The rapid growth of Freemasonry after the Revolution prompted a series of hostile—and often paranoid—reactions. In 1798 and 1799 a brief excitement arose when Jedidiah Morse suggested that the fierce political opposition to the Federalist regime resulted from a conspiracy by the notorious Bavarian Illuminati, who were trying to use the Masons to bring about a revolution like that in France. Other brief, localized outbursts of hostility occurred in Pennsylvania among German dissenting sects in 1812 and 1819 and among Presbyterian clergymen in 1821, but not until after 1826 did a great Anti-Masonic crusade spread through the nation, spawning a political party that competed powerfully in several northern states in the early 1830s.
Freemasonry had secured a highly respected position as a benevolent movement transcending social divisions, providing moral training for good citizens, and expressing the best values of republican virtue. But after 1815 some people came to see it as an exclusive mutual-aid society for its members, providing a hidden network of contact, recommendation, and credit for businessmen and politicians. According to some local newspapers, Masons held half of all public offices while numbering only one-tenth of the white adult male population. More significantly, Speculative Freemasonry became an affront to all those caught up in the evangelical revival of the day, especially Methodists and Baptists; they increasingly identified Masonry with the freethinking of the Enlightenment and condemned it as an attempt to create a secular moral authority based on heathen rituals, rationalism, and Deism.
These antagonisms came to a head after an infamous incident in September 1826. A stonemason named William Morgan of Batavia, New York, decided to publish an exposé of Masonic secrets. Imprisoned on a petty charge of debt, he was suddenly released when the debt was paid for him and then abducted as he left jail. Common report claimed that he had been shackled with chains and thrown into the Niagara River. The subsequent hue and cry found its inquiries obstructed, and the trials of those suspected dragged on for five years, to little effect. Opponents blamed the law's delays on the strategic governmental and judicial positions held by Masons belonging to the higher orders who had secretly sworn to defend fellow Masons regardless of their offences, "treason and murder not excepted."
Convinced that Freemasonry was an evil institution capable of subverting the Republic, an aroused public opinion put pressure on Masons to recant, ministers to leave the order, and lodges to cease meeting. The crusade entered politics in New York in 1827, when Anti-Masons decided to prevent the election of Masons to township office. In 1828 they ran a ticket in the state elections, though in the presidential election they backed John Quincy Adams because of his openly Anti-Masonic sympathies. Subsequently, Anti-Masonic parties also took their evangelical and egalitarian appeals into the state and local elections of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New England. The political party never won the electoral support of all Anti-Masonic sympathizers, because many "moral Anti-Masons" felt that it was improper to vote for or against candidates on the basis of their private beliefs and social affiliations. However, the party effectively appealed to the socially discontented, though the voting returns reveal that it did not stimulate unprecedented levels of voter turnout, as is sometimes claimed. The Anti-Masons won control of many county governments; elected governors in Vermont in the years from 1831 to 1834 and Pennsylvania in 1835; gained significant influence in the legislatures of Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island; and elected over twenty congressmen.
In September 1830 the Anti-Masons held the first-ever national political-party convention, and at the second, in September 1831, they nominated former attorney general William Wirt as their presidential candidate. Wirt carried Vermont, but in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio the Anti-Masons preferred to support "unpledged" tickets that would vote in the electoral college for whichever candidate stood the best chance of beating Andrew Jackson. This experience demonstrated that Anti-Masonry had no program relevant to national politics, and when Jackson seemed to imperil the Republic and its prosperity by removing the government's deposits from the national bank in 1833, most political Anti-Masons swiftly moved over to support the new Whig Party, though the Anti-Mason Party lingered on in Pennsylvania until 1839.
The ending of Anti-Masonry was facilitated by a deliberate policy among Whig leaders of persuading Masonic lodges to surrender their civil charters, while three states passed potentially destructive statutes prohibiting extrajudicial oaths. These measures reinforced the pressure that public opinion had brought against the order, even in states (such as Alabama) where an Anti-Masonic political party never appeared. Between 1826 and 1840, the number of members and of active lodges declined by two-thirds and more in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York. Across the nation, membership may have declined from one hundred thousand in 1826 to forty thousand a decade later. When Freemasonry revived after 1850, it did so as a less secretive, less esoteric, more fraternal institution than before 1826.
Bullock, Steven C. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Ratcliffe, Donald J. "Antimasonry and Partisanship in Greater New England, 1826–1836." Journal of the Early Republic 15, no. 2 (1995): 199–239.
Vaughn, William Preston. The Antimasonic Party in the United States. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1983.
Donald J. Ratcliffe