To masons across the United States, a single name brings a feeling of pride, respect, and even reverential awe when that name is spoken. George Washington was a mason, which can be confirmed by historical and masonic texts and records. It is not a secret that Washington promoted masonic ideals in his interactions with his military soldiers and officers. It is also no secret that many of his officers and soldiers under his command, and elsewhere in the Continental Army were masons as well. Why was this? Why did General Washington encourage and promote Freemasonry to those serving in the Continental Army? Washington promoted Freemasonry to those serving in the Continental Army to bring order, morality, loyalty, leadership skills, trustworthiness, the ability to rise beyond one’s social standing, and unity to this collection of men from all walks of life and all over the colonies into one unified form; that would not only influence the outcome of the Revolutionary War, but ultimately influence the new nation.
To better understand Washington’s masonic influence in the Continental Army, we first need to quickly examine the status of Freemasonry in the American Colonies, focusing upon military detachments. From the time when Freemasonry arrived to the American Colonies, small local lodges formed in different locations. Men from those locations joined the fraternity. A slight problem arose when prior to the Revolution, many masons served in the British Army and were away from their home lodge. Also other members of the army wished to join the fraternity, but being a member of the military made it quite difficult to associate with one local lodge. So military lodges were formed and chartered starting in 1732. These lodges serviced those in the military and were sanctioned to be mobile; in other words able to move about with their respective military detachments, etc. We get a picture of just how important these military lodges were to the men, “these lodges were a fruitful source of maintaining Masonic unity with military groups and helped spread the ideas of the Craft throughout the world.” Military lodges spread throughout the British Army and included men that were British, American, Christian, non-Christian, and from different social stations. The Craft’s ideals of unity and brotherhood allowed men from all walks, within the military, to join and better themselves. Not only that, there was a growing need that these men had, which also influenced the growth of Freemasonry in pre-Revolutionary America.
With the number of masons within the military ever increasing, the importance of Freemasonry became more apparent to these men working and fighting together. This importance, “beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, a growing number of working men, outside the elite, joined a new and more democratic…variant of the fraternity and directed it toward an embrace of the republican ideals of the new American society…military lodges more than Protestant chaplains knit together the officers of the Continental Army.” This form of the Craft overlooked whether a man came from aristocratic origins, was a new man/gentleman, or a common labourer from any of the colonies. During this period George Washington became a mason. Masonic records tell us that during the years of 1752 and 1753 that George Washington received his Entered Apprentice, and was raised a Master Mason in 1753 at the Fredericksburg Lodge. Initially Washington did not join a military lodge, but we can safely assume he did and was active as much as he could during his military career and the war. Detailed military lodge records did not survive the war, got lost overtime, or were not well kept to offer us definitive membership lists. Washington did not come from aristocratic society, he was a son of a colonist. In the eyes of British aristocracy, this status placed one. British society never let you forget your station in society. Nevertheless George Washington did not let this social status hinder him, for he did rise in the ranks of Virginian society to that of a Gentleman. He conducted himself the way a Gentleman did during this period. With societal rules of conduct and the tenants of masonry guiding his life, Washington found himself in the position to forever influence those around him, and very likely the way the fraternity in America would evolve.
Military men had the general reputation of not behaving like a gentleman. People expected military men to be crude, drunk, profane, and even unmasonic in character. As a member of the Continental Army, George Washington, “did not achieve a reputation for military genius but he did achieve a reputation for valor and courage and rapport with the men of his unit.” Along with this, “Washington served his country without pay, asking only for payment of his expenses. He encountered many hardships and difficulties because everyone did not support the Revolution. Many remained loyal to England, making it difficult to maintain enough men to staff the army. Washington was able to hold the army together by the moral strength of his character by which he commanded their esteem and loyalty.” The Revolution tested the resolve not only for the revolutionary colonists, but also the resolve of those who joined the fight in the army. Those men who joined the fight came from all over the colonies and had various backgrounds from social status and even religious beliefs. Here we can see the influence of Washington’s character and masonic values along with the military lodges gaining a foothold within the Continental Army. Seeing Washington’s own example of character influenced those serving with/under him to want to improve themselves as a man and then as a mason. Rogers in his book says this concerning this moment in American and Washington’s history,
“Masonry was widespread over the colonies in 1776. There were 110 Lodges at that time and fifty military Lodges. Masonry grew during the Revolutionary period and for several years afterwards. There were several causes for the growth of Masonry during this period. The influence of Washington and his support must have been a factor in that growth.”
Those personal and masonic characteristics not only changed the military man in the Continental Army to become a better man, but it unified them into one single body of shared beliefs and dreams, who would then influence the new nation following the war.
Having men from all over the colonies with such a mix of backgrounds did prove to be problematic for many. Chaplains that would follow regiments came from a specific religious background, and did not always satisfy the religious needs of those serving. This caused disunity amongst the men and also hindered the cause of revolution. For if the men in the army did not have equal needs met to them, then how could a new nation championing equality and other republican ideals hope to survive? From his book, Hackett painted the picture very well and the solution through which Washington’s own influence greatly promoted the role of military lodges.
“The Christian chaplaincy in the Revolutionary War began with a disorganized system of volunteer preachers. In practice…chaplains were few in number and transient in service…the chaplains were additionally frustrated in their work by the soldiers’ pervasive drunkenness, profanity, and widespread lack of interest in religious services. On July 4, 1775, the day after Washington took command, he reminded the army that the Articles of War forbade ‘profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness.’ But an apparent indifference on the part of the chaplains encouraged soldiers’ apathy. In June of 1777, Washington addressed Congress at length on this knotty subject. Fearing the outbreak of religious disputes if men were compelled ‘to a mode of Worship which they do not profess,’ he concluded that it would be best if each regiment had a voice in choosing a chaplain of its own ‘religious sentiments.’
In contrast to organized Christianity, the military lodges sought to overcome local differences. The fraternity’s emphasis on social distinction based on merit rather than birth similarly worked against local prejudices. Moreover, the lodges provided social space for war-weary officers from all over the colonies to relax and enjoy one another’s company. The fraternity’s commitment to creating a society based on an affection among men that transcended differences suggests an anticipation of the new republican society that the army’s officers were fighting to create. As the war continued, the symbols and rituals of Freemasonry, which united men of diverse backgrounds, also reinforce the patriotic effort to create a public sphere of unity in the emerging American society.” That pretty much summed up the great importance and influence George Washington and Freemasonry had on the military and on the early United States. However, there is more that Freemasonry provided these men.
Loyalty, unity, trustworthiness are tenants that masons today take as being some of the most basic aspects of the fraternity. Brothers are taught to be loyal to their individual communities, municipalities and nations. They are united as a brotherhood, and as such are trusting of a fellow brother from wherever they may hail. In these military lodges, Washington made sure that these qualities were focused upon, but for what reason? Consider the situation for a moment. The nation is in open rebellion fighting for political freedom from another nation. The importance of loyalty within the Continental Army towards freedom and this new American nation was of paramount necessity. General Washington needed to have his men unified into one fighting force, with a single goal in sight. He needed these men to be absolutely loyal to the cause of the Revolution. With many of these men in the military and also the new national government belonging to Freemasonry, Washington knew he could trust these men as fellow brothers. However, there is one major event that would shake Washington’s personal resolve that created ripples throughout Freemasonry in America for centuries to follow. Amongst Washington’s trusted officers and generals, there was a fellow masonic brother by the name of Benedict Arnold. Without going into details, most Americans already know why this specific man has such a dubious shadow upon him. The betrayal and defection of Arnold to the British forces pushed Washington to influence Freemasonry in America to teach the great importance of being loyal to one’s country, regardless of the situation.
General Arnold was in the midst of horrific battle, losing to the British forces. When the battle turned towards a defeat for the Americans, Arnold found his own mortal life in great jeopardy. At the moment of being killed, he initiated the grand hailing sign of masons in distress, fearing for his life. One of the British officers was a fellow mason, recognised this and let Arnold live. That alone should have been all right, but Arnold went further and changed sides rather die for the cause with honour. In the 20th degree of the Northern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite, also known as the George Washington Degree, the outcome of Arnold’s actions are made known and also the great importance Washington had towards being loyal to one’s nation, especially during a time of war. The outcome is that or Arnold being banished from all Masonic lodges in the United States and to return to living in exile as a traitor. Charles Callahan said this concerning Benedict Arnold, “the treason of Arnold has been signalled as the crowning act of infamy of those bitter years of strife. His name, dishonored, is a synonym of shame and his acts of early heroism are all forgotten in the storm of public malediction.”
This incident did not sway Washington’s masonic journey or hopes for the new nation, on the contrary it encouraged him to persevere the cause. Not only did the young country need patriots loyal to liberty and upon the republican virtues the nation were founded, it needed a group of men who were orderly, had a strong moral compass, loyal to this new nation, had the greatly needed leadership skills, were trustworthy, had the ability to rise beyond one’s social standing, and united into one body. This we find within Freemasonry then and today. It is through Freemasonry that many of the core ideals of the United States originate and flourish. History may omit the direct ties to the importance Freemasonry had on the new United States and the spread of enlightenment ideals, but it will not omit the importance George Washington had on the nation. Freemasonry’s influence in forming such a nation did not rest only in America, it influenced the French Revolution, social and political reforms in the United Kingdom, influenced political change in Europe and also in the Russian Empire. “Masonry gave one the hope that he can become a better person which encourages moral thinking and action.” While visiting the King David’s Lodge in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, George Washington stated, “being persuaded that a just application of the principles on which the Masonic fraternity is founded must be promotive of private virtue and public prosperity, I shall always be happy to advance the interest of the society and to be considered by them as a deserving Brother.”
Indeed the legacy of George Washington had on the United States is invaluable, along with his influence on Freemasonry. It can be said that Washington’s influence were great and lasting in those early years of the Revolution and nation which guided the United States to become a formidable member of the world of nations were great and lasting. Had it not been for his involvement in the fraternity and that of military lodges to teach the burgeoning new leaders of the country on what it meant to be a man and a mason, the results would have been very different.
Callahan, Charles H. Washington: The Man and The Mason, 5th ed. Washington D.C.: National Capital Press, Inc., 1913.
Hackett, David G. That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Hahn, Conrad, et. al. Colonial Freemasonry. Transactions of the Missouri Lodge of Research, vol. 30, 1973-74.
Rogers, L. Randall. Our Masonic Presidents. Waco TX: Texan Press, 1998.