Secret History: Even before the Revolution, America was a nation of conspiracy theorists

WASHINGTON (AP) — The brutal conflict in Europe was fresh in people's minds and the race for the White House turned ugly as talk of secret societies and corruption rocked the United States.

it was 1800And conspiracy theories were thriving all over America. Partisan newspapers spread stories of European elites trying to take over the young democracy. Preachers in New England warned of conspiracies to destroy Christianity in favor of godlessness and corruption.

This hero of the early republic was the Illuminati, a secret organization founded in Germany that was dedicated to free thinking and opposed religious dogma. Despite the Illuminati's lack of real influence in America, conspiracy theorists imagined that the group's fingerprints were everywhere. He said that due to the manipulation of the Illuminati, a reign of terror was established in France, a wave of executions and persecution followed after the French Revolution. He had similar apprehensions in America also.

From Witch trials in Salem, MassachusettsFor fear of the Illuminati, from red scare To John Birch Society To QAnon, conspiracy theories It has served as dark counterprogramming to the American story taught in history books. If a healthy democracy depends on the trust of its citizens, conspiracy theories show What happens when that trust begins to break?,

change some details, add one pizza parlorAnd the hysteria surrounding the Illuminati sounds a lot like QAnonContemporary conspiracy theory that claims a powerful faction Satan who sacrifices children Secretly shapes world events. Like the Illuminati craze, QAnon emerged at a time of uncertainty, polarization, and distrust.

"The more things change, the more things seem to come back," said John Graham, a Vermont-based author and translator who is an expert on the Illuminati and the claims that have surrounded the group for centuries. “It is the mainstream of history. And then there's the other story – the alternative interpretation of history – which never really ends.

As today, these strange stories often reveal deep-rooted anxieties centered on racial and religious conflict and technological and economic change.

The most persistent conspiracy theories can remain marginalized for decades, before suddenly reemerging with new details, villains, and heroes, often at times of social upheaval or economic dislocation. Sometimes, these beliefs may burst into actionas they did January 6, 2021When a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump entered the US Capitol.

The villain in the early days of America was the Illuminati.

The group, created in 1776, was part of the craze for alleged secret societies that became fashionable in Europe. It was inactive by 1800 and had no presence in the US. Nevertheless, claims spread that Illuminati agents were out to take over the federal government, outlaw Christianity, and promote sexual promiscuity and Satan worship among youth. Were working secretly.

This principle was adopted by the Federalist Party and played an important role in 1800 presidential race Between President John Adams, a Federalist, and Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Rumors spread among Federalists that Jefferson was an atheist who would cede America to France if elected president.

Jefferson won, and the Federalists never fully recovered. Stories of the Illuminati were left behind, but the Freemasons soon emerged to take their place in the wild imaginations of early Americans.

The Freemasons counted many prominent figures as members, including George Washington. His influence fueled whispers that revealed that the fraternal organization was a satanic plot to rule the world.

To understand why so many people were convinced, it's important to remember the anxiety that followed the American Revolution, said Samford University historian Jonathan den Hartog. Many people were unsure whether the country would survive.

“Living in this period, many people were very nervous. And when there is uncertainty and fear, people look around for explanations,” said Den Hartog.

Both Illuminati And this freemasonscontinue Even in conspiracy theories for show Today,

The Second Great Awakening in the mid-19th century saw thousands of Americans join new religious movements. One popular group, the Millerites, was founded by War of 1812 veteran William Miller, who used numerical clues in the Bible to calculate the end of the world: October 22, 1844.

Before the appointed day, many of Miller's followers sold or gave away their property, dressed in white and headed to higher ground – in some parts of Massachusetts they climbed trees on the highest hills – in order to be reunited with God. As soon as possible. When October 22 passed, they came down from the hills. Some people returned to their old lives. Others insisted that the end had come, only invisibly.

"it was called 'Big disappointment' Baylor University historian and millwright expert J. Gordon Melton said. “A lot of people were very disappointed – Miller included. But other people just said, 'Well, they got the date wrong.'"

The belief that the world will soon end – or that a new era will dawn – appears repeatedly in popular conspiracy theories.

QAnon followers It has long been predicted that after the "storm" a "Great Awakening" would occur, with the victory of former President Trump and his enemies – including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and actors. Tom Hanks - are exposed on television and possibly executed. Several dates have been suggested for this final, bloody victory, predictions that are later rejected. proved wrong,

In 2021, thousands of QAnon believers gathered in Dallas after one of their leaders predicted the return of John F. Kennedy Jr., who features prominently in QAnon lore despite his death in 1999. Crestfallen believers later decided that their dates were wrong.

Something similar happened late last year, when many conspiracy theorists claimed that a long-planned test of the emergency broadcast system would be carried out Activate chemicals present in COVID-19 vaccines, According to this thinking, people who were shot would be killed or perhaps turned into zombies. It did not happen.

The Vietnam War and Watergate, as well as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, later set the stage for our current era. "Alternative Facts" By convincing large groups of Americans that they could no longer trust their own government.

Today's conspiracy theories reflect the same distrust and uneasiness about the rapid pace of economic, technological, and environmental change. Think about the claims that 1969 moon landing It was fake, which the government hid. evidence of supernatural beingsor that September 11, 2001The attacks were an inside job.

afraid about 5G wireless tower Or vaccines containing microchipsUsing two new examples, reflect on the fear of government control and new technologies. The claim that climate change is a lie provides an easy answer to the complex, existential threat posed by people's own behavior.

Then there is the coronavirus pandemic, which created Ideal conditions for conspiracy theories: Widespread fear and economic uncertainty, a deadly threat that mysteriously emerged from a geopolitical rival, rapidly rolled out vaccines, and a controversial government response.

“COVID has really cranked all the dials to 11,” said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who studies belief in conspiracy theories.

The Internet has made belief in conspiracy theories more visible and shareable. Trump and other politicians have learned how to do this Take advantage of belief in conspiracy theories For your own selfishness.

But history shows that America has faced cycles of fraud, conspiracy theories, and distrust before. Samford historian Dan Hartog said he's confident the country can do it again.

"It gives me some hope, to know that we had problems and we faced them," he said. "There is American ability to breathe, to put more effort into our civic life and to rebuild trust."

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