The list of great American figures who were Freemasons at the very beginning of the United States is long—so long that a veritable cult of the founding fathers and their heritage is still practiced by the American grand lodges. The lodges were profoundly marked by the seal of patriotism, a worship of the flag, and the pledge of allegiance to the nation, as much as—but perhaps a little more intensely—than the civil society that was seeking to cohere around the key symbols of a new identity.
Of course, George Washington enjoys a preeminent position that none would dream of disputing in this pantheon of prestigious ancestors. There is a wealth of literature and illustrations that depicts him in Masonic settings exercising his Masonic duties (see color plate 3for one such image). The George Washington Masonic National Memorial of Alexandria, Virginia, near the gates of the federal capital, undeniably offers the most eloquent evidence of the veneration bestowed on him by American Freemasons. Built on a hilltop between 1910 and 1922, it is easily recognizable as an explicitly Masonic edifice. A monumental square and compass (some seventy feet long) were added to the front lawn to celebrate, where all could see, the brother and first leader of the American nation on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of his death, June 26, 1999.
This memorial serves simultaneously as a showcase, a Masonic museum, an information center, and an archive. It also houses a large, active temple as well as the Masonic relics of Washington and Lafayette, another emblematic figure who is closely associated with this site. It is a building constructed on the model of the Alexandrian lighthouse, a symbol of the “times immemorial” from which the Masonic imagination draws its sustenance. It is impossible for visitors arriving at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport not to see it. In a land of hyperboles, it is gladly introduced as “the most imposing Masonic building in the world.”
The Bible on which Washington swore the oath during his inauguration as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, is a “Volume of the Sacred Law” that remains a highly esteemed object. Printed in London in 1765, this Bible is housed and displayed in the gallery of St. John’s Lodge no. 1 at the Federal Hall National Memorial in New York. It’s a veritable icon, and its high symbolic value remains so great even today that President Bill Clinton, like his successors George W. Bush and Barack Obama—none of whom are Freemasons—asked for and were granted its use when they took the oath of office. In the domain of iconography, the paintings and engravings depicting Brother George Washington in Masonic dress and setting the first stone of the Capitol—headquarters of Congress in Washington, D.C.—are legion.
Benjamin Franklin also appears among the number of particularly revered American Freemasons. The Benjamin Franklin National Memorial and the monument called the Signer in Philadelphia, where the independence of the United States was proclaimed on July 4, 1776, pays homage to the signers of the American Constitution. Their names and portraits are displayed, along with an indication that one-third of them were Freemasons. This is telling of how deep the origins of the United States were stamped by the seal of the Enlightenment and Masonic philosophy.
What we should see here is the extension of the extraordinary intellectual and scientific influence of the figures who were educated and trained in the tradition of excellence of London’s Royal Society. But the part played by the French in American independence, at the forefront of which was the young general and brother Lafayette, was not of lesser standing. In this regard, the joint membership of Lafayette and Washington in the Masonic order was not without importance, as can be shown by the results of research. The Masonic museums of Alexandria and Philadelphia display Masonic aprons whose cartouches indicate that they belonged to Washington. One apron is even said to have been embroidered by Madame Lafayette herself. It is also said, however, that she assigned the task to nuns who piously crafted it. As is the case with many relics, the individuals capable of vouching for their authenticity must be quite knowledgeable as it seems there are many similar aprons elsewhere.
Today, despite what I just wrote about Lafayette, America’s collective memory seems to have somewhat forgotten the major role played by the young French general in winning the independence of the United States; the young man took as his motto “For freedom to live, it will always require men to rise up and shake off indifference and resignation.” Yet the fact remains that Lafayette is still a strong symbol of Franco-American ties. An exact replica of his ship, the Hermione, was built in Rochefort, France, and was sailed from France to the United States in 2015.
The construction of the replica of the Hermione, the frigate Lafayette took in 1780 to come to America and join the colonial insurgents fighting for their independence, was undertaken in July 1997 by the Association Hermione-Lafayette in Rochefort to pay an authentic homage to Lafayette. This splendid and ambitious move seeks to preserve and bring to life the memory of a great adventure of solidarity between men; an adventure that fully conforms to the Masonic ideal. The Rochefort association, with legitimate pride, underscores this today, saying, “Rebuilding the Hermione is rebuilding an element of our maritime heritage. It is committing a large construction site to the betterment of the economy and culture of an entire region, because we need memory to build the future. Rochefort, a new city of the seventeenth century, owes its birth to Colbert’s decision to establish a new arsenal for the kingdom of France on the banks of the Charente for the purpose of building, arming, supplying, and repairing a war fleet capable of withstanding enemy attacks.”
Today, Rochefort is inventing itself a new future but is doing so by relying on its unique heritage. This heritage consists of the former Royal Rope Walks, restored after twenty years of effort and the jewel of the former arsenal, and the various dry docks, the oldest of which goes back to the eighteenth century. While the building of a replica of an eighteenth-century vessel fits into this reconquering of an identity, it also aims at providing France with evidence of its naval history as well as serving as a symbol of Franco-American fraternity through a ship that has attached its name to that of a man, Lafayette, a symbol of French support for the American revolutionaries. It is therefore also a duty of remembrance that involves the Freemasons of the GODF by not forgetting that Brother Lafayette was also a member of the Rochefort lodge.