Inside the Masons

The fraternal order has long been the target of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.

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The 1820s looked as though they would be the best of times for the special relationship between the fraternal order of Freemasonry and the young American nation. It wasn't just because so many prominent members of the founding generation--George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and indeed 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution--had been members. It was also because the rapidly growing republic and the fraternal society still held so many ideals in common. American republican values looked like Masonic values writ large: honorable civic-mindedness, a high regard for learning and progress, and what might be called a broad and tolerant religiosity. Indeed, says Steven Bullock, a historian at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a leading scholar of the Masonic fraternity in America, Freemasons "helped to give the new nation a symbolic core."

Not for nothing were the compass, square, and other emblems associated with Freemasonry emblazoned everywhere, even on jewelry, furniture, and table settings belonging to Masons and many non-Masons as well. Nor was it insignificant that a goodly number of Americans thought--erroneously but justifiably--that the Great Seal of the United States itself contained Masonic symbols. It was both a tribute and a liability to the brotherhood that people saw the influence of Freemasonry even where it didn't exist.

Since the Revolution, Freemasons had become the semiofficial celebrants of American civic culture. Wearing their distinctive aprons and wielding the trowels of their craft--the original Masons were in fact stonemasons--they routinely laid the cornerstones of important government buildings and churches and participated prominently in parades and other public ceremonies. When the aging Lafayette made his return tour of the United States in 1824-25, members of the "craft" (as Masonry is called) conspicuously greeted their fellow Mason, often inviting him to stay at the local lodge. That tour further boosted Masonic membership, which had grown from 16,000 in 1800 to about 80,000 in 1822, or roughly 5 percent of America's eligible male population.

How, then, did what looked like the best of times for Freemasonry so quickly become the worst of times? Part of the answer can be found in the public's divided reaction to Lafayette's tour, suggests historian Mark Tabbert, curator of Masonic and fraternal collections at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass., in his new book, American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities. To many citizens, those conspicuous displays of fraternal affection for a foreign nobleman smacked of something both elitist and conspiratorial. Quite simply, Tabbert writes, they "heightened suspicion of the craft as an international order with secrets and a radical revolutionary past."

Not so secret. It was not the first time Freemasonry would meet with such a response. From its birth as an organized fraternal movement in early-18th-century London to this very day, Freemasonry has been the object of wide curiosity and occasional intense suspicion. With its elaborate secret rituals, its involvement with both ancient wisdom and modern Enlightenment science and reason, and its relatively exclusive membership (applicants must ask to join and are then vetted and voted upon), the Masonic brotherhood has proved almost tailor-made for weavers of conspiracy theories or opportunistic authors eager to make a buck by imaginatively "exposing" the secret ways and even more secret ambitions of the craft. If the "grand secret" of Freemasons, as brother Benjamin Franklin once said, "is that they have no secret at all," those who suggest otherwise--including novelist Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame in his forthcoming novel, The Solomon Key --have seldom gone wanting for a receptive audience.

The real history of Freemasonry is arguably more interesting than all the tales woven about it. But that history is at least in part the story of the many fanciful interpretations of the brotherhood. Indeed, the Masons' substantial accomplishments--in forming solid citizens, in forging social networks, in mending certain social divisions, in supporting philanthropic causes--are all the more remarkable in the face of past efforts to defame or even dismantle the organization.