Freemasonry

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Even though standard histories of the Freemasons fail to include Jefferson in their rosters of early members, a persistent popular tradition claims Jefferson for freemasonry.[1]

The tradition may have had its genesis at a ceremony marking the laying of the cornerstone at the University of Virginia. On the morning of October 6, 1817, a large crowd gathered at the site of the first pavilion. According to Philip A. Bruce, “the doors of all the stores were locked, private houses shut up, and the entire population of the little town darkened the road to the College.” In addition to the citizenry of Charlottesville, James Madison, James Monroe, and Jefferson were also present. The cornerstone, Bruce says, was laid "with the customary state by Lodges;" Reverend William King was the chaplain, John M. Perry, the architect, and Alexander Garrett, the worthy grand-master. President Monroe applied the square and plumb, the chaplain asked a blessing on the stone, the crowd buzzed, and the band played ‘Hail Columbia.’” Evidently it was customary for masons to direct many public ceremonies, such as laying cornerstones, opening bridges, and dedicating halls.[2] Thus surrounded by masonic pomp and circumstance, Jefferson must have seemed a part of the organization simply through association. It should be added that Local Lodges 60 and 90 have never claimed Jefferson as a member, either in a regular or honorary capacity.

Another Jeffersonian link to freemasonry predates the laying of the cornerstone. In 1801, the “Jefferson Lodge” was organized in Surry, Virginia. The name probably reflected republican exuberance after the election of 1800 and should not be taken as evidence for Jefferson’s membership. It is curious, however, to find a lodge named for a non-mason; the usual practice (as far as I can tell from gleanings in masonic reference books) is to name the lodge after a fellow mason of local or national stature. The Alexandria Lodge, for example, became Washington Lodge after the death of its famous grand-master. Indeed, to name a lodge after an individual is uncommon; most lodges simply assume the name of the town or county where they are located.

Finally, Jefferson's longstanding interest in architecture and mathematics, both prominent in masonic lore, could have made a masonic connection likely in the public mind. I have found no references to freemasonry in Jefferson’s papers, and given his clear aversion to secret societies (Cincinnati, for example), his membership remains unlikely. Further investigation, especially into the lodge at Surry, might yield some interesting bits of lore.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Russell L. Martin, Monticello Research Report, January 1989.
  2. Henry Leonard Stillson, History of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons (Boston: Fraternity Publishing Co., 1892), 548.

Further Sources

  • Beha, Ernest. A Comprehensive Dictionary of Freemasonry. New York: Citadel, 1963.
  • Bruce, Philip. History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919. New York: Macmillan, 1920, 1:189-190.
  • Whalen, William J. Handbook of Secret Organizations. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966.