If there is any well-known episode that speaks to the twists and turns of the Masonic order in the United States of America, it would be the Morgan Affair of 1826 (whose details remain murky to most) above all others. Yet the scandal (this is clearly a case where the word is appropriate), inspired by the mysterious disappearance of William Morgan, was so resounding that the shockwave it produced is still echoing almost two centuries later.
What was the nature of this scandal? Everything appears to have been started by a mundane announcement of the divulgence of the “secrets of Freemasonry.” There had been quite a few earlier ones, mainly Samuel Prichard’s famous Masonry Dissected,published in London in 1730. That was soon followed by a French translation in Paris. Such a divulgence was far from being an isolated action in the United States, as Hoyos has recently pointed out in his introduction to the reissue of his Light on Masonry. It is also helpful in this context to make reference to the reprinting in 1730 of The Mystery of Freemasonry, published by Benjamin Franklin himself. (Those familiar with Franklin’s extremely eccentric itinerary know that he was a renowned publisher before going on to a brilliant future as a politician, philosopher, scientist, and diplomat.) Later in his life, Franklin would also become venerable master of the famous Lodge of the Nine Sisters in Paris.
Let us put the importance of the action for which William Morgan was accused in absolute perspective. When he made the announcement in Batavia, New York, in 1826 that an imminent publication was in preparation on the secrets and practices of Freemasonry, he nevertheless did not take into account a religious, social, and political context that was quite different from the one in which the spirited Franklin had acted without arousing the slightest dismay.
In 1798, two books condemning an alleged Masonic conspiracy had brought more grist to the mill of the adepts of this theory: Proofs of a Conspiracy against All the Religions and Governments of Europe by the British writer John Robinson and Mémoires illustrant l’ histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism) by Abbé Barruel, a former French Jesuit. These publications left nothing to chance. They fell into a post-1789 antirevolutionary offensive that tended to lend credence to the theory of a conspiracy hatched by the Illuminati of Adam Weishaupt, who was accused of having infiltrated the Masonic lodges. Both Robinson and Barruel raised the standards of throne and altar to put people on their guard against the threat they anticipated would soon emerge in all lands, a threat posed by the apostles of equality, liberty, and popular sovereignty. To prop up their theory of a Masonic conspiracy, Robinson and Barruel made the case that Weishaupt, a professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, through the Order of the Illuminati, taught the “precepts of resistance to the authority of the state, promising to destroy ecclesiastical power.”
The echoes these assertions found first in the Protestant religious circles of the United State helped forge an even greater authentic, primordial alliance between freedom and religion that had already existed in this country. Since the heroic era of the Mayflower,religion has been deeply inscribed within the genes of American political and social life. American religious thought is therefore consubstantial to this society, which did not follow the same paths as European society. There, the Encyclopedists in France and Immanuel Kant in Königsberg, Germany, initiated the separation between religion and society, whereas across the Atlantic, although a formal separation between church and state existed, God was never declared dead and was never entirely absent from public debate. It so happens that these revelations, mixed with deeply felt speculations, demonized the “enemies of the altar and the throne” by identifying them as minions of Satan, cosmopolitan individuals without faith or law, subversive traitors, and promoters of moral anarchy. Suffice it to say that the Puritan Calvinists who emigrated to America, their new Promised Land, could not help but be receptive to this kind of propaganda. Their Catholic counterparts did not lag long behind them in this respect.
The mistake made by William Morgan and his publisher, David Miller, who had certainly been initiated into Masonry but never moved beyond the grade of apprentice, was, most likely and primarily, to have not realized that the context had changed and that the timing of their undertaking was particularly ill chosen. Both men appear to have been, in the eyes of many historians, essentially motivated by the lure of immediate profit. Morgan had such a shady reputation personally that he easily inspired some distrust.
Morgan’s Masonic initiation is still a source of questions, as there remains no trace of its having ever occurred. Some venture the hypothesis that he may have been received into a lodge in Canada then peddled his knowledge of the rituals he had learned by heart by becoming an itinerant tutor—in return for money—in the service of the lodges. Contrary to some theories that tend to denigrate Morgan’s abilities, his intellectual capacities, his memory in any case, do not appear to be the subject of any doubt, as opposed to his ethics. He is believed to have even acquired an excellent and encyclopedic mastery of the entire corpus of the Order’s rituals.
Freemasons, staggered as much by Morgan’s candor as by his greed, for that was perhaps his primary motivation, attempted to buy the manuscript. This was a wasted effort. This is the point where everything becomes complicated and the reading of the true motivations of Morgan and his publisher become unclear. If greed alone was the foundation of their undertaking, why then did they refuse to surrender the manuscript? From this point, focus was placed on questions concerning their desire to harm the Masonic order and on possible sponsors of their plan for new divulgences.
The house of Miller, the publisher, was set on fire several times. This is a clue that is hardly deceptive and would become a fairly legitimate source of suspicion. “Who benefits from the crime?” we could ask. Those who know America well will not be surprised by the methods applied in a society that still often carries the mark of the pioneers, accustomed to bullying those who for one reason or another are forming an obstacle to their designs. A society that knows, perhaps more than any other, the primacy of violence when it involves ensuring that one’s “rights” prevail. This concept is key to the success of the extremely powerful National Rifle Association, which, against all democratic humanist logic, defends the absolute right of gun ownership. They advocate this so fiercely that no candidate for president dares confront them. The Democrat Barack Obama was no exception.
Without simplifying things too greatly, we see this tendency in the violent expulsion of the Indians during the winning of the West, the never-solved assassination of John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. It is a cultural thing, the experts will glibly say, and the history of a country where “all is possible”—the best, as the historic election of former president Obama reminds us, and the worst—a country that is teeming with examples both inside and out. It is not an insult to America or Americans to make this observation.
From this to concluding in this instance that Freemasons would have been the arsonists, it is only a step that some refuse to take, allowing for a reasonable doubt. Conversely, some suspect David Miller of having counted on this and used it to inspire an unhealthy notoriety that would aid the commercialization of the book, promising to make it a sensation . . . and profitable.
Morgan, opportunely prosecuted by one of his creditors, in this instance the elder of the lodge of Canandaigua, New York, was condemned for an unfortunate two-dollar debt and found himself in prison on September 11, 1826. The next day, the complainant, Nicolas Chestero, accompanied by several Freemasons, went to the prison, where he withdrew his complaint. Restored to liberty, Morgan was abducted on the spot by a small squad of Freemasons who were obviously little prone to displaying any excessive feelings of fraternity. Witnesses said they heard William Morgan shouting, “Help!” and even, “Murder!” which is at least probable. Indeed, one author, Mac Coil, believes that Morgan was taken to a destination in the north of the state of New York, where he was sequestered until September 19. All trace of Morgan was lost after this date. However, an unidentified corpse was recovered on October 7, 1827, some thirteen months later, near Fort Niagara. The judicial and police investigations ended by classifying the file as closed with no further action. His widow would, however, identify the body of her unfortunate spouse much later, under improbable circumstances that were too providential not to have been staged and are therefore contestable, to say the least.
It required nothing more, given the context described earlier, for this disappearance to unleash a vast anti-Masonic campaign. The Order’s detractors had only been waiting for a golden opportunity like this. While New York State had 480 lodges in 1826, the groundswell would leave behind only seventy-five in 1835, and the three supreme councils of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite that had then been coexisting ceased all activity. But social and political authorities displayed an equal indignation—whether real, sham, or requested. Both the religious and the most conservative circles found in this mysterious disappearance a pretext for attacking the presumed occult power of the Masonic order in its entirety.
The question was asked: How could the president and Freemason Andrew Jackson and the American government tolerate an occult power, a state within a state—in this instance Freemasonry—that was targeted by an accusing finger, even if the accusations were not supported by any material proof? This denial of justice was considered an affront to the popular will. The popular conception was that the Order would have had no hesitation about “eliminating those who thwarted its dark designs.” The moment had therefore arrived for religious circles to condemn Freemasonry for its anti-Christian attitude, for which it was labeled now more than ever. The term anti-Christian had been set loose. So much so that from New England to the Midwest we witnessed for the first time in American history the emergence, next to two major parties, of a third new, large political party: the Anti-Masonic Party.
Starting in 1827, a clamor arose for demoting Freemasons from public office, and the anti-Masonic wave was frequently accompanied by acts of physical violence. The Grand Lodges of Ohio and Pennsylvania were ordered to turn over their archives as well as all their documents to the civil authorities, and public officials were given the duty of searching the premises.
However, this campaign would wane after about a decade, but only after the party had proved beneficial to several well-known politicians. This included former American president John Quincy Adams as well as Millard Fillmore, who would become the thirteenth occupant of the White House in the near future. By the mid-1830s, many of the party’s members had been absorbed into the new Whig Party. Still, the political earthquake triggered by the Morgan Affair is comparable in many pertinent ways to the anti-Communist witch hunt engineered by U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy after the end of the Second World War with the powerful support of the Christian right.
It is enough to surf the Web to become convinced of the durable nature of the theory of the Masonic conspiracy, to which certain Internet sites still devote themselves today by diving in to the phantasmagorical world fueled by and around the Morgan Affair. Televangelist Pat Robertson was doing nothing less in 1991 when he published his assertions on a new world order that resurrected the idea of a Freemason conspiracy, which was supposed to be confirmed by the presence of French brothers on the Trilateral Commission.
It was these periodic resurgences of the prolonged effects of the Morgan Affair that finally convinced Hoyos and Morris to publish the book I mentioned earlier titled Is It True What They Say about Freemasonry? This publication is testimony to their desire to counter not only the lasting, adverse effects of the Morgan Affair but also those from the most unbridled delusions.
Denis Lacorne, a great expert on religion in America, has devoted a book to this subject, De la religion en Amérique, in which he continually makes reference to “the sometimes astute but more often biased outlook of the French, seduced by the exoticism of an America so foreign to their national tradition and ways of thinking.” For the outside observer in Europe, and for the French one in any case, several observations are called for here.
As I have already had the opportunity to write, this affair has had nothing but negative consequences from the perspective of the Masonic order and its place in American society. As the accusations targeting the Order have never been backed up, Freemasons can consider themselves absolved by benefit of the doubt. No archive, no document, nor any prosecution testimony has been kept that might give credit to the accusations. Cleared of these slanderous suspicions, American Freemasons have recovered their luster in one of those bursts of momentum so typical of an American culture that believes all things are possible, including the most improbable exploits.
Alexis de Tocqueville taught us this reading of an America, which we can also find with these characteristics, of course, in Freemasonry. Certainly for a French Freemason of any obedience, as well as for many European Freemasons, American Masonic practice can appear strange. It essentially remains in a position of sociability that proscribes any in-depth debate that might prove divisive inside the lodge. But we need only read what is still being published in the United States today to find convincing evidence of the serious approach taken by the researchers toiling on the study of this legacy of our common origins.
American Freemasonry today can assert itself confidently and assume a visibility that no longer need fear the persecutions that followed on the heels of the Morgan Affair. The American Masonic order happily identifies with the higher institutional interests of the United States and runs no risk—far from it—of being accused of cosmopolitanism. Its sociology assuredly gives it safe haven. It is imperial, if not a party of imperialism, and still assertively recognizes itself in emblematic figures like the former president and Freemason James Monroe, father of the famous dictum “America for the Americans” and of the Monroe Doctrine, which made him a contestable figure in Latin America, or even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, organizer of the most despicable works of McCarthyism and a figure of fear, even for those in his entourage. Hoover and McCarthy were both main players in one of the less glorious episodes in American history, known as the “red scare,” which lasted from 1947 to 1953.
This was a period of inquisitional proceedings led by McCarthy’s commission that hunted down—with the support of the FBI—possible Communist agents, militants, or suspects and sought just as hard to reduce the expression of political or social opinions it deemed suspect by restricting civil rights on the pretext of defending national security. By comparison, at this time, when the world is upset by the revelations of a renegade who showed the practices of the National Security Agency and its governmental program of international espionage and surveillance to the entire world, the whistleblower Edward Snowden pales in comparison.
But let’s take precautions against falling into the easy snare of generalizations and judgments spun from whole cloth, and let’s refrain from reducing American Masonry based on the actions of McCarthy and Hoover or even being too quick to bury a major body of the universal Masonic order that still has a wealth of resources and is quick to regenerate, as all recent signs are proving. After a vertiginous decline in the number of members and the alarming aging of those who remained, American Freemasonry has definitely initiated a substantial rebound worthy of what the world is accustomed to expect from this country, with its extraordinary ability to meet any challenge.
We should never lose sight of the fact that this great nation is also a polymorphous land of contrasts that never fails to surprise. The catharsis produced by the Morgan Affair certainly is not enough to explain the rebound, but it is part of it. At the same time, no one will ever understand the deist anchoring of American Freemasons without becoming aware of their perseverant efforts to lay it on even thicker in this regard since the Morgan Affair; although the omnipresence, if not the primacy, of a civil religion uniting quite varied beliefs, the national messianism, and the taste—including among Freemasons—for prayer are all equally significant cultural markers of American society. They do not even have to overdo it. If there are philosophical domains that separate the French from the Americans by a considerable distance, this is most likely one of them.
Lastly, belief combines with the redeeming mission of the American “New Jerusalem,” the dream of a better future for humanity—one that is undeniably religious. This is what William James endeavored to conceptualize by his hypothesis reconciling pragmatism and religion.4 This is a philosophical approach to which most if not almost all American Masons of all generations adhere. So it forms no obstacle to the possible adhesion of the American generations rising to an understanding of the Masonic order that remains foreign, if not downright strange, to the French.
We are dealing with two different societal notions. And while the Morgan Affair undeniably had aftereffects, it was clearly in this domain of a relationship with the Great Architect of the Universe that there became a kind of Masonic nonnegotiable dogma. Inside the Order, it is still being expanded upon with doctrinal positions that are just as intangible as the principles arising out of the 1877 Congress for the Freemasons of GODF regarding absolute freedom of conscience. In both cases history combines the spiritual construction of the Order with attempts to shape, in fine, doctrinal points that are difficult to reconcile but are thereby not designed to oppose each other if each individual accepts this “difference with the other that, far from wounding, enriches,” to paraphrase the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
In another vein, one of the best examples that can be presented to illustrate the gulf that separates our two spheres in many respects is the eternal debate on the individual right to bear arms, recently illustrated by the wall of unyielding resistance into which Barack Obama collided throughout his presidency. The rate of gun deaths in the United States is around thirty thousand a year according to a study released by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which includes homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths. According to the FBI, there were 8,583 murders by firearm in 2011, an average of twenty-three a day. When the American president displayed his firm intention to legislate an end to the serial massacres taking place in schools and public places, he ran into stiff opposition from Congress.
The part played by Republican and Freemason legislators is not insignificant. There is no real cause for surprise here, because the gun lobby, which claims more than four million supporters, equal to less than 1.5 percent of the population, exercises undeniable power over American politics. It is closely connected with American Masonic circles and the National Rifle Association, which fiercely campaigns against any restrictions on the right to bear arms. The pro-gun lobby also benefits from the favorable opinion of 68 percent of Americans.
This context deserves consideration, and it is thus necessary to know that, while proclaiming ethical principles, the same individuals refuse to consider any reform in this area, even though in a land of 318 million inhabitants there are no less than 300 million firearms in circulation, an average of almost one gun per inhabitant. In reality, these pistols, revolvers, assault rifles, and hunting guns bring happiness to 42 million homes; in other words, only 40 percent of American households. According to a study carried out by the Boston University School of Public Health, the right of gun ownership is supported by 57.7 percent of the U.S. population. Gun culture is, therefore, deeply anchored, and the reservations about any form of gun control are many, as shown by the recent recall of two Colorado senators who had supported making the law tougher.
What credibility can the speech on the special place of Freemasonry as a rampart for the defense of values, heard at the Conference of Grand Lodges in Baltimore, truly enjoy under these conditions? This really raises the question.