Mention how the nation's capital is laid out, and someone is sure to mention the Freemasons—the secret, international order often rumored to be behind the city's planning. And not just that: Popular lore has linked Freemasonry, which has its roots in the stonemasons' guilds of the Middle Ages, to the Boston Tea Party and even the pyramid on the dollar bill. But how influential are the Masons, really? With Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol, focusing on the group, that's a question even more will be asking. And it's one that Jay Kinney's The Masonic Myth seeks to answer. Kinney, librarian and director of research for the San Francisco Masonic Scottish Rite, recently chatted with U.S. News about the Masons' role in U.S. history.
The "Masonic myth" is that the Masons are a secretive, occult group with a hand in everything from the French Revolution to Washington's layout. What is the reality?
They are the world's oldest fraternal society, and they're pioneers in support of the idea of universal brotherhood and equality among people. But I don't think that they have ever really held the reins of power or had a strong influence over what's going on.
Have Masonic concepts shaped U.S. government at all?
Yes. Leading up to the American Revolution, some of the values that were there within Masonic lodges, such as electing your own leaders and having a constitution, were ideas that did get put into play. Now, whether you can attribute that directly to Masons is a bigger question, because those ideas were also part of the Enlightenment, and they were loose in the world at large.
Some 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution were Masons. Coincidence?
In the context of a new society being pulled together, Masonry did provide a kind of informal infrastructure for civil society. It was an organization where men could get together and meet each other across class lines. But I think the number of signers of the Constitution or of the Declaration of Independence was less a matter of, say, some Masonic grand master ordering the Masons to infiltrate the government and more just happening to have a lot of people who were fairly active in society at large who were also Masons.
Could you say that joining provided access to power, or is that too conspiratorial?
That does put too much of a conspiracy spin on it. For instance, with my own involvement with Masonry, it's introduced me to all sorts of people from different walks of life who in my usual social circles I would never have run into. But power has nothing to do with it.
Why would George Washington, a Mason, have incorporated Freemasonry into national events, like laying the Capitol's cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony?
That was a function that the Masons served in civil society. It was a public, nonsectarian ritual to mark things like the building of a new public building. They had been doing cornerstone ceremonies for the previous 100 years. It was just a common occurrence.
Did Pierre L'Enfant, a Mason, plan the city of Washington to incorporate Masonic symbols?
Personally, I don't think so. His plan obviously was highly geometric—almost too geometric, because it makes Washington sort of a pain to drive around. That doesn't mean there haven't been books that, by indirect circumstantial evidence, haveconcluded that he had those intentions. But I don't consider circumstantial evidence to be proof of much. It's quite possible that Dan Brown may latch onto that idea and roll with it.
What about the Great Seal—the emblem on the dollar bill that is said to be Masonic?
The triangle symbol itself was one that was out there, at large, in society. It was not just a Masonic symbol. It can even be found in Catholic holy cards and in engravings in the 1600s and 1700s that had no direct relation to Masonry. It's the eye of providence or the all-seeing eye of God. And the particular individual who provided the eye and the triangle element was not a Mason.
Why doesn't the organization make a stronger attempt to counteract the rumors that it's a nefarious organization with power throughout society?