It introduced important innovations to American politics, such as nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms.
The Anti-Masonic Party was formed in upstate New York in 1828.
Some people feared the Freemasons, believing they were a powerful secret society that was trying to rule the country in defiance of republican principles. These opponents came together to form a political party after the Morgan incident convinced them the Masons were murdering their opponents. This key episode was the mysterious disappearance, in 1826, of William Morgan (1774-1826?), a Freemason of Batavia, New York, who had become dissatisfied with his lodge and intended to publish the ritual degree work. When his intentions became known to the lodge, Morgan was subjected to annoyances, and finally in September 1826 he was seized by parties unknown and taken to Fort Niagara, after which he disappeared.
The event created great excitement and led many to believe that not just the local lodge but all Freemasonry was in conflict with good citizenship. Because judges, businessmen, bankers, and politicians were often Masons, ordinary citizens began to think of it as an elitist group. Moreover, many claimed that the lodges' secret oaths bound the brethren to favor each other against outsiders, in the courts as well as elsewhere. Because the trial of the Morgan conspirators was mishandled, and the Masons resisted further inquiries, many New Yorkers concluded that Masons "controlled key offices and used their official authority to promote the goals of the fraternity. When a member sought to reveal its 'secrets', so ran the conclusion, they had done away with him, and because they controlled the officials, were capable of obstructing the investigation. If good government was to be restored all Masons must be purged from public office" (Rayback 1959, pp. 18-19). They considered the Masons to be an exclusive organization taking unfair advantage of common folk and violating the essential principles of democracy. True Americans, they said, had to organize and defeat this conspiracy.
Opposition to Masonry was taken up by the churches as a sort of religious crusade, and it also became a local political issue in western New York, where, early in 1827, the citizens in many mass meetings resolved to support no Mason for public office.
In New York at this time the National Republicans, or "Adams men," were a very feeble organization, and shrewd political leaders at once determined to utilize the strong anti-Masonic feeling in creating a new and vigorous party to oppose the rising Jacksonian Democracy. In this effort they were aided by the fact that Andrew Jackson was a high-ranking Mason and frequently spoke in praise of the Order. The alleged remark of political organizer Thurlow Weed, that a corpse found floating in the Niagara River was "a good enough Morgan" till after the election, summarized the value of the crime for the opponents of Jackson. In the elections of 1828 the new party proved unexpectedly strong, and after this year it practically superseded the National Republican party in New York. In 1829 it broadened its issues base when it became a champion of internal improvements and of the protective tariff. The party published 35 weekly newspapers in New York. Soon one became preeminent, the Albany Journal, edited by Thurlow Weed. The newspapers reveled in partisanship. One brief Albany Journal paragraph on Martin Van Buren included the words "dangerous," "demagogue," "corrupt," "degrade," "pervert," "prostitute," "debauch" and "cursed."
The party invented the convention, a system whereby locally elected delegates would choose state candidates and pledge their loyalty. Soon the Democrats and Whigs recognized the convention's value in building a party, and held their own conventions. By 1832 the movement had lost its focus on Masonry, and had spread to neighboring states, becoming especially strong in Pennsylvania and Vermont. A national organization was planned as early as 1827, when the New York leaders attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Henry Clay who was a Mason, to renounce the Order and head the movement. In 1831, William A. Palmer was elected governor of Vermont on an Anti-Masonic ticket, an office he held until 1835.
The party conducted the first U.S. presidential nominating convention in the U.S. at Baltimore, in the 1832 elections, nominating William Wirt (a former Mason) for President and Amos Ellmaker for Vice President. Wirt won 7.78 percent of the popular vote, and the seven electoral votes from Vermont. The highest elected office ever held by a member of the party was that of a governor: besides Palmer in Vermont, Joseph Ritner was the governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1838.
This was the high tide of its prosperity; in New York in 1833 the organization was moribund, and its members gradually united with the National Republican Party and other opponents of Jacksonian Democracy in forming the Whig Party. The Whigs' great New York boss, Thurlow Weed, began his political career as an Anti-Mason.
Following the election of Joseph Ritner as Governor of Pennsylvania in 1835, a state convention was held in Harrisburg on December 14-17, 1835 to choose Presidential Electors for the 1836 election. The convention nominated William Henry Harrison for President and Francis Granger for Vice President. The Vermont state Anti-Masonic convention followed suit on February 24, 1836. National Anti-Masonic leaders were unable to obtain assurance from Harrison that he was not a Mason, so they called a national convention. The second Anti-Masonic National nominating convention was held in Philadelphia on May 4, 1836. The convention was divisive, but a majority of the delegates were able to restate that purpose of the party as strictly anti-Masonry and to officially state that the party was not sponsoring a national ticket for the presidential election of 1836.
Although Harrison was not elected, his strength throughout the North was hailed by Anti-Masonic leaders because the party was the first to officially place his name in contention. The party held a conference in September 1837 to discuss its situation; one delegate was former President John Quincy Adams. The third Anti-Masonic National nominating convention was held in Temperance Hall, Philadelphia, on 11/13-14/1838. By this time, the party had been almost entirely engulfed by the Whig Party. In any case, the AMP convention unanimously nominated William Henry Harrison for President and Daniel Webster for Vice President. When the Whig National Convention nominated Harrison and Tyler, the Anti-Masonic Party did not make an alternate nomination and vanished.
A later political organization called the Anti-Masonic Party was active from 1872 until 1888. This second group had a more religious basis for its anti-Masonry and was closely associated with Jonathan Blanchard of Wheaton College.
The growth of the anti-Masonic movement was due more to the political and social conditions of the time than to the Morgan episode, which was merely the catalyst. Under the banner of "Anti-Masons" able leaders united those who were discontented with existing political conditions. The fact that William Wirt, their choice for the presidency in 1832, was not only a Mason but even defended the Order in a speech before the convention that nominated him, indicates that mere opposition to Masonry was by no means the central premise of the political order.