History and Historiography

Not Crazy: Anti-Masons, Nativists, Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings

January 8, 2023
by William P. Meyers

Watching the craziness in Congress this week, where Kevin McCarthy had to placate a bunch of loony-tunes characters elected to Congress, just to elect a Speaker of the House, I could not help but think that we are in a period like the mid 1800s, or mid 19th century. In the history books, where a decade may be summed up in a few pages or even paragraphs or sentences, large sections of the American people seemed crazy. I was simultaneously reading Millard Fillmore, Biography of a President by Robert Rayback. Among contemporary historians Fillmore is often ranked last, or close to it, among the U.S. Presidents. Having read the book I think there is an argument to be made that Fillmore was one of our greatest presidents. Because he served less than three years, after Zachary Taylor died, and because he was not a Republican or a Democrat (parties most modern historians identify with), his accomplishments are usually overlooked. But before going into the Fillmore story, in a future post, I want to share what I discovered about the minor parties and movements of that era: the Anti-Masons, nativists, anti-slavery (Free Soil Party), American Party, and the larger party they revolved around, the Whig Party.

The Masons are a bit of a joke now, but in early America they played an important role in society. They were the most prestigious of the secret societies, so most of the ruling class belonged, and many in the middle class aspired. On a practical level, Masons favored other Masons in business relationships. But if one took the Masonic doctrines seriously, one had a lot of reading and memorizing to do. There was not a doctrine per se, but a boatload of traditions, both ordinary and esoteric, derived from every religious tradition known in that time, including Jewish mysticism, Egyptian religion, Islamic mysticism and the like. A business man might attend an Episcopal or Baptist Church, but he had learned the simple Christian dogma was just scratching the surface of the knowledge of how the universe really worked.

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1 reply »

  1. To Christian ministers, “any deviation from their interpretation of the Bible was heresy and evil”.

    Protestants here on the receiving end of Protestant argument.

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