Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Journet, Debra S.


Conspiracies--United States--History; Paranoia--United States--History; Chiniquy, Charles Paschal Telesphore, 1809-1899; Anti-Catholicism--United States--History--19th century


Conspiracy theory has, as Timothy Melley states in Empire of Conspiracy (2000), “animated our political culture from the early Republican period to the present, at times powerfully swaying popular opinion” (vii). Though it has attracted attention from a wide range of disciplines, conspiracy theory has not received significant notice within rhetoric and composition. My dissertation adds to the interdisciplinary body of scholarship concerning conspiracy theory by examining it as rhetoric, focusing on how the construction of a conspiracy proponent’s ethos/character affects the persuasiveness of a conspiracy theory. I argue that ethos construction plays a much more significant role in conspiracy persuasion than typically considered. In “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964), Richard Hofstadter describes the importance played by “the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause” (such as an ex-Mormon or ex-nun) in American conspiracy argument. This dissertation examines the ethos of one prominent “renegade”— Charles Chiniquy (1809-1899), an ex-Catholic priest whose conspiracy charges were extensively used by anti-Catholics during America’s Gilded Age and into the twenty-first century. I use as a case study Chiniquy’s 1885 autobiography Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, in which he claims that President Lincoln spoke with him about the Catholic Church’s covert working for the Confederacy and the Church’s desire to assassinate Lincoln. With Lincoln as witness, Chiniquy’s conspiracy was widely circulated to promote anti-Catholicism. Belief in Chiniquy’s tale about the dead president ultimately depended on belief in the ex-priest; thus, my dissertation uses Chiniquy’s ethos construction as a means of examining the role ethos plays in persuading people to accept extreme claims. Chapter One reviews scholarship concerning ethos, anti-Catholicism, conspiracy rhetoric, and Chiniquy, my dissertation’s principal historical and theoretical approaches. Chapter Two explores how Fifty Years constructs ethos for Chiniquy. Chapter Three examines how the purported Catholic plot against the president and the Union were constructed in Fifty Years to support an anti-Catholic message, concentrating on three themes which have implications concerning ethos in conspiracy narratives. And Chapter Four describes the reception of Chiniquy’s conspiracy from the Gilded Age to the age of the World Wide Web.