More on the idea of the "conspiracy theory"

I heard somewhere (probably some podcast) that the CIA originated the term “conspiracy theory”, but that turns out to be a “conspiracy theory.” In fact, “conspiracy theory” is an older term than I’d thought. The first use of it in English I am aware of is from 1863 and is described here.

It is used in the context of dismissing a popular theory as to why the anti-slavery British would have sided with the pro-slavery South. The New York times, now best known for some of its Pulitzer prize winning journos, such as Walter Duranty and Russiagate conspiracy theorist Maggie Haberman1, published this correspondence on the subject from Monadnook2 in London:

Furthermore, it is the belief that before many months there will not only be division, and perhaps civil war, in the North, but that the Government will be overwhelmed by one of the most terrible financial explosions ever seen in a civilized country. English political economists look for a monetary [illegible] that will paralyze the government, if it do not utterly destroy it. They believe that America is on the brink of a terrific precipice, or over the crater of a volcano which may at any moment burst into an eruption. Why, then, should England interfere? It would be to hinder the very disasters that are a cause of rejoicing. Whatever may be the feelings or the motives of France or Russia, there can be no doubt of those of England. The Government, which is simply the organ of the aristocratic power, looks upon America as the rival and the foe of England, and still more upon American principles as dangerous to British Institutions.

And a reply from C. A. Bristed:

Now, when we look for the cause of this, any man who has made European politics his study at home, or, being abroad, has known merely so much of them as one cannot help knowing, from daily perusal of the French and English papers, sees fast enough that since 1849 (to go no further back) England has had quite enough to do in Europe and Asia, without going out of her way to meddle with America. It was a physical and moral impossibility that she could be carrying on a gigantic conspiracy against us. But our masses, having only a rough general knowledge of foreign affairs, and not unnaturally somewhat exaggerating the space which we occupy in the world’s eye, do not appreciate the complications which rendered such a conspiracy impossible. They only look at the sudden right-about-face movement of the English Press and public, which is most readily accounted for on the conspiracy theory.

Of Monadnook, I can find nothing. Mr. Bristed was perhaps the great grandson of John Jacob Astor3, and a Yale educated writer.

This obviously can not be the coinage of the term. It must have been floating about long before in perhaps conversations, or books not referenced or readily available to anyone interested in the subject. I am not surprised that it could have been first used unselfconsciously by a Yalie. Maybe he’s right but you know, what the fuck isn’t a conspiracy theory? Maybe he was one of those writers that never conspired with anyone.

  1. Alumni of Sarah Lawrence College []
  2. This is my best reading - the print is blurry. []
  3. Made his money in the fur trade and later NY real estate. []

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