J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

George Washington Encounters the Illuminati

Yesterday I quoted from Mike Jay’s article on the birth of the Illuminati conspiracy in an overheated jeremiad by the Scottish professor John Robison. His 1797 book Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe also found readers in the young U.S. of A., with local editions published the following year.

On 22 Aug 1798, a German-born minister in Maryland named George William Snyder (sometimes spelled Schneyder or Schneider) sent a copy of Robison’s book to retired President George Washington. Snyder, who himself had just published The Age of Reason Unreasonable to counter Thomas Paine, offered this explanation:
It was some Time since that a Book fell into my Hands entituled “Proofs of a Conspiracy &c. by John Robison,” which gives a full Account of a Society of Freemasons, that distinguishes itself by the Name “of Illuminati,” whose Plan is to overturn all Government and all Religion, even natural; and who endeavour to eradicate every Idea of a Supreme Being, and distinguish Man from Beast by his Shape only. A Thought suggested itself to me, that some of the Lodges in the United States might have caught the Infection, and might cooperate with the Illuminati or the Jacobine Club in France. Fauchet is mentioned by Robison as a zealous Member: and who can doubt of Genet and Adet? Have not these their Confidants in this Country? They use the same Expressions and are generally Men of no Religion. Upon serious Reflection I was led to think that it might be within your Power to prevent the horrid Plan from corrupting the Brethren of the English Lodge over which you preside.

I send you the “Proof of a Conspiracy &c.” which, I doubt not, will give you Satisfaction and afford you Matter for a Train of Ideas, that may operate to our national Felicity. If, however, you have already perused the Book, it will not, I trust, be disagreeable to you that I have presumed to address you with this Letter and the Book accompanying it. It proceeded from the Sincerity of my Heart and my ardent Wishes for the common Good.
Washington replied on 25 September, saying:
I have heard much of the nefarious, & dangerous plan, & doctrines of the Illuminati, but never saw the Book until you were pleased to send it to me. The same causes which have prevented my acknowledging the receipt of your letter, have prevented my reading the Book, hitherto; namely—the multiplicity of matters which pressed upon me before, & the debilitated state in which I was left after, a severe fever had been removed. And which allows me to add little more now, than thanks for your kind wishes and favourable sentiments, except to correct an error you have run into, of my Presiding over the English lodges in this Country. The fact is, I preside over none, nor have I been in one more than once or twice, within the last thirty years. I believe notwithstandings, that none of the Lodges in this Country are contaminated with the principles ascribed to the Society of the Illuminati.
While awaiting that reply, the eager Snyder sent another warning on 1 October:
…the Democratic-Societies…appeared to me to be a Branch of that Order, though many Members may be entirely ignorant of the Plan. Those Men who are so much attached to French Principles, have all the Marks of Jacobinism. They first cast off all religious Restraints, and then became fit for perpetrating every Act of Inhumanity.
Snyder also told Washington that he’d had extracts from Robison’s book published in Maryland newspapers. Washington put an end to the exchange on 24 October:
It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Iluminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more fully satisfied of this fact than I am.

The idea I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or the pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of seperation). That Individuals of them may have done it, and that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects—and actually had a seperation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.
Washington had already denounced the Democratic Societies in 1794 after the Whiskey Rebellion, which he saw as instigated by such groups. (I’m not sure whom he saw as “the founder, or instrument employed to found,” of those organizations.)

Nevertheless, though Washington hadn’t been an active member of Freemasons’ lodges for decades, he defended them. It’s always easier to believe paranoid conspiracy theories about your opponents than about your friends, after all.

TOMORROW: The Illuminati in American politics.

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