Brother George Washington: From Boy Surveyor to President
by Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D. 32°
Lodge Education Officer
Lake Harriet Lodge No. 277
We learn about him from our earliest school days as the Father of the Country and our first president. We see his portrait every day on our one dollar bills and our quarter dollars. He is an icon, a national hero. Indeed he was an icon and a hero even in his own lifetime. His military genius in winning the Revolutionary War with such poorly equipped and trained soldiers against the British imperial army, the Redcoats, was truly an amazing accomplishment and ranks alongside all of the great military struggles of world history.
The fact that George Washington was this nation's first president overshadows the rest of his life. Little attention has been paid to his life outside of public office and military service. One very enjoyable book that does take a look at this other side of Washington is titled Potomac Squire by Elswyth Thane. The author notes that Washington spent approximately 22 years of his adult life away from his home in service or in office, and about 23 years at home in Mount Vernon enjoying and tending his plantations. Moreover, even while he was president, Washington carried on detailed correspondence with his overseers actively engaged in the management of his properties. He was a Virginia planter and an experimental farmer fascinated with the challenge of farming in the new world under very different climatic and soil conditions from those in Britain.
Washington experimented with new crops in his gardens at Mount Vernon. He shifted his plantations away from tobacco and into other crops such as wheat, barley, and peas. He was a good businessman within the system of the times. He concerned himself with the welfare and health of his slaves and strove to treat all his employees with disinterested fairness even when they were friends and relations.
The other side of Washington's life that is seldom mentioned, even in the major biographies is his life as a Freemason. From the non-masonic historian's point of view, his participation in Freemasonry seems to be almost invisible. However, he was, even in his lifetime, adopted as a great masonic hero and an exemplar of masonic conduct, and quite a number of masonic authors have written books about him. The Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, shown here, was founded in order to further the study of George Washington as a mason and to acquaint the non-masonic public with the facts of his membership in the Craft.
Yet we may ask: To what extent was Washington an involved and engaged Freemason and how did the Craft influence his values and behavior as a man?
Born February 22, 1732 to a family of Virginia planters, George Washington was part of the colonial gentry but not high in the aristocracy. He became wealthy through inheritance and marriage, but his beginnings were more humble and his prosperity always depended upon hard work and good business sense. His father Gus died when George was eleven and so he was not able to go to England to be educated.
At age 16 young George, tall and red-haired, was given the working tools of a surveyor and began his first career as a surveyor. The surveyor uses the plumb, square, and level to take measurements and construct maps and plattes. This experience served the young Washington well when he entered military service where accurate maps and knowing the topography was often crucial to the winning of battles and creating strategies. One cannot help but think that the use of these tools prepared him well to receive the lessons of the masonic lodge.
By 17 he had inherited land and started his own business as a surveyor. He worked for Lord Fairfax to survey his lands in the Virginia wilderness, making maps, camping in the mountains, and spending time with Indian tribes. All of this experience was crucial to his success in frontier warfare.
The picture above is from a scientific reconstruction of Washington's features using forensic imagining technology.
At 18 Washington was fully his own man, particularly after the death of his elder brother Lawrence when he too possession of Mount Vernon. All his life he enjoyed experimental farming. He designed a new threshing house, kept meticulous records of his experimental crop beds, and is credited as one of the first to employ mules on his farm. Stock breeding was, of course, an essential part of farming.
At age 20 began his second career in the military. The young Washington was made district adjutant general in the Virginia militia with the rank of Major the same year in which he entered the Craft. Washington served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which took him to Williamsburg often.
The basic facts of Washington's masonic career are somewhat lost in the background of his remarkable military career and his busy life as a Virginia landowner. However, it is a matter of record that Washington became an Entered Apprentice in Fredericksburg Lodge at age twenty in 1752, was passed to the degree of Fellowcraft in March of the following year and raised to the sublime degree of master mason in August, after turning 21.
Fredericksburg Lodge (later No. 4) was originally founded without a formal warrant from any grand lodge. At that time, the United Grand Lodge of England had not been created and so many grand lodges issued charters. Moreover, any lodge which was not working under the warrant of a grand lodge, could consider itself to be a grand lodge. Fredericksburg Lodge did in fact issue two charters to other lodges in Virginia which were recognized by the other lodges in the colony. In 1757 the lodge obtained a charter from the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
We know little about Washington's attendance at lodge meetings. However two items suggest that he would have attended regularly. First, was the custom in lodges of the time of fining members for non-attendance. Second, we have the remarks of the Worshipful Master of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 addressed to the Marquis de LaFayette during a visit in 1824. At that time the master described Brother Washington's involvement in his mother lodge in these terms:
Our records assure us that … the light of Masonry here first burst upon his sight, and that within the pale of this Lodge, he subsequently sought and obtained further illumination. Here he first studied those liberal, tolerant and benevolent principles of our order… We feel a peculiar gratification, my honored Brother, in beholding you standing within the body of the Lodge where he has so often stood and assisted in our labors of love. (qtd. In Lanier, p. 224)
During the French and Indian Wars in the Ohio territory, Washington served as a lieutenant colonel, colonel, and then brigadier general in the wars to push out the French and their Indian allies from the territories west of Virginia and Pennsylvania, then known as the Ohio territory. Fort Duquesne was a key to controlling these lands and the French had to be forcibly removed from it.
Later in 1758, at age 26 he retired from active military service and returned to the life of a Virginia Planter, a member of the House of Burgesses, and, we presume, the life of the masonic lodge in Fredericksburg. In 1759 he married the widow Martha Custis and with her and her children set about turning Mount Vernon into a comfortable home, adding on wings and generally improving the property.
A researcher named Paul Bessel has written a web page in which he reviews the documentary evidence for George Washington's involvement in the Craft. Although the documentation is sparse, Washington is said to have visited lodges during his travels and participated in military lodges established within units of the army. Bessel quotes John Lanier's book Washington: The Great American Mason regarding the period of his early military career.
Tradition, which no Masonic records of that period now exiting either verify or contradict, states that Washington attended military Lodges during the French and Indian War, and there is a cave near Charlestown, West Virginia, which is called "Washington's Masonic Cave" with an apartment called "The Lodge Room" in which "tradition" states Washington and other Masons held lodge meetings. (Washington: The Great American Mason, pages 24-25; qtd.)
In 1778 Washington visited Philadelphia where he marched in a masonic parade and participated in festivities for St. John the Evangelist Day. Many of the points at which we find a record for the general's attendance is on the saints days which were more public in nature.
Paul Bessel concludes that we only have documentary evidence that Washington attended nine lodge meetings in his entire life. Between his raising in 1755 and the festivities in Philadelphia in 1778 when he was invited to march with the freemasons, there is a 24 year gap where we essentially know nothing about his participation in lodge activities. I do not think this is in any way conclusive, however, as war time made many lodges cease their regular operations and even in peace they may have met no more than quarterly. Moreover, many lodge records have been lost to us. What I should like to research more is whether documentation may exist regarding the activities within the military lodges.
During the Revolutionary War we get only tantalizing glimpses of the military lodges, such as American Union Lodge, which we know Washington attended at West Point and Morristown. We presume that the military lodges and the presence of so many brothers in the army helped to sustain these men and strengthened their bonds of loyalty to each other.
Though we cannot see much about the ordinary meetings of the officers and soldiers who were masons, we can certainly see that General Washington expressed his faith in Destiny -- both his own and the nation's. He remarked on the hand of Providence at work in the small accidents that often turned the tide in battle. Certainly it would seem that he also had great faith in human perseverance, and human reason to overcome all obstacles. He was clearly a man who subdued his own passions and conducted himself with humility, on the square and by the plumb.
Though you will sometimes hear people claiming that all of Washington's generals were Freemasons (along with all the signers of of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution), the facts are that the number of generals who were brothers, so far as can be verified, is 33 out of 74 or about 46%. This is still a high number and supports the conjecture that military lodges within the continental army provided an additional layer of brotherhood and loyalty among the officers and soldiers of the army. The Continental army lacked military discipline at first (as well as supplies) but it may have been well-stocked with the bonds of fraternal friendship and affection even at the outset.
Among the most famous generals who were masons are a German and a Frenchman who assisted the Continental Army. The Marquis de Lafayette became a close friend of General Washington and it is believed by some historians that he was actually made a mason at a large gathering of military brethren at Morristown in 1779 in the military lodge American Union Lodge. Lafayette was a young man when he joined the war for American independence and he fought valiantly. He became a close friend, almost an adopted son to General Washington.
Baron von Steuben was a Prussian seeking work to support himself and pay off his debts back home in Germany. He met Benjamin Franklin in Paris and was introduced to the Congress by him. Steuben proved instrumental in creating discipline and organization within the Continental Army which in early years of the war had suffered greatly because soldiers received no training. The Prussians had developed a scientific approach to warfare and emphasized drill and precision. Von Steuben also was a freemason and one can sense in this love of military precision something of the Craft.
In 1770 at the Feast of St. John the Evangelist at Morristown, New Jersey, the proposal was made to create a Grand Master General over all the Grand Lodges of the 13 States. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania took up the proposal and recommended General Washington to hold the office. He apparently declined and the office was never created, perhaps at his recommendation. This fact was to shape American Freemasonry henceforth with no United Grand Lodge as in England. It was Washington's wisdom which resisted excessive centralization and interference with the sovereignty of the states.
We know that Washington celebrated St. John the Baptist's Day at Alexandria Lodge on June 24, 1784 after the war's end. Allen Roberts says quotes Washington's reply to the invitation:
With pleasure I received the invitation of the master and members of Lodge No. 39, to dine with them on the approaching anniversary of St. John the Baptist. If nothing unforeseen at present interferes, I will have the honor of doing it. For the polite and flattering terms in which you have expressed their wishes, you will please accept my thanks.
With esteem and respect, I am, dear sir,
Your most Obedient servant,
Roberts goes on to say that the general did attend the meeting.
He listened to a lecture by the Worshipful Master on the rise, progress, and advantages of Masonry He along with the members and other visitors, then proceeded "to Jno Wis's Tavern, where they Dined & after spending the afternoon in Masonick Festivity, returned to the Lodge room. The Worshipful Master with the unanimous consent of the Brethren, was pleased to admit his Excellency Genl Washington as an Honorary Member of Lodge No. 39"
There seems to be no evidence that Washington ever entered the officer's line at Alexandria lodge. It is possible he served as an officer in a military lodge while on campaign, but we may wonder whether his role as general and later as commander in chief would make his election to office more or less likely. Still, it is hard to imagine that he would not have served as an officer in some lodge.
In 1788, when Alexandria Lodge changed its warrant from the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania to that of Virginia, Washington was named Worshipful Master on the new Virginia charter. At this point Lodge No. 39 became Alexandria Lodge No. 22. It is certain that General Washington gave his permission to be listed on the charter, but it is doubtful he ever presided over the lodge. During that year he was in Philadelphia and elsewhere encouraging the thirteen states to ratify the new Constitution.
The depiction of Washington wearing the jewel of a worshipful master in paintings such as this one, may only be symbolic. Certainly there was a general feeling among the fraternity that Washington deserved whatever office might be bestowed upon him within the Craft.
Undoubtedly the most famous masonic moment for Washington came when he laid the cornerstone of the new capitol building with full Masonic ceremony. He had marched in parades and masonic funerals as a member of the Craft but in this ceremony he joined the democratic institutions of our new nation to the ancient traditions pointing back to Solomon's temple. A wise king built a magnificent temple to God. A wise people and their president were now building a temple to democracy and the faith that the people of a nation could rule themselves without a king.
George Washington declined to be made the King of the United States when it was suggested. Unlike Napoleon, Washington understood the evil inherent in too much power. When he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief at the end of the war, he made a bold statement that military power and the emotions of war should not be used to rule a nation. He told the world that he was not going to become a dictator. Washington's model for the presidency may indeed have been the office of Worshipful Master of the Lodge, one who commands absolute loyalty and respect because of his character and his actions, and because he has been elected, not because of his birth or the use of force. The worshipful master may have a kind of absolute command, like a good general, but he is always willing to step aside at the end of his term and let another brother take his chair.