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Friday, 14 March 2008

Benjamin Franklin: An English Freemason?

Despite our familiarity with his name and image, Benjamin Franklin remains an enigma. Once we peer beneath the surface, and rid ourselves of those too easy images of the scientist and American revolutionary, much of the complexity of Franklin’s character and beliefs, and, indeed, of eighteenth century Freemasonry, are revealed. Such a prospect promises much for English Freemasonry today as it seeks to recover its earlier vitality and relevance. Benjamin Franklin is too important a figure in Freemasonry to leave exclusively to the realms of American history, ideology, and sentiment. Even though we may feel free to share him with those who see his role simply and uncritically as that of an American mason and patriot, the Englishness of Franklin demands attention.

Neither Franklin, the history of the American Revolution, nor eighteenth century Freemasonry, fall into those ready and simple categories many would desire for them, yet each can help to explain the other. In particular, by considering the religious and moral outlook espoused by Franklin during his extraordinary life, one can refer those aspects to Masonic concerns and attitudes current in Franklin’s life-time, and thereby gain useful insights into Franklin’s philosophical outlook and its relationship to Freemasonry per se.

Fortunately, despite the ideology spun about him, much of Franklin’s biographical data is readily available and verifiable; we also have the advantage of a good deal of his writing and correspondence. The difficulty lies in releasing the man from the simplistic ideological structures which have rendered him “the first American” and a Freemason par excellence of the period.

In truth, despite the high regard in which Franklin is rightly held, he had a less than inspiring moral life in his early years, and his deep commitment to an American republic is at the very least questionable. There have even been suggestions that he may indeed have been a “double agent”. There is the evidence of Franklin’s relationship with Sir Francis Dashwood, the founder of the Knights of St Francis of Medmenham Abbey, the Hell Fire Club, at whose House he stayed in 1773 and again in 1774, but more convincingly, there is the extant correspondence of John Vardill, a British spy, which reveals that Franklin passed to London information about shipping which caused great losses to the colonists.

What does single Franklin out, leaving aside his magnificent scientific achievements, which are not considered here, is his profound commitment to reason and inquiry, Liberal Christian theology, and to benevolence of an individual and personal kind. In these areas his religious, philosophical and Masonic views are enlightening, relevant, and important to Freemasons of today. However, Benjamin Franklin was, very much, a man of his times. Those times were complex, difficult, and involved. He was, from birth, exposed to religious and political values derived from his family’s English roots, forged through struggle and contention. This sense of Englishness pervaded his outlook and family environment, and was the reason his illegitimate son William retained his loyalty to England, preferring to live and die in the land fought against by his father, much to his father’s chagrin. Franklin himself embodied peculiarly English virtues, including an advanced pragmatism in personal, religious and political matters.

Franklin valued his wide range of English friends and associates, including Bishop Jonathan Shipley, at whose home, Twyford House, just outside Winchester, Hampshire, he wrote the first part of his autobiography.

Franklin was born on 17th January 1706 in Boston Massachusetts. He was the fifteenth child out of the seventeen born to Josiah, and his second wife Abiah. Both sides of Franklin’s family were English and of a marked dissenting outlook as regards their religious views. The dissenting tradition in English Protestantism of the period held to a focus on the ability of the individual to employ human reason in respect of both the Christian faith and also as regards moral questions, and Franklin clearly used this focus as regards both his religious faith and the conduct of his life. Because of the relationship between Church and State in the English context, the family’s religious outlook had obviously political overtones. Franklin was, therefore, like many others of his class and station, to be exposed to the competing claims of politicians and religionists throughout his life.

The ability to reconcile and overcome competing claims and, where necessary, to strike out on a different, if lonely course, was shared by both Benjamin and his son.

The stress on the use of an individual’s reasoning abilities as opposed to the mere acceptance of external authorities challenged church and government, but was not seen as something which in itself damaged belief in God. There was, as Stromberg points out, too much confidence in the perceived harmony between reason and religion for reason to be considered inimical to religion.

Franklin exhibits an independent not to say idiosyncratic attitude to morality, political loyalty, and Freemasonry which is redeemed by his constancy in applying reason to his actions. Acting in reason appears to justify Franklin’s actions, at least to himself, and whilst his detractors may, with good cause, question his conduct; his determination to rely upon reason as the great arbitrator of conduct can hardly be condemned.

Franklin’s commitment to the process of self-examination through reason provided him with the ability to eschew his youthful addiction to low women, although it did not dispense entirely with his delight in female company.

Reason and understanding, as seen in the sense of eighteenth century English political philosophy, drew heavily upon the formulations provided by John Locke (1632-1704), following England’s own Revolution of 1688. Locke’s two Treatises on Government (1689), his three letters on Toleration (1689, 1690, and 1692), and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) provided Englishmen at home and in America with a solid and reliable basis for rational constitutional development. The espousal of Locke’s political analysis by the American colonists, and the inclusion of his concepts in their constitutional fabric is evidence of the English contribution to the form of government arrived at in Philadelphia.

The American colonies had been founded by individuals and trading companies rather than the Crown. Whilst the governors of the colonies were appointed by the Crown, their powers were nothing like as great as is often assumed, and were in fact focused upon trade and defence. In any case, any despotic governor would have been confronted by the powers of the elected assemblies which were responsible for legislation and taxation.

Contrary to the deliberately anti-British sentiment of films such as “The Patriot,” directed by Roland Emmerich, it is not fanciful to suggest that in some ways the American Revolution was the English Revolution fought overseas. The substantial degree of support for the American cause amongst Englishmen is evidenced by the speeches of politicians, and the conduct of military officers who shared something of the colonists’ sense of grievance. Of the many Englishmen and English groupings of this persuasion who can be quoted, mention of Admiral Howe, Lord Amherst, Lord Chatham, the Duke of Richmond, and Edmund Burke, together with the Rockingham group of Whigs, and the Lunar Society will suffice here. Burke made the most obvious point when he said, “An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery”.

A vital point often glossed over or else entirely neglected by those who seek to present the American Revolution as being a war between American settlers and English oppressors, is that the cause of the war was largely to do with the refusal of the authorities in England and America to encourage the development of what can be termed English Liberty. Thomas Hutchison, when Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts had called for an “abandonment of what are called English liberties”. It is not to be supposed that the development of liberty in England was any more attractive to the English authorities of the time either.

We know that Franklin, at least in the early 1760s, was a supporter of both the Hanoverian dynasty and the British Empire. Seeger claims that Franklin at one time considered George III to be “a virtuous and generous king”.

During his second, and prolonged, six year visit to England beginning in 1757 Franklin’s objective was to plead the cause of the colonists as Englishmen. He was of the party that sought taxation with representation, and believed that a more direct relationship between England and the American colonies would ease the difficulties between them. Franklin was by this time an experienced Freemason, and had published an early edition of Anderson’s Constitutions in 1734. He would have been fully aware of the injunction in the Constitutions against civil unrest, and was, in any case, anxious to resolve the difficulties between the colonists and the Crown.

It is now impossible to ascertain with certainty when Freemasonry was first introduced into the American colonies. However, it is conventional to accept the existence of Masonic structures known as “time immemorial lodges”, those organizations of British origin which lacked, and indeed, did not require, a warrant or grant from any Grand Lodge in order to practice Freemasonry. Indeed, the speculative and philosophical aspects of Freemasonry of the period seem resistant to the constraints inherent in any form of Grand Lodge regulation, and the concept of Masonic independence is discernable not only in America but in Masonic institutions such as the Time Immemorial Assembly at Cork, and in the private lodges of Munster. In this respect, the Grand Lodge of Munster itself has an independent history going back at least as far as December 1726.

The regulatory nature of Grand Lodges was, of course, unknown in the early part of the eighteenth century. In this context it is helpful to note, as Jeremy Pemberton did in his 1984 Address to the Grand Lodge of South Australia that the first Annual Assembly of the four London lodges that came together on 24th June 1717 did not constitute “in any sense a regulatory body.” Regulation by Grand Lodges is certainly a later phenomenon, and obtained gradually, and not without difficulty or objection.

The Freemasonry Franklin first engaged in was of this independent type. Even prior to his entry into Freemasonry, Franklin had recognized the potential of an organization of individuals dedicated to the benefit of society. In 1727 he had combined with a group of nine (sometimes given as twelve) like minded Philadelphians to form the Junto, also known as “The Leather Apron Club”. The club met to discuss philosophical and cultural matters, and began a lending library. It took as its concern the need to promote public protection including a fire watch. Despite its small beginnings, the club was effective, and its members eventually came to form the nucleus of the American Philosophical Society.

Franklin’s Masonic career dates from his induction in 1731 into a time immemorial lodge, St John’s Masonic Lodge, Philadelphia. The account books (ledgers) of St John’s Lodge of Philadelphia date from 24th June 1731, and indicate that the lodge was in existence at least by December of the previous year. We know that the first warranted lodge in America was the Lodge of St John at Boston in Massachusetts, which dates from 1733, so clearly, if either Franklin’s own account of his induction into Freemasonry, or the genuineness of the ledgers of St John’s Masonic Lodge are accepted as credible, and their seems no reason to doubt either of them, then the existence of a Masonic lodge outside the warranted authority of an English Grand Lodge in America at this early point must be accepted, and its vitality recognized.

As with other aspects of eighteenth century Freemasonry, radical changes were being effected as to the religious context of Freemasonry. The subsequent determination of the Duke of Sussex to complete the de-Christianization of the Craft and Royal Arch following ratification of the Articles of Union in 1813, for whatever purpose is ascribed to this radical development, represents the continuing questioning of the role of theology and religiosity within Freemasonry. It is impossible to disguise or ignore the overtly religious and Trinitarian connotations within Craft Freemasonry, and the overtly Christian nature of the Royal Arch prior to the changes introduced by the Duke of Sussex and the introduction into English Freemasonry of the concept of the Great Architect of the Universe. This latter title or designation of God is intriguing not only because of the liberal notion of the Godhead which it implies, but because of the Rosicrucian elements it incorporates.

Blake’s 1794 rendering of the Great Architect of the Universe, complete with compasses, in his Ancient of Days, is perhaps the one such image of deity with which people are most familiar.

Whilst this is not the place to discuss Blake’s concept of Urizen, or of possible Rosicrucian influences upon Blake’s work, it is helpful to recognize the Rosicrucian notion of God as the Architect of the Solar System, and the connections between Rosicrucianism, Alchemy and Freemasonry. For the Rosicrucian Michael Maier, the hermetic philosophers attempted to “reach the intellect via the senses”. This does not seem far from the aims of Masonic ritualism of the eighteenth century, or indeed, of today. However, Franklin would have been exposed initially to a Masonic form radically different to that subsequently introduced through the force of the Moderns.

The possible Rosicrucian connections with eighteenth century Freemasonry are worth considering. This is made more relevant because of Franklin’s interest in alchemy. For Yates, there is within Freemasonry several elements found within Rosicrucianism, but, in line with A. E. Waite, she identifies divergence too.

It is in the combination of esoteric religion, ethical teaching and philanthropy that Yates finds the greatest similarity between Freemasonry and the Rosicrucian Brothers.

The degree to which Franklin’s notion of Freemasonry coincides with Rosicrucian thought, and the extent to which eighteenth century Freemasonry considered Deity involved with human life is of relevance to any consideration of the significance of religion within Freemasonry. With regard to the status of religious thought as opposed to mundane rationality, David Shugarts has pointed out that, in respect of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, beginning “We hold these truths…” Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration, whilst drawing upon Locke, George Mason and others, passed the draft on to Franklin for editing. Shugarts notes that Franklin, avoiding any religious justification, rendered the draft “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” into the form “self-evident”.

Shugarts suggests that one of the grounds for Franklin’s audacity is that he is a Freemason. However, Russell pointed out in 1946 that that particular passage in the Declaration actually models itself upon Euclid. Were Shugart to be correct, and it is a fascinating suggestion, such an act would cast doubt on the degree to which Franklin’s conception of Deity allowed for Providence in the lives of men, and, if we follow Shugart’s reasoning, whether Freemasonry, especially given the changes subsequently introduced by the Duke of Sussex, progressively held a similarly restricted view of Providence, or the power of divine authority.

However, Franklin, in a letter written on 9th March 1790, made plain his conception of God and the extent of Providence. He wrote: "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever Sect I meet with them."

It is in this context that the views of Benjamin Franklin are so enlightening. Any assessment of Franklin’s beliefs and interests reveals an attachment to notions involving alchemy, freemasonry, scientific endeavour, personal philanthropy, and liberal religious views.

His involvement with the Lunar Society at Soho House, Birmingham, whose membership was drawn from scientists, inventors and natural philosophers, and who wished to bring about by the use of scientific advance the betterment of mankind, indicate how far reaching and intense his interests were. However, at base is found Franklin’s determination to weld together these seemingly disparate elements for the good of mankind. In this final analysis Franklin’s personal religious views seem to have provided the impetus for his work, and the rationale for his actions. What is clear is the resonance they have with the ideals of eighteenth century English speculative Freemasonry, and with English notions of political philosophy and liberty.

NOTES ON THE AUTHOR: Richard Martin Young is a Writer, Historian, and a retired Law Lecturer. Richard is currently Grand Chancellor of The Grand Lodge of All England, at York.

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