The 1832 Election and Electoral Innovations--The Rise and Fall of the Antimasonic Party
Impetus for the Anti-masonic Party
Today, many Americans watch the History Channel. One of the frequent topics on this particular outlet for entertainment is the role of the Freemasons in the rise of America. Books have been written on the subject--some with a level of scholarship, others...not so much. Regardless of whether George Washington or other early Masons were attempting to set up a Masonic empire in North America, the order did lead to a few innovations in American politics, albeit in an indirect way.
Many in the Jacksonian period felt that the Freemasons had too much of an impact on American politics and government. Their fears seemed confirmed with the "Morgan Affair." William Morgan, a New York state Mason, became dissatisfied with the order and prepared to publish a book detailing all of the order's secrets.
After his intentions became evident to his former lodge, there was an attempt at burning down the publishing house. If this were not enough, Morgan disappeared while under custody at Fort Niagara, never to be seen again. The trial of the conspirators did not go well for those who believed there had been foul play, which fueled the conspiracy theory. Many people who held high positions and much of the wealth in America were lodge members, which also contributed to the idea of an elite secret society with nefarious designs on America.
Whether or not there was a conspiracy in the disappearance of Mr. Morgan is not the point of this article, however. The main point is that the belief that there was foul play and a cover-up led to some important innovations in American politics.
Andrew Jackson, the first president that actually actively sought the president in the open, was first elected in 1828, in what was basically a rematch of the 1824 election, sans William Crawford and Henry Clay. In 1824, many felt that Clay and the eventual winner John Quincy Adams struck a "corrupt bargain" to name Adams president. Jackson established an electoral machine that became the Democratic Party.
In 1828, Jackson easily defeated his rival Adams and became president. Jackson was a small government Democrat that generally favored states rights and a weak central government. He also had no love for the national bank. National Republicans--one of the branches that spun off of Jefferson's original Republican Party, definitely threw no parties at the election of a man who basically opposed their program for America.
This was not enough to lead to the creation of the Anti-masonic Party, however. Jackson was himself a Mason. The Anti-masons began in western New York after the Morgan Affair and pledged to vote for no Masons for political office. It gained a national following after adding calls for internal improvements and protective tariffs to its issue roster.
Anti-Masons and the 1832 Election
The significance of the Anti-Masons is not that they were against Freemasonry. It is not even related to their opposition of Andrew Jackson. Plenty of people opposed the man nicknamed King Andrew I, although Jackson was able to win 55% of the popular vote in 1832.
The significance of the Anti-Masons in American politics is related to some innovations in the electoral process that they instigated.
- The first important innovation that the Anti-Masons introduced to American government was the creation of a third party. Before 1832, American had been strictly a no party system during the early Federalist period, a one-party system in the Era of Good Feelings, or a two-party system for the rest of the time. The Anti-Masons actually earned the 7 electoral votes from Vermont in 1832, showing that a fringe party can impact an election. A couple of notable elections in which a third party influenced the outcome were 1912 when the Bull Moose Party of Theodore Roosevelt led to the election of Woodrow Wilson and 2000 when the Ralph Nader of the Green Party probably led to the election of George W. Bush.
- Another important innovation that the Anti-Masons introduced was the use of a party nominating convention. The Anti-Masons began this tradition in New York state and brought it to the national stage in the 1832 election. The Anti-Mason convention nominated William Wirt, a former Mason himself. Wirt would win 2.6% of the popular vote and 7 electoral votes. The party convention idea caught on, and today, the Democrats and Republicans will cheer on their candidates for the upcoming election.
- The final major innovation that the Anti-Masonic Party brought to American politics was that of the party platform. A platform is basically a set of stances that a party takes on a few hot-button issues. The major parties continue this tradition today.
While the Anti-Masons were not a long-lived or successful party, they nonetheless introduced some important innovations into American politics. They basically ceased to exist shortly after the 1832 election, only to be revived a couple of times later in the century. These Anti-Mason revivals did not garner the success of their predecessor, but the major parties continue to use the innovations started by the Anti-Masons to the present.