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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Mark Tabbert: 'George Washington's Rules for Freemasons in Life and Lodge'


(The trouble with writing a huge research project to a very strict deadline is that there aren't enough hours in the day to get to everything else you really want to do. That's been a side effect for well over a year now, as literally stacks of new Masonic books have arrived on our doorstep at Hodapphaüs that I've been unable to get around to reviewing or promoting here. Or sometimes, actually reading. If you're an author of one, I swear I'm not being rude. I'll try to write about them after about mid-November, but I've been way too remiss about bringing this particular one up.)


About a year ago, my friend Mark Tabbert sent me a manuscript to look over, and graciously asked me to write a foreword to it if I saw merit to it. I absolutely did. It was an unusual little book, and actually a by-product of his own much larger research project. In 2013, Mark embarked on a massive attempt to identify, organize, document, and interpret every incident, object, and contact George Washington personally had to do with Freemasonry. Just making the list to start with was daunting enough, and he's still not close to being finished with the final book he has long envisioned. Nevertheless, since Mark is the Director of Collections at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, his mission is guided by a sense of responsibility to Washington's Masonic legacy that surrounds him every day he drives up that long driveway on Shooter's Hill.

Anyway, back to Mark's research "by-product." One of the persistent things he kept encountering were references and quotes taken from a list of sayings often referred to as Washington's 110 Rules of Civility. Over the years, people tended to be confused by that title, often believing George himself made them up, or maybe collected them over the years, scribbling them down as he heard them. But that wasn't how he came across them.

In the three centuries preceding this one, a common method of teaching penmanship to young students was by use of the copybook. This was a booklet filled with pages of blank lines, and at the top of each page was a saying, a proverb, or an aphorism, printed perfectly so that the student could follow the example and dutifully attempt to reproduce the precise handwriting presented. But those aphorisms had a more important effect over time. Those bits of wisdom, guidance, rules of proper behavior, and just plain common sense were handed down over the centuries, pretty uniformly, throughout much of Western society.


It was also the way that young George Washington learned his penmanship with a quill, and as an added bonus, how to treat people and be a civilized member of society. It is fair to say that the copybook and the repetitive writing of the sayings was a kind of basic training for living a decent life. By doing so, he also absorbed perfection of character and soul. Reading the Rules, it is striking that they concentrate, not on self-interest or personal happiness, but rather on the treatment and happiness of others. They call for the seemingly minor sacrifices that are required every day for the sake of living together in peace and harmony. The manners described in them go far beyond an obsession with when to tip one’s hat or bow when introduced, and are far more concerned with making other people feel welcome, or comfortable, or honored. 

Or equal.

What makes all of this applicable to us as Masons and our lodges comes in something that Washington wrote in a letter in 1793, in which he said, "that the grand object of Freemasonry is to promote the happiness of the human race." That letter echoes a later quote from William Preston in 1796 that "happiness originates in the Lodge, and disperses its influence to the wide circle of the world."

And if it doesn't? I never say this, but I will this one single time. I hate to break it to you, but if it doesn't, you're doing it wrong.

Mark Tabbert has taken these 110 copybook aphorisms and done something unique with them. The result is his small book called George Washington's Rules for Freemasons in Life and Lodge. He's gathered Brother George's 110 Rules and rearranged them into different themes having to do with a Mason's behavior outside of, during, and after lodge (much as James Anderson did in 1723). In addition, Mark follows each Rule with a modern translation in plainer language for each one, much as the average grand lodge Monitor defines archaic language for modern Freemasons. (The original Rules come out of an early 17th century English translation of a French Jesuit book, so the language occasionally needed a gentle nudge of modernity.)

After the specifically Masonic-themed portion of the book, Mark also reprints the original 110 rules, unaltered, in order, so you can see the list of them as Washington wrote them down, for reference. The big bonus to the work is a meticulously detailed chronology of Washington's life and every instance of his contact with Masons, Masonic objects, or Masonic lodges. And finally, there is an extensive bibliography of trustworthy books regarding Washington and Freemasonry. For a book so deceptively small in size, it is densely packed with resources for your own future studies about our most famous American Brother. 

At a paltry $10, you ought to pack one in your apron case and haul it out the next time you see a couple of brethren poking each other in the chest out in the parking lot after lodge. Better yet, order one for all of your lodge officers. Read a chapter out loud at your next meeting for a bit of education. Or send an anonymous copy to your grand master just as a reminder.

The copybooks of old largely disappeared in the mid-20th century, so these little proverbs haven’t been widely taught to school children for almost eight decades now. Within about 25 years of them vanishing from classrooms, Americans had already started to be a whole lot less civil, less respectful of each other. I suspect the social barbarism and grotesque treatment of our fellow citizens we are all living through these days is partially a result of the now total disappearance of these gentle, little reminders of truth and civility. They need to make a comeback, and fast.

Maybe as a tool to teach five year olds how to text on their kiddie cell phones, somebody could make an app and resurrect them again.

(Mark Tabbert's book is available directly from Macoy Publishing HERE. It's currently unavailable from Amazon for no reason I can think of.)

2 comments:

  1. A former grand master of Virginia, Charles Callahan, wrote a short book The Lodge of Washington that is now again in print -- https://westphaliapress.org/2013/09/20/the-lodge-of-washington-and-his-neighbors/

    ReplyDelete
  2. yes, those basic norms of humanity and values that are not promoted over and over in schools, families or respected by the judicial systems, do have a recurring negative result for the future of society

    ReplyDelete

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