Lafayette, Freemasonry, and American Independence

A number of reasons guided Lafayette’s determined commitment to the cause of the American rebels. During this renowned Enlightenment era, Lafayette, with the enthusiasm of youth—like a good many of his contemporaries—had taken as his own the ideas of liberty and love of humanity. These were also the ideals of Freemasonry, which was developing rapidly in eighteenth-century France. Received into the Order by his brother-in-law, the Viscount of Ségur, elder master of the lodge La Candeur (Candor) in Paris, Lafayette constantly marveled at all the Order brought him, even more as he knew perfectly well that his good friend George Washington was also a Freemason, as were a large majority of his friends, all eminent leaders of the American Revolution. His desire to join and assist the American rebels was thereby powerfully reinforced by his initiation into Freemasonry.

In 1780, upon his return to France after a first visit to General Washington and the American rebels, and after greatly exhausting his fortune and influence, Lafayette mounted a relentless campaign of harassment of the French ministers Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Count of Maurepas, and Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes, seeking to persuade them that France, in its own interest, should grant much more significant support to his friend Washington and the rebels. Of course, he nurtured a secret hope of being named commander in chief of the French expeditionary force, but his youth and inexperience—he was only twenty-three—prompted Vergennes, then minister of foreign affairs for the kingdom, and the king to appoint the more mature Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Count of Rochambeau, to this post.

However, the king invested Lafayette with a discreet and important mission of trust. He was to make his way as quickly as possible to Washington’s headquarters to explicitly inform him that a French expeditionary force and squadron had been sent that should be in America in the following months. To permit him to fulfill this major mission in the shortest possible time, the king put his fastest ship, the Hermione, at Lafayette’s disposal.

The final victory of the combined French and American forces in Yorktown (October 19, 1781) can be explained by several converging factors. Overcoming the logical differences of status, clothing, behavior, habits, and so on between the regulated French troops and the anarchic volunteer American militias, the general staff officers (French and American, and all Freemasons) shared such strong ideals that they finally managed to forge a shared group spirit and enthusiasm that made it impossible for victory to escape them. Moreover, the common tactical and strategic sense that was the hallmark of the members of the French and American general staffs led them—quite spontaneously—to implement the first combined operation in history by joining their naval and land forces. By preventing any British vessel from entering Chesapeake Bay, they forced the British commander to realize that his only choice was surrender. His final action—ironically—was to gather a group of leaders who all, down to the last man, were Freemasons! Let me just mention, from both sides: the English Lord Charles Cornwallis, the American Washington and Alexander Hamilton, the French Lafayette and Rochambeau, the Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and the Polish Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Whether or not they liked it, one factor claimed the attention of all the researchers studying the accession of the United States to their independence: for both the Americans and the French, Freemasonry played a central and decisive role in the matter. However, as Freemasonry only forms one of the many faces of the Enlightenment era, it cannot be truthfully envisioned as the sole and unique cause of American independence. Freemasonry introduced itself there as the principal vector of the Enlightenment spirit and broadly mobilized its adepts not only to support their American brothers during their time of troubles but also to aid their own values of liberty, equality, and fraternity to triumph. These are the values, which were then a bit ahead of their time, that would go on to become the motto of the French Republic.

Above all, in its dazzling way, Freemasonry showed the eighteenth-century world that fraternity between all men was not out of reach. In the twenty-first century, borrowing the magnificent words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on this necessary love that should bring people and nations together, the individuals responsible for the project to rebuild the frigate and in 2015 to retrace Lafayette’s voyage to the United States, the American Friends of Hermione-Lafayette Association, paraphrased King’s admirable expression as “We have a dream!”

We have seen the role played by the French Freemasons who contributed to the cause of liberty with Lafayette. But Washington was also surrounded by many Freemasons in the upper ranks of the military, and a good number of them distinguished themselves in the roles they played in the company of the father of independence. In his book Masonic Membership of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Ronald E. Heaton showed evidence that both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were signed by several Freemasons. However, it would be over the top to conclude from this that Freemasonry, in its capacity as an Order, would have taken on some institutional role. In fact, the preeminent position then held by Freemasons on an individual basis in the profane world could not hide another reality, one that pitted loyalists and rebels against one another, even within the lodges, which were not able to escape these irresistible forces.

It is helpful to know, however, that since independence, the United States has had no less than fourteen presidents who were Freemasons, the last one being Gerald Ford (see plate 4 in the color insert). This is something that at the least indicates, and in the most striking way, the actual presence of Freemasons in the highest positions of power in the nation until a relatively recent date and, also to the contrary, their absence at this level since the 1970s. This development has become the subject of scrutiny concerning the perennial nature of an involution-turning tradition that cannot fail to be translated as a loss of influence.

This is something that nonetheless remains relative when we understand where the true power centers reside in the United States. While the administration in power and the American president in particular have a significant arsenal at their disposal during their time in office, it is important, by the same token, not to overlook the power held by the members of Congress, whose growing influence can easily be seen during the most recent period of American politics. In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Freemasons are still, even today, well represented and quite influential. To assert, as some do quite gladly when referring to the basic principles laid down by the grand lodges, that politics and Freemasonry don’t mix does not stand up to analysis or is only accurate when referring to life in the lodge. Up to the present time in the United States any debate within the organization has been banned that involves any exchanges even touching on politics or religion—even in the broad sense.

This ban was caused as much by the tradition inherited from the United Grand Lodge of England as by the trauma induced by the Morgan Affair. (The details and consequences of this far-reaching scandal, the Morgan Affair, will be examined in chapter 3.) It remains no less established that a Masonic lobby exists in the same way as any other lobby that helps influence political, financial, economic, and social decisions in this vast country. Permeable circumstances do exist, unquestionably, even if America never experienced a situation comparable to that of France—in which the Order was set up at one time as a pedagogical laboratory for republican values.

Here we see again the weight of social ethnology specific to each country. Although coming from every latitude of common reference values, which no one would call the “fundamentals,” Freemasonry finds itself shaped and modeled through adapting to its national environment. This plasticity does not always facilitate the reading of the Masonic order by those who measure it solely with what they are already most familiar; that is, their immediate environment—which necessarily shrinks their horizon.

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