Today at *Time*: Conspiracy theories then (1790s) and now (2020s)

Time is running my piece on the Bavarian Illuminati. A taste:

In the final weeks before the 2020 election, the outsize role of conspiracy theories in American politics has become unmistakable. For some Trump supporters in particular, campaign-season news is filtered through the powerful idea that hidden forces are at work, that the “deep state”—a supposed secret, shadowy and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese scientists, journalists, academics and intellectuals—is seeking to destroy American values. Seen through that lens, COVID-19, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, is a “hoax”; some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.”

But while the particulars of these theories may be new, the dynamics are not. In fact, they go all the way back to America’s earliest years: In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Mass., and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” Today, such an idea sounds both eerily familiar and like a relic of a less sophisticated time—but the lessons of that episode are decidedly relevant.

Read the rest at Time.

The “Deep State” of the 1790s?

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Jedidiah Morse

Is there a “deep state” seeking to undermine the Trump presidency? Yes, if you define the “deep state” as men and women working to stop Donald Trump from undermining American democracy and institutions.

But for many Trump supporters, the “deep state” is a secret, shadowy, and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese officials and scientists, journalists, academics, and intellectuals seeking to destroy American values. Some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.” In this sense, the “deep state” hates America.  It has been created to invoke fear.

These conspiracy theories are not new.  In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” He was convinced that this group of atheists and infidels were behind the secular Jacobin movement in France that sought to purge the nation of organized religion. Morse believed that the Illuminati group was pursuing the same clandestine agenda in America and was working closely with Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic Republicans, the Federalists’ political rivals, to pull it off.

Morse learned about the Bavarian Illuminati from books published in Europe describing a network of secret lodges scattered across the continent. In a 1798 fast day sermon, he appealed to the worst fears of those evangelicals who remained concerned with the moral character of the republic. He described the Illuminati’s ominous attempts to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide (by declaring death an eternal sleep), advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy…decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.” The presence of the Illuminati in America should cause Christians to “tremble for the safety of our political, as well as our religious ark.” In another sermon on the subject, Morse printed a list of secret societies and Illuminati members currently working their sinister schemes in his Christian nation.

Soon Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and the president of Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, expressed similar fears about the Illuminati and used his pen to sound the alarm. In a Fourth of July discourse entitled The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis, Dwight quoted from Revelation 16 to caution his listeners and eventual readers about “unclean teachers” who were educating innocent people in “unclean doctrines.” Such teachers were spreading throughout the world to “unite mankind against God.” As they performed their malicious work, the Bavarian Illuminati took cues from previous opponents of Protestant America–the Jesuits, Voltaire, and the Masons, to name a few.

Dwight called Americans back to God . This, he believed, was the only effective way of resisting such subversive threats to social virtue. “Where religion prevails,” he wrote, “Illuminatism cannot make disciples, a French directory cannot govern, a nation cannot be made slaves, nor villains, nor atheists, nor beasts.” Dwight reminded his readers that if this dangerous society succeeded in its plans, the children of evangelicals would be forced to read the work of deists or become “concubines” of a society that treated “chastity” as a “prejudice,” adultery as virtue, and marriage as a “farce.”

By the turn of the nineteenth century, news of the Illuminati had traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and as far as the Caribbean islands. Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a Federalist statesman, also bought into this conspiracy theory.

Critics of these evangelical Federalists argued that Morse and Dwight, both clergymen, spent too much time dabbling in politics instead of tending to the souls of the Christians under their spiritual care. Others accused these conspiracy theorists of having “overheated imaginations.” Eventually, Morse’s accusations against Democratic-Republican societies were unable to withstand the weight of evidence. As historian Jonathan Den Hartog has written, evangelical Federalists concerned about the preservation of a Christian nation “overplayed their hand” by propagating the Illuminati scare. In the process, they “called their standing a societal authorities into question, and ultimately weakened their position” as shapers of American culture.

The comparison between the “Deep State” and the “Illuminati” is not perfect. No historical analogies are. But sometimes, as we like to say, history rhymes.

Episode 68: The History of the Presidential Cabinet

Podcast

The members of Donald Trump’s controversial cabinet are regular features of the 24-hour news cycle. He has fired members of his cabinet who challenge his thinking on a host of foreign and domestic issues. Just ask Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Jeff Sessions. But how did our first president, George Washington, imagine the role of the cabinet? In this episode, we think historically about this important part of the executive branch with historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL7730217358

Chervinsky

Social Media in the 1790s

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Jordan Taylor, a history professor at Smith College, writes, “Our familiar challenges with verification, fake news, irresponsible sharing, and partisan media would have been familiar  to those who lived through the tumultuous 1790s.”  She adds, “spend an hour with the newspapers of the 1790s and it will be easy to spot their similarities with our present media landscape.”

Read his entire piece here.

The Politicization of July 4th is as Old as the Republic

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Is Trump politicizing Independence Day with his military parade and “Salute to America” speech?  Of course he is.  And, as historian Shira Lurie reminds us, this practice dates back to the country’s founding.  Here is a taste of her Washington Post piece, “Why Democrats are wrong about Trump’s politicization of the Fourth of July“:

In the hours after The Washington Post broke the news, Democrats pounced on Trump for politicizing the national holiday. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) denounced the president for “injecting partisan politics into the most nonpartisan sacred American holiday there is.” Three prominent congressional Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), wrote a letter to the president describing the Fourth as a “nonpartisan and apolitical” day. “It is, therefore, unfortunate that you are considering a conflicting event, which would create the appearance of a televised, partisan campaign rally on the Mall at the public expense.”

But these claims are wrong. The Fourth has never been apolitical or nonpartisan. Americans have always used Independence Day to disguise political messaging in the cloak of patriotism. And often, these messages have contained the divisiveness and acrimony we have come to associate with Trump.

Politicization of the Fourth of July began even before the United States was a country. During the War of Independence, officials used the anniversary of Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence as an opportunity to bolster anti-British sentiment. They rallied support for the Patriots’ cause with toasts, orations, militia drills and fireworks. In the postwar years, the day transformed into a civics lesson, with Americans extolling the benefits of republican government and, later, the Constitution.

As soon as political parties developed in the 1790s, partisans began capitalizing on the nation’s birthday as well. Local leaders hosted rival Fourth of July celebrations and positioned their parties as the “true” inheritors of the American Revolution’s legacy. Occasionally they came to blows as each side vied for control over the crowds and public spaces in their communities.

Read the rest here.

“Hamilton” Finds Its Way into My U.S. Survey Course

As I posted earlier this week, I am teaching a course on the “Age of Hamilton” in the Fall.  We will be discussing the history behind the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and I will be making extensive use of the soundtrack.

As I prepare the course, I have tried-out a few Hamilton songs in my United States Survey to 1865 course this semester (Spring 2019).  For example, I used the song “You’ll Be Back” to introduce my students to the deeply embedded royal culture in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution:

We are now covering the 1790s in the course.  On Wednesday I used the soundtrack to help my students make sense of Hamilton’s debt assumption plan and the Jefferson/Madison opposition to it.  These two songs were very helpful:

I will probably use one more Hamilton song next week when I lecture about U.S. foreign policy in the late 1780s and 1790s:

Not all the “Hamilton” songs work well in a U.S. Survey course (largely because many of them are historically inaccurate), but I have found that several songs bring to life the debates between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and help my students make sense of this material.

How to Build a History Course Around “Hamilton: An American Musical”

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Reeve Hutson of Duke University explains how to do it.  Here is a taste from his piece at Panorama:

To my surprise, Hamilton proved a wonderful foil for studying the Revolutionary era—because the students love it; because it’s so good as a musical; and not least because it’s so bad as an interpretation of the Revolution. Those of you who have heard or seen the musical know just how many problems are contained in it: the belief in American exceptionalism; the assumption of a natural, already-existing American nation that pre-dated the Revolution; the faith in American national innocence (with the prominent exception of slavery and the subordination of women); the association of American-ness with upward social mobility; the notion that the Revolutionary movement was singular and united; the assumption that the story of the Revolution was the story of the “founding fathers”; the belief that the Federalists embraced what we twenty-first-century audiences would recognize as “democracy” (again, except for the disenfranchisement of women and people of color).

Read the entire piece here.

Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796

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It is worth reading today.

Many Christian conservatives like to quote this part of the address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington believed that religion was essential to the health of a virtuous republic.  This is true.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, nearly all of the founding fathers believed this.

But perhaps the real lesson for our day comes from this passage:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Historians Are Crazy About "Hamilton: An American Musical"

Lin-Manuel Miranda has managed to get Americans excited about Alexander Hamilton. His hip-hop musical about the first Treasury Secretary is taking Broadway by storm. It is even getting rave reviews from early American historians. In fact, a group of historians (and Pulitzer-Prize winners) went to see Hamilton last week and met with Miranda following the show.  If the twittersphere and blogosphere is any indication, these historians gave the show and Miranda rave reviews.

For example, here are some representative tweets:



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Even Miranda himself got into the mix on Twitter:


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I have yet to see the musical, but my history-buff daughter has been begging me to go.  In the meantime, I have been enjoying these reviews:

Bruce Chadwick, “Alexander Hamilton and the Hip Hop Founding of America

Benjamin Carp, “Bastard Out of Nevis

Robert Snyder, “Why ‘Hamilton’ Is the Right Musical for Our Time

Ishmael Reed, “‘Hamilton: the Musical:’ Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween.”

Terry Teachout, “The Revolution Moves Uptown

Today at “The Junto,” historian Joseph Adelman, who was part of the group of historians who saw the musical last week, has a thoughtful review.  Here is a taste:

What makes that argument compelling is that Miranda gets the history right and also approaches a deeper truth about his subject, in a way that for most historians in our forms of writing is inaccessible. I’ll give you just one example from the show that doesn’t give much away. Miranda re-imagines the Cabinet meetings of the Washington administration, in which Hamilton and Jefferson frequently butted heads, as a series of rap battles between the two. The lyrics are spot-on in describing the position of the two on hot-button questions of the day: Should Congress adopt Hamilton’s economic plan? Should Washington back France or Britain in their never-ending imperial fight?

Of course they literally didn’t have a rap battle, but in reproducing their words in rapid-fire meter, Miranda reveals the deep discord within the Washington administration as well as the fragility and instability of early Republic politics. Throughout the show, the theme of early American politics as hip-hop war works to convey a really complicated argument in a way that’s immediately accessible. Watching the show as a historian who works in that era, I can rattle off the books that have clearly influenced Miranda. They’re sitting right in the open (and as it happens when I attended some of them were sitting a few rows from me). Certainly scholars of the early American republic make arguments that rely on the messiness (and contingency) of politics and the political system. So I’m not saying they don’t.

But for most academics and history students, “presentism” is something to avoid. If a student or scholar submitted a paper that argued that the Revolutionary era was really a hip-hop-style battle, we would reject it out of hand. But an artistic project can be imaginative in that way. In so doing, Miranda comes at the past with a completely different eye and without any of the baggage that academics burden ourselves with. And though he doesn’t make a unique argument about the past—and his primary objective is to tell a story, not make an argument—he presents the past in a way that reflects on human nature and how people interact with one another. It’s a trans-historical claim to connect Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton with Biggie and Tupac, but it cuts to the heart of the matter and, more importantly, it works.

Thomas Jefferson: The Villain in Broadway’s *Hamilton*

One of these days I am going to buy tickets to see Hamilton, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit Broadway play about the first Secretary of the Treasury.  Over at The Atlantic, Alana Semuels’s review of the play focuses on its negative portrayal of Thomas Jefferson.  Anyone who has studied the 1790s will not be surprised that Jefferson is the villain in a play about Hamilton, but Semuels argues that the play’s portrayal of the so-called “monster of Monticello” is becoming more and more common in American culture. 

Here is a taste of her piece:

Go to any American elementary school and ask the students to name the Founding Fathers, and it’s likely that Thomas Jefferson will come up, right alongside George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is on the nickel. Jefferson’s face is one of the four on Mount Rushmore. Jefferson has his own monument in Washington, D.C. Jefferson got to be president.

But Jefferson’s star may be fading. Democrats are erasing his name from political dinners because of his slave-owning history. Abraham Lincoln, almost everyone’s favorite president, “hated Thomas Jefferson,” a Gettysburg College professor explained this summer. After the independent historian Henry Wiencek published a controversial book criticizing the Virginian in 2012, The New York Times called Jefferson “The Monster of Monticello.”

The newest knock to Jefferson’s reputation comes in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, which has been drawing critical praise and raking in profits since it transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater this summer. The show, based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, depicts Alexander Hamilton’s life through an amalgam of rap, hip-hop, and traditional Broadway melodies that explain the circumstances of his birth, his drive to succeed, his role in the Revolutionary War, and his subsequent family life and career. The show is replete with clever rhymes and modern-day slang, which help freshen a story that might otherwise seem familiar (at one point, Jefferson quotes Biggie Smalls, saying “If ya don’t know, now ya know”).
Read the rest here.