by Paul M. Bessel
Abraham Lincoln was not a Mason, but he possessed and displayed all the important qualities of Freemasonry: faith, hope, and charity, belief in God, the equality of all people, and the ability of each person to improve. He came into contact with many Masons and Freemasonry was a greater influence in society then than today. What, then, was his view of Masonry, and would he and Masonry have benefited from his membership? Why did he not become a Mason? How did Masonry affect his life and career?
Lincoln's Attitude Toward Freemasonry: How Lincoln and Freemasonry Would Have Benefitted from his Membership
The Grand Lodge of Illinois recessed their meeting being held during the 1860 Presidential campaign to call on Abraham Lincoln, a candidate in that election, and he is reported to have said:
"Gentlemen, I have always entertained a profound respect for the Masonic fraternity and have long cherished a desire to become a member..."
When a Mason told Lincoln in a conversation during that campaign that all his opponents were Freemasons, especially noting that Stephen A. Douglas was an early member of the Masonic lodge in Springfield, Lincoln's home town, and he was not, Lincoln replied:
"I am not a Freemason, Dr. Morris, though I have great respect for the institution."
After Lincoln's death, the Grand Master of Masons in the District of Columbia, Benjamin B. French, who had been a friend of Lincoln's, wrote to the editor of The Masonic Trowel, who was also the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Illinois:
"He [Lincoln] once told me how highly he respected our Order and that he at one time had fully made up his mind to apply for admission into it..."
Brother French also wrote to the Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York, in response to a similar inquiry:
"President Lincoln ... once told me, in the presence of M W Brother J.W. Simons, that he had at one time made up his mind to apply for admission to our Fraternity but he feared he was too lazy to attend to his duty as a Mason, as he should like to do, and that he had not carried out his intentions...."
There are many reasons for Lincoln to have had a positive view of Freemasonry. A qualification to become a Mason is a belief in a Supreme Being, while leaving it to each one to decide exactly what religious beliefs to hold, and Masonic ritual includes many references to the Bible and the concept of spiritual rebirth. Lincoln, too, had a fervent belief in God and was an avid student of the Bible. He included Biblical references in many of his writings and speeches, the most famous being his second Inaugural address, and he regarded the entire subject of religion as a matter of individual conscience. Lincoln could have been expected to have been attracted to Freemasonry's attitude of support for religion combined with strong support of freedom of religion and conscience for all people. Spiritual rebirth was one of the special concepts alluded to in Lincoln's Gettysburg address.
One of the fundamental tenets of Masonry is that it seeks "to make good men better." This belief would have appealed to Abraham Lincoln, who desired to see the best in people and to see that each individual could advance in life as much as possible. Likewise, the Masonic support of equality and the brotherhood of all people were also fundamental ideals with Lincoln. Masonry examines the meaning of death, and Lincoln frequently meditated on this. Freemasonry, in the 1800's even more than now, focuses on philosophy—what are the long-term purposes and goals of our lives. Lincoln, who talked of America as being the beacon of hope for mankind and who said the goal of the Civil War was to insure that free government would survive in the world, would have been interested in this Masonic tradition.
There are more mundane reasons to think that Abraham Lincoln should have been a Mason. Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations are typical places for politicians for become well known and seek support. Lincoln was one of the most ambitious politicians of his day, and he could have benefited from this connection. Lincoln also had an active law practice, and Masons might have given him more business if he had been a Mason. Another reason to think Lincoln should have wanted to become a Mason is his desire for fellowship. Lincoln enjoyed the company of other men and strongly desired acceptance from society. He should have welcomed the opportunity to be with men who are such close friends as to consider themselves Masonic brothers. He would have had the opportunity to share humorous stories, discuss philosophical issues, and exchange information about their experiences. Lincoln enjoyed politics in all its senses, and he would have likely risen to a prominent office within Freemasonry. That would have satisfied his ambition in some way, as well as helping him achieve prominence in the community. It would have shown, as Lincoln did in other ways, that one born without any likely prospects for success in life could achieve much that even those who were more high born did not.
Lincoln's personal associations should also have led him to seek to join the Masons. Bowling Green was a close friend of Lincoln and a prominent person in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln's first home town. Green was a Master of the local Masonic lodge and a member of the original Grand Lodge of Illinois. Mrs. Green and Green's Masonic brethren requested that Lincoln speak at Judge Green's funeral, which included Masonic services, in February 1842, and Springfield Lodge No. 4 invited Lincoln to give a speech at a memorial service for Green in September. Besides Bowling Green, many of the important men of New Salem, Springfield, and nearby areas with whom Lincoln was in contact were Masons, including Stephen A. Douglas, Ninian Edwards, and James Shields. The best man at Abraham Lincoln's wedding to Mary Todd was James Matheny, a member of the Springfield Masonic Lodge and a past Master of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. Lincoln's closest neighbor, James Gourley, was also a Mason, as were other friends and business associates. To show how widespread Masonic membership was during Lincoln's early years, especially for men who desired to raise their place in the world, even the fiance of Ann Rutledge, reported to be Abraham Lincoln's first true love, was Junior Warden of a local Masonic Lodge.
Lincoln's idol in politics was Henry Clay, a U.S. Senator and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, candidate for President several times, and one of the most influential Americans of the first half of the 1800's. Henry Clay had been the Grand Master of Masons in Kentucky in 1820-21, but in 1830-31 he said he had been inactive for many years. This was during the height of the influence of the Antimasonic Party when Clay was seeking the Presidency, but still he refused to denounce Masonry and thus hurt his chances to be elected. Lincoln said Clay was his model in politics, so Lincoln could have been influenced by Clay's Masonic involvement, and refusal to denounce it even that would have helped him politically, could be expected to have possibly induced Lincoln to seek to join the Masons.
For many reasons, then, one would think that Lincoln should have wanted to become a Mason, and that he would have been welcomed. He said he had a favorable attitude toward Freemasonry, his words and actions showed a devotion to ideals similar to those of Masonry, the philosophy of Masonry is similar to the beliefs Lincoln supported, membership in the Masons probably would have helped Lincoln in his political and legal careers and would have bolstered his desire to be accepted by others and to enjoy friendly fellowship, and Lincoln came into contact with, and admired, many Masons.
Why Didn't Lincoln Become a Mason?
Speculation on the reasons Lincoln did not become a Mason fall into several categories.
Lincoln is reported to have told the members of the Grand Lodge of Illinois during the 1860 campaign for U.S. President that:
"I have never petitioned because I have felt my own unworthiness to do so. I might be overcoming my hesitance and be petitioning at the present time but I am a candidate for political office, and by some such action would be misconstrued. For this reason, because my motives would be misconstrued, I must for the present time refrain."
After Lincoln's death, a friend of his who was a prominent Mason said Lincoln had once told him the reason he did not seek membership in Freemasonry was that, "I (Lincoln) feared I was too lazy to do all my duty as I should wish to were I a member, and I have kept postponing my application." When the friend said it was not too late, he said Lincoln laughingly replied, "Well, perhaps some day I may ask you to let me in."
Mary Todd Lincoln, when told by an Anti-Mason that he would support her husband for President in 1860 if he did not belong to a society with secrets (clearly indicating Masonry), replied, "Mr. Lincoln has never been a Mason or belonged to any secret order..." because he was too busy with his business activities.
Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, was an avid Freemason. He wrote that he once elicited Lincoln's views of Masonry and Lincoln was noncommittal. Perhaps Lincoln did not have strong feelings either way joining the Masons.
Lincoln might have avoided Masonry because of unfortunate, but interesting, incidents with a couple of Masons.
One is James Adams. In May 1837, Lincoln took on one of his first legal cases, representing the widow and son of Joseph Anderson in their effort to take possession of, and sell ten acres of land presumed to have been owned by him at the time of his death. However, James Adams, Anderson's former attorney and an officer of the Springfield Masonic Lodge, was found to be in possession of the land, basing his claim on a deed executed to him by Anderson. Lincoln felt the conveyance of this land was spurious. At the time of this lawsuit, Adams was running as a Democrat for probate justice of the peace of Sangamon County against a Whig friend of Lincoln's. During the campaign, six letters were printed in the local newspaper, written by Lincoln and insinuating fraud by Adams, and a few days before the election Lincoln wrote and distributed handbills in Springfield which stated explicitly that Adams obtained the Anderson land by fraud. Adams responded to these charges, and Lincoln in turn published replies. The affair was bitter and public. Lincoln said Adams spread rumors that Lincoln was a deist, rumors that caused Lincoln political harm in the future. In the meantime, Adams won the election, and the contested land was still in Adams' estate when he died six years later. James Adams was a Master of the Springfield Lodge in 1839 and was elected Deputy Grand Master of Masons in Illinois in 1840. Lincoln might not have wanted to join a lodge in which Adams was a prominent member, and Lincoln might not have received unanimous approval to be accepted into the Springfield Lodge after his 1837 run-ins with the prominent Mason James Adams.
A few years later Lincoln had problems with another Mason, James Shields. He was an Irish immigrant who settled in Illinois and became a Mason in January 1841, following Stephen A. Douglas in the Junior Warden's officer chair. Shields was a Democrat who became state auditor in 1841. Lincoln and the Whig party protested his policies, and several satirical letters appeared in the Springfield newspaper questioning Shields' honesty and mocking his physical courage. Shields was told that Lincoln had written these letters, and he challenged Lincoln to a duel. All of Springfield read Shields' published challenge, and there was great excitement about the upcoming duel. Lincoln attempted to end the dispute with a partial explanation, but said if a duel was insisted on then he, as the person challenged, would demand that both combatants be in an eight foot circle holding the largest possible cavalry broadswords with neither allowed to pass over a line in the center. These conditions were intended to mock the idea of this duel, especially since Lincoln was so much taller than Shields, but Shields persisted.
On September 22, 1842, Lincoln, Shields, their seconds and others boated across the Mississippi River to fight the duel in Missouri, where dueling was still legal. Fortunately, friends intervened to get Shields to accept Lincoln's explanation and the duel was called off, but Lincoln was mortified by the episode. Shields' and Lincoln's letters and all the details were publicized and the "duelling business" and spirit raged in Springfield afterwards. We can rightly suppose that Shields' Masonic brothers knew all about this affair and possibly assisted him.
It is worth noting that one of the letters which so angered Shields was published in the Springfield newspaper on September 2, 1842, the next day Lincoln delivered a speech at the Masonic memorial service for his late friend Bowling Green (at the invitation, probably made in July before the anti-Shields letters were published, of the Springfield Lodge), a letter that was even more insulting to Shields was printed in the newspaper on September 9, and the parties met and almost fought the duel on September 22. It is likely that there was a good deal of tension between Lincoln and Shields' Lodge brothers during this time. Lincoln had been in a highly public feud with one of the leading members of the lodge. This might have made him reluctant to join the Masonic lodge to which Shields and his friends belonged, and they might have rejected him if he had petitioned. This episode, plus the one involving James Adams, might have left Lincoln with negative feelings about Masons in general.
Another possible reason for Lincoln's not becoming a Mason may have been political. In the 1830's there was a very strong anti-Masonic feeling and even an Anti-Masonic party that elected some of its members to state and federal positions. Some politicians gained favor and office by attacking Masonry; many lodges lost members and folded. Becoming a Mason could harm political careers, and even some former Masons took on anti-Masonic attitudes in their speeches. Lincoln might have decided to avoid the opposition of anti- Masons by not joining the fraternity.
Lincoln may have decided not to seek to join the Masons because he thought that would be misconstrued as an attempt to obtain political support from other Masons, or he may have truly felt himself unworthy or too lazy to properly perform his Masonic duties if he joined, or he may have been too busy with his regular business activities, or he may have had poor views of Masons because of his prominent feuds with two of them, or he may have felt that those feuds would lead to his rejection if he tried to join, or he may have felt that anti-Masons would not support his political ambitions if he became a Mason, or he may have just been indifferent toward Masonry. Perhaps the real reason was some combination. Certainly Freemasonry lost the opportunity to include among its members someone who would have fit very well into the Masonic philosophy and who could have assisted Freemasonry if he had so chosen. Perhaps Lincoln also lost something by not becoming a member of the Freemasons, the opportunity to join with others in an organization seeking many of the same basic goals that motivated Abraham Lincoln throughout his life.
How Did Masonry Affect Lincoln?
It is not possible to know if, or how, Abraham Lincoln was affected, directly or indirectly, by Masonry. Some guesses are reasonable, though.
Freemasonry was especially strong in the 1700's, and its philosophy and goals had a strong influence on the founding fathers of the United States, many of whom, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were active, enthusiastic, and prominent Masons who applied their Masonic ideals in their work. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 stated a fundamental position that was developed in Masonry earlier in the 1700's:
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Lincoln in 1861 said:
"I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence....I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was ... that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance."
This is the guiding spirit of the Masonic philosophy, then and now, and it became a part of the Declaration of Independence that in turn affected Lincoln so fundamentally.
Lincoln's middle position between Masonry and Anti-Masonry may have helped him gain the Republican nomination for President in 1860. All his major opponents, William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri, had anti- Masonic histories. Masons, and there were definitely some at the nominating convention, would have been more inclined toward Lincoln than the others.
Except for Lincoln, all the candidates for President in 1860 were Masons: Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckenridge, and John Bell. The President then, James Buchanan, and other prominent political leaders, were also Masons. The list of prominent people connected with the Civil War and politics in that era who were Masons is very long, including Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, Robert Anderson, Winfield Scott Hancock, Benjamin F. Butler, Simon Cameron, Lewis Cass, John J. Crittenden, Andrew G. Curtin, David G. Farragut, Nathaniel P. Banks, John A. McClernand, Thomas H. Benton, John A. Logan, Sam Houston, Stephen A. Hurlbut, Andrew Johnson, Edwin M. Stanton, Gideon Welles, Albert Sidney Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Howell Cobb, John B. Floyd, Albert Pike, Sterling Price, Robert Toombs, Godfrey Weitzel, Henry A. Wise. It is possible that Lincoln saw some of the spirit of brotherly friendship among these Masons, and that their practice of Masonic ideals had some affect on him.
It is well known that Lincoln demonstrated magnanimity even toward his enemies, asking in his second Inaugural address for "malice toward none and charity for all" and desiring an easy peace and for the leaders of the Confederate government to be allowed to escape rather than being arrested and condemned, and his visits and friendly comments to Confederate wounded. Lincoln searched for reasons to reverse the decisions of court-martials calling for executions. Freemasonry also played a role in alleviating the harshness of the Civil War, and this probably came to Lincoln's attention and may have affected his own attitudes to some extent. Masons from both sides got together to exchange information, assist wounded from the other side, and arrange for Masonic burial services for fallen enemies. Some soldiers even escaped death because of their Masonic affiliation. Lincoln and his colleagues who were Freemasons demonstrated charity toward others even while engaging in all-out combat to accomplish goals they felt were worth fighting for—to maintain democratic government and to prove that people could govern themselves.
Abraham Lincoln was never a Mason, but it is likely that Masonry had some positive influences on him, and he on Freemasonry. His political philosophy was affected by Masonic ideals through the Masonic influence on the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. His spirit of charity during the Civil War was probably affected to some extent by hearing how Masons in the war helped each other while maintaining their ideals. Lincoln was probably helped in his political and personal life by Masons. Without overreaching, Masons and all who study Lincoln can rightly take some satisfaction from the involvement of Abraham Lincoln, a non-Mason, and Freemasonry.