STAN HAYNES (AUTHOR, THE FIRST AMERICAN POLITICAL CONVENTIONS): Third party movements in American history have been likened to wildfires on the prairie. They have intense heat but they burn out very quickly. The Anti-Mason Party was not on the political scene very long but they did leave us with one innovation, and that is the presidential nominating convention.
HOW IT STARTED: 1831
STAN HAYNES: The Freemasons were a secret society, a fraternal organization that originated in Europe and became popular in early American history. They were businessmen, lawyers, doctors. They had rituals and secret handshakes and all that good stuff that the ordinary people were not supposed to know about. In upstate New York, a fellow named William Morgan decided he was going to write a book and publish all the deep, dark secrets.
RONALD FORMISANO (AUTHOR, FOR THE PEOPLE: AMERICAN POPULIST MOVEMENTS FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE 1850S): The Masons abducted Morgan they took him to Niagara Falls, and he was never seen again. What other political party originated in a kidnapping and a murder?
ANDREW BURT (AUTHOR, AMERICAN HYSTERIA: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MASS POLITICAL EXTREMISM IN THE UNITED STATES): There was this sense of deep uncertainty about the future of America and this scandal tapped into it. the era of the founders had just ended. And there was this real fear and question about whether American democracy could survive.
STAN HAYNES: George Washington had been a Mason. The sitting president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, was a Mason. Henry Clay, the nominee of the National Republicans, was a Mason. So the feeling was that here’s this secret group all these people who are controlling the government belong to.
RONALD FORMISANO: People said, “Masonry has too much power, and it is irreligious, and there is too much drinking, and they have all these regalia and fancy titles. That is un-Republican. And it’s secret! In a Republic, everything should be out in the open.” Over time, anti-Masonry steamrolled. It was really the first mass movement, and very much a populist mass movement and the first third party in American history.
ANDREW BURT: What it was was a revolt, basically, against the elite classes.
STAN HAYNES: Up until the 1832 election you had a system where members of Congress were selecting the next president. They would take a vote as to who the parties were going to run that year. It was a very unpopular system because it gave the people no voice in selecting presidential candidates. The Anti-Mason movement, which just started and had only a couple of members of Congress, could not have a caucus because it would not be meaningful thing with just a few people in the room.
ANDREW BURT: This is a mini election within the party deciding here’s who we’re going to put forward to run for president. That hadn’t been done before.
STAN HAYNES: The leaders of the Anti-Mason Party thought they had their candidate lined up in John McLean, a sitting justice of the United States Supreme Court. Only a couple weeks before their convention, they got a letter from McLean saying that he would not accept their nomination. The Anti-Mason leaders decided, well, we’ll invite some prominent people to attend the convention and maybe we’ll get some good press out of this. What happened next is almost comical.
RONALD FORMISANO: William Wirt had been Attorney General of the United States. If he had not lived in Baltimore and he had not attended the convention, the Anti-Masons probably would have nominated someone else.
ANDREW BURT: The grand irony is that he himself was a Mason, and there’s actually a great quote where he addresses the convention, and basically tells the Anti-Masonic Party that there’s nothing wrong with Freemasonry.
STAN HAYNES: Almost immediately after the convention was over, Wirt wrote to the party leaders and said he wanted to withdraw as a candidate. They said, “Absolutely not, you’re in,” but he took no part at all in the campaign.
ANDREW BURT: So the first political convention, in the short term, is a total disaster. They import democracy into the way that the party functioned, and then they end up electing someone who undercuts everything that they stand for. It’s a fascinating example of what it takes to run a democracy. Anti-establishment feeling is kind of the heart of American political culture. As a nation our founding spirit is really one of anti-authoritarianism.
RONALD FORMISANO: The Anti-Masons’ big similarity to 2016 is, “opposition to politics as usual.” Their anti-politician attitude stamped them as a populist movement.
STAN HAYNES: We can see anti-establishment undertones in both parties today. At least for now, both of these movements are operating within the existing two party system.