Article body

True villainy is rare; conspiracy theories are not. As a result, most conspiracy theories turn out to be untrue. Because they are typically false, it is easy to dismiss them as the product of deranged thinking.[1] But in some contexts, a conspiracy can appear to be the most rational solution to a complex problem. One such case involved an eighteenth-century French priest named Augustin Barruel. His four-volume book Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, with its claim that a cabal of Freemasons, philosophes, and a group called the “Illuminati” had provoked the French Revolution, sparked a sensation in the United States in 1798.[2] In hindsight, we know that this story was inaccurate. While historians still debate the causes of the French Revolution, they can agree that the Illuminati were not at its root.

Given that it was inaccurate, though, how did it become so popular? A substantial body of scholarship has attempted to understand the origins of conspiratorial thinking in the Age of Revolutions. Much of this scholarship rests on the foundation of several classic works from the 1960s and 1970s. Responding to mid-twentieth-century McCarthyism, Richard Hofstadter discovered an endemic “paranoid style” throughout the history of U.S. politics that began with the so-called “Illuminati scare.”[3] Bernard Bailyn identified conspiratorial thinking as an essential motivation for American revolutionaries in the 1760s and 1770s.[4] Gordon S. Wood argued that the lack of a nuanced model of causality in the early modern world led some observers to explain complex events in ways that prioritized the power of human intention, rather than more diffuse forces of unintended consequences. The massive scale of events such as the French Revolution, Wood argued, inflated the number of people who were understood to be responsible for them—resulting in conspiratorial thinking.[5] In the 1970s, especially, some scholars adopted an overtly psychological framework for understanding the era’s politics.[6] In these accounts, conspiracies emerged out of a confused, even frantic, way of viewing the world.

Rather than viewing conspiratorial thought as a product of ideology or a “paranoid” psychology, more recent scholarship on the early United States relates it primarily to the contingent political circumstances of the Age of Revolutions. Historians Seth Cotlar, Rachel Hope Cleves, and Jonathan Sassi, among others, argue that the Illuminati scare took root in the heated partisan politics of the era.[7] Others interpret the Illuminati scare variously as a reaction to modernity, a feature of the formation of nationalism that caused Americans to contrast themselves with a fearsome “other,” a reaction to French military success, or as an element in a broader stream of transatlantic counter-revolutionary politics.[8]

Since the 1980s, scholars such as François Furet, Lynn Hunt, Marisa Linton, Timothy Tackett, and Amos Hofman have emphasized the significance of conspiratorial thinking in the French Revolution. They recognize that fears about nefarious plots contributed to the origins of the revolution and the coming of the Terror. Some argue that revolutionary rhetoric, by its very nature, inspired binary thinking that often resolved itself into conspiracy theorizing.[9] Perhaps most importantly for this case, another group of scholars has focused on the conspiratorial thinking that emerged out of the European counter-Enlightenment. These historians show that anti-revolutionaries including Barruel imagined that the political and cultural changes of the eighteenth century resulted from a nefarious conspiracy of philosophes.[10]

This scholarship broadly theorizes conspiratorial thinking during the Age of Revolutions as emerging out of contingent ideological, political, and cultural conditions. Understanding these circumstances is indispensable for interpreting the rising tide of conspiratorial thought in the late eighteenth century. Barruel’s conspiracy theory would not have gained traction in the United States in 1798 if not for the distinctive context of that moment and place: rancorous partisan politics, a growing ideological aversion to the French Revolution, and a culture that accepted conspiracy as a legitimate causational argument. But while these conditions were necessary for the spread of the Illuminati conspiracy, they were not on their own sufficient.

Though largely unnoticed by historians, the mediation of Atlantic knowledge production networks proved to be a crucial precondition for Americans’ widespread acceptance of the Illuminati conspiracy theory. Even conspiratorially inclined people do not believe everything.[11] They choose theories that are not only ideologically and politically congenial, but also plausible within their epistemological frameworks. Many people only embrace misperceptions and other conspiracy theories after closely evaluating the evidence. This dynamic played out in the United States in 1798. For many Americans in the final years of the eighteenth century, there was good reason to believe Barruel’s sensational claims. Far from being credulous dupes, many of Barruel’s supporters subjected his work to great scrutiny. But they ultimately accepted its veracity because the era’s epistemological standards lent great weight to the testimony of the prominent publications and men of letters from around the Atlantic who endorsed the book.

This article compares the divergent American receptions of Barruel’s largely ignored History of the Clergy during the French Revolution, published in the U.S. in 1794, and his influential Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, published in the U.S. in 1799. In order to understand their reception, I examine print discourse surrounding these books, their material history, and the correspondence networks of Barruel’s most prominent American advocate Jedidiah Morse. These sources demonstrate that without the corroborating evidence that the Illuminati theory’s promoters collected to lend authority to their account, Barruel’s Memoirs would have likely received as little notice as his earlier work.

* * *

Thousands of clergymen fled revolutionary France during the 1790s. Many settled in London, where they encountered a volatile mix of English radicals, royalists, and revanchists.[12] Among those who joined this wave of migration was a Jesuit priest accustomed to exile named Augustin Barruel. After France expelled his order in 1764, he had spent more than a decade teaching and writing across Europe. When he returned to Paris in 1777, he made a name for himself as an opponent to Enlightenment ideas. The escalation of revolutionary politics led Barruel to leave France for London in 1792.[13]

Barruel published The History of the Clergy during the French Revolution in London in 1793. This book purported to expose the French revolutionaries’ persecution and violence against the Catholic clergy. Throughout, he adopted the rhetorical pose of a detached historian, providing evidence and sources at great length. Claiming to guard against exaggeration, he instead emphasized his care in excluding “every thing that came from uncertain authority and vague report.” While his primary aim was to document France’s atheism and the cruelty and violence against the priesthood, particularly in the aftermath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the book also attacked Enlightenment philosophes. Barruel claimed that a group of philosophes had conspired to trigger the revolution for their own ends. Early in the book, he argued that the “seeds of this revolution had long been sown in France by a set of men, who under the specious name of philosophers had divided among themselves the task of overturning the throne and the altars.”[14] Barruel’s History of the Clergy was a success in England. It was published in several editions in Britain and Ireland.[15] Propelled by the Reign of Terror and the French revolutionary wars, London had become a major centre of anti-Jacobin discourse and print.[16] Barruel’s book capitalized on, and contributed to, this emerging anti-revolutionary print culture.

If Britons responded to Barruel’s History with interest, American intellectuals received it with hostility. This was largely due to the nature of American politics at that moment. By 1794, when the History was published in the U.S., American politics had fragmented into partisan competition. Much of this partisanship was articulated in relation to the French Revolution. The Republicans aligned themselves with the revolution and boosted it at every opportunity. The Federalists were more suspicious toward revolutionary France, though most of them refrained from overt criticism until later in the decade.[17] But broadly speaking, in 1794 American elites from across the political spectrum remained sympathetic to revolutionary France.[18]

Through the mid-1790s, American Protestant leaders often imagined the French Revolution’s destruction of the French Catholic church to be one of its major accomplishments. If the end of feudalism and monarchy destroyed of one form of tyranny, they believed, then the decline of Catholicism constituted the death of a second kind of tyranny. In a 1793 oration focused on the French Revolution, for example, the prominent Harvard scholar David Tappan exclaimed, “See tyranny both in Church and State tottering to its foundations!”[19] Some of the American Protestants who encountered Barruel’s lurid account of a victimized clergy would likely have felt that it depicted an unfortunately extreme, but ultimately necessary event. In this context, the History of the Clergy’s sympathetic embrace of the French clergy and attacks on the French revolutionaries were unappealing to Americans.

Despite these conditions, there was some reason to trust the accuracy of Barruel’s book. As Adrian Johns has demonstrated, early modern readers approached texts with suspicion. They did not—and could not—trust the contents of books at face value. Rather, they made ad hoc judgments about a book’s credibility based on a range of external and internal criteria.[20] The most important external criteria concerned the identity of an author and the book’s validators. In the eighteenth century, both elites and non-elites generally assumed that truth could be evaluated based on the identity and the status of the person making a claim. Individuals who had achieved refinement, education, and economic independence could be trusted to judge and interpret the truth.[21] At its highest levels, the United States remained an honour society, in which gentlemen closely guarded their reputation for truthfulness. To support a truth claim was, potentially, to stake one’s honour on its veracity.[22] Despite the supposedly deference-defying effects of the American Revolution, epistemic and social authority remained entangled through the end of the eighteenth century. History of the Clergy earned a significant amount of praise from prominent Britons and British publications. In ordinary circumstances, this might have convinced some American elites of the book’s veracity.

But in the early 1790s, many American readers had become deeply distrustful of British institutions of knowledge production. Believing (not without some foundation) that the British ministry funded anti-revolutionary print, U.S. readers often regarded accounts from Britain that set the French Revolution in a poor light to be mere propaganda. Indeed, because Americans regularly received news and other print materials directly from France, it was easy for them to dismiss anti-revolutionary books, pamphlets, and news as worthless “English scarecrows” or “British Fudge.”[23] As one American printer commented, British accounts of the revolution should not be trusted, because they were meant to deceive Britain’s “swinish multitude,” so that they did not learn “how their money is expended and their best blood lavished.”[24] In this context, even well-regarded institutions in London, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, could not convince Americans that Barruel’s book was true.[25]

Instead, most Americans who took notice of the book understood it to be just another example of deceit pouring in from British shores. In a 1794 pamphlet, Congregationalist minister Ezra Stiles argued that Barruel had exaggerated the extent of French irreligion. Against Barruel’s claim that France had sunk “into an abyss of impiety and corruption,” he insisted that France had remained largely Christian. Stiles felt that noisy elites gave a false impression of the nation’s religious state. Indeed, comparing Barruel’s vantage on France from London with that of a European attempting to follow American events, Stiles argued that from a distance, the U.S. might appear to be atheistic even though the vast majority of its people “would shudder at the thoughts of renouncing their Redeemer.”[26] At a distance from France, Stiles suggested, Barruel could not know that prominent atheists represented the broader French population.

In contrast, the Philadelphia-based British emigré and Federalist polemicist William Cobbett was Barruel’s only notable booster in the United States in the mid-1790s. An avowed enemy of the French Revolution, Cobbett published a collection of essays and extracts attacking France titled The Bloody Buoy. Yet compared to the other works in this volume, Cobbett provided only brief passages from Barruel. In his introduction, he explained that “The materials for the work have been collected from different publications, all written by Frenchmen, and all, except one, from which only a few extracts were made, printed at Paris.” Barruel’s book, published in London, was the lone exception. While Cobbett endorsed Barruel’s claims, he chose to emphasize other works that had come directly from France—an implicit critique of Barruel’s account.[27] Even Cobbett, himself a Briton, appears to have internalized the notion that a book printed in London about France deserved less trust than one that came from the United States.

Even such modest extracts were too much for Republican Congressman John Swanwick, who wrote a reply to TheBloody Buoy. Cobbett’s gentle embrace of Barruel formed a centrepiece of Swanwick’s attack: “From the musty pages of this infamous priest, whose lies are become proverbial, and whose disgraceful books have long glutted our book stores, our ridiculous plagiarist [Cobbett] has made copious extracts as though they were choice secrets.”[28] Swanwick exaggerated not only Cobbett’s reliance on Barruel but also Barruel’s influence on the U.S. The book appears to have had only a modest influence. It was printed in one edition in Burlington, New Jersey and appeared in booksellers’ catalogues only in Philadelphia and Baltimore.[29] If Barruel’s works “glutted” the bookstores, it may have only been because they sold poorly.[30]

Moreover, Swanwick’s offhand reference to “this infamous priest” points to an important, often unarticulated assumption about knowledge in early modern Anglo-America: Protestants distrusted non-Protestants. Rampant anti-Catholicism shaped many Americans’ epistemological lenses, leading many to subject the truth claims of a Jesuit priest to greater scrutiny than those of a Presbyterian or Congregationalist clergyman. One anonymous reviewer in a New York City newspaper plainly made this case. While finding value in the parts of Barruel’s text “which describe the transactions of the Convention, of the Clubs and Commissaries relative to the Clergy,” the reviewer instructed readers to “take no pleasure; nor receive instruction from such parts of the book as relate to the opinions of the writer.” Because Barruel was a “devotee to the Catholic Religion and tinctured strongly with superstition,” his view of the French clergy seemed to deserve suspicion.[31]

Barruel’s History of the Clergy failed to engage Americans in 1794 not only because of the politics of the moment, but also because American elites instinctively distrusted a book about France that had been published in London by a Jesuit priest. This skepticism also led them to ignore the validation that Barruel’s book had received in Britain. Yet Barruel’s next work, a four-volume book titled Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, sparked a sensation in the U.S. Published in 1797 to considerable British attention and notice, the Memoirs extended Barruel’s earlier work on the dangers of irreligion and Enlightenment philosophy.[32] It spliced together various quotations from philosophes and revolutionaries to portray the French Revolution as the result of a conspiracy hatched by philosophes, Freemasons, and especially a group called the “Illuminati” led by a shadowy figure known as Adam Weishaupt.

The relative success of the Memoirs owed much to a changing political context. After years of making excuses for French violence and irreligion, American political elites abandoned the French Revolution in droves in the late 1790s. Federalists in particular now considered revolutionary France to be ill-intentioned and dangerous. The spring of 1798 was a low point for American Francophiles. The American government revealed the X. Y. Z. Affair, in which a French official demanded a bribe from American envoys, to the public in April, sparking a firestorm of protests.[33] This led to a reorientation in American attitudes toward Atlantic knowledge networks. Whereas many Americans had once distrusted books, newspapers, pamphlets, and other materials published in London, they increasingly grew suspicious of French print materials. In June, Republican printer Benjamin Franklin Bache drew angry criticism when he published a letter from French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord that justified France’s conduct in the X. Y. Z. Affair.[34] Federalists accused Bache of being a French agent sent to subvert and destroy the American republic.[35] As Americans increasingly came to see French print sources as illegitimate in the late 1790s, they also began to reimagine British print, intellectuals, and institutions, as valid sources of knowledge production. This included not only Barruel, a resident of London, but also many of the publications and public figures that corroborated Barruel’s Memoirs.

Moreover, the contents of the Memoirs appealed more to American audiences than those of the History of the Clergy. Instead of recounting the trials of the Catholic clergy—a group whom Americans afforded little sympathy—the Memoirs purported to describe a powerful and dangerous secret association. As it happened, American Federalists had developed a critique of secret societies in the mid-1790s. Democratic-Republican clubs sympathetic to transnational revolutionary politics emerged in the United States from 1793 through 1794.[36] Likewise, in the late 1790s a radical group of Irish refugees formed another political society known as the United Irishmen.[37] Federalists considered these secret societies to be dangerous and subversive.[38] The idea of a secretive branch of Freemasons known as the Illuminati extended these concerns.[39]

But the most important reason that so many Americans came to accept Barruel’s Illuminati theory was that a large number of respectable American and Atlantic elites told them that it was true. Massachusetts preacher, geographer, and man of letters Jedidiah Morse stood most prominently among these elite figures. In previous years, Morse had been among the foremost defenders of revolutionary France among the U.S. clergy. He had exerted his considerable influence to explain and justify the revolution’s many twists and turns. As the revolution became more radical and violent beginning in 1793, Morse repeatedly assured his congregants that despite some “errors and irregularities,” the revolution’s cause was “unquestionably good.”[40] Even in private correspondence, where Morse had no need to appease an audience of parishioners, he made it clear that his trust in the French Revolution was genuine.[41] Like most American intellectuals, if Morse encountered Barruel’s History from 1794 through 1796, he would have likely excused the stories it told or otherwise challenged its veracity based on its authorship and point of origin.

Yet Morse would contribute more than any other American to the circulation of Barruel’s Memoirs throughout the United States. Shortly after Morse encountered Barruel’s narrative, he announced from his pulpit that the Illuminati had “kindled” the revolution in France and had begun to spread into the U.S.[42] Drawing heavily from Barruel’s narrative, Morse’s sermon and subsequent publications incited a panic in northeastern North America that historians have come to call the “New England Illuminati scare.” In fact, Morse’s networks of influence extended well beyond New England. While the scare provoked the most intense responses in Federalist New England, it also reached places such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, and Quebec.[43]

The material characteristics of Barruel’s Memoirs placed intellectuals and elites in a position to mediate between it and a broader public. Most of the Americans who accepted the Illuminati theory did not read Barruel’s book. In part, this was because the Memoirs was lengthy, tardy, and expensive. Stretching to nearly 1,200 pages across four volumes, its girth prohibited its translation and republication in the United States until 1799. But even then, Barruel’s text did not reach a massive readership. In the eighteenth century, bound books remained expensive. While certain forms of print, such as almanacs, broadsides, pamphlets, and primers, were intended to reach a broad audience, four-volume books such as the Memoirs were not among them.[44] Barruel’s readers would have understood that they were engaging with a text to which most Americans did not have access.[45] The price of the Memoirs, listed as $4.25 in one advertisement, would have been prohibitive for many readers—costing around a week’s wages for an ordinary labourer.[46]

Despite its price, Morse hoped that the Memoirs would attract a widespread American readership. In 1798, he wrote that “When the Abbe Barruel’s Memoirs of Jacobinism come to be generally read, all American controversies on the subject will probably die.”[47] Morse urged his correspondents to subscribe for the American edition.[48] When it eventually aroused enough interest to be published, three printers collaborated to share the risk and the labor involved: Hartford’s Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin published the first two volumes, New York City’s Isaac Collins published the third, and Elizabethtown’s Shepard Kollock printed the final volume.[49] But it did not sell quickly. Preacher Abiel Abbot of Haverhill wrote to Morse for two sets of the book, but added that the “book is so voluminous that I have been unable to dispose of mine.”[50] Slow sales encouraged Morse to reimagine it in new forms. In late 1799 he unsuccessfully solicited help to publish an abridged version.[51] Morse also discussed a printer’s plans to publish extracts from Barruel’s book in his newspaper.[52] Though it never became a bestseller, Morse’s activism brought far more American attention to the Memoirs than to Barruel’s earlier book.

The slow pace of its American publication meant that Barruel’s book became available to American readers only after another book about the Illuminati by a Scottish academic named John Robison. Robison held a prestigious chair of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and was Secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.[53] Originally published a year after Barruel’s Memoirs, Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy was nevertheless reprinted in the United States a year before the Memoirs appeared there. Proofs of a Conspiracy was far more accessible, at about a third of the length and price of the Memoirs.[54] As a result, while much of Robison’s work derived from Barruel, many leading U.S. intellectuals, clergymen, and writers amplified Robison more than Barruel. His impressive credentials made Robison a more congenial spokesman for the Illuminati theory. According to preacher Joseph Lathrop, Robison’s academic status made his book an “authentic and incontrovertible” source.[55] David Tappan also declared himself impressed by Robison’s trustworthiness as a “gentleman of character and station.”[56] In fact, a writer in a Federalist newspaper admitted that “If Professor Robinson [sic] had alledged that the Illuminati would prey upon the carcasses of each other,” he would have “acknowledged this picture … to be a just likeness of the French Revolution.”[57] Indeed, this deferential attitude was difficult for some to dislodge. Even years after the conspiracy had been exposed as a fraud, Yale College President Timothy Dwight—who stood second only to Morse in promoting the Illuminati theory in the United States—wrote a letter to Robison that fawned over the “unstained respectability of your character” and the “substantial foundations of your book.”[58]

Robison’s location in Scotland offered a distinctive intellectual context for his alarms. Americans could argue that ministry-financed diatribes from London or the words of a French Jesuit were not worthy of notice, but they had little reason to suspect that the Scottish were tainted by polemical anti-Jacobinism. Much like the United States, Scotland retained elements of radical, pro-revolutionary politics well into the late 1790s.[59] Morse understood this. In one newspaper essay, he emphasized that Robison held an academic appointment at “one of the most celebrated Universities in the World,” and pointed out that an “illiberal enthusiast” would not “be permitted to sustain these offices in Scotland.”[60] In fact, the first evidence that Morse ever encountered about the Illuminati likely came from a Scottish theologian named John Erskine, who wrote him a 1797 letter mentioning “A society … created first under the name of the Illuminati.”[61]

Morse continued to research and write about the Illuminati conspiracy throughout 1798 and 1799. In an extensive Thanksgiving sermon in November 1798, he included a lengthy appendix of documents that appeared to support the conclusion that a subversive foreign conspiracy existed in the U.S. from as early as 1783.[62] A third sermon, delivered on a national fast day in April 1799, included what Morse called “an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, professions, &c. of the officers and members of a Society of Illuminati … instituted in Virginia.” While this list appears to have simply been a French fraternal society located in the United States, Morse used Robison and Barruel’s texts to interpret its motto and seal as artifacts of Illuminatism. Morse also shared some excerpts from a letter he had received from Dwight, who claimed to have heard from a Freemason that “Illuminatism exists in this country.” Morse claimed that these documents had been “received through a most respectable channel, and for the authenticity of which I pledge myself.”[63] This was a shrewd rhetorical strategy. Morse knew that deploying his epistemic authority would prove convincing to some readers—especially those who were politically disposed toward his conclusions.

Morse’s sermons circulated widely in pamphlet form. Shortly after one sermon reached the press, Morse noted, “An editn. of 450 of my Sermon and Appendix is nearly gone—& a second of 800 is in the press.”[64] These were figures of which Barruel’s sellers could only dream. In part, this was because they were relatively cheap, ranging in price from 12 to 25 to 50 cents.[65] It may also have owed something to his reputation as a widely published geographer.[66] But because he was so familiar with the world of publication, Morse and his allies also knew how to effectively distribute the sermons. He explained in early 1799 that “A number of gentlemen in Boston have thought it might be useful to send a copy to every clergyman in the commonwealth, & have agreed with the printer to furnish them.”[67] But he did not confine himself to the clergy. His correspondence from 1799 is full of letters from acquaintances, family, friends, and fellow preachers thanking him for sending copies of his sermons.[68] Some readers professed themselves to be convinced by the evidence presented in the sermons. A New York correspondent, for example, thanked Morse for his sermon and commented, “Many of the facts were new to me and the authority of others I was unable to ascertain altho’ I had before heard them.”[69] The evidence that Morse gathered had persuaded this doubtful reader.

Prominent national and local figures laundered Barruel’s conspiracy theory for ordinary Americans. They performed dozens of sermons and orations about the Illuminati and then published them as pamphlets that reached a broad audience. Though printed in a more accessible medium than lengthier bound books or pamphlets, these brief pamphlets claimed a portion of the weightier tomes’ authority by citing respectable figures such as Morse.[70] In his June 1798 sermon on the Illuminati, David Tappan cited sermons by Morse and Dwight. He laid bare his rhetorical strategy, noting that he was citing them because, “I was desirous of adding authorities so respectable to the more private testimonies of many judicious and excellent persons in favor of the general credibility of the narrative in question.”[71] Likewise, after detailing the secret conspiracy, Pastor Hezekiah Packard anticipated that “Some of my hearers may wish to ascertain the facts mentioned in this discourse, and to find authorities for the observations attending them.” He listed Morse’s sermon as evidence that “what I have advanced bears the stamp of authority.”[72] The accumulation of citations, evidence, and notable names lent these popular pamphlets credibility and legitimacy by creating the appearance that these sensational claims had passed through multiple layers of authentication. An observer writing in a North Carolina newspaper, for example, emphasized that the Illuminati theory had not come “only through one channel to the Public,” but had “come thro’ 30 times that number. … Is the public such a dunderhead as to believe that all this is fiction? Surely No.”[73] For this reader, the circulation of the conspiracy through intellectual networks appeared to be proof of its authenticity.

American public discourse about the Illuminati evinced an obsession with evidence and authority. Morse and his allies emphasized that their accounts were well-authenticated by Atlantic networks of knowledge production and notable European scholars as Barruel, Robison, and Erskine. Some of the most well-known American intellectuals and academics concurred. By eighteenth-century standards, this was persuasive evidence. Moreover, Morse and his allies had worked behind the scenes to energetically circulate Barruel’s text and its message in a variety of media forms, including sermons, orations, books, pamphlets, and newspapers. This distribution not only allowed more Americans to hear about the Illuminati, but also created an echo chamber effect that bolstered its credibility by creating the appearance of multiple layers of verification and consensus. There was good reason for discerning Americans to conclude that the Illuminati had hatched the French Revolution and were encroaching on the United States. As Morse wrote, the evidence that he had gathered “ought to exempt any person from the charge of weakness or credulity who believes [the Illuminati conspiracy] authentic.”[74]

* * *

But not all Americans accepted the conspiracy. Over the course of the 1790s, the conditions of knowledge production had grown deeply politicized in the United States. Partisan newspapers proliferated, producing politically segmented information ecosystems.[75] While Federalists integrated the Illuminati theory into their political worldview, many Republicans questioned its foundations. Yet they struggled to disprove Barruel’s account. Because most of the events described took place in Europe, skeptics could only rely on what had been relayed to them through Atlantic networks of exchange. As one critic noted, “At this distance it is impossible to decide on the truth” of the story or the “respectability” of men such as Robison.[76] Their difficulty in debunking the Illuminati conspiracy, despite what appear in retrospect to be its obvious flaws, reveals the strength of the era’s epistemological norms. Indeed, Barruel’s American critics relied upon the same assumptions as Morse about how knowledge should be produced.

Shortly after the Illuminati story began to circulate in the United States, one critical observer challenged it by pointing to literary reviews. Reviews had become a popular medium for elite audiences in Britain. Because their authors were usually anonymous, their productions did not carry the prestige of rank, credentials, and gentility. But they cultivated the perception of elite status through high-toned and pretentious prose. During the 1790s, these publications became important venues for the contest over revolutionary and Enlightenment ideas. Publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, the British Critic, and the unimaginatively named Anti-Jacobin Review largely existed to attack books and pamphlets that favoured revolutionary politics and to validate and amplify ideologically congenial works. Others favored revolutionary political ideas.[77] These reviews commanded enough attention and prestige that some conspiracists, including Morse himself, believed that the Illuminati had sought to insert themselves “in the reviewers chair.”[78]

Shortly after the publication of Morse’s first sermon, an essay in the Republican Boston Independent Chronicle signed “An American” questioned Morse’s reliance on Robison. The author described searching the “foreign literary journals, in order to ascertain in what light this performance was viewed in Europe, and the credit which was given to it by gentlemen of information abroad.” He or she produced extracts from the London Critical Review that mocked Robison’s conclusions as “absurd to the extreme” and “very dangerous.” “An American” expressed surprise that Morse would “hazard his reputation as a Scholar” by attaching it to Robison “without pretty decided proofs of its good authority and correctness.” This author explained that he would “hold [Morse] responsible for the truth and accuracy” of Robison’s work, because he had “pledged himself for [its] authenticity.” He concluded that Morse had a “duty to have formed his beliefs … only upon those solid grounds which he can now substantiate and maintain.”[79] This author sternly challenged Morse’s judgment and perhaps even his character.

Morse responded to this provocation in print. He matched this negative review with a positive one in the London Review. But he also highlighted the Critical Review’s concession that Robison’s work was “supported by very high patronage.” Morse argued that this was evidence of the work’s credibility: “This is an explicit acknowledgement of these Reviewers, that the work, of which they speak so contemptibly, is yet accredited and patronized by men of great respectability.[80] In the coming months, Morse learned more about the British reviews. He found that reviews of Barruel and Robison were mixed, but used positive reviews, such as one in the British Critic, to full advantage.[81] In his 1798 Thanksgiving sermon, alongside a citation of Robison and Barruel’s work, Morse added, “The Monthly Reviewers, who are not disposed to give more credit than is due to these writers, admit that ‘the conspiracy of the philosophers’” against Christianity “is satisfactorily established, in the first volume” of Barruel’s work.”[82] Indeed, the pro-revolutionary Monthly Review had accepted the “existence of an antichristian conspiracy.” But the review also chided Barruel for having “indulge[d] his imagination too much,” and having been “too hasty with his conclusions.”[83] While it was misleading to snatch the review’s only complimentary line out of context, Morse correctly noted that the review was surprisingly mild for a publication such as the Monthly Review, which observers understood to be a pro-revolutionary publication.

Additionally, in July a writer called “Censor” took to the Massachusetts Mercury to mock the Illuminati theory. In response to a quotation from Morse’s sermon referring to the “many evidences” of the Illuminati, he asked, “(where are they?).” Censor asserted that “we have no materials to determine” whether the Illuminati theory was true, but in “Europe, where access may be had to the materials which Dr. R[obison] makes use of, the credit of his book will, I believe, immediately sink.” He also charged, with little basis, that Robison might have been supported by the “English Ministry,” extending a longstanding critique of British publications.[84]

Morse again answered. He responded to Censor with six essays laying out “a great variety of collateral evidence.” His first three essays described the 1797 letter from Erskine that corroborated the Illuminati account, biographical details about Robison, and the positive “reception” that the story was met with by “very respectable men in Scotland and England.” His fourth essay detailed how “the most distinguished, respectable and worthy men” in America, whose “authority will have weight with a candid and enlightened public,” had accepted the Illuminati conspiracy. In his final essay, after apparently learning Censor’s identity, he mocked his critic’s youth: “One can hardly avoid smiling to hear a young man of four and twenty accuse a gentleman of Professor R[obison]’s age and distinguished literary acquirements of ‘extreme ignorance.’” Morse effectively asked Censor to leave the business of judging truth to credentialed gentlemen such as himself.[85] In his response, Censor appeared chastened. He conceded that some of Morse’s evidence “has indeed convinced me that many of the French patriots were of the order of the Illuminati,” though he refused to admit that they caused the revolution in France. He mildly demurred that Morse had extrapolated too much from Robison and Barruel when he claimed that the Illuminati had spread into the United States. Censor himself remained unconvinced overall, deciding that, “Respecting the Illuminati, I wait for further information.”[86] In this case, Morse’s strategy of gathering evidence from respectable intellectuals proved successful in shaping opinion.

By late 1799, skeptics had found a new piece of evidence to discredit the Illuminati theory. An eminent German professor named Christoph Daniel Ebeling wrote to Morse, his long-time correspondent, in response to the latter’s request for an evaluation of Robison, Barruel, and the Illuminati.[87] The letter corroborated a few of Robison’s points, such as the existence of the Illuminati, but disputed that they were scheming to subvert government and cause revolution around the world. Ebeling wrote that, “What [Robison] says of principles subversive to states and revolution I think to be false. My mason friends are friends of true liberty, not of revolutions and bloody changes.”[88] But Ebeling did not claim to speak with authority on the matter, an important distinction to be sure, and as a result only offered mild and tentative conclusions.

Nevertheless, word of this letter spread rapidly. Republican newspapers falsely reported that Ebeling had sternly attacked Robison’s character and his book. Republican printer Elisha Babcock sardonically asked why “Rev. Granny,” as he called Morse, had suppressed the letter.[89] Shortly thereafter, the Republican printer Charles Holt published a version of the letter whose authenticity Morse denied.[90] He angrily wrote to Holt, “I can assure you it is false. I never saw the Letter you have published till I read it in your paper.”[91] The archival record supports Morse. Only the first four pages of Ebeling’s letter survive, but these pages differ considerably in tone and substance from the printed letter. Occasional similarities between the two suggest that someone who had seen the original letter may have tried to recreate it for print. But the archival record also supports several aspects of another account published in Holt’s newspaper a few days letter. According to this story, just after he received it Morse inadvertently read the damning letter aloud to a “gentleman of undoubted veracity and respectability” without realizing that Ebeling would claim that Europeans had “not much noticed” Robison and Barruel’s works, that Robison had been suspected of forgery and insanity, and that some of those whom Barruel and Robison had accused of Illuminism were “men of good character.”[92] The eagerness with which Morse’s critics seized on the Ebeling rumours demonstrates the value placed on the testimony of transatlantic men of letters. They elevated Ebeling so that his authority surpassed that of Robison. The writer in Holt’s newspaper described Ebeling, for example, as a man whose “testimony must … be deserving of great weight.”[93] By claiming Ebeling as an ally, skeptics denied Morse’s claim that his position represented the consensus of European gentlemen.

One reason that the critics of Barruel, Robison, and Morse had such difficulty weakening the Illuminati narrative is that they did not challenge the systems of knowledge production that had conjured it into being. Rather than suggesting that the authority of a few scholars and gentlemen was insufficient to prove such an outlandish story, they searched for their own authorities and challenged Morse’s sources. Instead of indicting the larger system of genteel Atlantic knowledge networks, they blamed Morse for his interpretations. For example, one newspaper critic attacked Morse for failing to adequately mediate between Europe and America:

When a man presumes to appeal to the public with that abundant authority which you appear to assume; when he takes upon himself to stand on the watch-tower, and to proclaim dangers, massacres, treason, and conspiracy; when he claims credence from his clerical character, and attempts to enforce his dogmas by the dignity of his station, or sacredness of his title; when he assures the citizens he has vouchers for his assertions, and impresses on his hearers the validity of his narratives, by declaring they are “fully confirmed”—when he thus assumes this dictatorial stile, he should be very careful every word he utters, should stand the test of the most critical investigation.

This author argued that Morse was taking advantage of the public by mediating information selectively and projecting an unfounded sense of certainty. But he or she also suggested that Morse’s standing made him persuasive. Morse could support his claims by appealing to his “abundant authority,” “clerical character,” and “the dignity of his station.”[94] This critic did not suggest that these appeals to authority were wrong-headed, but rather that they demanded a responsibility that Morse had not fulfilled.

* * *

Barruel’s History of the Clergy failed to make a significant impact when it was published in the United States in 1794. This was largely due to the political context. Americans remained quite sympathetic toward revolutionary France in 1794. But it is also the case that American elites and intellectuals dismissed or ignored the History of the Clergy. In contrast, Americans’ ideological and political preferences rendered them receptive to the extraordinary conspiracy that Augustin Barruel articulated in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism. But even those who were most inclined toward this conspiracy theory did not accept it without question. Some scrutinized it closely. Yet the Illuminati conspiracy spread widely in the United States because Morse and his allies were able to gather and distribute persuasive evidence that aligned with contemporary protocols about verification and evidence. Propelled by their own political inclinations, they presented the Illuminati theory as one that had been authenticated by Atlantic knowledge production networks. To be sure, this evidence was not dispositive. But it would have been reasonable to conclude that Morse’s evidence was stronger than his doubters.

Ultimately, though, the burden of proof fell more heavily on Barruel’s supporters. As opponents poked holes in the conspiracy theory and new evidence failed to emerge, the Illuminati scare began to sputter out in 1800 and 1801. Subsequent generations have mocked Americans at the close of the eighteenth century for believing that the Illuminati threatened them, as if they were children scared of monsters under the bed. But within the contingency of the moment, Americans could only respond to the information available to them. That so much of this evidence ended up being false is no fault of theirs. Rather, it simply reflects the limitations and weaknesses of knowledge production networks in the Atlantic world. In this sense, Americans who accepted the Illuminati theory exhibited reason more than paranoia.

The complex reception of Barruel’s texts reveals one way that falsehoods became truths in the early modern Atlantic world. Misperceptions flourished when evidence created by intellectuals, scholars, and other authorities aligned with popular ideological, political, and cultural predispositions. The great irony of the Illuminati scare, though, is that the process of creating these truths turned Morse and his allies into a force precisely resembling the one they so feared. In the Memoirs, for example, Barruel had expressed his belief that the Illuminati’s greatest weapon was the manipulation of the press.[95] In his May 1798 sermon, likewise, Morse had argued that the Illuminati aimed to “get under their influence the reading and debating societies, the reviewers, journalists or editors of newspapers and other periodical publications, the booksellers and post-masters; and to insinuate their members into all offices of instruction, honour, profit and influence, in literary, civil and religious institutions.”[96] Morse and his allies sought to marshal the power of these very institutions in their campaign against a shadowy fiction.[97] Without realizing it, Morse and his literati had come dangerously close to becoming the Illuminati.