Conspiracy Theory in American History

Mike McHugh
Magonia 79, October 2002

Reading through the Feature Review on witchcraft books on the Magonia website I was pleased to find a review of one of Robert Thurston’s books. Thurston was one of my professors in graduate school and I was an assistant in one of his classes on Modern Russian History, which is his speciality. He theorised that the Stalinist purges and show trials of the 1930s were very similar to the witchcraft persecution of the 16th and 17th Centuries,
in the sense that the masses really DID believe that agents of evil were at work in both cases: literal agents of the Devil in the witchcraft trials versus agents of Germany, Japan and other imperialist powers in the case of Stalin’s Russia. In other words, the ruling elite did not simply orchestrate these situations, they even shared in the delusions themselves, in a mutually reinforcing cycle of paranoia.

I should point out that some of the older Cold Warriors in the Department grumbled that Thurston was a ‘Stalinist’, trying to absolve the ‘Genius Leader of All Mankind’ of his crimes charge which Thurston angrily rejected. The History Department itself had a history, as all of them do, in this case going back to the Vietnam War. At that time, my major professor along with most of the younger faculty, were opposed to the war and were even involved in the occupation of the ROTC building in 1970. The Chair of the Department fired some of them and wrote a letter to the New York Times saying he should have fired even more.

Well, to make a long story short, by the 1980s, the younger faculty had taken over the Department and hired professors like Thurston, who shared their progressive views. The older, more conservative faculty were always grumbling about this, and even condemned the younger, leftist professors who ran the Department as the ‘Gang of Four.’ (Thurston was not part of the Gang, although a well-known British ex-pat professor was.) I mention all of this by way of background, not to imply that politics could ever be in-olved in matters of purely ‘objective scholarship and social science. We all know that that could never happen!

Be that as it may, Thurston’s theory led me to speculate about the Salem witchcraft trials and other examples of conspiracy thinking in American history, which is my speciality. Now the first graduate class I ever took in colonial American history, was with an ancient, curmudgeonly professor who was completely sick of the Salem trials and always warned students that he did not wish to read any more papers about that subject. He was more interested in the new social history, in counting things based on old church and probate records. He was of the school of thought that regarded the outbreak at Salem as the result of a conflict between the older, more traditional part of the community based on agriculture and the newer, more liberal one based on commercial capitalism.

Indeed, this town/country conflict runs through all of American history from the 17th Century to the 20th, and is sometimes simplified as “western” or rural populism versus “eastern” or urban liberalism, with populism giving rise to all sorts of radical, anti-modern movements of the Right as well as anti-urban, anti-capitalist movements of the left. One can find it in Jefferson’s writings, just for starters, in his idealisation of the small farmer and artisan and hostility to banking, cities and the industrial revolution.

Not coincidentally, a healthy portion of American conspiracy thinking originates in populist, agrarian movements, with their focus on the east coast and European ‘Money Power’ that is out to destroy the American Republic. There are many variations of this ‘Paranoid Style’ in American politics, as the historian Richard Hofstadter described it, and some very noxious movements like the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism are part of it

In McCarthy’s case, though, the Soviet agents were members of the Eastern Establishment, the Ivy League elite, working with the Soviet Union to destroy the United States from within. In the case of the 20th Century Ku Klux Klan, the ‘enemy’ was also Communism, but also modernism in general: the city, the university intellectual, the Darwinist biologist, as well as the Jews (especially ‘Jewish bankers’), Catholic immigrants, foreign ‘influences’ in general. There is not much in American conspiracy theories today that cannot be traced to earlier movements, going back to the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The first graduate class I ever took in colonial American history, was with a curmudgeonly professor who was completely sick of the Salem trials and warned students that he did not wish to read any more papers about that subject

I have thought a great deal about the origins of this Paranoid Style, which I would trace back to the very Calvinists (‘Puritans’) responsible for the Salem outbreak. One should remember that North America was a Calvinist society, and that evangelical Protestants were the majority here well into the 19th Century. Their hostility to the Roman Catholic Church ran deep, and they did not grant Catholics citizenship anywhere in colonial North America, except in Quaker Pennsylvania. (And the Calvinists despised the Quakers for their tolerance as much as their pacifism.) American history is full of anti-Catholic movements, such as the ‘Know Nothing’ parties of the mid-19th Century and the Ku Klux Klan of the 20th, which sometimes went so far as to burn Catholic Churches and convents.

They also consistently tried to block immigration by Catholic immigrants, and were quick to adopt ‘scientific’ racism and eugenics as soon as such tools became available to them in the late 19th Century. The earlier anti-foreign, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic urges could now be buttressed by ‘science’ in order to restrict immigration and citizenship to ‘Nordics.’ The National Origins Act of 1924 attempted to do exactly that, and remained the law of the land until 1965. The Puritans of the North and South could unite around a racist programme on this basis, and even had ‘scientific’ IQ tests to prove that the groups they hated were genetically inferior.

In my opinion, the very dualistic religion of Calvinism was one the main intellectual influence in North America, responsible for this well-known tendency to divide the world into saved/damned, good/evil, light/darkness, the Elect and the Sinners. For the early Puritans, of course, the Catholic Church was the Devil, the Antichrist, the Great Satan of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Even the free thinking Unitarian Jefferson shared this hatred, if not the Calvinism that inspired it. As the British know very well, the Puritans also hated High Church Anglicanism and the Toryism of the Stuart monarchs, which they (rightly) suspected was only a thin veil disguising their Catholicism.

They had fled England for express purpose of setting up a Protestant Utopia in the colonies, a Holy Experiment that would be free of Catholics, bishops and nobles, although many of them returned to support Cromwell during the Civil War, and gave refuge to those went into exile again after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The government in London was never in any doubt about where the sympathies of most colonists lay, and the more pragmatic kings and ministers sought to placate the dangerous Puritans who controlled most of the colonial legislatures and led opposition ‘factions’ against the royal governors.

King James II was not pragmatic, though, and the American Puritans always distrusted him for his Catholicism and pro-French sympathies. In North America, the French in Quebec also had the sympathy of the Indians, whom the colonists had also despised as Devil worshipers and robbed of their land. The North Americans fought in four full-scale wars against the French and Indians from 1690 to 1760 and many smaller skirmishes, and feared that any ‘Tory’ government in Britain would be too sympathetic to their enemies. In their minds, Catholic, Tory and Indian were all Satanic, and their mission was to war against ‘hell and Rome.’

James II had also imposed a military government on the colonies, under the dictatorship of Sir Edmund Andros. Although carried out in the name of administrative efficiency, the Calvinists feared that James and Andros were plotting to impose absolute rule permanently, destroying both the colonial legislatures and the Protestant religion, and perhaps even delivering the colonies to the French and Indians. Andros had also suspended the colonial charter of Massachusetts, under which the colony had existed in virtual autonomy from the Mother Country for decades. Not surprisingly, the Puritans quickly overthrew Andros after they received would of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They sent representatives to London with an appeal that their old charter be restored, but this did not happen. Instead, Massachusetts was required to accept a royal governor.

This was the larger context for the Salem witchcraft hysteria that began in 1692. Few popular writers mention any of it, preferring to concentrate on the more sensational aspects of the Aflicted Girls and their fits and hysterics. It was a terrible time for the colonies, given that war with the French and Indians had begun in 1690 and they were still uncertain about what charter the new king would impose on them and whether their Bible Commonwealth would survive. In their minds, of course, God was had been severely testing their faith, upbraiding them for their sins and shortcomings, and allowing agents of the Enemy to attack them from without and subvert them from within until they repented of their sins. This is a common enough pattern in American history.

The facts of the case are well known, how the Afflicted Girls and their clerical supporters moved from town to town, naming hundreds of witches and agents of the Devil. The trials were a farce, with no chance of acquittal for the accused, and in the end nineteen people and several dogs (imps) were hanged. Hundreds of others were imprisoned, tortured or coerced into confessing, and only the arrival of the new governor, Sir William Phips, prevented a much larger bloodbath. Phips himself was a Puritan, a former merchant and ship’s captain from Boston, but simply did not believe the accused were guilty.
Belief in evil forces out to destroy America developed over time from a purely religious world view to a belief in secular, earthly threats, and finally to high-tech ET ones
It is often pointed out that these trials were the last government sanctioned persecution of ‘witches’ in North America, and this is true as far as I know. As Robert Thurston said, the belief in witchcraft and literal agents of the Devil died out by the early 18th Century – at least among members of the elite. From that point on, most conspiracy theories involved more secular notions about political and ideological enemies.

Of course, this is true only of the elite. There is plenty of evidence that the common people of rural, small town America still believed in witches, demons, goblins, ghosts and ghouls well into the 19th Century, and that evangelical Protestants in the hinterland still regarded the Catholic Church as Satanic. Many of them still do today. Secular liberals of the post-Enlightenment élite regarded Toryism and Catholicism as ultra-conservative, intolerant and undemocratic, while the masses still maintained their older ‘folk’ beliefs in a literal Devil. I know of cases as late as the 1770s, in enlightened Philadelphia, where mobs stoned accused witches to death and I’m sure that is not unique. One could already see the great split between élite ‘scientific’ opinion and popular, ‘religious’ opinion, even in the 18th Century. It is still not clear which will prevail in America.

Historians like Bernard Bailyn have described many of the popular conspiracy theories during the American Revolution, and how even the liberal élite shared them to one degree or another. For the Calvinist masses, still ‘superstitious’, it was easy enough to portray George III and his ministers as satanic, as evil incarnate, much as they had viewed James II and Andros in the 17th Century. But even liberals like Washington, Jefferson and Franklin believed that George and Parliament were conspiring to suppress American liberties and impose absolute rule on the colonies.

In the absence of ‘scientific’ polls, there is no way to know how many people shared this conspiratorial view of the British government, but professors I studied with thought that two-thirds to three-quarters of the colonists did, and that perhaps only 10-15% remained loyal to the king. It shows just how powerful such an ideology can be, given that contemporary historians no longer regard George III as evil so much as hapless, bumbling and ineffectual. In this case, if one believes Bailyn, the notion of sinister Tory forces conspiring against America made a truly popular revolution possible.

One could say the same thing about the Civil War of 1861-65, in which more Americans died than all the other wars combined. In the decade leading up to that war, many Northerners had become convinced that the Southern ‘Slave Power’ was attempting to take over the U.S. government completely, open all the Western territories to slavery. and even force the Northern states to allow it in areas where it had long since been abolished. In the popular mind, the aristocratic southern slave owner had become a potential tyrant and dictator, in the same league with James and George.

The genius of Lincoln and the other Republican leaders was not in convincing a very racist population to sympathise with black slaves — a sympathy most of them had conspicuously lacked throughout American history — but in getting them to believe that the South now wanted to suppress the liberties of white people, perhaps even reduce them to slavery. By the time of the Civil War, of course, it was no longer fashionable to literally demonise one’s political and ideological opponents, but it was not difficult to turn them into secular devil’s. And so it remains today, except for people like Christian and Moslem fundamentalists, who can still get aroused by belief in a real Devil at work.

By way of disclaimer, none of this should be read as a defence of Stuart Toryism or slavery; liberals in 2002 don’t defend such things. Rather, I only wanted to point out how often conspiracy thinking has been mainstream thinking in America, particularly during times of great political and economic tension or social upheaval like the 17th Century religious wars, the American Revolution and Civil War, not to mention Cold War ‘McCarthyism.’ It was not just a fringe or marginal cult that affected only the pathological few, but a phenomenon shared in some degree by the élite — or at least manipulated by it. I have not even mentioned all the conspiracy theories that emerged out of the Vietnam Watergate period, both among the New Left and Counter culture and the Right-wing backlash against them. Suffice it to say that those are still affecting American politics and society today.

I am sorry that I have not mentioned UFOs, although it should be clear enough that I regard them as just a smaller subset of this larger phenomenon I have been discussing. It is not surprising that belief in such objects as devices operated by ETs from Planet X emerged during and right after World War II. That was the first time that the majority of people could take the idea of space travel seriously, given the spectacular development of jets, missiles and nuclear power during those years, and the paranoid, hysterical atmosphere of the Second World War and early Cold War years.

As a historian, I know that before the mid-20th Century, one hears very little about possible ETs and alien visits in American popular culture. I just don’t believe the idea was very widespread at all. This is not to say that people jumped form believing to angels, witches and demons into believing in invaders from outer space. That is a terrible distortion and simplification of a very complex historical process.During the 18th and 19th Centuries, I do not know of many (any?) people who seriously believed in alien visits, but there were many who believed in secular demons and earthly threats and conspiracies. Basically, I think there was an evolutionary process at work here, and that belief in evil forces out to destroy America developed over time from a purely religious world view to a belief in secular, earthy threats, and finally to high tech, ET ones.

I do believe that the American mind is still profoundly Calvinist, despite the 1960s ‘liberation movements’; maybe even because of them, since the populist backlash against them gave new life to fundamentalism and evangelical Puritanism. And yes, I think the Calvinist mind is a dualistic mind, one prone to see dark, sinister, menacing forces in the world — it is often a paranoid mind. Such a mind may be receptive to any kind of conspiracy theory, depending on the political, social and historical circumstances. ETs and X Files types of stories are simply more grist to the conspiracy mill.