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Relations and Ruptures with French Freemasonry

On the Close and Often Tumultuous Franco-American Relations

The relations of French brothers with their American counterparts are easily fed on representations that do not withstand the rigorous analysis of historians. These relations are also, more often than some may suppose, the result of stakes that do not solely involve the GODF. I have discussed them earlier but will do so again with respect to the French lodges of North America. The frequent interpretations of the “ruptures” between the GODF and the American grand lodges have palpably varied and have not necessarily taken into account one primary truth: even if the system of regularity, or more specifically the rules of recognition that flow out of it, is not monolithic and authorizes a certain flexibility to these grand lodges in their relationships, it is fundamentally the rules laid down by the United Grand Lodge of England that always governs the jurisprudence of the Commission on Information for Recognition of the Grand Lodges of the United States.

Those who witnessed the great disappointment of the Grand Lodge of France in 2003, when they thought the game was won, can testify to the absolute primacy of the rules laid down by London in 1929, which have since been modified several times, the last of which was in 1989. They are invariably applied, more or less, in the United States. And it is not the relative relaxing of these rules granted by the pro–grand master of the United Grand Lodge of England that will change much of anything in this regard. What matters first and foremost is the recognition by London, even if each American grand lodge retains a certain latitude in the application of its rules. We have seen how the sequences of the relationship between the GODF and the United Grand Lodge of England played out.

Based on a question of symbolic lodges—and as we have seen thanks to Pierre Mollier’s findings—it was the failure in 1776 of a negotiation entered into in 1774 on a formal agreement of reciprocal recognition between the GODF and the United Grand Lodge of England that led the latter to send a circular telling the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland to burn their bridges with GODF. It is fairly obvious that the political context of that time, mainly the aid provided by France to the American revolutionaries who had just proclaimed their independence, was not actually propitious to the establishment of a cordial understanding between obediences. The Grand Orient’s refusal to recognize the primacy of the United Grand Lodge of London, a prerequisite before the official relations that had never existed could be established, did the rest. But this was of little consequence in an America then fighting for its emancipation from London.

To the contrary, in 1828, an alliance of friendship was solemnly concluded between the two Supreme Councils of the Southern and Northern Jurisdiction of the United States on the one hand and the Grand College of the Grand Orient of France on the other. The rupture with American Masonry did not come about until 1859. It was preceded, after 1832, by the tumultuous developments that were its true origin. The Supreme Council of the Northern Jurisdiction had raised a vigorous objection to the creation in New York by the F∴ Clavel—depicted as “French delegate”—of a Unified Supreme Council and of a Grand Fusion and Union of the 33rd for the Western Hemisphere. The American Scottish leadership, citing the claims of the terms of the 1828 treaty of alliance, finally reacted with a manifesto dated May 1, 1845, denouncing the activities of the GODF.

Then, in 1846, this same jurisdiction addressed a balustre to the Southern Jurisdiction, proposing an alliance “against all the enemies and attackers of our cherished institution” by rising up “against certain acts and policies of the Grand Orient of France and the Supreme Council of France” because of the encouragement they had given on several occasions to the structures proposed by Joseph Cerneau, deputy grand inspector for the northern part of the island of Cuba for the Morin Rite. What was involved this time, as can be read in the acts of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction, was “the introduction of a rival and irregular form of Masonry of the Scottish Rite by Joseph Cerneau in New Orleans and even in Charleston, mobilizing the essential part of the Supreme Council’s energy in defensive activities that alarmed potential candidates.”

But some authors tell of much more precocious initiatives and recall how, in 1806, Antoine Bideaud, a member of the Supreme Council of the French Isles of the West Indies, had laid the foundations of what would become the Northern Jurisdiction, while Cerneau would form the Sovereign Grand Consistory of the Sublime Princes of the Royal Secret. The temporary consequence of these “erratic” developments was that the United States had three rival supreme councils.

The definitive rupture came in reaction to the creation of the Supreme Council of Louisiana and to quarrels dating back to 1832. It was, moreover, entirely relative, judging by the invitation extended on December 27, 1859, by Albert Pike with an eye to the creation of an international Association of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. Included among the recipients of this letter were the Grand College of the Rites, Supreme Council of France, which was established within the GODF, as well as the Supreme Council of the Sovereign Grand Inspector Generals of the 33rd Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite for France. The fact remains that the catalyst for the rupture was clearly present there and was gradually followed by the American grand lodges, some of whom maintained relations until the beginning of the twentieth century, to be specific until 1913, as confirmed in the recent studies by Paul Bessel, a researcher and expert in the history of American Freemasonry who is also an officer in the Grand Lodge of Washington, D.C.

In this chapter on the sometimes-stormy relations between the American and French Masonic authorities, it is not useless to recall that this was not the exclusive privilege of the GODF. It is worth recalling how in 1995, during the international meeting of the high grade Scottish leaders recognized by the Southern Jurisdiction, Grand Commander Fred Kleinknecht and Henri Baranger, from the Supreme Council of France, had a nasty confrontation concerning jurisdictional preeminence in Romania. While the French Supreme Council emphasized its natural leadership role in the European region of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, especially in a country with a Latin tradition, the president of the American power had no intention of even conceding an inch of his new territory of influence in Eastern Europe—not even to an ally. As Baranger refused to yield to the threatening commands of the grand American brother, relations were seriously affected for a time. History also shows that Kleinknecht was not just acting in the name of his Masonic prerogatives as these were commingled with a more covert role in the service of his country. Like Ariadne’s thread, we will find this constantly appearing in many circumstances and not only in France.

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