Freemasons and the American Revolution

Article excerpt

A half-century ago, some historians connected Freemasonry with American independence because a few leaders of the Revolutionary generation - most notably Benjamin Franklin and George Washington - were Freemasons. Bernard Fay, a French historian who exposed Masons to the Nazis in occupied France during World War H, made emphatic claims for Freemasonry's importance to eighteenth-century revolutionary movements in France and the American colonies. Fay saw Freemasonry as the "main instigator of the intellectual revolution" of that age and "the spiritual father of its political revolutions." According to Fay, Freemasons engendered among "a limited but very prominent class of people a feeling of American unity without which American liberty could not have developed-without which there would have been no United States."(1)

Fay relied heavily on one Masonic writer in the United States, Sidney Morse, for his conclusions about Revolutionary America. Morse was convinced that "Masonry brought together in secret and trustful conference the patriot leaders" who led their country in a "fight for freedom." Morse saw Freemasons everywhere he looked: they sank the revenue schooner Gaspee in 1772; they orchestrated the Boston Tea Party a year and a half later; and they dominated committees of correspondence, committees of safety, provincial conventions, and the Continental Congress. Based only on hearsay, Morse wrote that "Washington, according to La Fayette, it is said, never willingly gave independent command to officers who were not Freemasons." Morse followed in the footsteps of other patriotic Masons. For example, a zealous Masonic orator had eulogized Washington soon after his death:

A single institution [Masonry] brought men to the level of equality;

he wished to understand its principles, he wished to become one of

its members. His soul expanded with the pure flame of charity; and, I

have the pride to believe, that, the first step which he made in the

[Masonic] temple of truth, had an influence on the fate of this empire,

and on the improvements in the systems of other governments.(2)

For years Masonic writers repeated the sentiments expressed by Washington's enthusiastic Masonic contemporary, albeit without any proof to substantiate their claims. Masonic lodges left skimpy records, and Masons rarely mentioned such ties in their correspondence. More vexing still for the historian, they virtually never linked their Masonic association to their political views. On the contrary, they had vowed not to involve Masonry in political disputes. Forced into performing logical and stylistic gymnastics as a result, one later Mason wrote, "What influence Freemasonry may have had on the life and character of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN can only be conjecture, but that it did influence him and his contemporaries in the great struggle for American independence seems beyond doubt."(3)

Masonic enthusiasts and Fay notwithstanding, most historians have had little interest in the subject. Crane Brinton tipped his hat to Masonic involvement in the Frendi Revolution but had nothing to say about Freemasons and the American Revolution. R. R. Palmer concluded that even in France, Masons were politically "innocuous if not ridiculous" and did not act as a group. Bernard Bailyn passed over Freemasons in Revolutionary America altogether. Recently several historians have done detailed studies of eighteenth-century Masonry, but they have assiduously avoided making a causal link between Masonry and the American Revolution.(4)

Masonic writers themselves have become more circumspect. One succinctly stated, "all patriots were not Freemasons and all Freemasons were not patriots." Another studied 241 "Founding Fathers" and determined that only 68 were Masons, not all of them active members. Still another had been reluctant to write a new biography of George Washington, since he knew that Washington was not very involved in the Brotherhood. …