The Order of Ancient, Free, and Accepted Masons was first established in London in 1717. Despite tracing their historical roots to the first mason of the Temple of Solomon, the masons of the eighteenth century had little to do with the profession of architecture or masonry. Founded for the purpose of gathering political, cultural, and intellectual elites within a single fraternity, freemasonry evolved into a prominent organization in the eighteenth century and made its way to Britain's American colonies sometime shortly thereafter.1 The all-male organization had rich connections to the British Enlightenment, as its associated chapters, or lodges, became famous for closed meetings that included many of the most prominent thinkers in the British Atlantic world.
Although American elites initially joined the Freemasons with the intention of mimicking English genteel behavior, the organization ultimately contributed to the development of the American Revolution. During the revolutionary era, masons of note included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, and James Madison. These men and other leading revolutionaries used masonic lodges as gathering places to discuss the relevant issues of the day, network with likeminded individuals, and plan resistance against unpopular British policies.2
Washington entered the Order of the Freemasons in October 1752 at the age of 20. Upon joining the Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Washington became a member alongside a number of influential Virginians, including the militia officers Hugh Mercer, George Weedon, and Thomas Posey. Many of Washington’s brothers in the Fredericksburg Lodge later served beside him in the Continental Army.3
Washington as a Freemason, J. H. Powers & Co. Fraternity Publishers, 1870.
Beginning in 1782 and continuing through the remainder of his life, Washington kept an active correspondence with various other Masonic lodges and brothers. On August 10, 1782, for example, Washington happily received a Masonic apron as a gift from the firm of Watson and Cassoul.4 Washington responded with a note of gracious thanks, writing, "For your affectionate Vows, permit me to be grateful and offer mine for true Brothers in all parts of the world."5
In 1783, at the close of the Revolutionary War, a masonic lodge in Alexandria, Virginia was chartered. The new lodge asked General Washington to be its first Master. Washington, in support of the organization and its proximity to his home at Mount Vernon, accepted the position and became Master of the newly formed Alexandria Lodge No. 22.6
Decanter, c. 1783-1788.
After the war, freemasonry remained important to Washington, as evidenced by its prominent role in his first presidential inauguration on April 30, 1789. In taking the oath of office, Washington used the Bible of the St. John's Masonic Lodge No. 1 of New York. Robert Livingstone, the Chancellor of New York and a prominent mason, administered the oath.7
In 1794, Washington agreed to sit for a portrait commissioned by his Alexandria Lodge No. 22 for specific use by his fellow Freemasons. Joseph Williams painted the portrait of Washington dressed in full Masonic regalia. In 1805, the lodge renamed itself the Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 in honor of the late president.
The Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 bought a plot of land in Alexandria in 1909 for the purpose of creating a memorial to Washington as a Freemason. In recognition of Freemasonry's connection to the architectural professions, the lodge chose a design similar to the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.8 The George Washington Masonic Memorial houses the Masonic painting of George Washington as well as the Masonic apron that was the subject of his 1782 letter. Today, the Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 holds its meetings at the memorial while welcoming visitors and other organizations in the city of Alexandria to use the ornate space.
George Washington University
4. Washington's Masonic Correspondence as Found Among the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress, ed. Julius Friedrich Sachse (Philadelphia: Press of the New Era Printing Company, 1915), 22.
Brown, William Moseley. Freemasonry in Virginia. Richmond: Masonic Home Press, 1936.
Bullock, Stephen C. The Revolutionary Transformation of American Freemasonry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Callahan, Charles H. Washington the Man and the Mason. Washington: National Publishing Co., 1913.
Washington's Masonic Correspondence as Found Among the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress, ed. Julius Friedrich Sachse. Philadelphia: Press of the New Era Printing Company, 1915.