10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons

Larry Holzwarth - January 1, 2018

The earliest known records of Freemasonry in North America date from the second decade of the eighteenth century in eastern Pennsylvania. Traveling to the North American colonies from England, Scotland, and Ireland Freemasonry brought the then radical ideas of religious tolerance and individual liberty, ideas which found fertile ground in which to germinate in the New World. As the colonies began to produce a new manner of being – an American – the ideas and beliefs of Freemasonry gradually took hold of its core. Many of the most prominent members of pre-revolutionary colonial society were Freemasons, and their influence is visible in American society today. Their influence has also been the source of conspiracy theories over the decades, some bordering on the bizarre. One such theory is that the Freemasons faked the moon landings, for example, another claims Freemasonry to be a Jewish front aimed at world domination.

It is a fact that several of the nation’s founders were Freemasons, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. It is also a fact that an equal if not greater number of the founders were not. Pierre L’Enfant, who designed much of the nation’s capital city, was a Freemason. So was Benjamin Latrobe, who designed the Capitol and other buildings. Thomas Jefferson, who influenced both, was not. At least 14 American presidents were Freemasons, as were numerous government officers and influential businessmen.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
This Masonic Apron was owned and worn by Meriwether Lewis, explorer and personal secretary of Thomas Jefferson. Missouri History Museum

Here are ten American presidents who were Freemasons and their impact on the American experience.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
George Washington wearing a Masonic Apron, with trowel in his right hand. Mount Vernon

George Washington

In the British colonies of North America men of influence and means, aping society of Great Britain, gathered in Masonic lodges in part to discuss in private relevant issues and business, interact with their fellows, and propose and plan improvements for their communities. George Washington, as a wealthy landowner and militia officer in Virginia, joined Fredericksburg Lodge #4 in 1752, where he could meet and entertain the opinions of other Virginians of influence, in politics, military affairs, and business.

That Washington placed great value on his membership is obvious. During the Revolutionary War he corresponded regularly with fellow members, of his own Lodge and others. He attended meetings of military lodges whenever the press of his duties would permit, often presiding over initiation of new members. Lafayette – another Mason – presented Washington with Masonic aprons on at least two occasions during the war, one of which had been painstakingly embroidered by Madame Lafayette. Lafayette asserted long after the war that Washington would “… never willingly give independent command to officers who were not Freemasons.”

After the war, while in his second term as President of the United States, Washington addressed the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts by letter, in which he wrote, “…the Masonic institution was one whose liberal principles are founded on the immutable laws of truth and justice and whose grand object is to promote the happiness of the human race.”

When Washington prepared to become the first man to take to oath of office specified in the Constitution, he asked to use a Bible belonging to St John’s Masonic Lodge # 1 of New York City. Washington was by then Master of Alexandria (Virginia) Lodge # 22, formed after the Revolution, and in close proximity to Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. He remained with this Lodge for the rest of his life. After his death it was renamed the Alexandria-Washington Lodge in his honor.

In the early 20th century the Lodge purchased a tract of land and had a memorial built to Washington, designed after the ancient Lighthouse at Alexandria in Egypt, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is both the home of the Alexandria-Washington Lodge and open to visitors or other groups who wish to use its meeting spaces. The Masonic apron embroidered by Madame Lafayette and given to Washington by the Marquis can be seen there.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
Official White House Portrait of James Monroe. Less is known about Monroe’s religious convictions than any other President. Wikipedia

James Monroe

James Monroe’s influence with the Founders is often overlooked, likely due to his position as the last of the so-called Virginia dynasty. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, during which he was wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Virginia, studied at William and Mary and learned law under the tutelage of Thomas Jefferson. He opposed the Constitution when it was up for ratification, believing it to give too much power to the federal government, and later stretched its defined power by negotiating the Louisiana Purchase under Jefferson.

Although Monroe was raised in the Church of England and attended the services of that faith (as was required by Virginia law of the day) he spoke and wrote little regarding his religious beliefs. It has been said that less is known of Monroe’s religious beliefs than any other president. What is known is that Monroe was initiated into Freemasonry at Williamsburg Lodge #6 in November of 1775.

During the Revolutionary War Monroe served closely with Washington and Lafayette, and at Trenton was wounded so severely in the shoulder that he likely would have bled to death had not the cold helped slow the bleeding. He was cited for his bravery by Washington. That he was closely associated with these two ardent Masons as a young man is interesting, since Monroe left few materials which describe his own thoughts regarding Masonry.

Monroe’s few comments on matters religious indicate that he espoused a belief in deism – he once referred to the “Divine Author” in a speech and the pronounced absence of any references to Christianity in his writings – including in his autobiography – support this conclusion. So does his membership in Freemasonry, which in Williamsburg provided the fraternal club atmosphere which allowed members to discuss their opposition to the policies of the British Parliament in safety.

Masonry often refers to the “Grand Architect” when referring to God, a term not far removed from Monroe’s “Divine Author.” Papers from Monroe’s Lodge and many of his personal papers have vanished over the years, so an accurate appraisal of James Monroe’s commitment to and participation in Masonic activities is difficult. As President he was made an honorary member of Washington Naval Lodge #4. Beyond that the level of influence of Masonry and religion on the fifth president is open to speculation.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
A daguerrotype of former President Andrew Jackson taken when he was in his late seventies. Wikipedia

Andrew Jackson

In 1826 a former Mason and prominent critic of Freemasonry named William Morgan disappeared. Believing him to have been murdered for his outspoken criticism of Freemasonry, church groups and other prominent citizens launched an anti-Mason campaign, condemning the organization and leading to the formation of America’s first third political party, aptly named the Anti-Masons. This party stood in opposition to the National Republicans led by John Quincy Adams and the Democrats, led by war hero and populist Andrew Jackson.

Initially the only issue of concern to the Anti-Masons was the eradication of Freemasonry in the United States, and it was supported in this goal by several religious denominations. Andrew Jackson was a Mason, although lost records preclude establishing his date of initiation. He was elected as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Tennessee in 1822. As the Anti-Mason fervor swept across America many prominent business and political leaders moved to distance themselves from Freemasonry. Jackson did not.

Jackson, as a Mason of long and high standing, spoke often and forcibly in defense of the fraternal organization, and true to his combative nature attacked those who attacked Masonry, decrying their ignorance of its principles and activities. Anti-Masons fueled the speculation that influential positions such as judges and sheriffs which were held by Masons favored brother Masons over non-Masons in their decisions and activities, an accusation which outraged Jackson.

In 1832 the Anti-Masons held the first presidential nominating convention in American history. Their candidate for president, William Wirt, won less than 8% of the vote, but carried Vermont and its seven electoral votes. In 1836 the Pennsylvania branch of the party met in state convention and nominated William Henry Harrison for president, a nomination which was withdrawn when Harrison refused to confirm or deny whether he was a Mason.

It was anti-Jackson rancor which eventually crippled the Anti-Mason party. As the Whig party emerged as the most likely entity to unseat the Jacksonians, more and more anti-Masons left to join them. The Anti-Mason party led to innovations in American politics such as nominating conventions which were rapidly adopted by other parties then and since. Jackson’s staunch defense of Freemasonry and his appeal to the common man helped to quell the anti-Masonic fervor across the United States. The party had been founded under the belief that Freemasonry must be purged from American political life, but by the time of its demise Freemasonry was no longer the main issue with which it was concerned.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
Freemason James Buchanan is widely regarded as one of the least effective President’s in American history. Library of Congress

James Buchanan

James Buchanan was the last president to serve prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, by the time of his leaving office several southern states had seceded from the Union. He is often ranked by historians as one of the worst, if not the worst, presidents to hold the office. His nature is best viewed through the prism of secession. As the southern states, beginning with South Carolina, held conventions and voted to secede, Buchanan announced secession to be illegal. He also announced military action to prevent secession to be illegal, and thus there was no legal recourse available to him as president.

James Buchanan entered Apprentice in Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Lodge #43, and attained Master Mason in 1817. He rose to be Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Buchanan’s use of his lodge and the connections made therein were predominantly for the advancement of his political career, and there is little record of his activities as a Mason beyond the bare facts of his membership and advancement.

Early in his political career Buchanan aligned himself with fellow Mason Andrew Jackson, helping to create the Democratic Party by gathering together Jackson’s supporters following the election of 1824. A northerner, he found kindred souls among southern members of Congress, and began a lifelong relationship with Alabama congressman William King. After Jackson won his second term in 1832 he offered Buchanan an ambassadorship to the Russian Empire, which the Pennsylvania congressman accepted reluctantly.

When he returned he ran for and won a seat in the US Senate, where he continued to be a staunch defender of Jackson. Buchanan later filled another ambassadorship, to the United Kingdom, before positioning himself to run for president in 1856. When he won he became the first president from Pennsylvania and the last to have been born in the 18th century.

James Buchanan’s presidency did little besides mark time during the descent into Civil War. The fact of his Masonic membership did little to add or detract from his reputation, although the contacts which it provided no doubt furthered his career. Late in life he was expelled from his parish in Lancaster, although this was evidently because of pro-slavery opinions rather than Masonic beliefs. Like his presidency, the Masonic views and activities of James Buchanan are largely irrelevant.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
Although apologists have tried to spin it, Andrew Johnson was drunk when inaugurated as Vice President in 1865, a fact he never lived down. The White House

Andrew Johnson

The first president to be impeached, and the first to ascend to the office following an assassination, Andrew Johnson is one of the little understood American presidents, with the misfortune of following the almost sainted Lincoln and followed by the war hero Grant. Johnson is usually referred to as a tailor, which he was for a time, but he was also a skilled political operator and an experienced legislator and governor. He was also a Freemason.

Johnson entered Apprentice in 1843, upon the conclusion of a term in the Tennessee State Senate, in Greeneville (Tennessee) Lodge #119. By 1851 he was a Master Mason. In 1859 he joined the Nashville York Rite Commandery of Knights Templar. As President of the United States he received Scottish Rite degrees, taking them in the White House in 1867.

Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and endured a childhood of poverty and malicious gossip which implied that he was not a child fathered by his mother’s husband, as he did not resemble his siblings. Eventually settling in Greeneville, Tennessee he prospered at his tailoring business and eventually rose in status to be both a slave owner and elected official. He developed the reputation as a politician who voted his conscience rather than party line, a position which invariably creates political enemies.

After several terms in Congress Johnson was elected Governor of Tennessee, under the state constitution a weak executive with no veto power over legislation. He then ran for and won election as a Senator from Tennessee. When Tennessee seceded from the Union Johnson remained in the Senate for the remainder of his elected term before being tapped by Lincoln as Military Governor of Tennessee. When he was selected to be Lincoln’s second Vice-President he was famously drunk on the morning of the inauguration, an event which he never lived down.

His single term as president was rancorous and eventful, leading to a constitutional crisis and impeachment, in which he was acquitted by a single vote, much to the surprise of the Senate which tried him. The final vote needed to acquit was cast by Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, a Freemason, despite warnings that an acquittal would lead to the Senator being investigated for bribery. None of the Republican senators who voted to acquit Johnson, including Ross, were re-elected.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
Shot while waiting on a train platform, James Garfield lingered in agony for several weeks. Wikimedia

James A. Garfield

James Garfield was the second President to be assassinated, an event which overshadows his accomplishments as a Civil War general, a State Senator for Ohio, a long serving member of the House of Representatives, and finally as President. As a member of the House he supported the impeachment of his fellow Freemason Andrew Johnson, and as President he sought to overturn the long-standing system of patronage used to appoint Civil Service jobs, proposing a system of reform eventually enacted during the term of his successor, Chester Arthur.

He was a Freemason who achieved Master Mason in 1864 in Columbus, Ohio. He maintained affiliations with several lodges throughout his political career, affiliated with the Pentalpha Lodge in Washington DC in 1869 as a Charter Member. He attained 14th degree Scottish Rite in 1872.

Garfield held a reputation for personal honesty and incorruptibility throughout his career, which was further enhanced when he chose principle over Masonic fraternity by supporting the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Despite supporting a position against Johnson which would have weakened the Presidency had it been successful, Garfield strengthened Presidential authority during his short time in office, and used it to eliminate the corruption over appointments which was rife in the Post Office at the time.

After his death Garfield was compared to previous Presidents who had been Freemasons in the Freemason’s Chronicle Volume 14 as “… as pure a man as the purest of them and will stand beside them in Masonic history as a shining example and illustration of the purity and nobility of Freemasonry…He knew Masonry through and through; he vouched for it with all of his mind and heart…” The Chronicle later opined that the nation had been unified by the President’s death.

Garfield lingered for weeks after being shot by an anarchist named Charles Guiteau. During his fight for life an experimental metal detector developed by Alexander Graham Bell was used to try to locate the exact position of the bullet in the President’s body, it was foiled by the metal bed springs under the mattress.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
The funeral of Freemason and President William McKinley. McKinley was inspired to join the Freemasons during the Civil War. Wikimedia

William McKinley

William McKinley was serving in the Union Army during the Civil War when he noticed a doctor handing out money to some Confederate prisoners taken following the Battle of Winchester. Curious, he asked the doctor why he was distributing money to the enemy troops and was informed that it was a loan, to fellow Freemasons, who would one day pay it back if and when they could. It was at that point that McKinley decided to become a Freemason.

McKinley entered Freemasonry in Winchester, Virginia just as the Civil War was ending and attributed the mixed nature of the Lodge – mixed in the sense that the members were from both North and South – as a contributing factor to the healing which began as the war drew to an end. McKinley was raised a Master Mason at the Hiram Lodge #21 in Winchester.

McKinley remained active in Freemasonry for the rest of his eventful life, which included a long career in the House of Representatives, a term as Governor of Ohio, and election to the Presidency in 1896. His presidency was and remains somewhat controversial for his economic policies and for his territorial acquisitions resulting from the Spanish-American War.

As President, McKinley oversaw the acquisition by the United States of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, all seized from Spain. During his Presidency the United States also annexed the Hawaiian Islands, until then an independent Republic, and designated it as a United States territory.

McKinley was highly regarded for his personal integrity, and his campaign for the Presidency was conducted from his home rather than by political barnstorming. He defeated the highly popular William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency by promising fiscal responsibility and prosperity while the country was in the midst of a recession. In 1900 he ran for re-election and won, again over Bryan, but he too was assassinated just a few months into his second term. His Vice-President and fellow Freemason Theodore Roosevelt followed him into the Presidency.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
Theodore Roosevelt in Masonic regalia in 1905 in Spokane, Washington. Wikimedia

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States when he returned to his home Lodge (so the story goes) to find that his gardener had been elevated to Grand Master of the Lodge. Teddy humbly gave all obeisance and respect to his gardener in the latter’s role as Grand Master, without further comment, content in the belief that within the Lodge that was as it should be.

Theodore Roosevelt did not join the Freemasons until he was already 42 years of age, in 1901, the same year he became President of the United States following the death of William McKinley. Roosevelt was a native of New York City, Harvard educated, a writer of history including a definitive work on the Naval War of 1812, a noted outdoorsman and hunter, an adventurer-soldier during the Spanish-American War, and a former Governor of New York.

As President he would win the Nobel Prize for helping to broker a peace ending the Russo-Japanese War. He established the United States Navy as the dominant military force in the Pacific and made it into a modern service. He was completely devoted to Masonry, for reasons he expressed when completing his application to join in 1901.

“One of the things which attracted me so greatly to Masonry that I hailed the chance of becoming a Mason,” he wrote, “was that it really did act up to what we, as a government and as a people, are pledged to – namely, to treat each man on his merits as a man.” According to Roosevelt, the practice of Masonry teaches “…the qualities that make a man fit to stand by himself…”

Although Roosevelt came to Masonry later in his life after a lifetime of achievement, it did little to dampen his enthusiasm for its concepts and teachings. Late in his life Roosevelt reiterated his reasons for joining Freemasonry and for his enthusiastic embracing of it, telling McLure’s Magazine that Freemasonry represented a place where all men are equal and share a common interest. After joining, Roosevelt made a point of visiting Lodges on all of his travels across the globe for the rest of his life.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
FDR and staff in 1941. National Park Service

Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR did not leave enthused descriptions of his thoughts on Masonry or his motives for joining, at least not as enthused as his famous cousin Theodore. But FDR was a dedicated and longtime Mason and the fact that he raised his sons Franklin and James into Masonry indicates the level of his own involvement. FDR was initiated and passed in the fall of 1911 in Holland Lodge # 8 in New York City. In 1929 he petitioned the Accepted Scottish Rite, receiving his 32 degree and the following year he became a Shriner.

He received an honorary membership in the Architect Lodge #519 in New York, it was there where he raised his sons in 1935. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, holds a trove of papers related to his membership and activities in Freemasonry.

Ten years before FDR entered into Freemasonry, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean a young Englishman named Winston Churchill was initiated into Studholme Lodge #1591. Churchill and FDR would have a long and fruitful relationship in mid-century, as the vanguard against the spread of Nazism.

Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the British declaration of war, Churchill received a note from FDR. “What I want you and the Prime Minister to know is that I shall at all times welcome it if you will keep me in touch personally with anything you want me to know about,” FDR wrote to the then First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill. Thus Masonic brother FDR, well aware that the nation he led was thoroughly opposed to US involvement in European affairs, let Masonic brother Churchill know that he was ready to help.

Many, if not all, of Roosevelt’s programs to combat the Great Depression and modernize American society can be found to be rooted in Masonic ideals and goals. Many of these are decried by opponents as socialist and examples of liberalism which clearly links Masonic ideals with the destruction of American values and the establishment of the so-called New World Order.

10 Presidents You Didn’t Know Were Shaped by the Freemasons
President Harry Truman wearing his Masonic apron. Truman’s funeral featured Masonic rites. National Archives

Harry Truman

Belton Lodge #450 of Belton Missouri was the site for the initiation of Harry S Truman into Freemasonry in the winter of 1909. Two years later some members of the Belton Lodge established Grandview Lodge #618, with Truman serving as its Master. In 1940, then Senator Truman, known nationwide by then as the head of the Truman Committee (which investigated waste among defense contractors), was elected to be Grand Master of Masons in Missouri.

Later, while in office as President of the United States, Truman commented, “The greatest honor that has ever come to me, and that can ever come to me in my life, is to be the Grand Master of Masons in Missouri.” Truman received many additional honorary titles in Masonry while serving as President, including Honorary Grand Master of the International Supreme Council.

Truman was active and supportive of Masonry before, during, and following his Presidency. While campaigning, first for the Senate and later for the Presidency, Truman attended Lodges around the country. Throughout his career as a Missouri judge and later as a United States Senator he concerned himself over the condition of roads and highways, and frequently drove himself on long trips, visiting Masonic Lodges along the way.

As Roosevelt’s Vice President in early 1945, he found the exhausted and clearly dying President to be too busy to return his calls to the White House, but at a luncheon found they had a common bond in Masonic ideals. As President, Truman was forced to turn to those whom he personally trusted, many of whom were friends and fellow Masons from Missouri.

When Truman died in 1972, of complications from pneumonia, he was buried on the grounds of the Truman Library following a televised funeral which included Masonic rites and remarks from the Grand Master of Masons in Missouri W. Hugh McLaughlin. “He was our brother by adoption,” said Mr. McLaughlin. “He was our companion by choice.”