The “conspiratorial style” of American politics: colonial Pennsylvania edition

Historian J.L. Tomlin writes, “the historiography of the conspiratorial style in American politics is well-known but tends to start at the American Revolution and move forward.” Here is a taste of his Age of Revolutions piece, “‘They Chase Specters’: The Irrational, the Political, and Fear of Elections in Colonial Pennsylvania”:

Surveying the situation on the eve of Pennsylvania’s 1726 General Assembly elections, Quaker James Logan realized he’d come to despise the colony’s democratic process. To him, its participants were seemingly “vile people who may truly be called a Mob.” In fact, many had come to loathe and fear the colony’s elections. Each contest seemed more contentious and heated than the last, and the two competing factions had become progressively more hyperbolic and even violent in public depictions of their opponents. In such a tense and partisan environment, elections were almost always marked by public disorder, but they increasingly also devolved into violence and vandalism. What concerned Logan most, however, was his belief that the increasing vitriol was not due exclusively to the serious political and economic considerations of competing interest groups within the colony. He believed a good deal of what animated the supporters of both factions was irrational. He felt followers of both factions genuinely believed the colony was perpetually “absorbed in a contest between papists and levelers.” “Papists” was a kind of political dog whistle connoting various types of abusive power molded off of anti-Catholic tropes, and “levelers” connoted radical social and economic egalitarianism. Fear of either overlapped with prominent conspiracy theories of the time. Logan thought either accusation a hysterical exaggeration. He dismissed what he saw as irrational suspicion felt by ideologues on both sides, stating simply “they chase specters.”

Read the rest here.