"What the Anti-Masons Were For": History Colloquium with University of Oklahoma's Kevin Butterfield


For the final Friday Colloquium Series event of the semester, University of Oklahoma Associate Professor of Classics & Letters and Director of OU’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage Kevin Butterfield gave a December 2 talk on his current research project, which looks at the birth of the anti-masonic movement and, more broadly, at the relationship between private associations and legal and political structures in early-nineteenth century America.

In discussing the title of his talk, a play on Herbert Storing’s seminal work, What the Anti-Federalists Were For, Prof. Butterfield stressed how his objective for the new project was to use a narrative examination of the anti-masons to unpack the positive, substantive agenda of the movement—how, that is, it did not simply exist to register and spark opposition to freemasonry. Answering this question of what the anti-masons were for, he went on to explain, begins with looking into the aftermath of the September 1826 kidnapping and (presumed) murder of William Morgan, a Western New York freemason who was known to be collaborating with publisher David Miller on an exposé on masonic rituals. On a level of origin points, Miller’s handbill denouncing the freemasons and the local judicial system that had been corrupted by them, published in the days after the Morgan affair, went on to spawn a network of anti-masonic newspapers as well as an organized political movement that found support from the likes of John Quincy Adams and Thaddeus Stevens. More importantly, though, Prof. Butterfield showed how Miller’s demand in the handbill that the government aggressively work to counteract the threat to individual rights posed by the accumulation of power in private hands set the ideological foundations for the movement going forward. In Miller’s re-telling of the incident, Morgan was nothing short of a free speech martyr—a freeborn, peaceable American whose disappearance underscored both the vulnerability of ordinary citizens in a rapidly changing society and local and national political institutions’ susceptibility to manipulation at the hands of private interests and actors.

Other touchstones of anti-masonic rhetoric, Prof. Butterfield added, likewise began to take shape in the handbill, including calls to preserve the sanctity of a superintending legal power; to recognize the parallels between domestic and republican ideals, specifically the primacy of empathy in a democratic society; and to at all times acknowledge the sovereignty of public opinion. And in many respects, he argued, the movement worked, as the decades following the Morgan affair saw a marked decrease in masonic participation, throughout the east coast in particular. Still, in concluding his talk, Prof. Butterfield noted how the importance of anti-masonry in the early republic can perhaps best be seen in the various ways in which leaders of other social movements drew on, and at times critiqued, its rise to prominence in their own rhetoric. “All this fearful commotion,” abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the February 6, 1829, Journal of Our Times, “has arisen from the abduction of one man. More than two millions of unhappy beings are groaning out their lives in bondage, and scarcely a pulse quickens, or a heart leaps, or a tongue pleads in their behalf. ‘Tis a trifling affair, which concerns nobody. Oh for the spirit that now rages, to break every fetter of oppression.”

A graduate of MU with a B.A. in History, Kevin Butterfield received his M.A. from the College of William & Mary and his Ph.D. from Washington University. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Classics and Letters  Director of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage at University of Oklahoma. His scholarship has appeared in Common-Place, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, and he has received fellowships from the NEH, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute, among many other places. His research focuses on the history of the early American republic, with particular attention recently paid to exploring the law and practice of voluntary association in the decades following the Revolution.