Jedidiah Morse looked out over the crowded pews full of his parishioners at the New North Church in Boston. The sight of his crop of long gray hair and his severe face, creased with judgment, probably led some of his flock to flinch at the scolding they expected to receive. His stern persona was so familiar, in fact, that he had earned the nickname “Granny Morse.”
Growing conflict between the United States and France had led President John Adams to proclaim that the day, May 9, 1798, should be set aside for “Solemn Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.” But Morse’s audience was not due for a lecture that morning. Instead, as he hesitated before launching into his sermon, he must have taken some private pleasure in knowing he was about to shatter their world. Perhaps he even disturbed the furrows of his face with a smile.
In that day’s speech, Morse unspooled a bizarre conspiracy theory alleging that a shadowy cabal of villains called the “Illuminati,” an offshoot of the Freemasons, were aiming to destroy everything that Americans held dear. This group of philosopher zealots, according to Morse, had “secretly extended its branches through a great part of Europe, and even into America.” Their goal was to abolish Christianity, private property, and nearly every foundation of good order around the world. According to Morse, they opposed marriage, encouraged people to explore all kinds of “sensual pleasures,” and proposed a “promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.” Just a few masks short of a Stanley Kubrick film, Morse’s story of the Illuminati played upon the darkest nightmares of the nation’s many devout Christians.
Morse told his congregation that the Illuminati hoped to infect the people of America through a kind of cultural warfare. They were spreading their doctrines by worming their way in among “reading and debating societies, the reviewers, journalists or editors of newspapers and other periodical publications, the booksellers and post-masters” and infiltrating all “literary, civil and religious institutions.” The most prominent Illuminatus named by Morse was Thomas Paine, whose radical pamphlet The Age of Reason (published in installments in 1794, 1795, and 1807) had caused a political stir in the United States.
If the Illuminati were beginning to corrupt the United States, according to Morse, they had gone much further already in Europe. The evil society’s greatest triumph to date, Morse wrote, was its recent work to hatch the French Revolution and disguise it as a mild, moderate event following the model of the American Revolution. With France’s increasing radicalism, anticlericalism, and disorder, it seemed obvious to Morse that the French Jacobins, the political faction that seized control of the nation in 1792, were simply Illuminati by another name.
Morse got most of this story from a book written by a Scottish academic named John Robison, who in turn took many of his ideas from the abbé de Barruel, a French priest. Robison’s book provided rich source material for Morse’s imagination. It was full of dramatic details, such as an account of the Illuminati possessing “tea for procuring abortion” as well as a mysterious “composition which blinds or kills when spurted in the face.” The Illuminati, according to Robison, defended suicide and discouraged patriotism and property owning. Claiming to worship human reason above all else, they practiced a blinkered ethics in which the means always justified the ends, as long as those ends were the growing power of the organization.
These accounts of the Illuminati were, of course, utterly false. Though a group of Enlightenment intellectuals led by Adam Weishaupt, calling themselves the Illuminati, had existed briefly in Bavaria in the 1770s, they were defunct by the 1790s. They endorsed tolerance and rationalism, but not the kind of extreme amoral worldview attributed to them. There is no evidence that the Illuminati ever held anywhere near the power that its critics claimed. There is certainly nothing to suggest that the reach of the Illuminati extended across the Atlantic to the United States. Nevertheless, in the months following Morse’s dramatic speech, the Illuminati conspiracy theory became an immediate sensation in the United States and Canada.
This was not a fringe conspiracy theory championed by uneducated outsiders. Quite the opposite: Many of the nation’s leading figures put their reputations behind it—both in public and in private correspondence. In one private letter, former President George Washington wrote that he was “satisfied” that the Illuminati had spread their “Doctrines” to the United States. First lady Abigail Adams read Robison’s book and recommended it to friends. New England’s preachers were among the most consistent promoters of the Illuminati conspiracy theory, both from their pulpits and behind closed doors, at a time when religious leaders commanded the respect of large audiences. So why did these well-informed, well-educated individuals fall for it?
The most important reason that the Illuminati theory became popular, as I show in my new book, Misinformation Nation, was that it explained the otherwise inexplicable matter of why the French Revolution had spiraled out of control. The early stages of the revolution in France had thrilled Americans. It seemed that the French, their recent wartime allies who had helped them to secure independence, were following in their footsteps. Until 1798, most Americans remained hopeful that the French Revolution would follow the model of the American Revolution. Even news of guillotines, massacres, and growing public hostility to religion did not deter the most hopeful Francophiles, who dismissed such accounts as exaggerations by British propagandists.
Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America
By Jordan E. Taylor. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Slate receives a commission when you purchase items using the links on this page. Thank you for your support.
Jedidiah Morse had, earlier in the decade, distinguished himself as an apologist for the violent excesses in revolutionary France. In 1793, as violence erupted in France, Morse explained to his parishioners that despite the nation’s “errors and irregularities,” which were similar to the excesses of the American Revolution, the French Revolution’s cause was “unquestionably good.” Even as his peers started to question the wisdom of the French Revolution, Morse held fast. In 1796, he complained that “very few of the clergy in the circle of my acquaintance seem disposed to pray for the success of the French.” In 1797, a skeptical Noah Webster wrote to Morse, “Your good opinion of the French is very flattering.”
But in early 1798, this all changed. Americans’ hopes that the French Revolution would follow their model began to deflate. French vessels attacked American ships crossing the Atlantic to prevent them from supplying their wartime enemies. When President John Adams sent a delegation to Paris to resolve this problem, the French appeared to insult the delegation and demand a bribe. The dispatches from Paris documenting this dispute, which became known as the XYZ Affair, were published in Philadelphia in April 1798.
This news caused Americans to turn swiftly and furiously against France and its revolutionary politics. Anti-French hatred became the order of the day. But there was a problem. If the French Revolution had birthed an evil nation, as it now seemed, why did Americans celebrate this horrible revolution for so long?
Morse happened to be traveling through Philadelphia in April as the XYZ dispatches became public. That month also happened to be the moment when John Robison’s book about the Illuminati was first published, also in Philadelphia. Here at once was Morse’s undoing and his salvation. Just as the French Revolution was becoming indefensible, the revelation of the Illuminati conspiracy offered Morse a convenient explanation for why he had remained one of France’s most steadfast defenders.
Historians now usually interpret the French Revolution in terms of actions and reactions, theses and antitheses. It wasn’t controlled by any single group but took shape through competition between many opposing individuals: Napoleon defeated the Directory, which displaced the Jacobins, who succeeded the Girondins, and none of them quite agreed on what France was and what it could be. Properly told, it’s an intricate, unpredictable story full of mistakes and confusion, but no evil geniuses.
If the Illuminati had plotted the revolution from the beginning, though, there was quite a simple explanation for its decay: These daring deceivers had pretended all along that the French Revolution was something that it was not. They had managed to convince millions that France was pursuing the path laid out by the American Revolution, even as they plotted out a contrary course of violence, extremism, and atheism. Nothing had changed. The revolution’s evils had simply been unmasked. This version of the French Revolution, centered around the lies of the Illuminati, absolved Morse and his allies of misjudgment. Morse had not erred—he had been deceived. As one sympathetic commentator wrote, Robison’s account “unravels everything that appears mysterious in the progress of the French Revolution.”
By late 1799, some skeptics began to pick apart the Illuminati conspiracy theory. Forced to defend his views in public newspapers and in private correspondence, Morse’s story crumbled. As he received correspondence from European intellectuals who cast doubt on the Illuminati story, Morse began to fall silent. Though he never admitted it, perhaps he realized that he had been deceived. Without fresh evidence to sustain it, the Illuminati scare faded away nearly as quickly as it had arrived.
But the basic outlines of the Illuminati conspiracy theory proved too irresistible to disappear entirely. In the 19th century, many Americans developed a renewed fear of Freemasonry and all sorts of secret societies, even forming the Anti-Masonic Party in the 1820s. In the mid-19th century, some Americans and Europeans began to embrace antisemitic conspiracy theories claiming that a small group of Jewish bankers, especially the Rothschild family, secretly ran the world. In more recent years, conspiracy theorists have grasped onto similar stories about other all-powerful secret societies, such as the “New World Order,” the Bilderberg Group, Bohemian Grove, and QAnon’s “cabal.” Some have returned to the Illuminati, imagining celebrities such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z to be members of this satanic cult.
The names and characters change over time, but the basic template has remained remarkably durable over the centuries: A small, yet nearly omnipotent, group of amoral globalist elites secretly directs world events. This paranoid vision has persevered in large part because it helps their believers to make sense of a rapidly changing world. The faceless structural forces remaking our present—such as globalization, accelerating inequality, deindustrialization, racial justice movements, and cultural fragmentation—require explanation.
Just as the Illuminati explained the otherwise inexplicable course of the French Revolution in 1798, these conspiracy theories allow their believers to explain the apparent decay of American society as the will of evil elites, rather than the unintended consequences of a complex mix of historical forces. At the core of every conspiracy theory is the observation that only bad intentions can produce bad outcomes. There are no accidents, only evil people.