When discussing esoteric elements that influenced the American Revolution, alternative researchers often present Freemasonry as central to the time. Often overlooked though are the practical elements that made up Freemasonry in the colonies during the mid-eighteenth century. Freemasonry in its modern sense had only been publicly declared in 1717, and its position in the American colonies varied in influence as the two sides of the revolution struggled for supremacy.
Could an adherent to American independence still swear an oath to a Freemasonic lodge governed by a Grand Lodge based in the United Kingdom? Should American lodges be granted charters by loyalists who were all too willing to eventually hang them as traitors? The complex web that existed between American Colonial Freemasons and their UK brethren was a very strange marriage that blurred the lines of secret oaths and battlefield bravado.
Early masonic history in the U.S. is full of such contradictions, and due to the loss of many of their records, masonic history during this period is obscure and incomplete at best. As in political affairs, eighteenth century masonic episodes in the colonies were full of contradictions and peculiarities. The Pennsylvania Grand Lodge for example—deemed from its inception to be an independent body, or sister lodge, to its UK counterpart—during a dispute in 1760, inexplicably deferred to the Grand Lodge of England. Similarly, during the British occupation of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge even issued a warrant for a “traveling” lodge of the Crown’s Artillery, thus making a mockery of the Commonwealth’s claim of support for the American independence. Was Freemasonry really “free”? Or did being a member automatically make one a loyalist?
A closer examination reveals some of the reasons for these contradictions and paints a broader, even more enigmatic, picture of what was happening in certain circles of the American Revolution.
Two particular lodges illustrate the varying degrees of influence that Freemasonry wielded during American Revolutionary times. One borne in the outskirts of Philadelphia carried the torch of revolutionary spirit and bonded together on the sacred ground of Valley Forge. The other, steeped in a proud discipline reminiscent of the great medieval orders, served with a devotion that counted George Washington himself among its admirers, despite its loyalist sympathies.
Valley Forge and Beyond
The first lodge to be formed outside of the confines of the city of Philadelphia, Lodge #8, was established in Valley Forge in 1766. Described by Masonic historians as a “country and patriotic” lodge, it was given permission to be somewhat mobile, authorized to hold meetings in Chester and Philadelphia (later Montgomery) Counties. Its first Grand Master was the Scottish-born Patrick Anderson, while its first Warden was Myrick Davis, the son of a Welsh churchman. The Junior Warden was Joseph Richardson, an American veteran of the French and Indian Wars.
The three founders of Lodge #8 each have interesting footnotes. Anderson would become a Major in the Continental Army, serving under Anthony Wayne as a Minuteman in Chester County, later taking part in the battles of Long Island, Brandywine, and Germantown. In personal financial matters Anderson appears to have partnered with Davis in a number of deals that went bad. Davis was eventually imprisoned in Philadelphia in 1760 for such activities.
Joseph Richardson was another colorful character, also arrested for counterfeiting in 1773. During the Revolution, Richardson actually changed sides, becoming a Tory, having his land seized and ultimately being deemed nothing more than a desperado. Curiously, in 1765 Richardson had also been involved with Franklin, Wayne, and William Smith in a scheme to take control of Nova Scotia, location of the mysterious Oak Island, the legendary site of buried treasure.
Despite the two dubious founders, all eventual members of Lodge #8 “espoused the patriotic cause” and were, at some point, associated with the Continental Army. Meetings for Lodge #8 were convened originally at Valley Forge and Norristown. Some early meetings were also held in Philadelphia; one of the earliest extant records indicate a meeting overseen by new Grand Master John Bull on March 27, 1770.
While records for the history of this lodge are scant, Lodge #8 is remembered for holding an extravagant Freemasonic party in June of 1778 at an orchard near General Wayne’s encampment. In addition to George Washington himself, “many ladies also graced the occasion with their presence, prominent among whom were the wives of General Washington and Wayne.”
Further records indicate that, indeed, it was this lodge that, in 1780, nominated Washington to be the General Grand Master in the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. A high-ranking post, Washington is rarely recognized for attaining this level of Masonic affiliation.
An Ancient Masonic Relic
Lodge #8 was also in possession of a rare Freemasonic text known as the Carmack Manuscript of 1727. One of the oldest official documents of Freemasonic ritual, the text was in the possession of Major Persifor Frazer and eventually found its way to a lodge in Pittsburgh in 1909.
Lodge #8 held regular meetings throughout the Revolutionary War period at various locations in the Valley Forge area. In the 1779–1780 period, these meetings were held at the Senior Warden Thomas Rees estate in Upper Merion. By 1782 most of Lodge #8’s meetings were being held in the Norriston home of one Hannah Thompson. In later times this inn became known as the Jeffersonville Inn and was, according to an old masonic account, located at an intersection of Ridge Pike and “Egypt Road leading to Valley Forge and beyond.”
Records exist for Lodge #8, showing that it continued functioning throughout the 1780s as an important gathering place for important figures of the American Revolution. By the end of the decade it was convening regularly at the courthouse in Norristown. It seems to have ceased being a lodge in 1790 with many of its members migrating to Lodge #50 in Chester County.
If one were looking for a Freemasonic lodge that fervently supported the American cause and held high the light of liberty during the dark days of British occupation, they need look no further than lodge #8 that was convening in the misty valleys of Valley Forge and Norristown during the 1770s and 1780s.
Regal and Righteous
Unity Lodge #18, on the other hand, holds a most intriguing and somewhat mysterious Masonic place in American history. Originally consisting of a Crown’s foot regiment this military lodge held a revered place among both loyalist and American military Freemasons. With a charter granted by the Grand Lodge of Scotland as well as the United Lodge of Pennsylvania, Unity Lodge #18 straddled the military spheres of the day and held a place so well respected that one of its fallen officers received a military funeral presided over by George Washington himself. The history of this lodge stretches from Ireland to the Mediterranean to Philadelphia and Nova Scotia (Read: “Oak Island & the Mason” by Steven Sora, Atlantis Rising #120, November/December 2016). If you were looking for a piece to the Masonic and historical puzzle, Lodge #18 may fill the bill.
The reverence held for this lodge by Americans can probably be traced to Richard Montgomery, the general killed during the siege of Montreal on December 31, 1775. Montgomery’s death was a jolt to the Continental Army, and this now-forgotten Revolutionary hero provided a potent rallying cry for the enlistment of recruits in the fledgling American cause.
An Irish native, Montgomery had joined Unity Lodge #18 at an early point, perhaps in 1760 while still serving the British Crown in the seventeenth Regiment of Foot. Recognized for his honor and valor by both sides of the Revolutionary conflict, his gravesite memorial consists of an elaborate, truncated pyramid-shaped obelisk like that held sacred by many in the Revolutionary and Masonic community of the day. This truncated pyramid imagery was to be incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States and ultimately, I believe, in the next century secretly incorporated into the city plan for the city of San Francisco (Read: “San Francisco’s Pyramid Saga,” Atlantis Rising #55, January/February 2006).
During the war the Seventeenth Regiment of Foot had a high profile, taking part in celebrated battles at Princeton, Brandywine and Germantown. During the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777 and 1778, this fierce and somewhat irregular band of soldiers remained stationed there, holding their Unity Lodge meetings at Carpenters Hall. After the war the military component of the lodge was to be stationed in Nova Scotia.
It was in the aftermath of the Battle of Princeton, which claimed the life of the respected Captain William Leslie, that the lines of the American Revolution became blurred. Leslie, a member of Unity Lodge #18 and a close acquaintance of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of Washington’s staff, was given a full Masonic and military funeral overseen by George Washington himself. Two days later Washington dispatched one of his aides to the British camp, advising them of Leslie’s demise and his official internment.
Despite this overture by Washington, over the course of the ensuing conflict the Seventeenth Regiment of Foot remained problematic to the Continental Army. On two occasions the regiment was captured and made prisoner of war; and as late as 1781 they were still taking part in major British victories. While serving under Cornwallis, the Seventeenth Foot Regiment led the British to a pyrrhic victory in 1781 over the Continental Army at the battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina. They would be captured again in 1782 before being stationed in New York for the remainder of the war.
In the aftermath of the war, this regiment was removed from American soil and stationed in Nova Scotia. Mystery researchers of Oak Island in Nova Scotia may note that this is a period when some of the legends regarding the treasure, believed to have been buried there, first became known. During this same time, the United Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania canceled the warrant for Unity Lodge #18, possibly because an irregular body of Masons were using the same name without the consent or approval of their brethren in the Seventeenth Regiment. In 1786 the Seventeenth Foot Regiment was formally assigned to return to the UK, and their American Masonic lodge was closed. It is unclear if any members stayed on in Nova Scotia or other parts of North America after this point.
Freemasonic lodges such as Lodge #8 and Lodge #18 embodied the spirit and devotion of their era: one determined to establish a new, free, republic; the other disciplined to uphold a haughty tradition of monarchy and chivalry. Their common sense of ritual and reason allowed for a few moments of brotherhood and camaraderie, but in the end, their fates, aligned 180 degrees apart, could not be reconciled.
CAPTION: The Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 (painting by John Trumbull)
Strange History—The Masons in America
Take out a dollar bill (United States currency, that is). Look at the back. On the left side, granted as much space as the American eagle symbol on the right, is a seeing eye and a pyramid, placed there for no apparent reason. But for those in the know, the eye above the pyramid is a Masonic symbol, produced by a secret society, which has influenced American history from its beginnings. In Masonic lore, the pyramid symbol is known as a sign of the eye of God watching over humanity. The Masons have been both criticized and praised for their influential role in U.S. history.
George Washington reached the top level of the Masons on August 4, 1753, securing the leadership of the influential lodge in Alexandria, Virginia. Washington was not alone among the founding founders; twenty-one signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons. Many historians note that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights both seem to be heavily influenced by the Masonic “civil religion,” which focuses on freedom, free enterprise, and a limited role for the state.
In Europe, the Masons were known for plotting against royal governments. In America, they became known for promoting Republican virtues of self-government. Masonic thought influenced American history: the Masons were opposed to the claims of royalty—a strong influence on the development of the American revolt against Britain that culminated in the Revolutionary War. They were also known for their opposition to the Catholic Church, another international organization that competed for allegiance.
The United States Masons (also known as Freemasons) originated in England and became a popular association for leading colonials after the first American lodge was founded in New Jersey in 1730. Masonic brothers pledged to support one another and provide sanctuary if needed. The fraternity embodied European Enlightenment ideals of liberty, autonomy, and God as envisioned by Deist philosophers was a Creator who largely left humanity alone.
Excerpted with permission from an article published online by JSTOR Daily, digital library. https://daily.jstor.org/ the-strange-history-of-masons-in-america/.