previous sub-section
Chapter 7 Circuits of Power
next chapter

Secret Societies

Charles Bent, being William Bent's brother, shared a network of kinship with him, which he extended in different directions, although in similar ways. While William saw to the operation of the fort and had as his primary concern relations with the Plains Indians, and while Ceran St. Vrain (although he was a great traveler) attended to the warehouses and stores in Taos and related operations, Charles looked to the east. Initially, this was to the trading houses of St. Louis, but in time his gaze extended to the seat of government in Washington, D.C. As we have seen, by the time of the Mexican War, Charles was in frequent secret contact with military leaders, such as Kearny, and with politicians, including such remarkable characters as Senator Benton and President Polk. It was through these contacts that he was installed as the first American governor of New Mexico.

While Ceran St. Vrain may have had "fictive kinship" ties with the trading houses in the East, it was Charles Bent who suggested how they could be used. After the partnership had been set up, it was Charles who went to St. Louis, taking with him a letter from St. Vrain to his contacts there. Power and politics attracted Charles.


Charles, the first-born of eleven children, was a determined man (fig. 21). Where associates thought Ceran quiet and gracious, they saw Charles as dynamic. A measure of his fierceness can be taken from two of the many letters he wrote to Manuel Alvarez, U.S. Council in Santa Fe. These letters were prepared in February 1841, the first on the nineteenth of that month and the second, although it is undated, probably sometime between the twentieth and the twenty-fifth. In an uncharacteristically sloppy hand, the first of these relates how he had just come from a visit with Juan Vigil, which he made in the company of a Mr. Workman. The visit was to confront Vigil with a copy of certain "false representations" he had made about Bent and Workman to the governor:

I then asked him how he dare make such false representations against us he denied them being false. The word was hardly out of his mouth, when Workman struck him with his whip, after whipping a while with this he droped it and beate him with his fist until I thought he had given him enough whereupon I pulled him off. he run for life. he has been expecting this ever since last evening for he said this morning he had provided himself with a Bowie Knife for any person that dare attack him, and suiting the word to the action drew his knife to exhibit. I supose he forgot his knife in time of neade. . .. I presume you will have a presentation of the whole affair from the other party shortly. . .. I doubt wether you will be able to reade this I am much agitated, and am at this time called to the alcaldis I presume at the instance of Jaun Vigil.[16]

The next letter is much more legibly written and relates how Bent was in fact called before a judge in the presence of Vigil. Vigil, according to Bent, made many threats against both him and the judge: "He particularly threatened to raise his relations and friends if the Justice did not do him Justice, according to his will."[17] Bent was ordered to prison, but he objected that there was no evidence against him except the word of Vigil, who had not actually accused Bent of doing him violence (Workman did the beating, at least in Bent's version of the event). The judge then ordered Bent to Charles Beaubien's house, to be employed in lieu of prison, but Bent again objected on the same grounds. Finally, the judge put Bent under house arrest, in his own home, and collected an undisclosed amount as bail. Bent was still aggrieved at the incident but was obviously much calmer than he had been when writing the first letter. He was waiting for the governor's decision, the judge being about to present the case to him, and he hoped for a favorable one:

I think the Governor is not a man entirely destitute of honorable feelings he well knows there are cases that the satisfaction the law gives, amounts to noth-


Figure 21.
Portrait of Charles Bent. (Courtesy Colorado
Historical Society., Denver.)


ing. I had rather have the satisfaction of whiping a man that has wronged me than to have him punished ten times by the law, the law to me for a personal offence is no satisfaction whatever, but cowards and women must take this satisfaction. I could possibly have had Vigil araned for trial for slander but what satisfaction would this have been to me to have him fined, and moreover I think he has nothing to pay a fine with, he is a vagabond that lives by fletching his neighbor.[18]

This was still the age of the duel, and Bent was a man of his times. Bent, who became governor of New Mexico six years after this incident, had run afoul of New Mexican law before. One of these occasions was associated with the 1837 insurrection against an unfortunate named Albino Perez, a governor who had been sent to New Mexico by Santa Anna, the president of Mexico. To put down the rebellion (instigated in part by Manuel Armijo, who had been governor in the 1820s and was miffed at recently being removed as customs collector), Perez obtained supplies from American merchants in Santa Fe with promissory notes. The supplies were not enough, and Perez's force was defeated. Perez himself was beheaded. Armijo saw in this the opportunity to regain power, and he forced American merchants to supply his troops. So supplied, Armijo defeated the rebel force and was proclaimed both governor of the province and commander in chief of the army (the position he held at the time of the Mexican War). Since Bent had supplied two factions in this conflict, he was imprisoned in Taos. Ceran St. Vrain led a rescue party to Taos from Bent's Old Fort but was met on the way by Charles, who had gained his release by bribery and by threatening to have his men burn down the town.

A slightly different presentation of these events appeared in The Builder,

a magazine of the Masons, in an article in the December 1923 issue tifled "Governor Bent, Masonic Martyr of New Mexico." The article was written by a Taos lawyer and Mason, F. T. Cheetham, who had earlier done an article for another local Masonic publication called "Kit Carson—Mason of the Frontier." In truth, it appears that Charles Bent and Kit Carson, along with Ceran St. Vrain and William Bent, as well as the ill-fated Albino Perez and Santa Anna himself, were all Masons. (The same issue of The Builder points out that twenty-three signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were eighteen Presidents of the United States—not to mention Benjamin Franklin.) According to Cheetham's article, Bent was imprisoned because he was mistaken for a member of Perez's Masonic order, the "Yorkinos," from south of the border.[19] Perez had instituted progressive reform measures in New Mexico, on the orders of Santa Anna,


said Cheetham. One was a decree providing for public schooling and the institution of a direct tax to pay for it. That there is some validity to Cheetham's thesis is supported by David Lavender's research, which confirmed that the idea of the direct tax was likely the major inflammatory issue behind the rebellion.[20]

As may be seen in this particular incident, in the nineteenth century fraternal organizations such as the Masons provided a means by which an increasingly fragmented society could organize itself around values and beliefs that held a high emotional content. The author of Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America , Mark C. Carnes, theorized that this was a reaction against the feminization of religion in Victorian America.[21] But Masonry had been in existence before Victorian times, as had the Odd Fellows. The spate of fraternal organizations that seemed to copy Masonry, and which went on to become so popular in the Victorian age, also arose before this time. Many were formed between 1840 and 1870. They shared the qualities of being ecumenical, in that they usually favored no specific religion, and secular, because many, like the Masons, steadfastly promoted the separation of church and state.

There are some obvious exceptions here, if organizations like the Mormons and the Knights of Pythias are accepted as fraternal orders. But Mormonism and the Knights of Pythias as well as some of the organizations with a more obvious political or special interest agenda that arose later in the nineteenth century—the United Mechanics, the Know-Nothings, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Ku Klux Klan—capitalized upon the obvious enthusiasm for ritual displayed by members of the older fraternal organizations like the Masons and the Odd Fellows.

This should not obscure the fact that members of the earlier organizations rallied around what they saw, at least, as the implementation of Renaissance ideals. Such ideals held that the application of rationality to the problems of society would result in a better world. Thus, these organizations were opposed to "archaic" and "corrupt" systems, like those their members saw in New Mexico. The overthrow of the old order there by the more enlightened Americans was a matter of principle. Cheetham quoted an observer in New Mexico some years after the Mexican War:

The annexation of New Mexico to the United States brought it under their Catholic ecclesiastical authorities, and they knew well what to expect from any bishop who might come from us. . .. A bishop was sent from the United States. There was a general suspension, unfrocking, dismay and howling among those


Mexican priests (and it would have been difficult to find exceptions), who "kept cocks and fit 'em, had cards and played 'em, indulged in housekeepers of an uncannoncal age, and more nieces than the law allowed."[22]

These hypocrisies had been enough to stir righteous indignation among the Masons in the Southwest—especially Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain. They found the church, and especially the infamous Padre Martinez (who all in the Bent & St. Vrain Company later blamed for Charles's death), opposing them and their influence at every turn.

But if the goals of the Masons and other fraternal organizations embraced the application of reason, then why advance such goals with a mechanism so irrational as ritual? Throughout the United States in the nineteenth century, middle-class men, often the leaders of their communities, expended a great deal of time and money on obsessive participation in what seem sophomoric rituals.

It was Carnes's thesis that although there were evident advantages to the creation of a bond with what amounted to the most influential group of individuals in many towns, it was the ritual activity itself that was the great attraction in secret societies. He noted that rituals were typically so elaborate that they left little time for anything but participating in or witnessing them. Contrary to popular belief, secret society meetings, especially during the later nineteenth century, were not given over to drinking and socializing. Carnes thought that, for nineteenth-century males, "in some sense the present had proven barren, devoid of emotional and intellectual sustenance."[23] By looking to a mythological past, fraught with symbolism, men could reclaim meaning for their lives. Even their participation in modernity was transformed into a kind of calling. Opposition from organized religious groups, notably the Catholics, was stimulated when it became known that the Masons and similar organizations taught that redemption depended upon the exercise of the human capacity for reason.[24] Middle-class experience could resonate meaningfully with reference to the mythology provided by the secret societies:

An arch in a railway station might bring to mind the temple of Soloman, an onerous business contract might gain meaning as a form of Babylonian captivity, and a business reverse could be seen as the "rough and rugged road" on the return to Jerusalem.[25]

So must a Cheyenne forced to a life of agriculture have seen the humpbacked shape of bison in every clump of sod turned over by his plow. Ironically, the "free" and egalitarian life of the Indian was held up as a


kind of paradisiacal model by some of the secret societies: "The Improved Order of Red Men . . . advised initiates to emulate the children of the forest, who held all wealth and property in common." In commenting upon this subversion of capitalism, Carnes cited Victor Turner's idea that some such rituals are an essential part of the "dialectal process" of society. Certain rituals are permitted that are in "opposition to existing hierarchies and rules." These may eventually bring about change.[26]

John Brewer offered a more functionalist explanation for the origin of Masonic and other secret societies in eighteenth-century England. In that society, the "patrician" class held such sway in the early 1700s that "the middling sort," as Brewer puts it, were driven to pool their resources.[27] The dearth of capital produced a situation in which indebtedness posed a constant threat to any merchant. Merchants, most succinctly, had a cash flow problem. Their clientele consisted of members of the upper class who were habitually late in the payment of their bills. This was considered a prerogative of the class; in time, it was a mark of the class. Unfortunately, the merchant's creditors had to be more concerned with punctuality. Debtor's prison was a constant threat. This was especially so as economic cycles seemed to occur in an absolutely unpredictable manner, at the mercy of fad and panic. Clubs were formed as mutual aid societies: to lend financial assistance or social pressure if loans were called, to provide support for widows and orphans, and so on. Brewer noted Dr. Johnson's comment that almost every Englishman belonged to a society, lodge, fraternity or club.

But the stated nature and organization of these clubs as reported by Brewer raises less functional considerations. Some of these clubs were organized along lines of the interests of the members. Brewer mentions "spending clubs" and "drinking clubs." As he put it, "Every taste was catered for: societies were established for literati, the ugly, gamblers, politicians, homosexuals, rakes, singers, art collectors, and boating enthusiasts."[28] Like the Civil War reenactors, Corvette Clubs, and birding societies of today, this segmentation was really the expression of a desire for intimacy and support. Often clubs stressed reciprocal obligations among members who "transcended traditional social, economic, and religious boundaries." Masonic and pseudomasonic societies as well as these interest-based clubs "boasted of the way in which they united Anglicans and dissenters, men from different trades, merchants and gentlemen, whigs and tories, in common association, promoting unanimity and harmony where only conflict had previously existed."[29]

All these clubs provided protection against the "arbitrary nature of misfortune."[30] This strikes me as nothing other than Eliade's "terror of his-


tory," the capricious events of the temporal world that can rob a life of meaning, or end it. The traditional response to this is to build a bulwark of ritualistically contrived meaning against the threat of chaos. Interpersonal relationships are configured or reconfigured in time of crisis with reference to and along the lines of eternal archetypes, which are themselves reflections of neotenic fantasies of enduring unity. This occurred no less among the "solid burghers and respectable tradesmen who made up the bulk of masonic membership." Thereafter:

Masons would rally round a brother whose creditors threatened to foreclose on him. The knowledge that substantial friends, as well as kith and kin, would stand by a tradesman increased his creditworthiness and the confidence that both he himself and others had in his business.[31]

This is an apt description of the sorts of relationships Charles Bent developed over the course of his life. These relationships were an integral part of the success of Bent's Old Fort. What Brewer described as occurring in eighteenth-century England transpired in the nineteenth-century United States and, by the second quarter of the nineteenth century, in the Southwest. As we have seen, the Masonic network by then reached all the way to the president of Mexico.

Brewer made a great point throughout his article of the tension between the aristocracy and the "middling sort" in England and saw the establishment of clubs and secret societies as a strategic move on the part of the middle class in the conflict between these groups. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was a social development that held certain economic advantages for many individuals and groups in the middle class. A problem with using the word "strategic" (as I have myself used it upon occasion) is that it calls forth the image of a general on a battlefield with immediate power to deploy his troops and weapons. That was not the case here, and what the word might inaccurately imply is that the Masons constituted a monolithic organization that had as its end the surreptitious control of nations, in the manner of an eighteenth-century "Tri-Lateral Commission." Another drawback to couching the events in question in such terms is that they might obscure that "strategic" moves, with the rationality that the word implies, were implemented by traditional concerns, and were driven by them as well.

If one proceeds from what I consider to be the phenomenological premise that the first item on the human agenda is to make sense of the world, whether the humans in question are in traditional or modern societies, then what stands out in sharp relief is that individuals from all


classes were scrambling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to establish new identities. Class lines, particularly in the United States, were not impermeable. Members of the "patrician" class were throwing their lot in with middle-class entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs were seeking upper-class partners for the associated prestige and as well as the access such new partners would have to politically and economically influential people and institutions.

Bent & St. Vrain Company provides an obvious example. Among the attractions held by St. Vrain in the Bents' perspective were in all probability his connections with Prattes and others and his genteel manner, which was conducive to further such connections. St. Vrain, for his part, must have seen the advantages of tying his fortunes to the Bents, with their business and legal acumen, as well as their drive, innovation, and ability to understand and communicate with a variety of people—the qualities of the entrepreneur. Yes, there was financial and social maneuvering here, but this maneuvering was not on the part of nor for the interests of "class." As important, there is no reason to think that the financial benefits were the only, or even the most important, motivation for participation in clubs or secret societies in either eighteenth-century England or nineteenth-century America. Participation might better be thought of as more generally aimed at the establishment of an identity in a society where amassing wealth was important to such ends. The final goal was not wealth, but what the wealth was imagined to represent.

This brings us to the second question posed some paragraphs above. Why advance "rational" goals—the modernizing goals of the Enlightenment, if you will, or the goal of rationalizing the credit structure, if you are functionally minded—with a mechanism so "irrational" as ritual? The answer is that nothing else would do. Social movements require that values be internalized, and there is really no other way to generate "sentiment" and impart values than through ritual. It is also important that however "rational" the goals might have been, the motivation to achieve goals is not rational—it is emotional. Among humans, emotions are invariably tied up with making sense of the world and one's place in it.

The rituals practiced by these organizations were, as previously discussed, initiation rituals. Mircea Eliade identified three basic sorts of these, at least in "primitive" societies: rites marking the transition from childhood or adolescence to adulthood, rites for entering a secret society, and rites of initiation into a mystical vocation.[32] The second of these is the one that arises in the most recognizable form in modern society.

Secret societies are historically recorded everywhere. Most often these


are men's societies, Männerbunde. Eliade acknowledged the theory that has gained wide acceptance among scholars of religion, that masculine secret societies are a reaction to matriarchy. Their object according to this theory is to frighten women and shake off female dominance. But Eliade noted that we do not see this occurring everywhere in reaction to matriarchy, and he pointed out that men's secret societies share many similarities with the initiation ceremonies associated with puberty. Eliade thought that such secret societies might arise, more generally, when notions of masculinity (or femininity, too, for there are Weiberbunde ) need to be reen-forced, as a result of cultural change:

It is for this reason that initiation into the secret societies so closely resembles the rites of initiation at puberty; we find here the same ordeals, the same symbols of death and resurrection, the same revelation of a traditional and secret doctrine—and we meet with these because the initiation-scenario constitutes the condition sine qua non of the sacred. A difference in degree has, however, been observed: In the Männerbunde, secrecy plays a greater part than it does in tribal initiations.[33]

The description of such rituals fits exactly those of the nineteenth-century fraternal organizations. Eliade went on to speak of reasons why secrecy is more important in Männerbunde than in puberty rituals. Primary among them is the factor of social change. He pointed out that these secret societies never arise where indigenous peoples have retained, unchanged, their ancestral traditions. But frequently,

the world changes, even for primitive peoples, and certain ancestral traditions are in danger of decay. To prevent their deterioration, the teachings are transmitted more and more under the veil of secrecy. This is the well-known phenomena of the "occultation" of a doctrine when the society which has preserved it is in the course of a radical transformation. The same thing came to pass in Europe, after urban societies had been Christianized; the pre-Christian religious traditions were conserved, camouflaged or superficially Christianized, in the countryside; but above all they were hidden in closed circles of sorcerers.[34]

Christianity, as Clifford Geertz and others have noted, became a "world religion," along with Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, because its theology could accommodate any number of smaller, regional, and more parochial religions. It used the instrument of rationality to form this durable theology, which was in this way more ecumenical than the religious systems of thought that had gone before. Secularization, after the Renaissance, demanded even more "ecumenical" belief systems, ones


more properly in the realm of philosophy, but operationalized as ideology. The search was on for evidence of "natural law," which did not depend upon supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. In many ways, this was the central intellectual story of the nineteenth century, as evidenced, for example, by the zeal with which the concept of evolution was embraced by many upper- and middle-class individuals during that period. Secularization was essential in the rapidly emerging modern world of the nineteenth century, especially for the middle class. Ways had to be found to accommodate this secularization, but also to assuage the growing sense of anomie that such rapid social change often produces. Accommodations took a somewhat bizarre form, for they depended upon a mechanism—ritual—that seemed to violate some of the basic tenets of the new ideology, of objectivity and rationality. The tensions engendered by these contradictions were such that the ideal of secularization and rationality had to be all the more enthusiastically, and publicly, embraced.

There was obvious anxiety among middle- and upper-class American men in the nineteenth century concerning their proper identity in the rapidly changing society. This is evidenced in any number of ways, including the strict codes of honor and the many duels in many regions of the country; we see these at work in Charles Bent's letters about his fight with Juan Vigil. It had to do with the general breakdown of traditional social structures and value and belief systems. While not as acute as that transpiring among Native American groups, or among the populace of New Mexico, the American populace was undergoing the same sorts of stresses. These were all the more severe in the Southwestern frontier. Conditions were extremely uncertain there; danger to life was a real factor in the equations of everyday experience. There was no family structure of the sort in which most of these middle-class individuals had grown up. The danger and hardship of the frontier rendered it an unfit environment for Anglo women, to this way of thinking. It was anything but a "normal" environment for the Easterners.

With the displaced American males, as with the Plains Indians, there

was really nothing left with which to make up a life other than trade and warfare, and the panoptic culture of modernism and the fictive kinship system of the secret societies easily accommodated these interests. They were, in fact, a perfect match. The panoptic system provided the means by which the new order could be implemented; the "kinship" systems provided a way of reinforcing both that system and the values and beliefs that made the implementation seem important. In this sense, panopticism was the how , the secret societies the why.


The combination proved very. powerful; it set in place the "circuits of power" that implemented the agenda of the central authority in the East. As Foucault could have predicted, the state eventually took over the panoptic mechanism. In England and France, what had been in the hands of private religious groups or charitable organizations soon was taken over by the state, once panopticism was established, producing a single authority responsible for all social order. Foucault provided a quote from an enthusiastic Parisian official: "All the radiations of force and information that spread from the circumference culminate in the magistrate general. . .. It is he who operates all the wheels that together produce order and harmony. The effects of his organization cannot be better compared than to the movement of the celestial bodies."[35]

Here is evidence of the sacralization of panoptic power, a sacralization just as evident in the rituals of the middle-class, male secret societies of the nineteenth century. Such power becomes sacred, or "natural" in terms of modern ideology, when it claims as its referent the endlessly recurring cycles of nature and the mysteries that were known to the ancestors. But now in the celestial archetype is seen the grids of logic; the "clockwork universe" becomes the "music of the spheres." This grid was imposed on the land-scape as the panoptic power, facilitated by ritual means, became firmly entrenched. Along with trails came telegraph lines, railroads, fences, settled lines of private property, and political boundaries. All of this tended, too, from the tangible to the more abstract. Trails and railroads gave way to political boundaries, which today yield to lines of communication and authority accessible to only those who have been grounded in their peculiar workings. The land, again, assumes fewer obvious points of reference.

Such logical grids have as an aspect of their control the power to locate and to settle. Foucault put it this way: "One of the primary objects of discipline is to fix; it is an anti-nomadic technique."[36] Among the first casualties of the new order were the nomads: the Plains Indians, the free-ranging trappers, and the traders with their caravans.


previous sub-section
Chapter 7 Circuits of Power
next chapter