"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Richard Brookhiser on Washington's Freemasonry

Cruising the National Review site tonight, I hit this clip with Richard Brookhiser talking about George Washington's Freemasonry to Will Cain, who seems to be mainlining energy drinks and doing an annoying Griff Jenkins impression. Cain fires off incisive questions like, "So, let's try this—Where there's smoke there's FIRE?! (wink, wink)"

Brookhiser's 1996 biography of Washington, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, was a good, solid and intelligent telling of the President's life, with enough new takes on old information to keep it interesting. Brookhiser can be a fun writer, and he's certainly no slouch. On the subject of Masonry, he wrote, “Washington’s Freemasonry is a difficult subject, not because everybody cares about it, but because hardly anybody does . . . almost everything written about it is either self-infatuated or loony . . . ”

He's right. Most of it is.

In the video clip he remarks that the second question usually asked at his talks on Washington (right after dopers asking if George grew hemp) is almost always, "Was Washington a Freemason," then goes on to claim that 30% of the time the question is asked by Freemasons who want to pat themselves on the back, and the rest are anti-Masons. But Brookhiser seems to think the attraction for Washington was the ritual and pageantry associated with the Craft. He tends to stress this in his book as well. I would argue that the attraction for young George was that when he joined at 21 in Fredericksburg, he had just inherited a massive responsibility with the death of his older step-brother, Lawrence. He now had several plantations, a sizable fortune, along with an inferiority complex about the deficiency of his own formal education. Lawrence had been his mentor, along with Lord Fairfax, who became his patron and hired him as a surveyor at the age of 17.

Freemasonry at the lodge in Fredericksburg counted as its members the most respected men in the county. His membership there signified his own new position in society, and it was a place to cement those social connections. It was a fraternity of learned men. It encouraged self-improvement. It introduced him to the real-life application of the philosophies of the Enlightenment. I would argue there were far more reasons for his joining than a preoccupation with pomp and circumstances. If Washington was looking for mere pageantry, he found it in the military, not necessarily the lodge.

Brookhiser does make the distinction between Freemasonry in America vs. in continental Europe, and the very different paths the fraternity took, a point that is rarely made.

BTW, this clip is possibly the only time you'll ever hear the British government, Hamas and the Catholic Church mentioned as being on the same team...


  1. Interestingly, I assumed that Uncle Geo. joined a lodge because he thought it would be a way to have some guidance with his new-found wealth from established men that he could trust. It never occurred to me that there would be community status in those days, as (I thought) most men kept quiet about their membership.

    I do agree, though, that pretty much 90% of Masons can't wait to trot out the corpse of GW to parade around as some kind of symbol of pride. Personally, I'm getting a bit tired of the hoopla over the Masonic Founding Fathers parade. Don't we have any fresh corpses to parade around?

  2. I wonder if Brookhiser thinks that the ceremonies as done today have come down unchanged from King Solomon. There wouldn't have been terribly much pageantry at the time Washington was initiated, and perhaps not much ritual, depending on whether a lecture was rehearsed around the table.

    There was an excellent paper in AQC some years ago which outlined that Washington attended seven Masonic meetings in his life. But he certainly had a "favourable opinion, preconceived of the institution", which, I've naively assumed, is the reason he joined. I'll pass on psychoanalytical speculation.

    Tom, there are fresh Masonic corpses every day. Read the obits. One Bro. ruefully remarked one day you know you're getting old when the first page of the paper you turn to is the obits to see if friends are there.



Kindly sign your comment posts. Anonymous postings on Masonic topics have the same status as cowans and eavesdroppers, as far as I am concerned, and may be deleted if I don't recognize you or if I'm in a grumpy mood.