To consider the advent of the Masonic order and its genesis at the very beginning of the history of the United States—from the first half of the eighteenth century—is to plunge into the complex maze of a new space containing notions that are hard for twenty-first-century Europeans and Americans to grasp. This current century is dominated by the fruits of a rich intellectual and philosophical proliferation that has developed since that time. The French and American Revolutions passed through this way, but so did many philosophers and thinkers whose works remained theoretical.
So it is quite important to be firmly situated in the historical perspective of thought and also to transpose into it the religious and philosophical perspectives of the initial century of the Enlightenment in the Old World and not lose sight of the restrictions that prevailed in many lands (where religious practice was not truly free if it was considered to be a deviation from the dominant religion—that of the sovereign). It was often freedom to practice their faith, not the search for material well-being, that motivated the first emigrants who settled in New England.
For an accurate understanding and appreciation of the context, it is therefore crucial to revisit the history of ideas. Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle writes, “We are illuminated by the lights of the true religion and, in my belief, by several rays of the true philosophy.”1
In a commentary on this subject, Jacques Roger notes that “this is how very different values of the same image stood out at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the singular, light [lumière] was an emanation of the absolute; in the plural, the Enlightenment’s discoveries [Lumières] are primarily the slow acquisitions of humanity over the course of its history.”2
It is essential for a good reading of what occurred in America at its beginnings as well as what has persisted in American mind-sets, to be fully aware of this.
Freedom of conscience and the free exercise of beliefs and religions are two consubstantial references for the immigration that founded America. It is, moreover, the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States that provides the most perfect example of this. Ratified in 1791, in a corpus of ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights, it forbids the United States Congress from adopting any laws that restrict the freedom of religion and expression, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceably assemble. While this amendment only refers to the federal government, it is legally accepted that it also applies to the state legislatures of the union. Its principles also come equally into play in the decisions made by the executive and judiciary branches.
As an expansion on the previous observations, it could also be helpful to recall here all the symbolism connected to the famous ship the Mayflower, which made land on the East Coast of America on November 26, 1620. It had weighed anchor on September 6 in Plymouth, England, to sail to America with one hundred or so passengers onboard (about whom it is a good idea to recall that some thirty-six of them were very pious English Protestants who had been expelled from England by King James I). Poorly prepared to settle in an inhospitable environment and arriving when autumn was almost over, they could not devote themselves to the agrarian labor essential for their survival, and half of them succumbed to disease. It was thanks to the help of the Patuxet Indians that the survivors learned how to grow corn as well as how to hunt and fish, the activities that allowed them to establish the first bases of colonization. In thanks to God and the Patuxet Indians, the colonialists decided to have a feast together at the time that the Indians already celebrated the end of the harvest; this new holiday they christened Thanksgiving. It was an act of spontaneous syncretism by the Protestant Pilgrims; President Lincoln would declare this tradition a national holiday in 1863.
It would be more than one hundred years after the arrival of the Mayflower on American soil before traces of actually structured and documented Masonic activity would appear. As many authors before me have observed, even in England, Freemasonry was at this time still in its archaic, primitive state.
A certain number of lodges, often quite far from one another, were then active in the New World. They soon saw the necessity of attaining obediential cohesion by placing themselves under the authority of a provincial grand master. This grand master would, ideally, be named by the grand master of the Grand Lodge of England, with jurisdiction over the states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The responsibilities of this position would fall to a soldier, Colonel Daniel Coxe.
The first supporting documents date only from July 30, 1733. These are the annals of the Grand Lodge Saint John of the Orient, in Philadelphia, recording the appointment of Henry Price by the Duke of Montagu, grand master of England, to the duties of the provincial grand master of North America. Merely one year later, Benjamin Franklin published the first American version of Pastor James Anderson’s The Constitutions of the Free-Masons, which was also the first Masonic work to be published in the American colonies (see plate 1 for an image of its title page). Shortly thereafter, Franklin would be given the responsibilities of provincial grand master for Pennsylvania.
During the months immediately following his appointment, Franklin shared with the grand master of London the wishes of the Freemasons of his jurisdiction to elect a provincial grand master and his advisers, in the expectation that an autonomous grand master would be established for America. This move was very likely ahead of its time, but it heralded the affirmation of the American brothers’ desire for emancipation that was already making itself heard in Europe. Yet it would not be until 1778, two years after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, that the official separation with the Grand Lodge of England would take place.
In fact, obediential territorial authority was no longer exercised in Boston by the Grand Lodge of England alone, which therefore found itself in a position of “concurrence.” Another lodge, the Lodge of Saint Andrew, which derived its authority from the Grand Lodge of Scotland, was established in 1752. It asserted its autonomy by authoritatively adopting the title of Independent Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. The loyalist Grand Lodge Saint John saw a gradual decline starting from this time that eventually induced it to bow to reality and accept a merger with the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
Crisscrossed by opposing currents—loyalists against the patriotic supporters of the American Revolution—and heir as well to the famous quarrels concerning rites between Ancients and Moderns, this first American obedience, strictly speaking, experienced the vicissitudes of the troubled times through which society as a whole was crossing. This was how, in 1784, the members of the Lodge of Saint Andrew, when called on to choose, decided to distinguish themselves from the conservative current of the Moderns. It is no accident that the Lodge of Saint Andrew recognized the first black lodge, which was created by the preacher and emancipated slave Prince Hall. (See color plate 2 for an image of Hall and his wife.) Hall had been initiated in 1775 by an Irish military lodge. In 1871 (after the Civil War) the Lodge of Saint Andrew vainly attempted to create another black lodge, the Thistle Lodge.
It can be seen that Freemasonry and the emerging American society were closely intertwined. Nevertheless, the War for Independence, as well as the later Civil War, revealed opposing currents that crossed through the lodges at the very time they were expanding rapidly. Also during this time, the itinerant military lodges played a role that should not be overlooked in the spread of Freemasonry. The arrival of British regiments on the East Coast of America after 1775 coincided with the flood of new lodges in the wake of the armies. With the organization of patriotic lodges triggered by the opening of the War for Independence, Freemasons also found themselves in the position of missionaries of the Order, but each on his own side and therefore at odds with the principle of the center of union formulated by Anderson. The most famous military lodge, without question, was that bearing the distinctively evocative sign of the American Union.
While this political and revolutionary context coincided with powerful tempests, it did not form any real hindrance to the effective establishment of Freemasonry or the activities of its lodges, which were visibly multiplying quite rapidly. This was also the case in the new territories opened by the Westward expansion, which too was accompanied by a noteworthy expansion of the Masonic presence.