U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Can History Avoid Conspiracy?

A cartoon of Grover Cleveland mocking the tight rope he had to walk regarding free trade.

I recently finished writing a review of a book with “conspiracy” in the title, and it led me to muse a little bit about how historians process moments in history when accusations of conspiracy were made and moments when there is evidence a conspiracy occurred. The book, Marc-William Palen’s The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896, contains a bit of both, although one of Palen’s main arguments (signaled by the inverted commas around “conspiracy”) is that the free trade conspiracy that protectionists alleged existed in the U.S. during the Gilded Age was wholly fabricated—nothing more than a scare tactic used to hoodwink gullible voters into supporting Republicans.

The odd thing was, Palen himself describes some actions taken by free traders that a neutral observer would probably judge to be, well, pretty sketchy. I’ll get to what those actions were in a moment, but my point is that these kind of moments—particularly given the prevalence of conspiracy theories in our political ecosystem today—are truly challenging for historians both interpretively and even, in a sense, epistemologically. Historians would seem to be in a position of some authority to speak about how to distinguish between paranoiac episodes and genuine subversion: once upon a time, after all, that was the focus of two of our most brilliant practitioners—David Brion Davis and Richard Hofstadter. Might historians be able to add some clarity to the conspiracism of today by showing what actual conspiracies looked like in the past, thus setting up a kind of standard or guide for parsing the present?

L’affaire MacLean from last summer demonstrated some of the dangers historians face when using conspiracy as an overt frame for their analysis. I think I have said enough on that subject, but what it did demonstrate was how easy it was for historians (and other scholars) to speak past one another about conspiracy as a category of analysis.

Some scholars seemed to take the position that “conspiracy” was intrinsically invalid as a historical frame: it is by nature a polemical rather than an analytical term, and it cannot be used without immediately undermining the rigor of one’s work and the possibility of scholarly objectivity. Other scholars appeared to allow for some conditions in which conspiracy could be a valid characterization of a set of actions, but they insisted that the bar be set at a height that is basically impractical—requesting a “smoking gun,” they seemed skeptical of anything less than a signed confession—“I conspired! Bwa ha ha! [twists mustachios]”

But what is the correct standard for evidence of a conspiracy? What are the conditions under which it becomes applicable? Does one need to prove that the participants in some endeavor are operating under a particular frame of mind? If one can prove that the actors fear exposure of their plans, is it a conspiracy? What if the actors believe that they are acting in the best interest of society? Is malice a necessary element in a conspiracy?

These are questions we may deal with only infrequently in our work, but they nevertheless sit close by situations we encounter often. Secrecy is not uncommon in the historical record—far from. Every time we peruse someone’s personal correspondence we are dealing with a mild degree of secrecy—we just tend to call it privacy. But when does it start to make sense to characterize what we are reading as “secret” instead of “private?”

Historians also routinely run into another difficulty that I believe lies at the root of our discomfort with conspiracy. It is very hard to represent collective action, or at least hard to do so without slipping into a romantic (or perhaps gothic) mode of writing—without turning our collectives into something grandiose. Conspiracy is a kind of aggravated or exaggerated form of this problem: it lays bare our more general unease with how to describe, narrate, and contextualize actions undertaken by collectives rather than individual persons. While few of us would assent to Thomas Carlyle’s “The history of the world is but the biography of great men” or even Emerson’s “There is properly no history; only biography,” it is nevertheless the case that a loose methodological individualism dominates most history writing.

Numerous historians have searched for analytical and narrative tools to get around this predisposition toward individualism, but none have done so more intently, I would say, than labor historians—for what I think are fairly self-evident reasons. But historians of capitalism are also especially pressed by these problems, for if history tends to default toward individualism, capitalism—at least as many people would define it—insists upon a thoroughgoing methodological individualism. But even there, the evangelists of capitalism require certain abstract collectivities to smooth away the jaggedness of microeconomic chaos—for what is “the market” but the grandest collective abstraction of all? And it was, of course, Adam Smith who said that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”


Should we join Adam Smith in counting conspiracy as a part of the normal operations of capitalism? Few advocates of capitalism, I think, would approve. I think I can say for certain that Marc-William Palen would not.

The free trade “conspiracy” in Palen’s book was centered on the Cobden Club, an international group of free trade intellectuals and advocates; in the United States it counted a very large number of academics and politicians among its members. Named after the British politician Richard Cobden, its purpose was to spread the gospel of free trade that had become the national economic religion of Great Britain after the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s. In the US, it became a kind of bogeyman for protectionists who could insinuate that free traders did not have American interests at heart in promoting lower tariffs or no tariffs. Free traders, the protectionists sometimes claimed, were taking orders from the British—were even on a British payroll.

(Note, in the cartoon above, the Union Jack on Grover Cleveland’s shirt and the writing on the roll of papers sticking out of the other man’s pocket.)

The elections of the 1880s roiled with accusations of British money floating into US politics—these foreign funds were part of the “dark money” of the Gilded Age. But if these elections in some uncanny way point to current campaign finance issues, they also point back to the nineteenth century’s earlier anti-Masonic panic: prominent politicians were accused of being members of the Cobden Club, a charge which mixed anti-elitism with nativism.

The thing is, many important politicians were members of the Cobden Club, and some took steps to hide that fact or to hide the fact that they had once been members. (Teddy Roosevelt is one example, James Garfield another.) That of course, is not necessarily evidence of a conspiracy—nor is the probability that money for the US branch of the club did come from Britain occasionally.

It is also the case that the reform circles of Anglo-American intellectuals that Leslie Butler has described so well in Critical Americans could be quite skeptical of the value that democratic deliberation was unhelpful or even harmful on key economic matters; desiring a more professionalized and scientific approach, they could seek privacy or secrecy for their plans even when premature exposure would not have caused many problems. They simply liked to be exclusive.

But then again, what do we make of this passage?

The AFTL [American Free Trade League] leadership was concerned about rumors that William Grosvenor, their own Taxpayers’ Union lobbyist in Washington, might have switched sides [to supporting protectionism]. As a result, the AFTL leadership feared that Grosvenor’s secret list of American free traders might “fall into the hands of the Greeley men,” as AFTL Secretary Mahlon Sands explained to Edward Atkinson. With Atkinson’s cautious authorization, AFTL officers Sands, Henry D[emarest] Lloyd, and Robert Minturn correspondingly had Grosvenor’s rooms in Washington, DC, ransacked while he was away. His books and papers were confiscated and taken to AFTL headquarters in New York for further inspection. An embarrassing volley of charges and countercharges followed this act of internal espionage. Grosvenor, indignant, explained his innocence in the matter. With AFTL faces red over the affair, tempers soon cooled, and the decision was made to pay Grosvenor’s remaining debts in Washington and to dissolve the Taxpayers’ Union. (Palen 88-89)

These actions resemble the plot of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” more than anything else—and that is an almost classic case of conspiracy. What precisely ought we to call this episode?

I acknowledge that “conspiracy” may not be the best word for what happens in this passage. We do, though, need some kind of language for talking about it—for talking about secretive behavior that demonstrates a fear of exposure. “Sketchy,” I fear, just won’t cut it.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. ‘We do, though, need some kind of language for talking about it—for talking about secretive behavior that demonstrates a fear of exposure.’

    ‘Politics’ seems apt.

  2. I agree that some recognition of the covert element in history is needed. However, I think that Richard Hofstadter was fairly accurate when he said that there’s a significant difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theory. The former is a legitimate term, as there are patently obviously conspiracies in social and political life and they can be — at some point — named and identified as such. The latter is something else again: the large scale framing of a whole world view, that involves not so much individual conspiracies as an a priori assumption that all ostensibly random events in the world are actually subject to a coherent but hidden intentionality.

    But it’s a shaky proposition that conspiracy is more endemic to capitalism than it is to, say, monarchy or 20th century communism. Looking around the world, there are political cultures that accept conspiracy as a given, and generally assume it’s there even if it isn’t, but they tend to be societies that have a long history of highly stratified political privileges and identities, where the default assumption is that democratic collaboration for a broad common goal is impossible.

    • Hi Martin,
      That’s an excellent point about Hofstadter’s distinction. But that’s also precisely what I found missing in Palen’s book: any protectionist who argued that Britain’s trading interests were not aligned with the U.S. was “Anglophobic,” and any questions about the influence of the Cobden Club in the U.S. was conspiracism. There was no room to make a distinction between positing the existence of a (limited) conspiracy and explaining *everything* as part of a conspiracy. I agree with you (and Hofstadter) that historians need to be able to make that distinction.

      As for your point about capitalism, I feel that you’re attributing a view to me that I didn’t express. I didn’t say that capitalism was *more* prone to conspiracies than monarchy or communism–I just paraphrased Adam Smith’s line as saying that conspiracies are part of the normal workings of capitalism. Conspiracies may also be part of the normal workings of monarchy or communism also. I was just trying to make the contrast between, on the one hand, the methodological individualism that capitalism’s philosophers have tended to assume in theory and, on the other, the actual workings of capitalism, which finds collective action (including conspiracy) indispensable.

  3. Hi Andy,

    Thank you for your reflections on the “conspiracy” aspect of my book. Much food for thought here, and I quite agree that dealing with the subject of conspiracy is a tricky category for analysis.

    Your post got me thinking back to the very early days of this project, when I was just starting my PhD and I first began finding these charges of a free-trade conspiracy amid the primary sources. At the time, I half-expected/hoped to find in my archival digging that “smoking gun,” or at least a lingering whiff of gunsmoke. I never found the gun, and found it difficult to find any conclusive evidence of that whiff of gunsmoke, a point that my supervisor also noted.

    More importantly, I would like to point out that your description at the outset of one of my arguments, that the charges of a free-trade conspiracy were “nothing more than a scare tactic to hoodwink gullible voters,” is quite misleading. Nowhere do I make this claim in my book. While some Gilded Age protectionist politicians used the bugbear of British free trade for political advantage, others believed the conspiracy to be real – for most, it seems to have been a bit of both. I note as much throughout the book, from beginning to end. Indeed, I state in the Introduction: “For Republican economic nationalists, Cobdenism became tantamount to conspiracy: secretive British-led attempt to stunt the growth of US ‘infant’ industries and foil Republican imperial designs” (xv). And here in the first two lines of the Conclusion: “Free trade in late-nineteenth-century America was not a conspiracy. But it was certainly perceived as such by Anglophobic protectionists” (267).

    But to your larger question here, that, even lacking a smoking gun or a moustache twirl, can we as historians uncover a conspiracy? I’d suggest, as I think you do, too, that a big part of the answer lies in how we define conspiracy. Does conspiracy connote secrecy alone, or does it need to be harmful and/or illegal as well? Secrecy alone seems far too broad a definition, although this seems to be the metric that Republican protectionists at the time were using. Of course, the Cobden Club went out of its way to be transparent through mass distribution of its publications, including its international membership roles, from its founding, so the secrecy angle doesn’t fit all that comfortably. Regarding harm, as you note, determining whether something is harmful or not can be quite subjective, as was the case in the Gilded Age free trade-protectionist debate. And considering many of the main actors involved in the US free trade movement – a who’s who of radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, Joshua Leavitt – suggesting that they were out to harm the United States sounds pretty far-fetched today (although they received similar attacks from antebellum pro-slavery elements back in the day owing to their close association with British antislavery groups, so it was something they were already quite used to). Illegality, an element that you didn’t mention, does allow for more precision in determining whether a conspiracy was afoot. But, again, I found no evidence that the Cobden Club acted illegally.

    A couple thoughts on the last example you provide, of the AFTL leadership turning on one another over their secret list of free traders. First, to understand their reaction you have to understand this episode within the context of the Liberal Republican movement and the debacle of the 1872 election, as I do in the book. I would also suggest that, while there wasn’t any clear evidence of conspiracy here either, the episode does clearly highlight how anti-British and anti-free-trade sentiments were so strong in American (and especially GOP) politics at this time that people went to great pains not to be outed as such. The same goes for the common distancing from earlier associations with the Cobden Club in order to remain active in the GOP (Garfield, Roosevelt, Lodge) that you reference. To do otherwise risked political suicide, as is what happened with David Ames Wells once he came out as a free-trade convert and was sacked from his prominent Republican position soon thereafter. I quite agree that “sketchy” isn’t the right word here, either. In this instance, Hofstadter probably got it right; these men were paranoid, and with good reason.

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