Caper ushered in new WNY political party in the 1820s
October 31, 2006
Ann Marie Linnabery
On Sept. 12, an anniversary occurred that few, if any, would remember today.
On that date in 1826, an incident took place that changed the political landscape of the United States in the second quarter of the 19th century.
William Morgan, whose personal history is still debated, was kidnapped by a group of men intent on stopping his proposed publication of a book exposing the secrets of Freemasonry. Morgan’s two-day journey began in Canandaigua and ended with his disappearance at Fort Niagara.
What became of Morgan remains a mystery today, despite numerous theories and “death-bed” confessions.
What is not a mystery is the effect the “Morgan Affair” had on the social and political climate of Western New York in the late 1820s and 1830s.
As soon as news of Morgan’s disappearance spread and his book, “Illustrations of Masonry,” was published by his partner David Miller (who was also kidnapped but managed to escape), there was a public outcry against the Masons. This was due in part to the lack of cooperation on the part of the Masons in the investigation and the lack of remorse felt by many of the participants.
The public saw this as Masonic obligation superseding the law.
Those who took up the cry against Masons were among the middle class and the disenfranchised, who saw Masonry as a symbol of wealth and power.
By 1827, people were boycotting shops owned by Masons, non-Masonic employers would not hire Masons and mothers were warning their daughters not to marry Masons. Masonic Lodges closed and, in many places, the organization went underground.
In the election that year, Masonic candidates were not challenged by other Masons, as they had been in the past. Instead, they were faced with candidates of the newly organized Anti-Masonic Party. The Anti-Masons swamped the local races and sent 11 representatives to the state Legislature.
Several well-known public servants cut their political teeth as Anti-Masons, including Millard Fillmore and William Seward.
The new party ran a New York state gubernatorial candidate in 1830 and a presidential candidate in 1832. Neither candidate won, but the party was the first in U.S. history to hold nominating conventions with all the hoopla now associated with them.
The Anti-Masons sputtered along until about 1840, when a lack of consensus led to their eventually folding into the Whig Party, which later evolved into the Republican Party in 1860. Today, the mention of the Anti-Masonic Party brings a blank stare.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the Niagara County Historical Society.