Orange County
Historical Society

General Washington's Masonic Activities In Orange County


by Andrew J. Zarutskie

[Editor's Note: This article appeared in the 1982-1983 Issue of the Journal of the Orange County Historical Society. It is being republished on the website as part of the ongoing activities surrounding the 250th Anniversary of the Revolutionary War. The footnoted version is contained in the 1982-1983 Journal which is available for purchase. JAC]

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To understand the importance of Masonic activities in the life of George Washington and his associates, it must be understood that American Freemasonry was a major priority in the lives of many of the early Americans. In his book, Masonic Membership of the Founding Fathers, Ronald F. Heaton notes that thirty-three general officers in the Continental Army, eight of Washington's aides and secretaries, nine signers of the Declaration of Independence, and thirteen signers of the Constitution were Masons. Such giants in the early years of our independence as the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, the Randolphs, John Jay, Paul Revere, John Marshall, and John Hancock, were members of the Brotherhood of Free and Accepted Masons.

Despite the secrecy of the organization, it is known that Freemasonry in the British colonies dates back at least until 1717. From the beginning, Masonry in America was non-political, non-secretarian, and fraternal, emphasizing the brotherhood of all men who believe in a common Father, regardless of his name or the manner in which he was worshipped. By 1751, there were two "Grand Lodges" on the North American continent (they eventually merged, in 1813) and the organization was well established. Because of poor roads and travel conditions, meetings were held infrequently in those days. As a result, there was much brotherhood in evidence after meetings. Philosophic discussions were held (one can picture the discussions in Philadelphia, where Ben Franklin was master) and, in many ways, the intellectual foundation for the revolution was laid.

It was against this backdrop that George Washington was made an Entered Apprenticed Mason, when three months short of his twenty-first birthday. He was "raised", that is, became a full member, on August 4, 1753, in Fredricksburg, Virginia, Lodge #3.



Masonic apron, courtesy of Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, A. F. & A. M., Alexandria, Virginia.

Washington rose rapidly through the ranks of the Masons, and was well-known as a Masonic brother throughout the colonies when he was made Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary forces. In 1777, he was offered the position of Grand Master of all the Masonic lodges in Virginia. He declined the honor because he had never been the Master of a lodge, and thus considered himself disqualified. Certainly, the burdens of his military command also entered into this decision. In 1780, Washington was made a similar offer to be designated Grand Master of the United States, and he declined for identical reasons.

Accordingly, when Washington and his men arrived in the Mid-Hudson Valley in 1782, their Masonic brotherhood and activities, which had done so much to bring about the spirit of the revolutionary war they were leading, were uppermost in their minds.

William Moseley Brown, in his book written to mark the bicentennial of Washington's becoming a Mason, points out the hardship inherent in maintaining a fraternal order within the military during a war. Brown estimates that about thiry-five to forty Masonic lodges flourished in the British army during the Revolution, and about ten within the Continental army.

The few places where an actual lodge building could be built in the field served many purposes: social center, hospital, chapel, mortuary, ballroom, and civic center. Thus, for practical as well as emotional reasons, General Washington issued a General Order in Newburgh on Christmas Day, 1782, calling for the construction of a Masonic Temple near his headquarters at Hasbrouck House.

The building, which was completed in time to be dedicated in March 1783, was one story high, forty feet by sixty feet, and was constructed of wood. The builder was Col. Benjamin Tupper, who later distinguished himself as an early settler of Ohio.

The building, which was a center of social life for Washington and his men throughout his stay in Newburgh, apparently did not long survive their departure. However, its site is commemorated to this day. When the initial proposals were made to erect the "Temple of Virtue" to commemorate the centennial of Washington's stay in Newburgh, the Newburgh Masons were instrumental in having the tower built on the site of Washington's old Masonic lodge building. In fact, the very name "Tower of Virtue" was an echo of the name Washington gave to the original building, 'Temple of Virtue." In 1891, a plaque was placed in the tower which reads:

THIS TABLET IS INSERTED
BY THE MASONIC FRATERNITY OF NEWBURGH
IN MEMORY OF WASHINGTON

On March 23, 1782, Washington received an intriguing gift from Elkanah Watson and M. Cassoul, of Nantes, France, two merchants who were confidential agents of the American government. It was a Masonic apron, which was woven by nuns in Nantes convent. A thank you letter to the frenchman, written by Washington in Newburgh, contained these words:

"If my endeavors to avert the evil, with which this country was threatened, by a deliberate plan of Tyranny, should be crowned with the success that is wished - The praise is due to the Grand Architect of the Universe; who did not see fit to suffer his super-structures and justice, to be subjected to the Ambition of the Princes of this World, or to the rod of oppression, in the hands of any power upon Earth- ... "

This Masonic apron, which Washington received just prior to establishing his headquarters in Newburgh, was undoubtedly the same one which he used on September 18, 1793, while laying the cornerstone of the Capitol Building in present-day Washington, D. C. The apron was presented by Lawrence Lewis, Washington's nephew, to the Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 in 1812, was worn by President Calvin Coolidge, and was worn on one occasion by Chief Justice William Howard Taft at the laying of the cornerstone of the Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria on November 1, 1923.

While the "Temple of Virtue" was still under construction in Newburgh, George Washington paid a visit to Solomon's Lodge #1, in Poughkeepsie. The lodge records for December 26, 1782, indicate that "We, the Master, Wardens, and brethren of Solomon's Lodge #1, are highly sensible of the honor done to Masonry in general by the countenance shown to it by the most dignified characters." As an historical footnote it could be mentioned that in 1771 Benedict Arnold visited that same lodge which, in 1781, "obliterated (his name) from the minutes of this lodge, a traitor."

One of the most memorable days in the history of the Masonic movement took place two and a half years earlier. The American Union Lodge was founded by continental soldiers as a mobile Masonic lodge, which was empowered by the Grand Lodge to meet "wherever your Body shall remove on the Continent of America, provided it is where no Grand Master is appointed." In June 1779, the lodge was located at West Point, and an invitation was extended to General Washington to spend a day with the lodge.

In Masonic annals, June 24, 1779, is especially significant because a gala procession greeted the General, his wife Martha, and members of his household, as they arrived at West Point by barge. An exceptionally large crowd of local citizens was in attendance and in its midst were 106 Masonic members. After a day of parading and oratory, the Commander-in-Chief was honored at a bountiful dinner, followed by six toasts. A musical program followed, after which Washington and his party were escorted back to their barge. The General and his entourage can be imagined sailing down the Hudson, answering the three cheers from the shore with cheers of their own.

The day proved so memorable that the American Union Lodge was henceforth called the Washington Lodge, the name by which it was still known when lodge #10 was established in Newburgh.

It is now clear why visitors touring the Capitol building today may have the many Masonic signs within the structure pointed out to them by the guides, and it helps to explain why the Great Seal of the United States is replete with Masonic imagery. Certainly, a grasp of the motivation and character of our founding fathers, most especially of George Washington, is useful to our understanding of the influence Freemasonry exerted on their lives.

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