Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader

Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader

Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader

Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader


Conspiracy theories have been a part of the American experience since colonial times. There is a rich literature on conspiracies involving, among others, Masons, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, financiers, Communists, and internationalists. Although many conspiracy theories appear irrational, an exaggerated fear of a conspiracy sometimes proves to be well founded. This anthology provides students with documents relating to some of the more important and interesting conspiracy theories in American history and politics, some based on reality, many chiefly on paranoia. It provides a fascinating look at a persistent and at times troubling aspect of democratic society.


Democratic governance in the United States is premised on the belief that the political universe is rational and that an open society is essential to the preservation of democracy. Free speech and a free press help to protect democracy from subversive agents who would seek to usurp power and destroy the system. Democracies strike a careful balance in protecting rights essential to political dissent while instituting anti-subversive measures necessary to preserve democratic society itself. Although this balance has not always been maintained, ultimately democratic government rests on the trust of the people in their public officials. Fear of conspiracy manifests mistrust in political leadership and in its ability to maintain order because it has been corrupted by subversive forces. Given the continued persistence of alleged conspiracies in American history, from the colonies’ first settlement until today, the American democratic regime has shown remarkable endurance.

Political conspiracy is a secret and illegal agreement to undertake unlawful or wrongful acts to affect the political system. The Plot of Brutus and his brother-in-law Cassius to assassinate Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE, was

a conspiracy. In American history, the Aaron Burr conspiracy (1805–07) involved a plot to remove the western territories and the Louisiana Purchase from the United States. The plot by financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the gold market, based on inside information provided by President Ulysses Grant’s brother-in-law Abel Corbin and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury General Daniel Butterfield in 1869, was a financial conspiracy involving people high in government. In the twentieth century, the infiltration of Soviet spies into the U.S. government during the Franklin Roosevelt administration was a political conspiracy conducted behind closed doors within the Kremlin to illegally obtain American secrets.

While these and other examples can be found throughout history, most political conspiracies have been imagined. Those who promulgate such conspiracies present a fantastic view of the world in which a small group of men and women, operating secretly, can dictate world events with improbable exactitude. Conspiracy theorists believe that the “hidden history” behind such conspiracies is revealed only through close study and deciphering of apparently random events. Having attained this knowledge, conspiracy theorists believe they have an obligation to warn their fellow citizens of the dark, sub-

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