While the cornerstone ceremony for the President’s House had been hastily organized and performed by the Freemasons and the new city’s officials with little fanfare, the city commissioners decided that the Congress House needed a much bigger kickoff ceremony. On Wednesday, September 18, 1793, President Washington crossed the Potomac and was escorted to the construction site of the President’s House by members of Maryland’s Lodge No. 9 and Virginia’s Alexandria Lodge No. 22. There they were joined by the members of Federal Lodge No. 15, which had just received its charter from Grand Lodge six days before. It’s Master was James Hoban, the architect of the President’s House.
The assembled Masons marched “in the greatest solemn dignity, with music playing, drums beating, colors flying and spectators rejoicing,” up the barely cleared road that would eventually be Pennsylvania Avenue to the little hilltop clearing that would become the symbolic center of the Federal City and the nation.
A trench had been dug for the foundation, and the group took their place at the southeast corner of what would be the North Wing of the Capitol. Brother Clotworthy Stephenson, Grand Marshal, presented a silver plate to the commissioners. It read:
“This South East corner Stone, of the Capitol of the United States of America in the City of Washington, was laid on the 18th day of September 1793, in the thirteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washington, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial, as his Military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties, and in the year of Masonry 5793, by the Grand Lodge of Maryland, several Lodges under its jurisdiction, and Lodge No. 22, from Alexandria, Virginia.”
Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, Daniel Carroll, Commissioners.
Joseph Clark, R.W.G.M.—P.T.
James Hoban, Stephen Hallate, Architects
Collen Williamson, Master Mason
The tools used at the cornerstone ceremony,
on display at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, VA
After the reading of the inscription, the cornerstone was made ready. President Washington, the Grand Master pro tempore Joseph Clark of Maryland, and the three attending Masters of the lodges present—Elisha Cullen Dick of Alexandria No. 22, Valentine Reintzel of Maryland Lodge No. 9, and James Hoban of Federal Lodge No. 15—took the plate and stepped down into the trench. A beautiful silver trowel and marble gavel had been crafted especially for the occasion by Brother John Duffey, a silversmith in Alexandria who was a member of the president’s home lodge, Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4. The trowel had a silver blade, a silver shank and an ivory handle with a silver cap. Brother Duffey had also crafted Masonic working tools of walnut for use in the ceremony.
The square was applied, a symbol of virtue, to make certain that each angle of the stone was perfectly cut. Next, the level, a symbol of equality, was used it to ascertain that the stone was horizontally correct. And last, the plumb, an emblem of morality and rectitude, showed that the stone was perfectly upright. The stone was declared square, level and plumb and therefore suitable as the foundation for the new building.
Kernels of wheat were sprinkled over the stone from a golden cup as a symbol of goodness, plenty and nourishment. Wine was poured over it from a silver cup, a symbol of friendship, health and refreshment. Finally, drops of oil glistened down its sides like the sacred oil that ran down upon Aaron’s beard in the Old Testament, “to the skirts of his garments; as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion.” The oil symbolized joy, peace and tranquility.
President Washington placed the silver plate on the cornerstone, and it was consecrated in the Masonic tradition with corn, wine and oil. The silver trowel was used to spread a small amount of cement, and the marble gavel to symbolically tap the stone into place.
Today, the left “valve” doors of the Senate depict a scene from the laying of the Capitol cornerstone, clearly showing Washington in his Masonic apron, and there is a fresco painted in the Capitol depicting the scene, as well.
Non-Masons may be especially curious about the “year of Masonry” on the cornerstone’s plate—5793. One of the more confounding customs has to do with the way Freemasons date documents. The Gregorian calendar was standardized by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, though the non-Catholic Western world took another 200 years before they went along with the pope’s idea. Since 1776, most of the world has been on the same calendar page, though Greece and Russia didn’t adopt it until after World War I. Because Western Europe and America switched to the Gregorian calendar in the mid-1700s, conflicting ages are attributed to some of the notable figures of the period. Because of the confusion during the changeover, they themselves weren’t always sure of their real age.
In 1658, Bishop James Ussher in Ireland believed he had determined the exact date of the creation of the world. Using the biblical account along with a comparison of Middle Eastern histories, Hebrew genealogy and other known events, he determined that the Earth was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. At about the same time, John Lightfoot, vice chancellor of Cambridge University, went on to clarify that the Creation actually happened at about 9 a.m.
Ussher called his calendar Anno Mundi, the Year of the World. By 1700, Ussher and Lightfoot’s calculations of the date and time of the Creation were accepted as fact by most Christian denominations. Beginning in 1701, new editions of the King James Bible clearly stated it right up front. Because Ussher’s Creation date was so strongly believed at the time of modern Freemasonry’s origin, the Masons began dating their documents using 4004 B.C. as their beginning year . . . sort of. 4004 was an inconvenient number to remember, so Masons simply took the current year and added 4,000 to it. So, A.D. 1793 became 5793 Anno Lucis, or A.L., and A.D. 2007 would be 6007 A.L. Anno Lucis means “year of light” in Latin. Masons called it that to coincide with the Genesis passage, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” They did this early on to lend their fraternity an air of great and solemn antiquity. If they dated their documents as being 5717 years old, they’d certainly sound more respectable and impressive than some newly formed London drinking club. Today, you will often see two dates on Masonic cornerstones—both A.D. and A.L.
After seven years, the U.S. Congress met in the first completed portion of the Capitol, the North Wing, in November 1800. In the 1850s, major extensions to the North and South ends of the Capitol were required because of rapid westward expansion of the country and the subsequent growth of Congress. During this expansion, the distinctive dome that makes the building so readily identifiable replaced a less grandiose, much shorter, squatter (and leaky) one that made up Dr. Thornton’s original design. Since that time, additional office buildings have been built up on streets adjacent to the Capitol to handle the needs of an ever-increasing, swollen bureaucracy.
Because of modifications to the building following its burning in 1814 at the hands of the British, along with expansions in the 1850s, the original cornerstone laid by George Washington and the Freemasons has been lost. In 1893, on the one hundredth anniversary of the laying of the Capitol’s cornerstone, a plaque was placed near the spot where it was believed to have originally been installed.
Beneath this tablet the corner stone of the Capitol of theUnited States of Americawas laid byGeorge WashingtonFirst President September 18, 1793On the Hundredth Anniversaryin the year 1893In presence of the Congress the Executive and the Judiciarya vast concourse of the grateful peopleof the District of Columbia commemorated the event.Grover Cleveland President of the United StatesAdlai Ewing Stevenson Vice PresidentCharles Frederick Crisp Speaker, House of RepresentativesDaniel Wolsey Hoorhees Chairman Joint Committee of Congress,Lawrence Gardner Chairman Citizens Committee
In 1932, the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth was celebrated across the nation. To mark the occasion, the Freemasons of Washington, D.C., dedicated a new stone at the Capitol building. Located at Old Supreme Court Chamber Entrance, on the First Floor, East Front, it reads:
Laid Masonically Sept. 17, 1932in Commemoration of the Layingof the Original Cornerstone byGeorge Washington