Bo∴ of Bro∴ Alain de Keghel, Former Venerable Master of the W∴ L∴ La Fayette 89, Or∴ of Washington
In 2007, the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of the Grand Orient of France decided to share, during the time of my chairmanship, the commemorative duty of going to Picpus Cemetery in Paris and laying a wreath. This was the way the Grand Orient of France recognized the part the marquis de Lafayette had played during that tumultuous period when freedom was won as a fruit of the Enlightenment.
It was during this same time and for the same reasons that a pamphlet was published in homage to this brother who portrayed the idea of liberty as the Grail and gave the tone of a crusade to his actions, and who had at his command a veritable genius for coining phrases, inspiring Sainte-Beuve to write, “His language was made in his design.”
“America” wrote Axelle de Gaigneron in a text dedicated to General Lafayette in 1996, “projected upon him a symbolic vision of its own creation—half way between myth and folk imagery. So much so that an entire aspect of his life, perpetuated by an art that switched between pompous and naïve, unfolded before the eyes of memory from one stage to the next ‘like a saga, the saga of the Lafayettides.’” This is the saga to which Americans make sacrifice every year on July 4 when they make their way to pay him homage at the Parisian cemetery of Picpus.
Mainly celebrated as a hero of American independence, Lafayette was also an extremely active Freemason. And it is this perhaps less well-known aspect that deserves to be seen today, the day on which we are commemorating the lighting of the fires of our respectable lodge that proudly bears his name. This is because his Masonic commitment was equally decisive in his options on behalf of the rebels’ cause. Although neither the exact date nor the lodge of his initiation have been established, the Acts of the Grand Lodge of Tennessee of May 4, 1825, cited in a book by William Denslow, mentions, on the faith of Brother Lafayette’s own statements, that he entered Freemasonry in France long before he arrived in the United States of America.
Some authors, without offering any concrete proof, have believed they could state that Lafayette was initiated into the R. L. La Candeur on December 25, 1775. As it happens, consultation of the archives of this Masonic lodge proves that while his name does indeed appear on its log this day, he took part in the proceedings as a visitor.
Despite the lack of formal proof for this hypothesis, it is nonetheless highly likely and generally accepted by historians that he was initiated at the age of eighteen in 1775 into a military lodge while he was serving at the garrison of Metz. It was moreover in Metz, during a dinner given by the comte de Broglie to the Duke of Gloucester, brother of the King of England, that Gilbert du Motier, the marquis de Lafayette, first heard about the American rebels and he recalled that moment by stating, “My heart was enlisted.” This was how the “great simpleton whose mind was as pale as his face,” according to the murderous phrase of his contemporary, Armand d’Allonville, entered his American epic.
His membership in Freemasonry is not foreign to this twist of fate, for on his arrival in Paris he immediately rubbed shoulders with the brother Benjamin Franklin, then venerable master of the famous Lodge of the Nine Sisters. This very famous American had arrived in Paris in 1776 as an extraordinary ambassador. He then secretly planned to leave for America, where in 1778 Lafayette declared before the American Congress, “From the first moment I heard spoken the name of America, I loved it; from the moment I learned that it was fighting for freedom, I burned with the desire to spill my blood for her; the days when I can serve it will be numbered among the happiest of my life in all times and all places.”
The personal and fraternal relationship between Lafayette and George Washington has given birth to much fantasizing. It deserves better than the legend. Even if we hear Washington say of him, when the young Lafayette had just been wounded at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, “Treat him as my own son, for I love him as if he were my own,” the tone is primarily paternalistic. In fact, this phrase of the father of his country, which has gone down in history, should not conjure up a false picture. And yet, today the two names are almost inseparable and practically equal in the American imagination. As they are in ours, as we have chosen it to be a Masonic reference as a strong symbol of Franco-American bonds.
Lafayette’s Masonic life was decisive in his saga, through his relations in the lodge with Franklin first, then, as we shall see, with Brother Washington. Several authors in the United States have, despite Lafayette’s own statements on this subject and in complete contradiction with the evidence, put forth the notion that he was initiated on December 29, 1779, in Morristown, New Jersey. It is quite plausible and more convincing that, as at Valley Forge, where he attended with Brother George Washington the Respectable Lodge the American Union during the winter of 1777–1778, he formed ties with the American lodges that his travels there led him to frequent. This would obviously explain his name appearing in the lists of those present. Mentioning this in 1825, Lafayette observed with his characteristic emphasis, “After I was made a Mason, General Washington seemed to have received a new light. I never had from that moment any cause to doubt his entire confidence.” This was a moment of great lucidity concerning the time before this illumination when, for all intents and purposes, as can be seen in the letters between the two men, the trust granted the young brother by Washington was not always complete nor without shades of gray.
In France it has been established that he was linked to and therefore a member of the Respectable Lodge Saint Jean d’Écosse du Contrat Social [Saint John of Scotland of the Social Contract] in the Orient of Paris on June 24, 1782, and that in 1806 he was the sitting venerable master of the Respectable Lodge Les Amis de la Verité in the Orient of Rosay en Brie. After 1815 his Masonic activity was one with his commitment to the Bourbon Restoration. On the pretext of visiting the lodges, he organized a vast movement in favor of the Liberal Party. To a certain extent he was the first figure to make Masonry a political, or more precisely, partisan vehicle, in favor of the ideas of the progress of man and society.
Nevertheless, his role during the French Revolution has led historians to introduce some gray areas into the judgments laid down by his hagiographers. Lafayette appeared as a figure of many facets, and John Adams, future second president of the United States, wrote about him in 1790 that he “saw in this young idol a boundless ambition, we should be wary. . . . He entered our service very young and held a position of high command at which he succeeded, but he received more acclaim than a young man of his age could stand.” Nor is the personal part he played in the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, or that in the writing of the Edict on the Protestants, unknown.
Before that time, on his return to France in 1781, Lafayette had also dared to venture a suggestion that draws from the roots of his Masonic humanism but which was quickly deemed absurd in America. At this time he had taken an interest in the condition of slaves, but without going so far as to envision the abolition of this institution in the United States. Following a “vagabond” itinerary, Lafayette would basically be eternally captive to a boundless personal ambition that would inevitably stain his image. It was only in Masonry where this aspect of his character did not manifest, but this is not a space where the stakes of power are wagered. At best it permitted him a communion of thought with several enlightened minds who shared his infatuation for freedom. This space of open sociability suited him quite well.
Lafayette’s entrance into the high grades of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite took place in 1830 under the auspices of the Supreme Council of the Grand Orient of France during the reign of Louis-Philippe. Outside of his extensive Masonic correspondence with the brothers of the rite belonging in particular to the Respectable Lodge La Constante Amitié in the Orient of Paris, there is no prominent evidence of his particular activity in this regard. However, in a book published in 1935 under the title La Fayette ou le militant Franc-maçon, author André Lebey describes him as a very active brother, and it is enough to read Lafayette’s veritable act of faith to be entirely convinced of his idealistic virtues. On June 7, 1777, he sent a letter to his wife in which he says, “Whilst defending the liberty I adore, I will enjoy perfect freedom myself; I offer my services to that interesting republic from motives of the purest kind. The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the safe and respected asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and a tranquil freedom.”
In Lyon, Lafayette paid two visits to Masonic lodges, and both visits were described by Pierre Piovesan, former high speaker of the Scottish Jurisdiction of the GODF, in an article published in 2003 in the book Lyon, carrefour européen de la Franc-maçonnerieon the occasion of the exhibition and event at the Fine Arts Museum there to celebrate the 275th anniversary of Freemasonry in France.
It was much later that the Sovereign Grand Cerneau Consistory, the dissident jurisdiction of New York, in rupture with that of Charleston, finally made Lafayette grand inspector general of the 33rd and final degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, during his last trip to America. An episode that does not figure on the less stormy pages of an institutional Franco-American Masonic relationship whose complexity historians know full well. And as we know so well, it remains one today.
The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria owns and displays a Masonic apron that is supposed to have been embroidered by Adrienne de Lafayette and offered by our compatriot to George Washington. But nothing confirms the authenticity of this piece. On the other hand, the Museum of the Grand Orient of France has on display a very handsome and authentic Masonic sword belonging to Lafayette. With its gilded bronze guard inscribed with Masonic decorations, its mother-of-pearl hilt, and its “flamboyant” blade, this magnificent ceremonial sword goes back to the last years of the Empire or the first years of the Restoration. It is one of the most beautiful and precious jewels of the museum. Furthermore, one of the most prestigious temples of the headquarters of the Grand Orient of France bears the name Lafayette. Its tri-colored décor evokes the emergence of the Republic and admirably echoes Lafayette’s creation of the cockade.
As former venerable master, the third in order of seniority of the R. L. La Fayette 89 of the Orient of Washington, I am happy to have been invited to testify to this great day celebrating the anniversary of our respectable lodge, of the complete way in which this prestigious Mason so valiantly took up the defense, with all the nuances you just heard, of the high fundamental values and grand ideals of freedom, as well as the hopes for the betterment of man and society, which are dearest to us. He was able to fortunately combine a militant Masonic life with an uncommon degree of political and military activity. He deserves our special homage as well as the duty to remember him. Let us show proof at his place of the goodwill with which the hindsight of history and the fraternity inspires us, and thus recognition.
May this modest board remain as one of the testimonies of this long line of ancestors that connects us both in space and time, the chain of fraternal union that shall never break.