When you think of the founding fathers of the United States of America, what comes to mind? Is it the white-haired Franklin and Washington, perhaps from one of the classic paintings, or on the money we carry in our wallets? Or redhaired Thomas Jefferson, furiously penning the Declaration of Independence while actually wishing he were home with his wife? Or attorney John Adams – his son John Quincy still a baby – orating madly in Boston?
For me, it is the young Franklin I think of first, the Puritan printer from Philadelphia who was publishing sayings that no one had ever heard before under a woman’s pseudonym. Not Washington the leader or general, but Washington the young plantation owner at Mount Vernon, balancing his beliefs in equality with the needs of his slave-worked estates.
This begs the question, how did these men ever get together? How did all of these disparate fellows, whose lives should never have even overlapped, come to share ideals common enough to form an entire nation? What causes a poor printer and a wealthy land owner to be in the same room in an age when societal structures were significantly more rigid?
In the case of Washington and Franklin, what likely drew them together was indeed their ideals, as both were well-known freemasons, – along with John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, and several other less famous signatories of both the declaration and the Constitution, many of whom became the first Grandmasters of Masonic lodges in the new country.
Though today there is a lot of controversy and misunderstanding about Freemasons, there was no question in the 1700s that it was a fraternal society designed to uphold the ideals of the ages of reason and Enlightenment. The deeper spiritual significance of this was that the Freemasons were there to embody the highest and best good of God, as manifested by man. These deeper meanings behind the rituals and Society gatherings were what fueled much of the desire for independence.
Nowadays, when we set goals, we are often asked to find our “why” underneath them. This is so that our resolve will not falter when things get difficult and we do not achieve our ends immediately. The founding fathers had a deep reason for continuing their efforts, even through a war, as their beliefs in the ideals of man were deeply ingrained through the principals of the Freemasons.
In November, I visited the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, an impressive building on large, well manicured grounds, the architecture supposedly modeled on the lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Inside, several floors are devoted to museum exhibits of George Washington’s life, including paintings depicting Washington laying the cornerstone of the Capitol building. In each, he is prominently wearing his Freemason’s apron.
Of all the artifacts from Washington’s life, the one that struck me the most was a small collection of letters that Washington wrote to different leaders. While he spoke of God in his writings to other Christian men, when writing to an Indian chief, he referred to the Great Spirit in the same way. Not only did Washington believe in the God of his own understanding, he allowed room for the God of other people’s understandings as well, even when that differed from his own. This is a powerful lesson that we could use in modern politics when we see the disparity between the Liberal Left and the Christian Right duking it out on news shows every day.
The symbols of Freemasonry are visible throughout Washington DC, even today. Though the capital is visited by 15 million tourists each year, most of them miss the secret messages encoded into many of the original buildings. This is both the intention and purpose of the founding fathers: To place information where it would be grasped by those who were ready to look beneath the surface. It was not an accident that this country was founded; it was a deliberate choice to move fully into the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment as a people. Hopefully, history will show that we are worthy of that legacy.