Conspiracy theories are inherently enticing, offering the fantastical stories of fiction combined with the real-world stakes and personalities of history. Offering alternative, and often more interesting versions of events, they provide the possibility of rewriting the everyday into duplicitous and exciting betrayals and plots. However, more often than not, these hypotheses are baseless, resulting in embarrassing conclusions for those proposing them. Whether suggesting George Washington was secretly replaced by the Illuminati or the Boston Tea Party was a covert drug operation, conspiracy theories are abundant concerning the Founding Fathers of the United States. Nevertheless, in the age of fake news, it probably does not even need said to take any such ludicrous and unsupported claims with a mountain of salt.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains one of the most believed and widespread conspiracy theory in American history, with an estimated 60 percent plus believing in some alternative version of events to the official narrative (c. November 22, 1963). Wikimedia Commons.
Here are 16 bizarre (and most likely untrue) conspiracy theories concerning the Founding Fathers of the United States:
Portrait of Adam Weishaupt, made fourteen years after his supposed assassination of Washington (c. 1799). Wikimedia Commons.
16. It has been claimed the Illuminati’s founder, Johann Adam Weishaupt, assassinated and replaced George Washington in 1785
Founding the Order of the Illuminati on May 1, 1776, Johann Adam Weishaupt sought to make use of the ongoing popular trend of secret societies for the general good of humanity. Claiming to promote freedom and equality, Weishaupt, taking the name “Brother Spartacus” within the order, hoped the Illuminati could help illuminate the minds of Europe and aide in the Enlightenment process. However, perceived by many Church authorities as hostile to religion, the radical rationalist philosophy of the Illuminati quickly attracted suspicion, with the secret society outlawed by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, in 1784 and forcing Weishaupt to flee into exile.
Viewed with moderate acceptance by many early Founding Fathers, with Jefferson writing to Madison that Weishaupt was an “enthusiastic Philanthropist” and an outstandingly moral person, it has been a longstanding conspiracy theory that, rather than living in exile in Gotha as historically presented, Weishaupt instead emigrated to the United States. Seeking to infect the fledgling nation within his secret doctrine, some unsubstantiated claims go even further, asserting Weishaupt covertly assassinated George Washington and replaced him in 1785. Although admittedly looking somewhat similar, with proponents claiming the one-dollar bill represents Weishaupt and not Washington, it is unlikely his strong German accent would have gone unnoticed.
Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale (c. 1800). Wikimedia Commons.
15. During the presidential election of 1800 it became a widespread rumor Thomas Jefferson was secretly an atheist who sought to ban religion
Despite being a re-match of the presidential election from four years prior, the election of 1800 was one of the most acrimonious and unpleasant democratic exercises in early American political history. Initially close allies and friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had fallen out over their conflicting ideologies and designs for the infant nation, splitting the increasingly divided country between the Federalist and Democratic-Republicans. Whilst on the one side the Federalists were accused of monarchism, promoting aristocracy, and anti-democratic values, Jefferson’s movement was decried as radical and dangerously subversive for supporting the French Revolution.
Incrementally escalating in the scope and severity of accusations, Jefferson’s alleged religious beliefs rapidly became the subject of sustained theorizing and criticism. Opposed from a young age to Church institutions, Jefferson’s complicated relationship with religion can best be described as non-denominational theism. Nevertheless, despite belief in some sort of higher power, if not strictly Christianity, during the presidential election in 1800 Federalist supporters promulgated the supposition he was actually an atheist seeking to destroy religion in America. Reaching fever pitch, Jefferson was forced to counter these accusations by attending services in the Capitol despite his deep personal hatred of the fusion of church and state.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (c. 1805). Wikimedia Commons.
14. Alexander Hamilton was accused of secretly being a British agent
One of the foremost Founding Fathers, imparting an indelible legacy upon the fledgling United States as one of the chief authors and promoters of the Constitution as well as serving as the founder and architect of the federal financial system, Alexander Hamilton was nevertheless one of the most controversial public figures of his day. An advocate of stronger, more centralized government, leading the charge against the weak Articles of Confederation and co-authoring fifty-one of the eighty-five installments of The Federalist Papers in support of its replacement, Hamilton quickly became the face of the federal government in a nation broadly opposed to regulatory oversight.
Although later turning on Adams and the Federalists during the election of 1800 – a sign of the unlikeliness of the conspiracy theory at hand – during the formative years of the United States it was persistently whispered that Hamilton was secretly a British spy or sympathizer. A ludicrous suggestion against the former military aide to General Washington during the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s political opinions were recurrently used against him as evidence, including his brief support for a monarchy during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Nevertheless, supporting a strong federal government or national bank is insufficient proof to justify maligning one of the foremost patriots and devotees of the American nation.
“The Boston Tea Party”, as illustrated in W.D. Cooper’s The History of North America (c. 1789). Wikimedia Commons.
13. It has been alleged the Boston Tea Party was a cover to secretly steal a large cache of smuggled opium
A political protest led by the Sons of Liberty – a radical secret organization in North America dedicated to the advancement of colonial rights – the Boston Tea Party took place on December 16, 1773. Occurring in response to the Tea Act of the same year, which permitted the British East India Company to import tea from China by only paying taxes imposed by the Townshend Acts, a group of demonstrators – some disguised as Native Americans – boarded three ships awaiting in Boston Harbor to land their goods. Dumping 342 chests of tea into the water, the drastic step taken by the nationalists carried a cost in excess of ninety thousand pounds (almost two million dollars today).
Resulting in a repressive crackdown by Parliament, including the Intolerable Acts in 1774, the incident arguably placed the American colonies on an unavoidable path to armed conflict and insurrection against their colonial overlords. However, in the years since the event, a conspiracy theory has evolved adding a different dimension to the incident, suggesting a more suspect and nefarious purpose. Instead of merely dumping the Chinese tea, the activists took the unnecessary step of breaking each crate, with some arguing this action was to search for hidden opium which was subsequently sold for a huge profit and used to finance the impending revolution.
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Duplessis (c. 1785). Wikimedia Commons.
12. Benjamin Franklin was accused of being a serial killer following discovery of human bodies buried beneath his London property
Benjamin Franklin, affectionately referred to as “The First American” in recognition of his lifelong efforts to unite the colonies, was responsible, among countless accomplishments, for the vital alliance with France during the Revolutionary War. Only one residence inhabited by Franklin prior to his death in 1790 has survived to the modern day: 36 Craven Street in London. During restoration work in 1998, workmen uncovered more than 1,200 pieces of human bones buried beneath the property. As The Times reported, “initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house”.
Some of the bones, belonging to an estimated six children and four adults, displayed clear signs of having undergone dissection, with cuts, saw marks, and drill holes in the skulls. Immediately prompting conspiratorial whisperings of Franklin being a serial killer during his days in Europe, with the Westminster Coroner duly announcing “I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime”, despite these allegations it is not sustainable that Franklin was personally responsible. Instead, Franklin’s housemate William Hewson, a surgeon and anatomist, most likely procured the bodies for scientific study. Strict laws governed the use of bodies for medical research, demanding secrecy, with Franklin likely merely offering sanctuary for a fellow scientist.
Portrait of John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart (c. 1800-1815). Wikimedia Commons.
11. Alexander Hamilton and the Entire Federalist Party were accused of attempting to institute a dictatorial American monarchy
Although serving for two terms as George Washington’s deputy, following election in 1796 as the 2nd President of the United States John Adams instituted a series of radical and unpopular policies tending towards authoritarianism. Most notably the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law in 1798, these four laws granted the government broad powers to impose what it argued were necessary conditions for law and order in a disorderly time. Fearing chaos and insecurity with the ongoing Quasi-War with France, the acts, among other powers, enabled the imprisonment and deportation of non-citizens as well as criminalizing criticism of the federal government.
Denounced by the Democratic-Republicans, and mostly reversed following their electoral victory four years later, the series of acts were broadly condemned for revealing the true motivations of the Federalist Party. Combined with Adams’ previous writings, including suggestions that “hereditary monarchy or aristocracy [are the] only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws” as well as warnings against unbridled democracy, following inauguration as Vice President Adams even designed a system of government employing a hereditary legislature and a nationally appointed president for life. All things considered fairly, perhaps the theory Adams and his followers were secretly fascists is not an entirely inaccurate assessment.
A famous depiction of the event as engraved by Paul Revere (copied from an engraving by Henry Pelham), colored by Christian Remick, and printed by Benjamin Edes (c. 1770). Wikimedia Commons.
10. Some alleged the 1770 Boston Massacre was deliberately arranged by Patriots to incite civil unrest and aid their cause against the British
A confrontation on March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre – also known as the Incident on King Street – served as a rallying cry for Patriots throughout the Thirteen Colonies and spurred nationalist support against British rule. Following a period of tense relations between civilians and quartered British soldiers, an angry mob surrounded a sentry and begun verbally abusing him. Reinforced by eight colleagues, the situation escalated rapidly, with stones, clubs, and snowballs thrown at the soldiers. Responding suddenly without orders, the nine soldiers opened fire upon the hostile crowd, killing five and wounding six more.
Although later arrested, only two were convicted of manslaughter, receiving reduced sentences, whilst the rest were acquitted under the dutiful representation at trial by John Adams. Becoming a symbol of the oppression imposed upon the colonies by the British, exploited by Patriot propagandists like Paul Revere, the Boston Massacre would inspire a generation to rise up in rebellion just five years later. However, despite seemingly an action born of circumstance, fear, and human error, it has been suggested the incident was an early example of a false-flag attack. Either deliberately provoked or covertly arranged, this conspiracy theory alleges the massacre was orchestrated by Patriots to generate outrage and discontent against the British, providing popular support for their cause.
Portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gilbert Stuart and Rembrandt Peale respectively (c. the 1800s). Wikimedia Commons.
9. Jefferson and Adams both died on the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence
Both reaching an advanced age, even by modern standards, in 1826 John Adams turned ninety whilst Thomas Jefferson a respectable eighty-three-years-old. Although invited to Washington celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – a document Jefferson had served as the principal author of – both men were enduring significant illnesses and unable to make the respective journeys. Succumbing within hours of each other on July 4, at 12:50 pm Jefferson passed away due to a fever whilst his friend and rival Adams followed suit at 6:20 pm. The latter’s last words, ignorant of his colleague’s departure, were to offer comfort to his family with the thought that “Thomas Jefferson survives”.
Immediately sparking public debate due to the incredible timing, the bizarre circumstance was taken by some, including Adams’ son, the sitting President John Quincy Adams, to be “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”, interpreting the simultaneous deaths of the national heroes as proof of divine intervention and care for the fledgling country. However, others reached an equally far-fetched conclusion: that the long-time friends-turned-rivals-turned-friends elected to depart this world together and in style. Lacking credibility, with the duo living hundreds of miles apart, this conspiracy theory alleges the pair committed suicide together on that specific day rather than endure prolonged illness and unnoticed deaths.
The reverse side of the United States One-Dollar Bill, illustrating the great seal of the United States of America (c. 1935). Wikimedia Commons.
8. The design of the one-dollar bill actually carries Christian motifs and Freemason symbolism
First issued in 1862, carrying a portrait of then-Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, the present format of the reverse side of the one-dollar bill stems from a redesign dating to 1935, making the bill the oldest overall design still in use by the United States. The highest production bill, accounting for forty-two percent as of 2009 and with more than twelve billion such bills in distribution as of 2017, the one-dollar note is one of most iconic symbols of the United States. Although carrying a portrait of George Washington on the obverse, the reverse side displays the Great Seal of the United States, as originally designed in 1782.
Provoking sustained conspiracy theories surrounding the placement of the Eye of Providence above a pyramid and the involvement of secret societies in American government, the one-dollar bill has served as a focal point of Freemasonry hypotheses for decades. However, whilst entertaining, the Eye – although today a common Masonic motif – was not during the late-18th century, but was instead a prominent Christian symbol during the Renaissance. Similarly, none of the four individuals responsible for contributing to the designs were affiliated at all with the order. Furthermore, logical reasoning dictates a secret organization would never so blatantly advertise their covert control over the American nation.
“Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown”, depicting the British (center) surrendering to French (left) and American (right) troops, by John Trumbull (c. 1797). Wikimedia Commons.
7. Supposedly, France covertly fermented rebellion in the Thirteen Colonies to weaken their British rivals
Starting with the secret shipping of supplies to the Continental Army in 1775, three years later the Franco-American Treaty – also known as the Treaty of Alliance – formally committed France to the American cause against the British. Contributing money, equipment, as well as later soldiers and ships, the support of the French cannot be overstated in the impact had upon the Revolutionary War. Of particular note, the Battle of the Chesapeake and Siege of Yorktown were decisive victories against the British and were only possible with the overwhelming assistance provided by the forces of Marshal Rochambeau.
Whilst most Americans who remember the vital role the French played during the revolution merely appreciate the partnership provided, some entrepreneurial and imaginative individuals have since concocted a more sinister plan. Claiming the French had designs upon the British Isles but were unable to launch a viable invasion, it has been alleged the French deliberately fermented rebellion in the Thirteen Colonies during the 1760s and early-1770s to distract and weaken the British enough to emerge victorious from a subsequent conflict. Although highly spurious, if true then it was an abject failure, as France accrued more than one billion livres of debt, collapsed their own economy aiding the Americans, and ultimately lost in the Napoleonic Wars.
“Declaration of Independence”, by John Trumbull (c. 1819). Wikimedia Commons.
6. It has been claimed a time traveler was responsible for convincing our Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence
Formally adopted on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed the United States of America as a sovereign nation. Although Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams all wrote the document was signed on the same day it was promulgated, as recorded similarly by the date listed on surviving signed copies, historical evidence strongly questions this assertion. As early as 1796 doubts were raised concerning the actual date of the signing, with Thomas McKean – one of the said signers – contending it could not have been July 4 as not all the individuals were actually present that day.
Becoming increasingly apparent during the 19th century the formal signing only took place sometime after July 19, it is today recognized the delegates put their name to parchment on August 2 – more than a month after promulgation. Whilst the historical record provides ample evidence justifying the delay – namely New York’s initial abstention and a desire for a unanimous declaration – an alternative conspiracy theory has been proposed. Alleging delegates were getting cold feet, this theory contends an unknown individual shouted out “God has given America to be free”, after which there was a rush to sign. Unable to find the individual responsible afterward, it is dubiously claimed the anonymous person must have been a time traveler resolved to save the country.
The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy (c. 1940). Wikimedia Commons.
5. The Founding Fathers were not all fervent Christians but were rather predominantly Deists
One of the fundamental principles of American political society is the central role of Christianity, becoming almost a disqualifying issue to not follow the religion, with no individual elected to the White House without claiming to be an adherent. A position held particularly among the traditional conservative wing of the nation, in spite of the First Amendment’s unequivocal separation of church and state, it is widely held the nation was founded by devout believers and was intended to be a Christian country. This, however, is very far from the truth, with many of the Founding Fathers retaining contradictory or differing religious beliefs.
Explored in detail by David L. Holmes in The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, it is clear the religions of the Founding Fathers were diverse in both conviction and scope. Whilst some indeed were followers of Christianity, notably Patrick Henry and John Jay, a preponderance of the grouping were, in fact, Deists. Including Thomas Paine, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, these individuals, whilst not totally abandoning their Judeo-Christian heritages, categorically fell short of the standards of theism. This diversity and skepticism perhaps help to explain the Constitution itself, with the First Amendment ahead of its time concerning the exclusion of religion from public life.
Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (c. early 20th century). Wikimedia Commons.
4. Some believe the authors of the Declaration of Independence deliberately crafted a sinister document espousing freedoms
In contrast to public memory of the document, the bulk of the Declaration of Independence deals not with the rights and liberties of the people residing within the American Colonies but instead with the charges and indictments leveled against King George III. Whilst schoolchildren across the United States are persistently taught about the flowery language of the brief preamble – most famously the sentence on self-evident truths and equality – this tiny section is dwarfed by the twenty-seven charges brought against the British Crown, suggesting, in the minds of scholars, where the true meaning and import of the document rests.
As recognized by modern historians, the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to provide a legal pretext for rebellion, not a discourse on rights. However, some conspiracy theorists go even further, suggesting the deliberate placement and over-exaggeration on the subject of freedoms and liberties – far exceeding the common opinion of the day and never truly enforced by the United States – was instead a sinister cover. Placing sufficient emphasis on lofty ideals, these arguments claim the Founding Fathers instead sought to concentrate as much power possible in the hands of a few but could not openly say so.
Portrait of Queen Anne (1665-1714), the last Stuart monarch, by the Workshop of John Closterman (c. 1702). Wikimedia Commons.
3. It has been argued the entire American Rebellion in the Colonies was designed by Jacobites to permit a return of the Stuarts to the British throne
Following the installation of George I as King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714, over the better claims of more than fifty of his relatives who were disqualified for being Catholic, the reign of the House of Stuart was ended in favor of the House of Hanover. Terminating also the Jacobite belief in the divine right of kings, with Parliament instead selecting who would fill the vacant throne and not God, the political movement repeatedly sought to restore what they perceived to be the rightful Stuarts to their proper place. Culminating in failed uprisings in 1715, 1719, and 1745, as well as several more minor instances, the Jacobite cause has been connected to the American Revolution.
Failing to successfully provoke rebellion in Britain, repeatedly crushed in decisive fashion, following the disastrous defeat in 1746 and the end of Jacobitism in Great Britain it has been alleged adherents entered into a protracted conspiracy designed to weaken the British Crown prior to a renewed effort. Supposedly responsible for provoking the seismic unrest throughout the American Colonies in the years preceding the revolution, in a manner similar to conspiracy theories involving ulterior French designs, it has been argued that Jacobites orchestrated the American Revolution in order to provide more fertile grounds in Europe for their seditious activities.
Official Presidential portrait of John Adams, by John Trumbull (c. 1792-1793). Wikimedia Commons.
2. It has been claimed the Alien and Sedition Acts were introduced to combat the Illuminati and prevent a hostile takeover
As previously mentioned, the Alien and Sedition Acts – signed into law in 1798 under President John Adams and supported by the Federalist Party – were among the most controversial elements of early American history. Granting the government sweeping and authoritarian powers to prosecute political dissenters, as well as foreigners, the acts were widely unpopular and denounced as tyrannical. Although mostly repealed following the Democratic-Republican victory in 1800, albeit with the Alien Enemies Act surviving to this day, some conspiracy theorists have argued this endurance exhibits the true intended purpose of the legislation.
Extending the residency requirements from five to fourteen years to acquire naturalization, both the Alien Friends and Alien Enemies Acts afforded the government broad powers over non-citizens and new arrivals to the United States. Tapping into (spurious) allegations concerning the Illuminati, it has been alleged the intended purpose of these bills were to deny the secret society the capacity to become entrenched in North America. Through these harsh anti-immigrant powers, it is reasoned the federal government carefully pruned incoming migrants to weed out subversives and deport members of the Illuminati before they could become a danger to the fledgling republic.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Charles Wilson Peale (c. 1791). Wikimedia Commons.
1. Thomas Jefferson was almost certainly not a leading member of the already discontinued Illuminati
One of the most prominent and acclaimed faces of the American Revolution, the achievements of Thomas Jefferson are almost beyond measure. Minister to France, the inaugural Secretary of State, both Vice President and President of the United States, as well as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and savior of the Library of Congress, Jefferson unquestionably deserves his position on Mount Rushmore. In spite of, and perhaps precisely because of this visibility, Jefferson has equally become the subject of more conspiracy theories than virtually any other American politician in history.
Supportive (and least initially) of the French Revolution, spending also several years in Europe in his capacity as one of America’s first overseas ambassadors, one of the more common conspiratorial rumors regarding Jefferson is that he was himself a leading member of the Illuminati. Allegedly joining the group during this time abroad, these uncorroborated and nonsensical arguments seek to connect his subsequent rise to prominence to sinister and shadowy influences. It should be noted, however, that one conspiracy theory – that Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves – has since been proven to be true, although his involvement with the defunct Illuminati remains less likely to follow suit.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
“Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati”, Terry Melanson, Trine Day Publishing (2009)
“The Fate of Reason”, Frederick C. Beiser, Harvard University Press (1987)
“The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson”, Adrienne Koch, Columbia University Press (1943)
“Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson”, Edwin S. Gaustad, Eerdmans Publishing (2001)
“The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father”, Douglas Ambrose and Robert W.T. Martin, New York University Press (2006)
“Alexander Hamilton America’s Forgotten Founder”, Michael P. Federici, Johns Hopkins University Press (2012)
“Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America”, Benjamin L. Carp, Yale University Press (2010)
“The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin”, H.W. Brands, Anchor Books (2002)
“Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”, Walter Isaacson, Simon and Schuster (2003)
“The Character of John Adams”, Peter Shaw, W.W. Norton and Company (1975)
“John Adams”, David McCullough, Simon and Schuster (2001)
“Rival Truths, Political Accommodation, and the Boston ‘Massacre’”, Neil Longley York, Massachusetts Historical Review (2009)
“The Boston Massacre”, Robert J. Allison, Applewood Books (2006)
“Two Presidents Died on the Same July 4: Coincidence or Something More?”, Natasha Frost, History Magazine (July 3, 2018)
“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”, Jon Meacham, Random House (2012)
“The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States”, Richard Shape Patterson and Richardson Dougall, United States Government Printing Office (1978)
“Is U.S. Ready to See the Dollar Bill Pass?”, Los Angeles Times (June 12, 1995)
“French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778”, Edward S. Corwin, Archon Books (1962)
“The French Forces in America, 1780-1783”, Lee Kennett, Greenwood Publishing (1977)
“The Declaration of Independence: Its History”, John H. Hazelton, Da Capo Press (1970)
“The Story of the Declaration of Independence”, Dumas Malone, Oxford University Press (1975)
“The Faiths of the Founding Fathers”, David L. Holmes, Oxford University Press (2006)
“The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text”, Julian P. Boyd, University Press of New England (1999)
“The Declaration of Independence: An Interpretation and an Analysis”, Macmillan (1904)
“The Jacobites, Britain, and Europe 1688-178”, Daniel Szechi, Manchester University Press (1994)
“Jacobitism and Anti-Jacobitism in the British Atlantic World, 1688-1727”, David Parrish, Studies in History (2017)
“Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties”, James Morton Smith, Cornell University Press (1956)
“Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts”, John Chester Miller, Little, Brown, and Company (1951)
“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”, Jon Meacham, Random House (2012)
“The Mind of Thomas Jefferson”, Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia Press (2007)