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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 1-31

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The Value of Conspiracy Theory

Ed White

The term conspirators was not, as has been alleged, rashly or inconsiderately adopted... the consideration of the nature and construction of the new constitution naturally suggests the epithet.

Centinel 12

For several decades, many historians and cultural critics have lamented a primal pathology of American culture, "the tendency of political leaders and their followers to view the world in conspiratorial terms" (Curry and Brown vii). Coincident with this condemnation, of course, is denial of the validity of conspiracy theories--one recent study defines them as "fears of nonexistent conspiracies" (Pipes 1)--which are read, rather, as symptoms of broader cultural dynamics. But more is at stake here than the conspiratorial outlook itself: the methodological protocols of interpreting conspiracy theories explain much of the critical interest, such that one prominent historian of early America, Bernard Bailyn, interrupted his analysis of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) with "A Note on Conspiracy." At issue for critics of American conspiracy theory, then, is not simply the more reliable description of events or culture, but, more fundamentally, a saner understanding of that culture.

This essay attempts a methodological rehabilitation of conspiracy theories on the dual assumptions that the eighteenth century was rife with actual conspiracies and that conspiracy theories from that moment offer valuable insights. But as with the adversaries of conspiratorial consciousness, my concern will be primarily methodological. An explication of conspiracy theories, I argue, provides the contours for a necessary theoretical program uniting structural and cultural analysis. Accordingly the first part of this essay surveys the dominant historiographical critiques of conspiracy theory, highlighting important similarities between the "republican synthesis" school and poststructuralist literary [End Page 1] criticism. Then, in a discussion of an anti-Federalist theorist, I outline the structural insights of conspiracy thought. Next, in a discussion of the Newburgh Conspiracy and Madison's Federalist No. 10, I explore the value of conspiracy theory as cultural analysis. My focus throughout will be upon conspiracy theories of eighteenth-century America, in part because there remains a real need to historicize conspiracy thought. Accordingly, my essay concludes with a tentative historical explanation for the proliferation of conspiracy theory in early America.

1... . as Logic

The contemporary assault on conspiracy theories arguably begins with David Brion Davis's essay on "Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature" (1960). Although not assessing conspiracy rhetoric in the early national period--his focus is on the mid-nineteenth century--Davis significantly framed his discussion of American nativism as an "ideological" as opposed to "sociological" approach, 1 outlining three recurrent features of countersubversive rhetoric. First, the imagined conspiracies expressed dominant values through a process of inversion. As the "precise antitheses" of Jacksonian democracy, imagined conspiracies simply confirmed and strengthened mainstream American ideals (208). Second, countersubversive discourse reaffirmed social cohesion. At a moment of anxiety over the "mobile, rootless, and individualistic society" of liberalism (208), conspiracy theories identified small, insular cultural collectives isolated from "the unifying and disciplining force of public opinion" (213). Attacks on these collectives then were "a means of promoting unity," giving stability to "the individual ego" (215). Third, conspiracy fantasies provided an outlet for the "projection of forbidden desires" and "irrational impulses" (217, 224). These were often sexual desires satisfied through detailed imagination and then moral rejection (221-24). Davis's conclusion thus located the real conspiratorial "activity" in the culture of the countersubversives--that is, in the cultural logic of early modernity.

Three years later, Richard Hofstadter gave his famous lecture, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." 2 Defining the conspiracy as "a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character" (14), Hofstadter stressed a "style," a "way of seeing the world and expressing oneself" recurring at crisis moments "over a long span of time and in different places" (4, 39). [End Page 2] Citing Davis's "remarkable essay," Hofstadter reiterated the exponent's identification with the imagined conspirator and symbolic enactment of forbidden...


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