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