Public fascination about the Society of Freemasons has increased since the organization became the subject of several recently published novels. A sense of the mysterious surrounds the fraternity. However, many myths about Masonic activities and rituals are founded on rumor and suspicion alone. Influential Freemasons helped to further the 18th century intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment that promoted ideas such as equality, freedom and tolerance.
The month of July is especially significant to all Americans because we celebrate the birth of our nation on the fourth of July. On that date in the year 1776, representatives of the thirteen American colonies, assembled at what is now known as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, adopted a manifesto asserting their political independence from the British crown. We know that document as the American Declaration of Independence.
Over the last two centuries various Masonic writers have often attempted to inflate the involvement of members of the Masonic fraternity in the events leading up to and resulting from this important historic event. It has often been claimed that all or most of the signers of the Declaration ; or that all or most of the general officers serving under Washington were Freemasons. These claims have been made to bolster the theory that the events of the American Revolution and the formation of the American colonies into an independent republic were carried out according to some Masonic plan, and in accordance with universal Masonic principles.
It is always best that such claims be tempered by the light of responsible and accurate historic research, not for the purpose of discounting the patriotic nature of our early American Masonic for-bearers, but rather to understand the role that Freemasons did play in the formation of this great nation. Probably the best accounting of Masonic membership among the signers of the Declaration of Independence is provided in the book Masonic Membership of the Founding Fathers, by Ronald E. Heaton, published by the Masonic Service Association at Silver Spring, Maryland. According to this well researched and documented work, proof of Masonic membership can be found for only eight of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence. They are:
Benjamin Franklin, of the Tun Tavern Lodge at Philadelphia; John Hancock, of St. Andrew’s Lodge in Boston; Joseph Hewes, who was recorded as a Masonic visitor to Unanimity Lodge No. 7, Edenton, North Carolina, in December 1776; William Hooper, of Hanover Lodge, Masonborough, North Carolina; Robert Treat Paine, present at Grand Lodge at Roxbury, Massachusetts, in June 1759; Richard Stockton, charter Master of St. John’s Lodge, Princeton, Massachusetts in 1765; George Walton, of Solomon’s Lodge No. 1, Savannah, Georgia; and William Whipple, of St. John’s Lodge, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Additionally, another five or six signers have from time to time been identified as members of the fraternity based on inconclusive or unsubstantiated evidence.
When examining the participation of Freemasons in the War of the American Revolution we should first remember the Ancient Charges of a Freemason, and especially that charge concerning “the Civil Magistrates, Supreme and Subordinate,” which enjoins the Mason to be “a peaceable subject to the Civil Powers” and “never to be concern’d in plots and conspiracies against the peace and welfare of the nation.” This charge was listed as the second of those contained in the Constitutions adopted by the Premier Grand Lodge at London in 1723, long before the American Revolution. How then does this fit into what has been considered over time as the single greatest act of Treason?
This conclusion can be reached simply by reviewing the actions of our forefathers, and their desire for the implementation of the basic tenets which have given the basis for the founding of our nation. We must necessarily review that document which began it all, The Declaration of Independence. While this document, written by Thomas Jefferson who was himself not a Freemason, it is undeniable that within this document lies some inalienable similarities which unites Freemasons and that which unites our nations under one flag. While the principles indoctrinated in the core or mission statement of our early nation are not unique to the Freemasons, in fact hey have been the basis of many books and philosophies throughout the ages, of which it is well know Thomas Jefferson to be an apt student it is undeniably true that Freemasons among all others hold these ideals to be essentially necessary to have been brought from the darkness of ignorance and self absorbent thinking into the light of truth and brotherly affection. Among these principles which have given the Declaration of Independence shape are Honor & Truth, Humanitarianism, Brotherly Love and Equality, and Duty to Men and God.
Honor and Truth
The public is sometimes mystified by the ambiguous symbolism used by the Freemasons including nine-point stars, the Egyptian all-seeing eye and two-headed eagles, but Masons are generally open about the principles that guide their organization. These values include honor and truth which are referenced in the Declaration of Independence through the condemnation of certain acts committed by the British including “mock trials,” the creation of false legislation, and injustice. Authors of the Declaration found fault with the practice of tenure and salary increase for judges with the king’s permission alone.
After Congress debated and revised the Declaration of Independence, the final document contained a list of grievances for acts contrary to the principles held sacred by Masons as well as all other men who signed the document. These grievances included the suffering of American citizens at the hands of British soldiers who “harassed the people and ate out their substance.” The authors of the Declaration also protested against the British choice of gathering places for legislative meetings which were difficult for colonial representatives to attend, denying their involvement and forcing them into compliance.
Brotherhood is a primary value held by the Freemasons. Although African-American men developed a separate Lodge in the 18th century, petition for membership is not based on wealth or ethnicity. Mason’s hold that each man should be judged on personal character. The authors of the Declaration pledged their lives and their fortunes to each other to accomplish their goal. Representatives who signed the Declaration claimed the crown denied the brotherhood of American citizens with the capture of American seamen who were captured and forced to serve as British soldiers.
The members of the the Freemasons must conduct themselves with duty and honor. The Declaration described the English king as a tyrant because he persecuted the States who petitioned for redress. As representatives of the States of America, they claimed it was their duty to separate from a tyrannical government that persecuted its subjects and denied them their freedom. Freemasons must follow their own faith and place duty to God before all other responsibilities. The Declaration of Independence closes with the statement that the authors relied on divine protection.
Humanitarianism, Brotherly Love and Equality, Duty to Men and to God
This gives way to a new question; How then can we justify the participation of American Freemasons in their rebellion against the King?
The answer can be given in two parts. First, the Masonic fraternity in the American colonies took no part in the Revolution, following Masonic tradition by taking no official stance. However, the fraternity’s official neutrality may have owed as much to the divided loyalties of its leadership as it did to Masonic tradition. Many Masons were Loyalists. And second, rebellion against the state, whether justified or unjustified, is not a Masonic offense. The Old Charges state clearly “if a Brother should be a Rebel against the State, … if convicted of no other Crime, … they cannot expel him from the Lodge, and his Relation to it remains indefeasible.” This simply means that, in the case of the American Revolution, many brethren, feeling that the actions of the crown warranted revolution and independence, were justified in following their consciences without fear of violating their Masonic obligations or any Masonic law.
As the charge concerning the Civil Magistrates reminds us, “Masonry hath been always injured by War, Bloodshed, and Confusion,” the fraternity was indeed injured by the war. General Joseph Warren, Grand Master of the Ancient’s Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, lost his life at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 and his body was thrown into an unmarked grave. While he had led the American troops during that battle, his lodge brother, Dr. John Jeffries assisted the British troops. Nearly a year later, his body was exhumed and identified by another Lodge brother, Paul Revere.
Even before the Declaration of Independence, colonial Masonry suffered from the disruptions of the war, and the division of loyalties among its members. Many lodges found it difficult to meet regularly, and others ceased to meet at all. Many lodges were disbanded as occupying British forces prohibited private assemblies, and loyalist Masons fled the country or joined the British forces.
Although the Masonic fraternity played no part in the Revolutionary War, it can easily be shown that in many ways the revolutionary ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy were espoused by the Masonic fraternity long before the American colonies began to complain about the injustices of British taxation. The revolutionary ideals expressed in the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the writings of Thomas Paine, were ideals that had come to fruition over a century before in the early speculative lodges of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where men sat as equals, governed themselves by a Constitution, and elected their own leaders from their midst. In many ways, the self-governing Masonic lodges of the previous centuries had been learning laboratories for the concept of self-government.
On September 18, 1793, President George Washington, dressed in his Masonic apron, leveled the cornerstone of the United States Capitol with the traditional Masonic ceremony. Historian Stephen Bullock in his book Revolutionary Brotherhood carefully notes the historic and symbolic significance of that ceremony. The Masonic brethren, dressed in their fraternal regalia, had assembled in grand procession, and were formed for that occasion as representative of Freemasonry’s new found place of honor in an independent American society. At that moment, the occasion of the laying of the new Republic’s foundations, Freemasons assumed the mantles “high priests” of that “first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people,” and they “helped form the symbolic foundations of what the Great Seal called ‘the new order for the ages’.”