8/30/10 - freemasonry, americans, and openness

In today's excerpt - Early Americans quickly began to view themselves as exceptional, different and better than Europeans. Part of that exceptionalism was equality, which brought with it openness to strangers. Despite its later reputation for exclusivity, Freemasonry, which was born in the widespread emergence of a middle class, and grew rapidly to fill the human need to belong in a country where high mobility was breaking apart traditional social bonds—was an agent for breaking down class barriers and aiding this new openness. Freemasonry, repudiated the monarchical hierarchy of family and favoritism and helped create a new republican order that rested on 'real Worth and personal Merit':

"Intense local attachments were common to peasants and backward peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world. Indeed, to be free of local prejudices and parochial ties was what defined a liberally educated person. One's humanity was measured by one's ability to relate to strangers, and Americans prided themselves on their hospitality and their treatment of strangers, thus further contributing to the developing myth of their exceptionalism. Indeed, as Crevecoeur pointed out, in America the concept of 'stranger' scarcely seemed to exist: ' A traveler in Europe becomes a stranger as soon as he quits his own kingdom; but it is otherwise here. We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person's country; the variety of our soils, situations, climates, governments, and produce hath something which must please everyone.' 'In what part of the globe,' asked Benjamin Rush, 'was the 'great family of mankind' given as a toast before it was given in the republican states of America?'

"The institution that many Americans believed best embodied these cosmopolitan ideals of fraternity was Freemasonry. Not only did Masonry create enduring national icons (like the pyramid and the all-seeing eye of Providence on the Great Seal of the United States), but it brought people together in new ways and helped fulfill the republican dream of reorganizing social relationships. It was a major means by which thousands of Americans could think of themselves as especially enlightened. ... Many of the Revolutionary leaders, including Washington, Franklin, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Richard Henry Lee, and Hamilton, were members of the fraternity.

"Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for enlightened men suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and communality without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; with the Revolution, it became a republican one as well. As George Washington said, it was 'a lodge for the virtues.' The Masonic lodges had always been places where men who differed in everyday affairs—politically, socially, even religiously—could 'all meet amicably, and converse sociably together.' There in the lodges, the Masons told themselves, 'we discover no estrangement of behavior, nor alienation of affection.' Masonry had always sought and harmony in a society increasingly diverse and fragmented. ...

"In the decades following the Revolution Masonry exploded in numbers, fed by hosts of new recruits from middling levels of the society. There were twenty-one lodges in Massachusetts by 1779; in the next twenty years fifty new ones were created, reaching out to embrace even small isolated communities on the frontiers of the state. Everywhere the same expansion took place. Masonry transformed the social landscape of the early Republic.

"Masonry began emphasizing its role in spreading republican virtue and civilization. It was, declared some New York Masons in 1795, designed to wipe 'away those narrow and contracted Prejudices which are born in Darkness, and fostered in the Lap of Ignorance.' Freemasonry repudiated the monarchical hierarchy of family and favoritism and created a new republican order that rested on 'real Worth and personal Merit' and 'brotherly affection and sincerity.' At the same time, Masonry offered some measure of familiarity and personal relationships to a society that was experiencing greater mobility and increasing numbers of immigrants. It created an 'artificial consanguinity,' declared DeWitt Clinton of New York in 1793, that operated 'with as much force and effect, as the natural relationship of blood.'

"Despite its later reputation for exclusivity, Freemasonry became a way for American males of diverse origins and ranks to be brought together in republican fraternity, including, at least in Boston, free blacks."


Gordon S. Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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