The Morgan Affair

A recent book by Professor John Dickie – The Craft – presents an evenly-balanced account of the Morgan Affair in 1826, which he describes accurately as ‘the most notorious Masonic conspiracy in American history’.

The event and its aftermath have been the subject of discussion for almost two centuries and was commented on specifically by Dr Thomas S. Roy, a past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts (1951-53). Roy noted in his Stalwart Builders. A History of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts,1733-1970 that It would be incorrect to attribute the rise of the anti-Masonic movement in the United States in the 1820s exclusively to the Morgan Affair. At the time,

Every untoward event that disrupted mankind was blamed upon Freemasonry. It was secret, and therefore, men said, must be conspiring against society. The Masons were considered responsible for the French Revolution and its terrors. They were supposed to be in collaboration with a society known as the Illuminati, which was accused of being conspiratorial in its designs…

He also noted that there were occasions on which freemasons promoted this anti-Masonic attitude themselves:

In 1816 the two candidates for Governor of Massachusetts were John Brooks, who was a Mason, and Samuel Dexter who was not. An article signed, “A Master Mason”, and bearing at its head the square and compasses was published in the Boston Centinel, in which this sentence occurs: “And all other things being favourable, [a] Mason is bound by every Masonic obligation to give his vote for one who is a free and accepted brother in preference to one who is not”.

The editor and publisher of the paper was Benjamin Russell, the Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts.

The Morgan story has been recounted on numerous occasions, including within AQC. In short, William Morgan, a stonemason by trade and a freemason (Eastern Star Lodge, St Andrew’s, New Brunswick), settled in Batavia, New York, and joined a Lodge there. He subsequently sought to form a Royal Arch Chapter in Batavia and was put out when other Masons would not cooperate. He threatened to expose the supposed ‘secrets’ of the Craft, urged on by David Miller, a cash-strapped co-owner of the Republican Advocate, a local newspaper, who had his own grudges against freemasonry. Morgan and Miller were targeted almost immediately by those anxious to prevent publication, and Morgan was later arrested and imprisoned on a charge of theft. On 12 September 1826, Morgan was released from prison by two men who claimed to have paid his debt. He was taken away in a carriage and never heard from again. Miller publicised the matter in the Republican Advocate and claimed that Morgan had been murdered by local freemasons. But despite a massive search effort and a large reward offered by DeWitt Clinton, the Governor of New York (and the Grand Master of Masons in that State), no evidence was produced to substantiate the charge of murder, nor was a body found.

Regardless, opposition to freemasonry became so widespread and so virulent that the organisation was virtually decimated in the north-eastern United States. Members deserted; lodges ceased to exist; and in some cases Grand Lodges ceased to meet. An Anti-Masonic political party was formed, fielding the first national third-party presidential candidate and introducing the process of a national nominating convention to select a nominee. Established in 1827, the Anti-Masonic party found support in the evangelical religious movements opposed
to Freemasonry and was transformed into a political movement opposed to presidential incumbent and former Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Tennessee, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845). It was supported by Anti-Masonic local newspapers, including New York’s The Countryman and the New York Register and Anti-masonic Review; Vermont’s Middlebury Free Press; Massachusetts’ Franklin Freeman; Philadelphia’s The Sun, and Ohio’s Ohio Register and Anti-Masonic Review. And there were many others. Jeffrey Croteau’s paper ‘An Enlightened Exercise of the Right of Suffrage’ in Freemasons in the Transatlantic World, papers delivered to the 2018 Conference for Quatuor Coronati Lodge in the United States of America, notes one census that counted  fifty-two anti-Masonic newspapers in New York State alone in 1831.

The anti-Masonic furore lasted some two decades and it was only in the late 1840s that the tide began to turn.

Mark A. Tabbert, ‘Breast the Storm’ – Vermont Freemasonry during the anti-Masonic period, AQC 125 (2012)