1832, The Anti-Masonic Controversy – Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter
The election of 1832 featured the incumbent Democratic President, Andrew Jackson, against National Republican Party candidate Henry Clay as the main contender. Jackson easily won re-election. A third party, the Anti-Masonic Party, also nominated a candidate, William Wirt, who received just under 8% of the popular vote but only 7 of the 286 Electoral College votes. Formed as a single-issue party, the Anti-Masonic Party had a short lifespan on the American political stage.
Freemasonry traces its roots to the Fourteenth Century, when fraternities of stonemasons regulated qualifications and client interactions. The first Masonic Lodges in the United States appeared in Pennsylvania. Criticism of Freemasonry has been based on politics and religion and there have been numerous conspiracy theories lodged against Freemasonry. The criticism and suspicion of Freemasonry reached a high level in the 1820’s, leading to the Anti-Masonry Movement.
The Movement and Formation of a Party
The Anti-Masonic Party or Movement was formed in upstate New York in 1828. The genesis of the Movement was the disappearance of a renegade Mason from upstate New York named of William Morgan, who vanished in 1826 shortly after threatening to publish a book on the inner workings of the Masons. Prior to Morgan’s disappearance, an attempt had been made to burn down the business of the publisher of his proposed book. Morgan was subsequently arrested on unrelated and flimsy charges in an attempt to prevent the book’s publication. The publisher paid for his bail and Morgan disappeared shortly after his release. Morgan was never seen again, although a decomposed body that washed up in 1827 may have been him and those remains were buried under his name.
The Movement’s single issue was opposition to Freemasonry, which the Movement believed was elitist and corrupt. Many community leaders, including politicians, businessmen and lawyers, were Masons and so much of the general population considered the organization to be elitist. Many churches instituted rules banning Masons, and in upstate New York, meetings were held to withhold support of any Masons running for public office. The Movement became an opposition Party and although it lost the 1828 New York gubernatorial election, its candidate made a strong showing. The Anti-Masonic party became the main opposition party in New York and the first “third party” in United States politics.
The Election of 1832
The Anti-Masonic Party held the first national nominating convention in American history when it gathered from September 26 through September 28, 1831, in Baltimore, Maryland. Former President John Quincy Adams sought the nomination, but party leaders were concerned that running Adams as its nominee was too risky because of his unpopularity. The 111 delegates from 13 states who attended the convention instead selected William Wirt from Maryland as their nominee for President and Amos Ellmaker from Pennsylvania as his running mate. Ironically, Wirt was a Mason and defended the Order of Freemasons in his acceptance speech. (Wirt also hoped for the National Republican nomination, which subsequently went to Henry Clay. Wirt did not withdraw his nomination under the Anti-Masonry Party and ran in the general election.)
Wirt and the Anti-Masonic Party had no real chance of winning the Presidential election. Jackson easily won re-election, securing the majority of the popular vote for the second time. No President until 1872 would repeat that feat when Ulysses S. Grant did so. Only two other Democratic Presidents won the popular vote majority twice (Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and Barack Obama in 2012). After Jackson, no President was re-elected until Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1864.
Jackson also easily won the electoral college with 219 of the 286 votes. While Wirt only picked up seven electoral college votes, the Anti-Masonic Party’s emergence as a third party raised constitutional questions of ways in which a third party could throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives by winning a key state or two. In the two party system created through this 1832 election, questions of no major party candidate receiving the majority of electoral college votes had not been raised.
The Anti-Masonic Movement arose from suspicion and distrust of the Freemasons, but it disappeared over the next several election cycles, when many from the Party moved to the Whig Party. The Anti-Masonic Party had some success on the state level, electing governors in Vermont and Pennsylvania, but made virtually no inroads on the federal stage. No Anti-Masonic candidate seriously competed for the Presidency and no Party member was ever elected to the United States Senate. The Party did seat several United States House of Representatives members. Notwithstanding its lack of electoral success, the Anti-Masonic Party was the first to hold a national nominating convention and create a party platform. Both the convention and the platform remain features of the American political system almost 200 years later.
Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.