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07.27.09

Presidential Conspiracies

Obama’s “birther” scandal isn’t the first wacky theory about a president. From John Adams’ royal plot to Mary Lincoln’s spy games, Benjamin Sarlin on the nuttiest controversies.

Plus: 5 Birther Myths Debunked

President Barack Obama may be the most recent chief executive to have to endure the focus of paranoid conspiracy theorists, but he's not the first.

News reports often acknowledge as much. The “birthers,” a far-right movement that claims—against all evidence—that Obama was born in Kenya and thus is ineligible to be president, are frequently compared to similar movements that beset previous presidents. Their very name is a remix of the “truthers,” who used similarly shoddy evidence to accuse George W. Bush of carrying out the 9/11 attacks. Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, faced a never-ending wave of conspiracy theories from the far right, including debunked claims that he had his friend Vince Foster murdered to cover up a scandal.

One Philadelphia paper owned by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson accused Washington of conspiring with the British during the Revolutionary War.

But the presidential conspiracy theory has a much longer history, as wild-eyed and widely believed accusations have afflicted everyone from the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln and beyond.

This paranoid streak was especially pronounced during the early days of the republic, when confidence in the new American government and its democratic institutions was still weak. Fears of a collapse into tyranny, radicalism, or monarchy ran rampant among the populace, fueled by sensationalist news media controlled by competing political parties.

“The whole press were essentially scandal mongers,” Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, said in an interview. “They had yet to develop the idea we take for granted of a legitimate opposition, so as the parties congealed they were completely at odds and the two groups made a point of trying to undermine the other with conspiracy theories.”

Even George Washington, the father of the country himself, wasn't above such attacks. One Philadelphia paper owned by Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, accused Washington of conspiring with the British during the Revolutionary War.

The country's next president, John Adams, suffered similar attacks in the press, including frequent accusations that he intended to reinstitute a monarchy with himself as king and his son, John Quincy Adams, groomed as his successor. Among those who subscribed to this fear was Thomas Jefferson, although he did not publicly accuse Adams of planning a royalist coup.

Jefferson, meanwhile, battled his own litany of kooky accusations. The New England clergy led a smear campaign against the third president in which they accused him of conspiring to ban Christianity and terrorize its adherents. The distant echo of these attacks can still be felt in politics today, for example in GOP mailers in 2004 that warned John Kerry would ban the Bible.

According to historian R.B. Bernstein, author of The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, the 18th century's conspiracy theories nonetheless make today's look tame by comparison.

“They said all Bibles would be burned, all churches would be torn down, altars would be erected to the goddess of reason, anyone who believed in Christianity would go to the guillotine,” Bernstein said. “Politicians complain about the abuse they get today, but if they were teleported back to the Founding Fathers’ era they would be screaming for their mothers in a New York minute.”

Conspiracy theories hardly went away after the Revolutionary era. The next century saw anti-Mason groups accuse presidents like Andrew Jackson of secret loyalties while anti-Catholic parties alleged conspiracies to carry out the pope's orders through sleeper agents in the White House.

And just as Michelle Obama has withstood her own list of false accusations, most notably a last-ditch effort by hardcore Hillary Clinton supporters to spread rumors that she had used racial epithets against whites, past presidential spouses have faced their own problems as well. Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was falsely accused in the press of being a spy for the Confederacy thanks to her family ties to the South. According to historian Catherine Clinton, author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, the first lady's correspondences were even screened by security officials in order to appease critics who feared she might give away troop movements to the enemy.

Nor is the current anti-Obama front the first to go after a president based on rumors about their birth. One notorious historian, William Estabrook Chancellor, wrote a xenophobic screed against Warren Harding during his 1920 presidential campaign, in which Chancellor alleged that the presidential candidate was part black. While some modern historians have suggested that it's at least possible Harding had African-American ancestors, the unsubstantiated rumors of the time were part of a malicious campaign to appeal to racist voters.

Later conspiracy theories against presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy claimed that communist infiltrators were secretly running the government. Their legacy lives on in frequent attacks on Obama's “socialist” and “Marxist” agenda. Indeed, historian Richard Hofstadter's 1964 Harper's essay deconstructing the rise of Joseph McCarthy and other right-wing fanatics, “ The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” still reads as if it were composed yesterday. Summing up the mind-set of far-right movements like the John Birch Society, Hofstadter wrote that these groups believe that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.”

Or, as a less distinguished observer put it in a town-hall meeting in Delaware this month:

“I want my country back!”

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast: 5 Birther Myths Debunked

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.