On August 22, 1798, George Snyder, presenting himself as a clergyman, sent a copy of John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy Against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies, Collected From Good Authorities (1798) to George Washington. The book was accompanied by the following letter, and facsimiles of it can be found in Julius Sachse’s Washington’s Masonic Correspondence as Found Among The Washington Papers in the Library of Congress (1915).
To His Excellency George Washington.
Sir,—You will, I hope, not think it a Presumption in a Stranger, whose Name, perhaps never reached your Ears, to address himself to you, the Commanding General of a great Nation. I am a German, born and liberally educated in the city of Heydelberg, in the Palatinate of the Rhine. I came to this Country in 1776, and felt soon after my arrival, a close Attachment to the Liberty for which these confederated States then struggled. The same attachment still remains not glowing, but burning in my Breast. At the same Time that I am exulting in the Measures adopted by our Government, I feel myself elevated in the Idea of my adopted Country, I am attached, both from the Bent of Education and mature Enquiry and Search to the simple Doctrines of Christianity, which I have the Honor to teach in Public; and I do heartily Despise all the Cavils of Infidelity. Our present Time pregnant with the most shocking Events and Calamities, threatens Ruin to our Liberty and Government. The most secret Plans are in Agitation; Plans calculated to ensnare the Unwary, to attract the Gay irreligious, and to entice even the Well-Disposed to combine in the general Machine for overturning all Government and all Religion.
It was some Time since that a Book fell into my hands, entitled ‘Proofs of a Conspiracy, &c. by John Robison,’ which gives a full Account of a Society of Free Masons, that distinguishes itself by the name of ‘Illuminati,’ whose Plan is to over throw all Government and all Religion, even natural; and who endeavor to eradicate every Idea of a Supreme Being, and distinguish Man from Beast by his shape only. A Thought suggested itself to me, that some of the Lodges in the United States might have caught the Infection, and might co-operate with the Illuminati or the Jacobin Club in France. Fauchet is mentioned by Robinson as a zealous Member; and who can doubt Genet and Adet? Have not these their confidants in this country? They use the same Expressions, and are generally Men of no Religion. Upon serious Reflection I was led to think that it might be within your Power to prevent the horrid Plan from corrupting the Brethren of the English Lodges over which you preside.
I send you the ‘Proof of a Conspiracy,’ &c. which I doubt not, will give you Satisfaction, and afford you matter for a Train of ideas, that may operate to our national Felicity. If, however, you have already perused the Book, it will not, I trust, be disagreeable to you that I have presumed to address you with this Letter and the Book accompanying it. It proceeded from the Sincerity of my Heart, and my ardent Wishes for the common Good.
May the Supreme Ruler of all Things continue You long with us in these perilous Times: may he endow you with Strength and Wisdom to save our Country in the threating Storms and gathering Clouds of Factions and Commotions! and after you have completed his Work, on this terrene Spot, may He bring you to the full Possession of the glorious Liberty of the Children of God, is the hearty and most sincere Wish of
Your Excellency’s very humble and
G. W. Snyder.
Fredericktown, (Maryland) Aug. 22, 1798.
His Excellency General George Washington.
Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy, provides the basis for contemporary conspiracy theories, as it implicates the Illuminati as the driving force behind the excesses of the French Revolution, especially the Jacobin faction during their Reign of terror. The book is still found on the reading lists of many conspiracy theorists today.
By today’s standards, Jacobin ideals were not all that exotic. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, they included: universal manhood suffrage, popular education, and separation of church and state. Their methods were far from gentle, however, and they alienated many who would have otherwise been sympathetic to their cause. During the Reign of Terror (1793–94) under France’s revolutionary government’s Committee of Public Safety, thousands of presumed enemies of the state were publicly executed by guillotine, and over 200,000 persons were arrested. Counter revolutionary uprisings were violently suppressed.
Such bloodshed was at odds with the Statutes of the Illuminati. It certainly contradicted the stated pre-revolution declarations of Illuminati founder Adam Weishaupt, who proclaimed in his Brief Justification of My Intentions (1787), “My system attacks the cause of human perdition without the use of any violence … it is entirely built on ethics and the knowledge of human nature.”
According to Robison, the Illuminati’s only purpose in France was destroy every established political, social, religious, and moral institution in order to rebuild the nation according to their own designs.
They accounted all Princes usurpers and tyrants, and all privileged orders as their abettors. They intended to establish a government of Morality, as they called it (Sittenregiment) where talents and character (to be estimated by their own scale, and by themselves) should alone lead to preferment. They meant to abolish the laws which protected property accumulated by long continued and successful industry, and to prevent for the future any such accumulation. They intended to establish universal Liberty and Equality, the imprescriptible Rights of Man (at least they pretended all this to those who were neither Magi nor Regentes.) And, as necessary preparations for all this, they intended to root out all religion and ordinary morality, and even to break the bonds of domestic life, by destroying the veneration for marriage-vows, and by taking the education of children out of the hands of the parents.
Today’s conspiracy theories have become much more exotic when compared to Robison’s claims, as far as the Illuminati’s origins and global ambitions are concerned.
Not much information can be found on Snyder, who contacted Washington because he believed him to be “a Grand Master General, who presided over all of the English (or Symbolic) Masonic Lodges in the United States.” According to Sachse, Snyder was an anti-Masonic agitator and political opponent to Washington and that he had “no ecclesiastical connection with any organized Church Body.” Snyder arrived in Fredericktown, MD in 1787 to collect donations for the construction of a church. Citing the Historical sketch of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Frederick, Maryland, 1904, Sachse stated that Snyder was allowed to preach at the Reformed Congregation, but stirred up so much trouble in the church that he was eventually driven out of the town. He returned in 1794, creating more controversy in the church until 1800, when his activities landed him in the Civil Court, after which her left Fredericktown for good. Washington felt that Snyder’s letter was an attempt to entrap him, and he waited over a month to reply to it.
Washington replied that he had heard of the Illuminati and disapproved of the doctrines ascribed to this secret society, but that this Illuminatism had very little to do with Freemasonry as it was practiced in the United States. He also did not currently preside over any lodge, adding he had never heard of Robison’s book until Snyder had deigned to send him a copy and that he hadn’t had the time to read it.
The full text of the letter can be found here.
Snyder’s reply to Washington’s letter can no longer be found, but Washington’s sharp response to it is still available in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.
Mount Vernon, October 24, 1798.
Revd Sir: I have your favor of the 17th. instant before me; and my only motive to trouble you with the receipt of this letter, is to explain, and correct a mistake which I perceive the hurry in which I am obliged, often, to write letters, have led you into.
It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am.
The idea that I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of seperation). That Individuals of them may have done it, or that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects; and actually had a seperation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.
My occupations are such, that but little leisure is allowed me to read News Papers, or Books of any kind; the reading of letters, and preparing answers, absorb much of my time. With respect, etc.
Conspiracy theorists often use this letter to support their claim that George Washington acknowledged the presence of the Illuminati in America. The letter’s second paragraph, in particular, (It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am.) is often invoked for this purpose, and as Terry Melanson, author of Perfectibilists, has pointed out, they often strike the phrase “the Doctrines of” from the paragraph’s first sentence.