Academic journal article Policy Review

Thy Brother's Keeper: The Mutual Aid Tradition of American Fraternal Orders

Academic journal article Policy Review

Thy Brother's Keeper: The Mutual Aid Tradition of American Fraternal Orders

Article excerpt

With the collapse of the Clinton health plan, Americans can go back to the drawing board in finding a way to provide low-cost health insurance to the working poor. It is not necessary to raise taxes, levy price controls, impose employer mandates, or establish a byzantine federal bureaucracy to offer such assistance. A useful model for low-cost health insurance for the working class may be found in the fraternal organizations of America's past.


Fraternal organizations are as old our as history-indeed, the first of these groups came to America with the colonists. The most important fraternal society to take root in the colonies was the Freemasons, known today as the Masons, a secret society imported from Britain. The first American Masonic lodge opened in Boston in 1733.

Primarily a social organization, members of the Freemasons shared a desire for fraternity, secrecy, and ritual; but an important element of the commitment to the lodge was a pledge of mutual aid to fellow members in times of need. Freemasonry was considered a sign of respectability among the colonists, as it had been in Britain. Recruitment in the early years was from the elite of colonial society, and included a number of the Founding Fathers. Many independent Masonic lodges had been established by the dawn of the American Revolution, generally in larger cities.

The Revolution spread the Freemasons throughout the colonies as initiates flocked to special traveling lodges chartered for their troops. Meanwhile, revolutionary leaders such as George Washington and Paul Revere, both avid Freemasons, widened the appeal of membership. The Revolution quickened a trend, already underway by the 1750s, to broaden the base of Mason brotherhood beyond a narrow upper crust; artisans and skilled workers joined in large numbers. Charitable funds to be used for the good of needy members were common among the lodges, financed by an annual assessment of those belonging to each lodge.

The Freemasons, beginning a trend that would reach into the 20th century, used these funds to assist sick or needy members and their families, as well as support orphans of members and pay for member funerals. Masonic principles dictated that charitable giving should favor brethren; to "...prefer a poor Brother that is a good Man and true, before any other poor people in the same circumstances," according to an early tract. In addition to financial help, Freemason brothers enjoyed such intangible benefits as character references, employment information, and temporary lodging. Freemasonry remained popular among America's political leaders; 14 U.S. presidents have been members, from George Washington to Gerald R. Ford.


Based on the Masonic model, other groups sprang to life throughout the 19th century. These included both secret societies, such as the Elks and the Odd Fellows, and a large number of fraternal insurance societies. The fraternal orders' memberships were not as broad-based or large as the secret societies, and generally were centered around a particular occupation, but shared with secret societies a system of lodge organization, a democratic form of internal government, ritual, and mutual aid for members and their families.

The major difference between the two types of groups was that secret societies usually did not provide formal insurance policies to their members, while insurance coverage was a key benefit of fraternal society membership. Insurance coverage was still rare in the 19th century; many Americans with any type of insurance were covered through their affiliation with a fraternal organization. The insurance provided by these groups was invariably some form of death benefit. These payments began as small sums, often just enough to pay for a funeral. As membership spread and the actuarial base grew, benefits increased as well, but were always viewed as a supplement to other means of support--a way to help the family get back on its feet after the death of the bread-winner. …

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