The Antimasonic Party

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

One reason Clay could not rally all of Jackson's opponents in 1832 was that in much of the Northeast a different anti-Democratic party, the Antimasonic party, also existed. Started in 1826 to protest the official cover-up of the suspected murder of a defecting Mason in western New York, Antimasonry developed into the nation's first powerful populistic third party. Protesting that Freemasonry was a dangerous, unrepublican, and all-powerful secret society that privileged its members legally, politically, and economically over all non-members by controlling state and local governments, Antimasons called on voters to restore true self-government by driving Masons from elected office and having new governments pass state laws declaring the fraternity to be illegal. The movement spread like wild-fire, for Antimasons seemed to provide a plausible explanation why government seemed unresponsive to popular demands—namely that Masons controlled it and used it exclusively to benefit other Masons. Though Antimasons cooperated with the Adams men in 1828, by 1830 they had displaced National Republicans as Democrats' primary opponent in New York and Pennsylvania. And in New England, where National Republicans controlled most state governments, Antimasons openly opposed them. Nor would they support Clay, himself a Mason, in 1832; instead they ran their own presidential candidate, William Wirt. Founded upon the fundamental proposition that no man or group of men was above the law, Antimasons would respond to Whigs' cry that Jackson had flouted the law and the Constitution. By the late 1830s, with a few exceptions in New England who became Democrats, almost all of them would join the Whig party, giving it an egalitarian, populistic patina to counter the elitist stigma of National Republicans.