March 07, 2010

Freemasonry and the American Revolution

Gordon Wood in his new history of the post-revolutionary era observes in passing the popularity amongst the founders of free masonry. Conspiracy theorists have made a lot of this over the years, reading it as a sign of the commitment of Benjamin Franklin and the rest to a secret agenda and a covert constitution. Wood suggests that we should interpret this within the context of its times: Freemasonry developed in some police forces in the UK for example into precisely what the conspiracy theorists denounce but that was not what it was in eighteenth century Philadelphia. There are two things that distinguish freemasonry in the world of the eighteenth century and made it attractive in Wood's views to some of the American founders- the first was that it was irreligious. Because Free masons belonged to any and all denominations, they belonged to none. This point is worth considering because it underlines the toleration implicit in the founding. The founders were not trying to found an Anglican, Baptist or Presbyterian nation. Secondly Freemasonry could cross social and geographical lines: a Freemason was a citizen of the world. America was founded in part on its promise of universality and men like Franklin believed in a republic that crossed national and racial boundaries (save in the slave owning south). American patriots saw no contradiction when one of their number retained his place in American politics and sought to run for the French National Assembly in 1792. Again Freemasonry crossed boundaries- whether those be the social boundaries between gentlemen or the geographical separations between nations.

Wood's insight is interesting because it shows how Freemasonry- now the preserve of old men and silly handshakes- could look in the eighteenth century like an egalitarian and tolerant movement. That was its attraction to the founders at least. Furthermore it reminds us of the internationalist nature of the American founding and its addiction to crossing religious frontiers.