How a Civil War politician invented Atlantis


Graphic Courtesy of Maxwell Pizano

Ignatius L. Donelly was born in 1831 in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and he was the son of an Irish immigrant. When he was young, his father died of typhus and his mother enrolled him in Central High School. Ignatius studied writing and after occupying a handful of jobs, he became a clerk for the attorney general. Through the job, he gained political experience, which he went on to  utilize when he began giving speeches for the Democratic Party.

 After a successful run for lieutenant governor, he went on to become a senator, and then later a house representative. Surprisingly progressive for his time, he advocated for women’s right to vote as a radical reconstructionist. However, after an aggravated rant on the floor of Congress, his party did not renominate him.
He spent the last two decades of his life writing about his “theories.” The first book he successfully published was “Atlantis: The Antediluvian World” in 1882, which referenced Plato’s socratic dialogue “The Republic,” in which Atlantis was first mentioned. In his writing, Donelly claimed Atlantis was a great maritime empire that stretched from modern day Chile to the Aral Sea, and also that the Irish were the closest, genetically, to the ancient Atlanteans. These beliefs would play into certain ideologies in the following century, legitimizing them.
In his book he also popularized many of the pop culture ideas about Atlantis, specifically around its downfall claiming it was a meteor that sank Atlantis. His other contribution was to the birth of Mayanism, he claimed that the Mayans were direct descendants from the Atlanteans and from that connection modern day Mayanism and belief in Atlantis would go hand in hand. And overall harmful, in 2018 a study conducted by Chapman University found that over 55% of Americans believe in Atlantis. Ignatius L. Donelly would die on January 1st 1901 months after a failed political speech which highlighted his rapidly declining mental and physical health. After that he would fall out of the public eye,  but his impact on pop culture is unmistakable and felt everywhere, yet largely forgotten. It’s important to remember the history that comes with these conspiracy movements to immunize against their greatest weapon. Ignorance.