Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840

By Hanyan, Craig | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840


Hanyan, Craig, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 17301840. Steven C. Bullock. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. $49.95.

With exceptions such as Dorothy Ann Lipson's Freemasonry in Federalist Connecticut (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), the work of historians in the last two decades has concentrated on the 1820s emergence of the "blessed spirit" of Antimasonry and its subsequent spread. Among others, Ronald P. Formisano, Paul Goodman, Kathleen S. Kutolowski, and William P. Vaughn have contributed to our understanding of that political movement. Revolutionary Brotherhood shifts our attention to Freemasonry itself and provides a muchneeded scholarly survey of the American Masonic experience from its colonial beginnings, through Masonry's republican transformation and the later Antimasonic upheaval, and, briefly, to the subsequent reemergence of the chastened fraternity as a benign expression of, even a prototype for, the fraternal enthusiasm of the later nineteenth century. Drawing on contemporary manuscripts, newspapers, pamphlets, on Masonic sermons, orations, and lodge records, and on the rich store of writings by Masonic historians and antiquarians, Steven C. Bullock has sought to distill the manner in which Masonry reflected fundamental changes in American culture and politics.

Modern "speculative" Masonry built on the rituals of "operative" Masonry, the rites of passage celebrated by the artisans whose craft had left monuments that suggested permanence, ancient order and wisdom to men of the early eighteenth century. Led by members of the English elite or men close to them, the speculative brothers freely elaborated craft rituals to suggest that they had uncovered secret pathways to ancient knowledge and pure religion. Keeping within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, as Bullock points out, they emphasized Biblical beginnings rather than the hermetic traditions of learned magic in general and alchemy in particular. This early Freemasonry served to bolster social order, urbanity, and general piety in an England uncomfortable with the memory of sixteenth-century upheavals.

In this form, Freemasonry by the late 1730s haphazardly made its way across the Atlantic to the American provinces, where seaboard mercantile and professional leaders used it as a vehicle through which they could publicly express their superiority, unity, and cosmopolitan ties to gentility and enlightenment. Yet twenty years later this expression of American Masonry began to succumb to a movement begun in Britain and in no small measure the handiwork of men standing outside the existing lodges' social pale. The "new" men of this forceful upwelling called their order "Ancient," defined it as pure, and affixed the label "Modern" to their beleaguered opponents, who could only win acceptance after "healing" by Ancients. Making its way across the Atlantic, Ancient Masonry developed rapidly, drawing heavily on coastal artisans and interior elites who, to establish their prestige, capitalized on the images of the older vein of Masonry.

Bullock explores the ways in which revitalized Masonry resonated with the republican Revolution that gave birth to the United States. Officers of the Continental Army flocked to Masonry; it helped to provide them with confidence in their status and to ensure conviviality among them. More broadly, the fraternity came to embody and to build on dynamic tensions in the new nation: on the one hand, appreciation for the opportunities opened to all free men in a society without a formal aristocracy and, on the other, the growing presumption that the processes of that society could generate an elite characterized by virtue and talent, a natural aristocracy. Led by men such as De Witt Clinton, Masonry promised a patriciate that would behave benevolently, with Christian charity, never exploiting fraternal ties selfishly. …

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