George Washington. The Father of Our Nation. First in war, first in peace. And as far as Freemasons are concerned, the most famous of our brethren who has ever lived. Portraits of Washington clothed in Masonic regalia, or bearing Masonic instruments, hang in almost every Lodge in America. He is often celebrated as the only sitting President who simultaneously served as Master of a Lodge. He is sometimes even proclaimed to be the Grand Master of Masonry in the United States.
Yet, how much of it is true?
According to Paul Bessel, lawyer, author, and Freemason, not much at all. Bessel wrote: "George Washington may have attended, at most, 9 Lodge meetings in his entire life after he became a Master Mason, plus a few other Masonic Lodge events (not Lodge meetings) as listed. There is no proof that he attended several of the events in this list, just claims by Masons who may have been basing their claims on rumors."
Like anything in history, there is a large gap between what can be proven and what is generally believed to be true. When it comes to uncovering specific details about a secret organization that was in the midst of a revolution against the most powerful government on earth, the task is made infinitely more difficult.
Still, there are details of George Washington’s life that can be proven, and his connection to Freemasons is irrefutable. It was a connection forged when he was just twenty years old, and he remained true to it his entire adult life.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. He descended from wealthy Virginia land speculators and tobacco cultivators. After his father’s death in 1743, Washington was forced to leave school and help maintain his family’s holdings. At seventeen years old, Washington received a surveyor’s license and was appointed as the Official Surveyor of Culpepper County, Virginia.
In 1751, he accompanied his older half-brother Lawrence, the adjutant general in the Virginia militia, to Barbados. Lawrence suffered from tuberculosis and their hope was that the climate would help cure his disease.
Freemasonry existed in Barbados by the time they arrived. A year earlier, the Grand Lodge of England had chartered Saint Michael’s Lodge in Bridgetown, and the Fraternity had flourished there. It is thought that this visit to Barbados presented Washington with his first opportunity to encounter Freemasonry.
However, just two weeks after arriving, Washington contracted smallpox and was confined to quarantine, inside this house:
Once Washington recovered, he returned to Virginia, while Lawrence traveled further to Bermuda, still in search of a cure. It was to no avail, as a short time later, Lawrence died.
In 1752, Washington sought to replace his brother in the armed services and was appointed to the rank of Major. Despite being only twenty years old, he now found himself responsible for both Lawrence’s widow and daughter at Mount Vernon, as well as his mother and younger siblings who lived on their estate in Fredericksburg.
Freemasonry had also taken root in Fredericksburg. That same summer, a small group of tobacco merchants who’d been made Masons in Scotland, founded a Lodge there.
On November 4th, 1752, Washington was initiated into Fredericksburg Lodge. The bible he took his Oath on remains in the possession of that lodge to this day.
Fredericksburg Lodge also retains their financial records, which show that two days after Washington was initiated, he paid a fee of 2 pounds, 3 shillings.
By that December, Washington came into the heavy responsibility of owning and overseeing Mount Vernon.
On March 3, 1753, less than a few weeks after turning twenty-one, he received his second degree in Freemasonry.
On August 4th of that same year, Washington was raised to Master Mason. He would remain a member of the Fredericksburg Lodge for the rest of his life.
There is a rumor that Washington also received the Royal Arch Degree at Fredericksburg Lodge, but that cannot be confirmed. According to their records, Fredericksburg conferred the first Royal Arch Degree "in the New World" in 1753, but as hard as they have looked, no one can find evidence that Washington ever received it.
On September 1st, 1753, Washington attended Lodge at Fredericksburg to observe four candidates get initiated into the Fraternity. There were only six other members in attendance that night, one of whom was a Dutchman named Jacob Van Braam.
Bro. Van Braam had served with Lawrence Washington, and he was both a sword master and mercenary. In 1751, Lawrence brought Van Braam to Mount Vernon to train young George and prepare him for military service. And most importantly, Van Braam spoke French. Allegedly.
That October, Washington attended Virginia's House of Burgess’s session and volunteered for a dangerous mission in Western Pennsylvania. At the time, the French were descending from Canada and constructing forts and encampments along the route to their territory in Louisiana. Washington’s duty was to spy on the French and determine the size and strength of their forces, then present them with a message instructing them that the area had been claimed by the British, and they were to leave.
If this weren’t enough, Washington was also ordered to meet with the various tribal leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy and convince them to side with the British against the French. In need of a way to communicate with the French, Washington hired his friend Jacob Van Braam to act as an interpreter.
Upon meeting with the Iroquois Confederacy, Washington was introduced to a Seneca leader named Tanacharison, called "Half-King." Tanacharison agreed to help Washington against the French, due to a deep hatred he had for them. In fact, Tanacharison believed that the French had boiled and eaten his father.
When they finally made contact with French forces, Washington and his translator, Van Braam, presented their message, but were quickly denied and sent home.
Washington returned on January 16th, 1754, and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He was instructed to take a small force back to Western Pennsylvania and confront the French directly. Washington took both Van Braam and Tanacharison with him, a decision which would soon have devastating consequences.
On May 27th, 1754, a group of Native scouts located a French military camp, under the command of French Canadian officer, Jumonville. Tanacharison begged Washington to attack the camp and Washington listened. He led forty men on the raid, and within fifteen minutes, they'd killed ten French soldiers and captured another twenty-one, including Jumonville.
Washington treated Jumonville with all the dignities and courtesies due a captured military officer, but in the midst of the interrogation, Tanacharison picked up a tomahawk and chopped Jumonville in the side of the head, killing him instantly.
This incident is regarded as the cause of the French and Indian War, which raged from 1754 until 1763, and claimed the lives of more than three thousand British soldiers from combat and over ten thousand more due to disease. There are no figures available as to how many were killed on the French side.
After Jumonville was killed, Washington withdrew to Fort Necessity, in what is now Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
On June 8th, Washington received a letter from Fredericksburg Freemason, Bro. Daniel Campbell. The letter Washington sent Campbell is now lost, but in the reply, Campbell can be seen answering Washington’s questions about the Lodge and its brethren.
On July 3rd, Fort Necessity was attacked. Nine hundred French Canadian soldiers surrounded the fort and left Washington no choice but to negotiate a truce. He sent his French translator, Van Braam, to meet with the French-Canadian Commander de Villiers. Van Braam returned with a written letter from the French that supposedly said all they wanted was for the Americans to vacate Fort Necessity and go back to Virginia. Washington signed it.
Much to Washington’s surprise, the letter was actually a written confession for assassinating Jumonville and the offer of an unconditional surrender. The next day, Washington and his troops were forced to abandon the Fort and retreat back to Virginia.
At some point in 1754, Washington is reported to have attended a Lodge meeting inside a cave in Charles Town, West Virginia. Local legends hold that Washington would routinely visit this cave and that Freemasons held meetings there on a regular basis. The only confirmation of this comes from questionable sources. First, a painting, which offers an artistic rendering of one such meeting with Washington in attendance.
Second, a carving on one of the cave walls that reportedly reads, "G. Washington 1748."
What is not disputed is that on January 4th, 1755, Washington attended Fredericksburg Lodge to see his friend George Mercer be raised to Master Mason. Mercer would go on to serve as Washington’s aide-de-camp for three years. From 1761 to 1765, they served together in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
While this was far from the end of Washington's Masonic story, it is his last recorded attendance at any Masonic Lodge until 1784.
One explanation is that he simply did not have time to go to Lodge due to his duties surrounding the Revolutionary War. Another is that he attended Lodge’s in places like Philadelphia or Boston or Williamsburg, whose records were lost in the turmoil of the Revolution.
However, rumors of Washington visiting various Lodges during that time persist. One account indicates that Washington either attended or joined the Lodge of Social and Military Virtues No. 227, who were travelling within the British 46th Regiment of Foot. That Lodge did not arrive in America until 1757, but they are in possession of a Bible with a plate engraved on it that proclaims: "On This Sacred Volume Washington Received A Degree of Masonry."
The words "A Degree" have caused much confusion for people trying to substantiate this Lodge’s claims. We know Washington had received his three Masonic degrees by 1753, so the only other possibilities are either that Washington received a different degree here or that the entire thing is made up.
Another bold claim made is that Washington received the Royal Arch degree in 1755, while in attendance at a British military Lodge. The Bible he reportedly took his oath on is in the possession of a Lodge in Manchester, England. No evidence has ever been found to support this claim.
In 1852, "Freemasons Monthly Magazine" printed an article about a Polish soldier who claimed to have served under Washington in the American Army. This solider, also a Freemason, said he'd witnessed Washington presiding as Master over a Mark Lodge. Conveniently, this soldier also claimed to be in possession of the Master's Jewel Washington wore during these meetings. He further claimed that Washington gave him a pin and complementary letter once the Army was disbanded. That pin was then passed down to his grandson, another Freemason.
What we do know is that that in 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the twenty-seven-year-old widow of wealthy plantation owner. We also know that in addition to adding to his landholdings, he entered the political realm and held various offices that led to his eventual election to Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
We also know that his disdain for the British began when he was passed over for promotion in the Army for not being English, and that he was angered by various taxes imposed by the Royal Crown on Americans. And he was not alone. Anger toward British rule had been bubbling up throughout the colonies and would soon boil over into unrestricted warfare.
On March 5th, 1770, a confrontation between local Bostonians and nine British soldiers resulted in the soldiers shooting into the crowd and killing nine people. History would remember this event as The Boston Massacre.
On December 16th, 1773, a group calling themselves The Sons of Liberty boarded British ships in the Boston Harbor and hurled chests of tea into the water, in protest of the Tea Act. That event, now known as the Boston Tea Party, spurred a series of penalties meant to cripple the colony’s ability to cause any more trouble. Instead, these Intolerable Acts, as they were called by American Patriots, only succeeded in igniting full-scale revolution.
On September 5th, 1774, America's First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia at Carpenter’s Hall. This meeting included many famous American Patriots, along with George Washington.
On April 18th, 1775, Sons of Liberty member and Freemason, Paul Revere, rode from Charleston to Lexington to warn that British forces were advancing on Concord and Lexington. This warning gave enough time for 77 American minutemen in Lexington to face off against 700 members of the elite British army. At Concord, the British faced much larger numbers of resistors. When the fighting ended and the dead were tallied, the Americans had lost only 90 patriots. The British lost 273.
On June 17th, 1775, the first major battle of the American Revolution was fought in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which we now call The Battle of Bunker Hill. While technically, the British Army won the battle, they suffered such devastating losses that it only emboldened the Americans.
That same month, George Washington was sent to the Second Continental Congress as a Virginia delegate. On July 1st, 1775, Washington was commissioned Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
During this time, there were only approximately 100 Masonic Lodges in America. All legitimate Lodges held charters from England, Ireland, or Scotland. Some also held charters from provincial Grand Masters who’d been granted Masonic authority in various parts of the Colonies by foreign entities. That would soon change.
It’s fascinating to realize that during while American Patriots were developing the will to fight for independence, American Freemasons were also deciding they no longer wanted to be held under the sway of any other country.
Finally, on July 4th, 1776, America issued the Declaration of Independence and severed itself from England forever.
Yet, while the well-dressed men wearing powdered wigs attempted to iron out the procedural and legal issues of independence, it was a far cry from the reality of war that Washington was facing. By December, Washington was forced to abandon New York City and his forces were driven back across New Jersey.
On Christmas Day, Washington made the fateful decision to stop running and attack.
He led his men across the frozen Delaware River and managed to take the British forces stationed in Trenton by surprise. This victory reinvigorated the war effort and convinced the American public that America could win.
As the tide of war turned, British loyalists were forced to flee the cities held by the Crown. Most of these cities, like New York and Philadelphia, had long-standing Masonic Lodges, and when the British loyalists fled, most of the Freemasons who’d resisted American Masonic independence fled with them.
Because Freemasons were so heavily involved in the Revolution, the Fraternity gained fame in the eyes of the American public. Three military leaders killed in the fighting were martyred in the press, and their affiliation to Freemasonry became widely publicized. Events like these led to a boom in Masonic membership across the country.
One story of Washington’s Masonic activities during the war is that British Lodge 227’s chest had been captured by American forces, and when Washington found out, he ordered the chest to be returned. This event was later described in the following colorful detail: "The guard of honor with their flutes playing a sacred march—the chest containing the constitution and the implements o of the Craft borne aloft, like another ark of the covenant, equally by Englishmen and Americans."
While this story is likely based on an actual event, it did not involve Washington. In 1779, the warrant belonging to the Regiment of the Foot's Lodge Unity No 18 was captured. General Samuel H. Parsons, a Freemason, graciously returned it to them.
On February 6, 1778, Bro. Benjamin Franklin was able to secure an alliance with France that would ultimately bring French fleets and armies to America’s side. By Mid-December, Washington drove the British army back to New York City and was then summoned to appear at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Masonry had suffered greatly in Pennsylvania during British occupation. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania had been unable to hold a single meeting since 1774, but now that the British were gone, it began to recover rapidly. Letters were sent to all seventeen of their subordinate lodges requesting they provide proof of viability, pay back dues, and contribute to a charity fund. In total, 790 pounds were collected.
At the same time the America's Founding Fathers were preparing to hold the Continental Congress, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was planning to hold their St John the Evangelist Day Service. While Freemasonry had ceased to be a Christian organization by that time, they still adhered to England's Grand Lodge Constitution which instructed Masons to gather in celebration on St. John’s Day. Because Washington was already in Philadelphia, the PA Grand Lodge invited him to attend the service.
That December 28th, 1778, three hundred Masonic brothers marched from the College and Academy of Philadelphia to the Anglican Christ Church, with Washington serving as the event’s honored guest. They raised 400 pounds in contributions, and those funds were then distributed to the city’s poor.
It is worth noting that this marks the first of several well-documented Masonic events that Bro. George Washington made a point of attending.
The next year, on June 24, 1779, Washington attended the American Union Lodge’s St. John the Baptist Day celebration in West Point, New York.
On December 27, 1779, Washington attended American Union Lodge’s St. John the Evangelist Day celebration at the Continental Army’s winter encampment in Morristown, NJ. It was at this meeting that Freemasons attempted to create a the office of "Grand Master of the United States."
This event was immortalized in a 1926 painting by John Ward Dunsmore, titled, The Petition.
On March 15, 1780, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania held a special meeting to discuss the petition and came to an agreement about two things. First, if they were going to pursue the matter there would need to be a committee formed to work out the specifics. Second, they wanted George Washington to hold the position.
However, at that time American Freemasonry was in such disarray that there were only three grand lodges in the country capable of achieving such a proposal: The Grand Lodge of PA, the Ancient Grand Lodge of Virginia, and the Ancient Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Ultimately, they were unable to coordinate their efforts and the position of Grand Master of the United States was never created. The historical record is unclear as to whether George Washington was ever even formally asked to serve in such a prestigious station.
And still, during this same time, stories of Washington’s battlefield Masonic activities continued. In 1780, he was reported to have returned captured British military lodge regalia and then freed captured British soldiers who were Freemasons.
On the MilitaryMasons.org.UK website, they say the following: "The Lodge of Social and Military Virtues (46th of Foot (DCLI)) had its lodge box captured by the enemy in the American War of Independence and luckily, it was returned, under a flag of truce, by its commander - Bro George Washington."
No evidence could be found for Washington ever freeing captured Masonic soldiers.
In Autumn of September 1781, American forces laid siege to the British-occupied city of Yorktown in an effort that would ultimately end the war. A story appeared in "Freemasons Monthly Magazine" in 1851, as told by the Past Grand Master of Virginia, in a speech, that George Washington, in the company of the Marquis de Lafayette and several other masons, attended Yorktown Lodge No. 9 after the siege had ended. When asked for proof of this, he said, "The old records" were not available.
"Freemasons Monthly Magazine" is responsible for another, much repeated, story about Washington. In 1843 they published a letter where the Grand Lecturer of Ohio’s Grand Lodge wrote that two of their members, ages 93 and 107, both recalled George Washington presiding over a Lodge in person and performing an initiating ceremony in 1782.
No other record of any such event exists.
Still, there are Masonic activities involving Washington during that time that can be proven. For example, we know that on December 27th, 1782, he rode seventeen miles to Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend Solomon Lodge No. 1’s St John the Evangelist Day Celebration.
Following the victory at Yorktown, on December 23rd, 1783, Washington addressed Congress and resigned his commission as Commander-In-Chief. By returning power to the people rather than keeping it for himself as a military dictator, he was hailed as a hero around the world.
On June 24th, 1784, Washington attended Lodge in Alexandria, VA. The meeting was held at Lamb’s Tavern and Washington was granted free lifetime membership.
On February 12th, 1785, Washington attended Bro. William Ramsay’s funeral as a Freemason. Ramsay had hired a 17-year-old Washington to survey the city of Alexandria. Washington documented his attendance in his diary.
On September 26th, 1786, a momentous event occurred that would change the face of Freemasonry forever: The Right Worshipful Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania and Masonic Jurisdiction Thereunto Belonging declared independence from the Grand Lodge of England.
Between the years of 1780 and 1786, PA had warranted Lodges in Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Cape François, Santo Domingo, but now, they'd announced they would no longer charter Lodges outside of their jurisdiction. Further, they sent notifications to all of the Lodges they’d chartered, instructing them that they would need to form Grand Lodges of their own.
Virginia soon followed suit. One of their first actions was to issue a new charter to Alexandria Lodge, which promptly installed George Washington as Charter Master. However, Washington was not present at the meeting when he was installed and there is no indication that he ever attended any meetings as master.
In May of 1787, 55 state delegates gathered in Philadelphia for a Constitutional Convention intended to revise the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was in attendance and was unanimously elected president of the convention.
That December, the Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington as the first President of the United States of America.
On April 30th, 1789, Washington was sworn into the new office and the Bible used belonged to St. John’s Masonic Lodge in New York City. The Bible remains in their possession to this day. The legend goes that Jacob Morton, the Inaugural Marshal for the swearing in, was also master of St. John’s Lodge. When he realized they did not have a Bible for the ceremony, he ran across the street to fetch it.
What’s important to acknowledge is that during his time as President, multiple Masonic Lodges across the country yearned to include Washington's name in their ranks. He was the most famous person in the United States, if not the entire world, and Lodges flooded him with correspondence and books and membership certificates. Many of these letters were kept among his archives, so it is plausible to think that they may have been of some importance to him.
However, out of respect for the Presidency, Washington set strict limitations on his participation in the Fraternity while he served. He would not sit in any Lodge in a subordinate capacity. He would not acknowledge any attempts to grant him a national Masonic office or title. He would not grant favors or consider personal requests from any Freemason.
From April 5th to June 12th, 1791, Washington toured the southern states of the Union, including Georgia. There is anecdotal evidence that says Washington presided over a Lodge meeting at Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 in Savannah Georgia while in the area.
On January 3rd, 1792, Washington exchanged correspondence with the Grand Lodge of PA. They wrote to him to express their congratulations and he wrote back that he hoped they’d "meet as brethren in the Eternal Temple of the Supreme Architect."
On January 5th, 1792, President Washington was elected to a 2nd term in office.
That same year, the Grand Lodges of PA, New York, VA, and Massachusetts, all dedicated their Masonic constitutions to him.
On August 29th, 1793, Alexandria Lodge sent Washington a formal request that he pose for a Masonic portrait. Washington granted their request and the painting would go on to survive the Civil War and a devastating fire in 1871. The painting is considered to be "unflattering" of the President, but legend has it that Washington insisted that the artist, "Paint me as I am."
On September 18th, 1793, Washington participated in the Masonic Cornerstone Ceremony at the new US Capitol building in Washington DC. He presided as "Acting Master" of the ceremony and the apron he wore is alleged to be in the keeping of Alexandria-Washington Lodge in Alexandria VA.
In August 1794, the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the American government caused widespread protests throughout Western Pennsylvania. President Washington raised a militia of almost 13 thousand men to suppress the "whiskey tax" rebellion.
That September 30th, Washington traveled west to review the militia’s progress. Along the way, he stopped in Reading. There is a story that, while in Reading, he attended Lodge, but no evidence can be found to support this claim.
By late December 1796, Washington declined to run for a third term and the Electoral College elected John Adams to replace him. Washington’s taste for politics had turned sour. There were routine attacks on him in the press and he’d grown weary of life in public office.
On March 4th, 1797, Washington returned home to Mount Vernon. He spent the remainder of his days surrounded by visitors who traveled to his home, often uninvited, who would wind up eating at his table, drinking his wine, and in need of housing for themselves and the retinue of servants they travelled with.
The Grand Master of the District of Columbia would later claim that one of their oldest members said he "often met" Washington at the Brook Lodge in Alexandria during this time. No record of Washington ever visiting Brook Lodge can be found.
On March 28th, 1797, Washington received a Masonic delegation from Alexandria Lodge.
On April 1st, 1797, he dined with members of Alexandria Lodge 22.
On July 4th, 1798, Washington was summoned back into the service of his country once more. President Adams feared war with France and as a result, re-appointed Washington Commander-In-Chief of the Armies. Although Washington would serve in that position until his death, he only participated in the planning stages for a provisional army and left the active leadership duties to his friend, Alexander Hamilton.
On December 14th, 1799, just three years after leaving office, George Washington died at 67 years of age of a throat infection. His last words were, "Tis Well."
Five of the six pallbearers in attendance at his funeral were Freemasons.
Freemasons around the country were struck by the death of their great Brother. Paul Revere sent a letter to Martha Washington to ask for a lock of the President’s hair. Upon receiving the lock, Bro. Revere constructed a golden urn to house it. That urn is still in the keeping of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
In closing, it is impossible to know how many meetings George Washington attended as a Freemason, or what the extent of his actual involvement with it was. All we can go by is the evidence that he spoke warmly of the Fraternity and made it a point throughout his entire life to include himself in it. That he sought to associate with Freemasonry, rather than see it bent to serve or gratify him, speaks volumes about both him and the Fraternity itself.
The final word on George Washington’s participation in Freemasonry should be left to someone who would know best. In 2011, author Ron Chernow received a Pulitzer Prize for his landmark biography titled WASHINGTON: A LIFE. A masterwork of exhaustive research, Chernow referenced Washington’s relationship with Freemasonry as such: "Washington believed devoutly in the group’s (Freemasons) high-minded values. He attended lodge meetings sporadically, came to own two Masonic aprons, walked in Masonic processions, and was even painted in full Masonic regalia during his second term as president. Repeatedly throughout his career, he paid tribute to the movement. ‘So far as I am acquainted with the principals and doctrine of Free Masonry,’ he said toward the end of his life, ‘I conceive it to be founded in benevolence and to be exercised only for the good of Mankind.’"
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