Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe

By Margaret C. Jacob | Go to book overview

1
The Public Becomes the Private: The English Revolution and the Origins of European Freemasonry

From early in its European history freemasonry was accused of possessing democratic and republican intentions, if not communistic ones. An anonymous French polemic, published in Brussels in 1744, claimed to expose the freemasons as seeking to establish "a universal and democratic republic which would also hold in common all that the earth and the talents of its inhabitants, are capable of producing." 1 In Amsterdam at the height of the Revolution of 1747, another exposé accused the freemasons of being followers of Oliver Cromwell, 2 of being the heirs to the English revolutionary and republican tradition. In yet another anonymous repetition of the charge, also published in Amsterdam, the freemasons became "this Cromwellist Society," enraptured by "enthusiasm" for the common people (du menu peuple), as well as being the enemies of religion, elite men (de gens plus elits) who threaten the security of the state. 3 In 1791 the Cromwell charge was repeated; this time by opponents of the French Revolution. 4

Many of these attacks were of a clerical origin. In 1738 the Papacy condemned freemasonry, partly in response to the popularity of the lodge in Rome, and Catholic apologists who promulgated the Papal Bull explicated its logic in detail. At the top of their list of masonic offenses was republicanism. The ingenuity of the English nation, they explained, has revived the purity of freemasonry, and "this society . . . imitates an aspect of the government of Republics. Its leaders are chosen, or dismissed, at its will." 5 Just like the Paris police in the 1740s, Catholic opponents of the fraternity fixated on its custom of holding elections.

These paranoid fantasies, conjuring up beasts that were almost entirely republican or democratic, were, on one level, just that, fantasies. Their appearance relatively early in the century foreshadows the vast antimasonic, and largely monarchist literature produced during and after the French Revolution. Yet in one respect

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