Freemasonry and the Founding Fathers

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The role of Masonry in early American politics is a complex question. As mentioned in the previous introductory article on Freemasonry and American Politics, many of the most esteemed Founding Fathers (including at least nine of the fifty six signers of the Declaration of Independence) were Freemasons. For instance, lodge registers and personal correspondences show that George Washington, Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, and Justice John Marshall, among others, were all active members of various lodges throughout the American colonies. Even so, the precise extent to which Masonic philosophies weighed on the political thought of the Founding Fathers is less than clear. Though it may be accurately said that 18th century Masonry was deeply sympathetic with Enlightenment philosophies, and that such philosophies also underpinned the American Revolution and our founding documents, it is difficult to fully isolate the political influence of Masonic doctrines on early American politics from the influence of Enlightenment values in the broadest sense. 20th century occult writer and 33rd degree Mason Manly P. Hall takes a rather extreme view on the issue. Hall asserts that the American Revolution was the culmination of a secretive humanitarian scheme by Masonic organizations to install a democratic civilization on the American continent according to Enlightenment principles. Hall's theory hinges on the supposed role of philosopher Sir Francis Bacon – Lord Chancellor, royal counsel to several English monarchs, and an alleged occult initiate – in executing the American colonization project according to a carefully laid philosophic plan. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, he claims, deliberately labored to build this long-prophesied utopia – the New Atlantis – in America:
When Benjamin Franklin went to France to be honored by the state, he as received too by the Lodge of Perfection, the most famous of all the French secret orders; and his name, written in his own fine hand, is in their record ledger […] Franklin spoke for the Order of the Quest [i.e. the Masonic tradition], and most of the men who worked with him in the early days of the American Revolution were also members. The plan was working out, the New Atlantis was coming into being, in accordance with the program laid down by Francis Bacon a hundred and fifty years earlier. The rise of American democracy was necessary to a world program. At the appointed hour, the freedom of man was publically declared.” – Manly P. Hall, The Secret Destiny of America (1944) p94-95
While Hall entertains some colorful, occasionally compelling historical theories about a Masonic grand design behind the American Revolution, the truth is probably less romantic, and a good deal messier. First, the fact that most Masonic lodges in the colonies were loyal to the British crown, while only a minority sided with the Revolution, is strong evidence against the sort of singular and unanimous Masonic design for American democracy imagined by Hall. Second, the exact degree to which any given Founder was initiated into Freemasonry is difficult to ascertain, and whether the social and fraternal or philosophic and occult aspects of Masonry took precedence for these men is largely a matter of speculation. Finally, the written opinions of the Founding Fathers on Masonry were by no means unanimous, ranging from cautious admiration to outright opposition. John Adams, in an amicable letter to a body of patriotic American Masons, praised them for safeguarding their own Masonic institutions against corruption and suspicions thereof. Yet, he also cautioned against the capacity for Masonic institutions for corruption. He writes:
The zeal you display to vindicate your society from the imputations and suspicions of being “inimical to regular government and divine religion,” is greatly to your honor. It has been an opinion of many considerate men, as long as I can remember, that your society might, in some time or other, be made an instrument of danger and disorder to the world. Its ancient existence and universal prevalence are good proofs that it has not heretofore been applied to mischievous purposes; and in this country I presume that no one has attempted to employ it for purposes foreign from its original institution. But in an age and in countries where morality is, by such numbers, considered as mere convenience, and religion a lie, you are better judges than I am, whether ill uses have been or may be made of Masonry. – John Adams, “To The Freemasons of the State of Maryland” (July 1798)
George Washington expressed similar opinions to Adams, holding that Masonry was an imperfect but fundamentally moral institution:
“So far as I am acquainted with the principles & Doctrines of Free Masonry, I conceive it to be founded in benevolence and to be exercised only for the good of mankind. If it has been a Cloak to promote improper or nefarious objects, it is a melancholy proof that in unworthy hands, the best institutions may be made use of to promote the worst designs.” — George Washington, in a draft of a letter to the Grand Lodge of Free Masons of the State of Maryland (8 November 1798)
Yet, even from the pen of Washington, the notion of an elite secret society, with secret occult doctrines, designed for the benefit of broader society, raises an eyebrow. And, despite his apparent good faith in the institutions of Freemasonry in America, George Washington (like Adams) also conveyed great concern for the subversion of Masonic lodges in America – particularly by radical quasi-Masonic elements from Europe, such as the Illuminati. He writes, in a different letter:
It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am. The idea that I meant to convey, was, that I did not believe that the Lodges of Free Masons in this Country had, as Societies, endeavoured to propagate the diabolical tenets of the first, or pernicious principles of the latter (if they are susceptible of seperation). That Individuals of them may have done it, or that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects; and actually had a seperation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.” — George Washington, in Letter to the Reverend G. W. Snyder (24 October 1798)
The aforementioned “Doctrines of the Illuminati” were associated with the most radical currents of late 17th century political thought – particularly the Jacobin politics of German philosopher Adam Weishaupt, who founded the the storied Bavarian Illuminati on May 1, 1776. While the Masonry of his time was strongly inclined toward Christianity, Weishaupt's founding of the Illuminati represented a pivot to a militant, anti-clerical (that is to say, anti-Catholic) ideology that was hostile toward the “less enlightened” values of the broader populace. A contemporary and critic of Weishaupt attributes the following quote to him:
“What Christ even did for God and for Cæsar, why shall not I do against God and Cæsar, by means of adepts now become my apostles?" – Quote attributed to Weishaupt by A. Barruel, Code of the Illuminati: Part III of Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1798)
By “God” and “Caesar,” Weishaupt refers to the Church and the Monarchy, the two primary targets of Jacobinism, particularly in the context of the French Revolution. The stated purpose of his organization, as detailed to his high-level initiates, was a fantasy of world domination:
“[...] to rule in a secret society […] Not only over the lesser or more important of the populace, but over the best of men, over men of all ranks, nations, and religions, to rule without external force, to unite them indissolubly, to breathe one spirit and soul into them, men distributed over all parts of the world.” – Adam Weishaupt, "Greeting to the newly integrated illuminatos dirigentes", in Nachtrag von weitern Originalschriften vol. 2 (1787) p45
Pursuant to this globalist pipedream, Weishaupt's Illuminati operated on principles of utmost secrecy, organized in such a way as to keep lower level initiates in the dark regarding the activities of their superiors. In a set of instructions for the governance of the order, Weishaupt writes that “the inferior lodges of Freemasonry are the most convenient cloaks for our grand object, because the world is already familiarized with the idea that nothing of importance, or worthy of their attention can spring from Masonry.” The foundational communist intellectual, Leon Trotsky reflected on the success of the Illuminati in fomenting revolutionary activity across Europe, writing that “in the eighteenth century, freemasonry became expressive of a militant policy of enlightenment, as in the case of the Illuminati, who were the forerunners of revolution.” (Leon Trotsky, Ch. 8, My Life) The full extent to which the Illuminati became a dominant force in the early American Freemasonry is not clear. Still, as Washington attested, Weishaupt's conspiracy had demonstrably reached American shores by the latter part of the 18th century, and began to expand substantially in America following the Revolution. During the 1780s, at least fourteen Illuminist lodges were established in America, and student societies promoting a fusion of Jacobin and Illuminist philosophies emerged as a political force at elite universities such as Yale and Harvard. (David Allen Rivera, Final Warning, 1.3) Like Washington, John Adams was an admirer of traditional Masonry, but also a critic of Weishaupt and his Illuminist cult, which he called “The most profound, most extensive and at the Same time the most delirious and the most wicked of all the mistic Empiricisms [i.e. philosophies] of ancient or modern times.” He remarked of Weishaupt:
“How it was possible that Such a Knave [Weishaupt] could associate with two or three other Knaves and find So many Dupes and among them Princes Magistrates, Nobles Philosophers, Some of whom were respectable Characters I cannot conceive. […] The very Circumstance, that his Scheme for the Perfectibility of Man to Such a degree as to make Princes Magistrates and Laws unnecessary, was not to be expected to be accomplished in less than thousands of Years would to my contracted Mind, have been Sufficient to discredit it forever.” – From John Adams to John Quincy Adams (12 November 1807)
Differing from Washington and Adams, Thomas Jefferson (though there is some question about the exact nature of his membership in secret societies), wrote favorably about Weishaupt, attributing the secrecy of his organization to the tyrannies under which he lived:
“As Wishaupt [sic.] lived under the tyranny of a despot & priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, & the principles of pure morality. He proposed therefore to lead the Free masons to adopt this object & to make the objects of their institution the diffusion of science & virtue. He proposed to initiate new members into his body by gradations proportioned to his fears of the thunderbolts of tyranny.” – Letter to Bishop James Madison (Jan. 31, 1800)
This sympathetic perspective, vis a vis the other Founding Fathers, might be explained by Jefferson's strong sympathies with the French Revolution, of which Weishaupt was also an ardent supporter. The United States having only recently broken free of the British crown in military alliance with France, Jefferson was understandably hopeful about the future of Republican France under the banner of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and perhaps viewed the doctrines of Weishaupt in this favorable light. Of the early American presidents, John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the most outspoken critic of Freemasonry, and an ally of the Anti-Masonic party. Unlike his father, who believed that Masonry was an inherently laudable institution, John Quincy Adams believed that “the Order of Freemasonry, if not the greatest, is one of the greatest moral and political evils under which the Union is now laboring” (Letters on the Masonic Institution, p124), and called for the outright abolition of the sect. “It is wrong,” he writes, “essentially wrong – a seed of evil which can never produce any good.” (p68) In addition to differing from the theological doctrines of the Freemasons, vis a vis Christian teachings, he also decried the corruption of law and morality in service of preferential treatment for members of Masonic fraternities, so that “ the force of the Masonic obligation was made visible in the courts of justice.” (Letters on the Masonic Institution, pxxix) He writes:
“The sheriffs, whose duty it was under the laws of New York to select and summon the grand juries, were, in all the counties in which the deeds of violence [...] had been committed, Freemasons. Several of them had themselves been parties to the crime. They did not hesitate to make use of their power as officers of justice to screen the criminals from conviction. The jurors whom they summoned were most of them Masons, some of them participators in the offenses into which it became their civil duty to inquire.” – John Quincy Adams, Letters on the Masonic Institution pxxix-xxx
In particular, John Quincy Adams objected to the secret oaths and grisly penalties which Masons invoked upon themselves in their initiatory rituals, contending that men bound by such secret oaths and hidden fraternal obligations could not participate in civic society with impartiality, and were liable to all sorts of ethical corruption. He writes, elsewhere:
I saw a code of Masonic Legislation, adapted to prostrate every principle of equal justice, and to corrupt every sentiment of virtuous feeling in the soul of him who bound his allegiance to it. I saw the practice of common honesty, the kindness of Christian benevolence, even the abstinence from atrocious crimes, limited exclusively, by lawless oaths and barbarous penalties, to the social relations between the brotherhood of the Craft. I saw slander organized into a secret, wide-spread and affiliated agency, fixing its invisible fangs into the hearts of its victims, sheltered by the darkness of the lodge-room, and armed with the never-ceasing penalties of death. I saw self-invoked imprecations of throats cut from ear to ear, of hearts and vitals torn out and cast forth to the wolves and vultures, of skulls smitten off, and hung on spires. I saw wine drank from a human skull with solemn invocation of all the sins of its owner upon the head of him who drinks from it. And I saw a wretched mortal man dooming himself to eternal punishment (when the last trump shall sound) as a guarantee for idle and ridiculous promises. Such are the laws of Masonry, such their indelible character...” – John Quincy Adams, Letters on the Masonic Institution p231-232
Clearly, there was no unanimous sentiment on Masonry among the Founding Fathers, but rather a wide range of opinions which constituted a lively debate over secret societies and their political implications.(Compare to the present day, when the very topic of secret societies has been effectively laughed out from our public discourse.) Even those Founding Fathers who were Masons themselves, or admirers of Masonry, were circumspect in their comments on the topic, acknowledging the potential for philosophical lodges to turn into conspiratorial, even criminal, fraternities. Were Washington's concerns that Freemasonry was susceptible to ill uses by the Illuminati justified? Or were the aims of Adam Weishaupt basically pure, albeit misunderstood, as Jefferson believed? Or, as John Quincy Adams feared, was Masonry “a seed of evil which can never produce any good”? abolished? Perhaps most importantly, what features of Freemasonry made it so attractive to subversive actors such as Weishaupt as a breeding ground for conspiracy? In the next article, we will explore the organization and political agendas of occult secret societies.

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