“The purpose of leaders [is] to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves and the desolation of our homes.”
This statement is from Georgia’s declaration of secession before the outbreak of the Civil War. But it could have just as easily been a rallying cry for QAnon believers and their “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” conspiracy theories.
Leading up to the Civil War, conspiracy theories ran rampant in the South. White Southerners feared Lincoln was planning to “use all power to destroy [the] country,” a veiled excuse for their concern that Lincoln would alter their way of life—slavery. Their desire to protect and defend slavery spawned gross conspiracy theories that blamed free Black people or foreigners from Europe—anyone deemed an outsider—for slave revolts. Those revolts, limited in number yet violent all the same, were used by slaveholders to victimize themselves and provide fodder for their narratives.
Slaveholders connected completely unrelated events in their plot to sow unrest and alarm, igniting sparks along the way that eventually erupted into America’s “deadliest war.” If a minor slave revolt occurred in the South, and months later an abolitionist delivered a speech in New York, Southerners would “blame that Northern orator for causing” the uprising. Matthew J. Clavin, a history professor at the University of Houston, called it an “unbelievable ignorance of the facts used to create an anti-abolitionist response” in the South.
The basic purpose of placing blame on abolitionists and Black people in general was to convince Southerners to “unite against a common enemy,” the North. A popular conspiracy theory at the time detailed the “end of whiteness” if the slaves were freed. This theory gained much power and served the purpose slaveholders had designed it to serve. The Civil War broke out not long after, and ironically, it actually accelerated the end of slavery.
America’s current misinformation crisis did not begin in the 21st century; rather, it has been plaguing the nation for centuries. The focus has shifted from targeting slaves to targeting women and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. When people in power take up the mantle of conspiracy theories, they only sow division and distrust in the fabric of the nation.
Now we face a similar threat in QAnon, a conspiracy cult with “roots in three decades of demonization” that spurned the Capitol invasion on January 6. It has splintered the Republican party into factions, charting an uncertain future for the party—are the Republicans the party of John McCain, the war hero who placed country above party? Or, are they the party of Marjorie Taylor Green, the QAnon mouthpiece who believes that Jewish space lasers started the California wildfires?
Once again, America faces a reckoning. Conspiracy theories continue to afflict our country. Let us recognize the Southern pre-war theories as a warning rather than an example…only time will tell what path America chooses.