From claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the U.S. government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans love conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial rhetoric in presidential campaigns and its distracting impact on the body politic have been a fixture in American elections from the beginning, but conspiracies flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, when modern-day American political parties developed, and the expansion of white male suffrage increased the nation’s voting base. These new parties, which included the Democrats, the National Republicans, the Anti-Masons, and the Whigs, frequently used conspiracy accusations as a political tool to capture new voters—ultimately bringing about a recession and a collapse of public trust in the democratic process.
During the early decades of the American republic, the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican Parties engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric on a regular basis. Following the War of 1812, the Federalist Party faded from the political landscape, leaving the Republicans as the predominant national party. Their hold was so great that in 1816 and 1820, James Monroe, the Republican presidential candidate, ran virtually unopposed, but in 1824, the Republicans splintered into multiple and disparate factions. Five viable candidates ran in that election cycle, and John Quincy Adams won the presidency.
The controversy around Adams’s victory quickly fueled suspicions: Tennessean Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral and popular votes and the most regions and states, but because he did not win the majority of electoral votes, the U.S. House of Representatives was constitutionally required to choose the president in a runoff of the top three vote-getters. Jackson’s supporters believed that House Speaker Henry Clay, who had placed fourth in the regular election, helped Adams win the House election in return for being appointed secretary of state. The Jacksonians’ charges of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay ensured that the 1828 election would, in part, be fought over this conspiracy theory.
During the hotly contested 1828 campaign, Jackson’s opponents, too, trafficked in conspiracy theories: In particular, administration men accused Jackson’s supporters of plotting a coup d’état if their candidate lost to President Adams. This “theory” held that pro-Jackson congressmen, upset about the national government’s attempts to impose a new tariff on imports, held “secret meetings” to discuss “the dissolution of the Union.” One pro-Jackson supporter “declared that he should not be astonished to see Gen. Jackson, if not elected, placed in the Presidential Chair, at the point of fifty thousand bayonets!!!” The thought of a national military hero such as Jackson leading a military rebellion had no basis in reality, but the conspiracy theory fit the tenor of the times.
Jackson won—and conspiratorial rhetoric remained ever-present throughout his presidency. In the run-up to the 1832 election, the national organization of Freemasonry drew conspiracy theorists’ attention. Spurred on by the murder of a New York Mason named William Morgan, who had threatened to disclose the fraternal order’s secrets, an Anti-Masonic political party had emerged during the 1828 election. Frequently repeated accusations that Freemasonry was secretive and elitist reflected larger concerns about the ways in which the ruling elite undermined the nation’s democratic institutions through corruption. And for the Anti-Masons, Jackson was no better than Adams; in their view, the Tennessean’s promise of “rotation of office” was simply cronyism.
Four years later, the Anti-Masons had gained enough supporters to run William Wirt for president against the Democratic incumbent Jackson and the National Republican candidate Henry Clay. During the 1832 campaign, they accused Freemasons of a number of transgressions beyond Morgan’s murder, including subversion of free speech and democracy. Rhode Island Anti-Masons, for example, warned that Freemasons were “darkening the public mind” by attempting to quash public criticism of their organization in the state’s newspapers. Vermont’s William Strong charged the Democrats with following the Masonic dogma of “the end justifies the means” to elect Jackson in 1828 and secure government patronage for party members.
But in that same election of 1832, Anti-Masons themselves became the target of conspiracy theorists. New York Democrats saw a plot afoot in the coalition of the Anti-Masonic Party and the National Republicans in their state. How was it possible, one New York newspaper asked, that the Anti-Masons had nominated Wirt, yet had allied themselves with Clay? It was not because of principled opposition to Freemasonry, as all three presidential candidates were Masons. The only answer was that it was a “deep laid conspiracy to defeat the wishes of the people” to elect Andrew Jackson.
During Jackson’s second term, much of the conspiratorial rhetoric centered on the Bank War, the political battle between the president and the Second Bank of the United States, the nation’s chief financial institution, which held both government and private funds and was supposed to remain non-partisan in its loans. Jackson, however, believed that the bank’s president Nicholas Biddle had used the institution’s deposits and influence to assist John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election. If true, this was a blatant misuse of the people’s money. Consequently, Jackson exerted his power as chief executive to remove government funds from the Second Bank, which would cripple its financial power. In retaliation, Biddle began calling in the bank’s loans across the country, precipitating a financial recession to pressure the president to restore the government’s deposits.
As a result, accusations of conspiracy flew on both sides. The anti-Jackson Whig Party (which had replaced the National Republican Party of the 1832 campaign) accused Vice President Martin Van Buren of being “at the bottom of all this hostility to the Bank.” Allegedly, the “Little Magician” was using his “arts and tricks” against the Second Bank to further his presidential prospects in 1836.
Democrats then responded by constructing their own conspiracy theory about “the Boston Aristocracy” and its control of the Second Bank. Stretching back to the early days of the republic, they claimed this “nefarious conspiracy” had used the Second Bank to target the anti-aristocratic Southern and mid-Atlantic states, “producing universal panic and distress” by constricting the money supply in those regions. These same conspirators, according to Democrats, were now employing “the whole power of the present Bank to embarrass the administration and distress the country,” not to mention hurting the Democratic Party’s chances of retaining the White House.
In the 1836 presidential campaign, which pitted Van Buren against three Whig candidates—William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Hugh Lawson White—the Whigs used conspiracy theories in an attempt to derail the Democrats’ chances for a political victory. They accused Van Buren of being a member of the Catholic Church and of participating in a “popish plot” intended “to conciliate the Catholics, in the U States for Political purposes.” Van Buren, who was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, denied the accusation.
Whigs also accused Democratic vice-presidential candidate Richard M. Johnson of wanting to force Washington society to accept his two daughters, who were the product of his relationship with an enslaved African-American woman. According to one Richmond Whig, Johnson’s “depraved tastes” threatened to destroy the racial barrier that kept African-Americans in a subordinate position, and endangered “the purity of our maidens, the chaste dignity of our matrons.” Van Buren and Johnson won in 1836, but Johnson’s family circumstances continued to plague his political career and harmed Van Buren’s standing with some Southern voters in 1840.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many votes changed because of conspiratorial rhetoric, either then or now. It seems clear, though, that American politicians believe that this type of rhetoric makes a difference—and that American voters have always had to be politically literate to determine the difference between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies.
This enduring belief in vast, unexplainable conspiracies has often contributed to voters’ feelings of powerlessness, increasing their cynicism and apathy. And of course, conspiratorial rhetoric undermines the nation’s democratic institutions and practices. Politically motivated conspiracy theories, ultimately, bring the same result as conspiracies themselves: a small number of elite Americans wielding immense power over the future of the United States, power that may not account for the will of the majority.