freemasonry in early america -- 10/9/23

Today's selection -- from Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood. Freemasonry in America, both before and after the Revolution, brought a much needed form of cohesion to a world in which the traditional social structures were rapidly falling apart:

“The institution that best embodied the ideals of sociability and cosmopolitanism [in colonial and early America] was Freemasonry. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Masonry for the American Revolution. It not only created national icons that are still with us; it brought people together in new ways and helped fulfill the republican dream of reorganizing social relationships. For thousands of Americans, it was a major means by which they participated directly in the Enlightenment. 

The Masonic Square and Compasses (found with or without the letter G)

“Freemasonry took on its modern role in Great Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, The first Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717. By mid-century, English Masonry was strong enough to provide inspiration and example to a worldwide movement. Although Masonry first appeared in the North American colonies in the 1730s, it grew slowly until mid-century, when membership suddenly picked up. By the eve of the Revolution there were dozens of lodges up and down the continent. Many of the revolutionary leaders, including Washington, Franklin, Samuel Adams, Otis, Richard Henry Lee, Madison, and Hamilton, were members of the fraternity. The Revolution disrupted the organization but revitalized the movement; in the following decades Masonry exploded in numbers, fed by hosts of new recruits from deeper 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. 

“Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for an Enlightenment suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and congregativeness without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; it was a republican one as well. It repudiated the monarchical hierarchy of family and favoritism and created a new hierarchical order that rested on ‘real Worth and personal Merit’ and ‘brotherly affection and sincerity.’ Masonry was an organization designed to maintain the familiarity of personal relationships in a society that was coming apart. It created an ‘artificial consanguinity,’ declared De Witt Clinton, that operated ‘with as much force and effect, as the natural relationship of blood.’ It was intended to bring people together who did not know each other as well as they had in the past. 

The Masonic lodges, declared Charles Brockwell in 1750, were a means by which men who differed in everyday affairs, even in occupation, social rank, and religion, could ‘all meet amicably, and converse sociably together.’ There in the lodges ‘we discover no estrangement of behavior, nor alienation of affection.’ Masonry was looking for the lowest common denominator of unity and harmony in a society increasingly diverse and fragmented. It became ‘the Center of Union and the means of conciliating friendship among men that might otherwise have remained at perpetual distance.’ That strangers, removed from their families and neighbors, could come together in such brotherly love seemed a vindication of the enlightened hope that the force of love might indeed be made to flow outward from the self. A Mason found 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.’ This was the enlightened cosmopolitan dream.


“A gentleman's cosmopolitanism rested on his ability to relate to strangers, to share in the feelings of others, including social inferiors and even animals. ‘He weeps with them that weep and rejoyces with them that rejoyce’: that was sympathy, that was compassion. Elites earlier had scarcely ever thought about the existence of their inferiors. Now they not only thought about their inferiors, including their servants and slaves, but, like Landon Carter, they wondered and worried what their inferiors might be thinking about them! This willingness to believe that ‘the other’ had a reality equal to one's own was a powerful force in the sentimental revolution that swept through Western culture in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Gentlemen increasingly congratulated themselves on their ability to condescend, to enter imaginatively into the mind of an inferior with whom they were speaking and to assume a pose of equality. In this new republicanized world all superior–inferior relationships tended to get sentimentalized, when they were not denied altogether. Consequently it is not surprising that ‘friendship' became the term, the euphemism, most used to describe every conceivable personal relationship in the social hierarchy, including some of the most unequal and dependent. Even the submissiveness of the servant toward his master was occasionally sugarcoated with the term ‘friendship.’ It was as if every patron-client and dependent relationship had to be smothered in benevolence. 

Many now argued that ‘gratitude’ was ‘a kind of counterpart of benevolence,’ an enlightened republican substitute for monarchical subjection and deference. Indeed, republican theorists from Plutarch to Montesquieu had argued that gratitude was the principal source of obedience in republics and that the great vice of republics was always ingratitude. Yet there was something about the obligations of gratitude — defined as the ‘offspring of that gladness of heart which we feel on the reception of a favor’—that implied inequality and dependence— ‘dependence for friendship,’ John Jay derisively called it; and consequently Americans in the years following the Revolution remained uneasy over their attempts to make their republican ideas of equality compatible with gratitude and the inequality it suggested."



Gordon S. Wood


The Radicalism of the American Revolution




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