The Significance of Freemasonry in Early America

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In the new American republic, Freemasonry provided a nonsectarian alternative to religion that simultaneously reinforced and weakened the ruling elites.

The influence of the institution of Freemasonry on the leaders of revolutionary America and the republic they created is well known. Masonic symbols, such as the compass and square, the pyramid, and the all-seeing eye, were widely used in early America, and remain so today. Many of the most prominent of the nation’s Founders were Masons, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Samuel Adams.

The Nature of Freemasonry and its Appeal in British America

What was there in the Masonic ideas and practices that attracted men such as these? And what effect did Freemasonry have on the developing democracy of the United States?

Although elements of Masonry go back centuries, its modern institutional form began with the organization of a Grand Lodge in London in 1717. By the 1730s Masonic lodges had been established in America; and around the middle of the century the movement experienced a period of rapid growth, not only in America but worldwide.

With its eclectic mix of doctrines and rituals drawn from several religious traditions, Masonry appealed to both reason and the emotions. In addition, its semisecret nature provided its followers with a kind of inherent authority – to be a Mason was to be a member of an elite, regardless of one’s actual social standing. At the same time, the various orders and degrees within Masonry mirrored the ranks and classes of the larger society.

For the Founders of the republic, the Masonic lodge was a surrogate church: it provided fellowship, opportunities for service to others, and a forum for the exchange of ideas, without the sectarian tendencies of traditional religions. These were Enlightenment values; and now, with the success of the Revolution, they were seen as republican values as well.

The Democratization of Freemasonry

With the establishment of the thirteen new republics, Freemasonry’s growth accelerated even more. In 1779, there were twenty-one Masonic lodges in Massachusetts; by 1799, fifty new ones had been organized. The rhetoric of democracy that motivated so many Americans to throw off British rule now motivated them to weaken the barriers of class that had been part of their British heritage. Masonic lodges throughout the country no longer limited their members to “gentlemen,” but welcomed those of the “middling sort” as well, including, at least in Boston, free black men.

Once independence had been achieved, Masons began to see their role as one of modeling among themselves the virtues inherent in their new republics: renouncing bigotries and prejudices; replacing an aristocracy based on birth with one based on merit; offering everyone, even strangers, friendship, and assistance when needed; and, in general, spreading the ideals of republican self-government throughout the land.

The Paradoxical Effects of Freemasonry

American Freemasonry, like its English parent, began as an exclusive society in which gentlemen could participate in cordial gatherings of their peers, without the sectarian strife often found in traditional religions. Their secret teachings and rituals set them apart from the general public and endowed them with a certain authority not available to non-Masons. Although this exclusivity has never entirely vanished from Freemasonry, it was moderated somewhat by the contagious spread of democratic ideas following the Revolution. In the years of the early republic, Masons in effect reinvented themselves as the custodians of a new, more suitably republican ethic.

A sermon delivered in Philadelphia in 1790 expressed this ethic concisely in describing a Mason as one who finds himself “belonging, not to one particular place only, but to places without number, and in almost every quarter of the globe; to whom, by a kind of universal language, he can make himself known – and from whom we can, if in distress, be sure to receive relief and protection” [Wood, p. 52]. Freemasonry in the early republic continued to be an enclave for society’s elite; at the same time, under the influence of the nation’s expanding democracy, it broadened the definition of that elite to better match republican ideals – thus creating within itself a near-universal brotherhood.

Sources:

Butler, Jon. Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.