark Cheathem, professor of history at Cumberland University.
“During the 1830s, in particular, you have kind of a mix of anti-Masonic conspiracy theories with anti-Catholic conspiracy theories with anti-Mormon conspiracy theories,” he says. These conspiracy theories portrayed Freemasons, Catholics, and Mormons as “outside forces trying to manipulate the American people and the American government to benefit a few elites.”
The influence of the third party extended to political operations in the two main parties. In 1831, the Anti-Masonic Party held the first national presidential nominating convention, a practice that other parties soon adopted. The Anti-Masonic Party also helped spread its message using party newspapers – a tactic the major parties also began to use.
Most members of the Anti-Masonic Party migrated to the Whig Party in the 1830s, and by the end of the decade the Anti-Masonic Party had all but disappeared. However, it set a precedent for smaller third parties who challenged the two-party system.
After the Anti-Masonic Party came the Know-Nothing Party, the Free Soil Party, the Socialist Party, the Bull Moose Party and many others. In 2022, the top two thirds in terms of voter registration are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party.