On January 30, 1835, as Andrew Jackson exited a congressman’s funeral, an assassin drew a gun and pointed it at the president. The pistol misfired. The gunman pulled a second weapon from his cloak. Though loaded, it too failed to fire. The cane-wielding commander in chief and several bystanders subdued the would-be killer, an unemployed housepainter named Richard Lawrence. Lawrence later informed interrogators that he was King Richard III, that Jackson had killed his father, and that with Jackson dead “money would be more plenty.” He was judged insane and committed to an asylum, where he died three decades later. Lawrence was a lone nut.
Or at least that was the official story. It wasn’t long before two witnesses filed affidavits claiming to have seen Lawrence at the home of the Mississippi senator George Poindexter shortly before the attack. Poindexter was a noisy opponent of the Jackson administration, and pro-Jackson newspapers accused the senator of plotting the president’s murder. So did Jackson’s allies in Congress, who quickly convened an investigation. Jackson himself told bystanders after the assault that the shooter had “been hired by that damned rascal Poindexter to assassinate me.”
Some of Jackson’s critics countered by suggesting that the president had staged the assault to gain public support and that this explained why both weapons had failed. And many Jacksonians pointed their fingers at John Calhoun, the South Carolina senator and former vice president, arguing that if he had not been directly involved in the assassination attempt, he had at the very least incited it with a speech denouncing Jackson as an American Caesar.
When the Republican writer John Smith Dye described the crime 29 years later, he saw an even more devilish plot at work. Calhoun might not have been directly involved in the assault, Dye conceded—or then again, maybe he was. Either way, Dye believed that Calhoun had belonged to a Southern cabal that would have benefited if Jackson had been put in the ground. The Slave Power, Dye informed his readers, was more than willing to kill a powerful man to get its way.
In 1841, for example, President William Henry Harrison told Calhoun he wasn’t sure he was willing to annex Texas, which Southerners wanted to add to the union as a slave state. Harrison promptly died—officially of pneumonia, but Dye was sure that arsenic was to blame. Nine years later, Dye continued, President Zachary Taylor was poisoned because he opposed the Slave Power’s agenda in Cuba and the Southwest. And when President-elect James Buchanan prepared to make some appointments of which the slaveocrats disapproved, Dye declared, Southern agents poisoned all the bowls containing lump sugar at the National Hotel in Washington. Southerners, he explained, drink coffee; coffee drinkers use pulverized sugar; so the Southern diners would be spared while the tea-drinking Northern diners, including Buchanan, would be wiped out. Buchanan survived, Dye wrote, but he was intimidated into becoming “the tool of the slave power.”
There is little evidence for Dye’s explosive charges. But when his book The Adder’s Den was published in 1864, the country was at war with the South, and when an expanded edition appeared two years later, the nation was still reeling from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In that atmosphere, a book that feels like a 1970s conspiracy thriller set in the antebellum era received a respectful notice in The New York Times and was excerpted in the Chicago Tribune.
Dye did not invent his theories from nothing: He drew on rumors that had been floating through Whig and Republican circles for years. And other Northerners worried about Southern conspiracies without taking their fears as far as Dye. Lincoln himself believed he could “clearly see” a “powerful plot to make slavery universal and perpetual,” and in his famous “house divided” speech he engaged freely in conspiratorial speculation. Meanwhile, Southerners had elaborate conspiracy theories of their own, blaming slave revolts, both real and imagined, on the machinations of rebellion-stoking abolitionists, treacherous land pirates, and other outside agitators.
It was a paranoid time. In America, it is always a paranoid time.
Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames. They’re wrong. The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes. They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country’s core.
Unfortunately, much of the public perception of political paranoia seems frozen in 1964, when the historian Richard Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in Harper’s. In that essay, Hofstadter set out to describe a “style of mind” marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” detecting it in movements ranging from the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic crusades of the 19th century to the “popular left-wing press” and “contemporary right wing” of his time. Half a century of scholarship has built on, refuted, or otherwise amended Hofstadter’s ideas, but that work rarely gets the attention that “The Paranoid Style” does.
That’s too bad. The essay does contain some real insights, and if nothing else it can remind readers that conspiracy theories are not a recent invention. But it also asserted that political paranoia is “the preferred style only of minority movements,” and—just to marginalize that minority some more—that it has “a greater affinity for bad causes than good.” In the Harper’s version of his article, Hofstadter went further, claiming that the paranoid style usually affects only a “modest minority of the population,” even if, under certain circumstances, it “can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties.”
Hofstadter did not provide numbers to back up those conclusions. We do have some data on the popularity of well-known conspiracy theories, however, and the results do not support his sweeping claims. In a 2006 Scripps Howard survey, 36 percent of respondents—a minority, but hardly a modest one—believed it “very” or “somewhat” likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/11 to happen or actively planned the attacks. JFK assassination theories are not a minority taste at all: In 2003, four decades after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed a conspiracy was behind the president’s death. (In 1983 the number of believers was even higher: 80 percent.) According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, 71 percent of the country thought the government was hiding something about UFOs.
To be sure, there is more to Hofstadter’s paranoid style than mere belief in a conspiracy theory. And there’s a risk of reading too much into those poll answers. You can believe the government has covered up information related to UFOs without believing it is hiding alien bodies in New Mexico. (You might, for example, think that some UFO witnesses encountered weapon tests that the government would prefer not to acknowledge.) There is also a revised version of Hofstadter’s argument that you sometimes hear, one that accepts that conspiracies are more popular than the historian suggested but that still draws a line between the paranoia of the disreputable fringes and the sobriety of the educated establishment. The “fringe,” in this telling, just turns out to be larger than the word implies.
But educated elites have conspiracy theories too. You wouldn’t guess it from reading “The Paranoid Style,” but the center sometimes embraces ideas that are no less paranoid than the views of the fringe.
Consider the phenomenon of the moral panic, a time when fear and hysteria are magnified, distorted, and perhaps even created by influential social institutions. Although he didn’t coin the phrase, the sociologist Stanley Cohen was the first to use it systematically, sketching the standard progression of a moral panic in a 1972 book: “A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.”