Saturday, February 22, 2014

NPS - Washington to Obama: Inaugural Traditions - Part Two

In my previous post bearing the subtitle, A Presidents' Day Special, I outlined my reasons for why I disagreed with the National Park Service blanket response to my Contact Us  message of  Jan 3, 2014.

One of the other topics I referenced in a different email exchange with NPS spokesperson, Steve Laise, was whether the Masonic owned, 1767 London published King James Bible with its full page frontispiece portrait of King George II was something of an odd choice for what has become such a sacred relic that hi-lites a very important day in our national history. (After all, the Aitkin Bible would have fit much better with the topical idea of promoting goods of American manufacture.)

This is how Steve Laise responded:

From: Laise, Steve

To: Ray Soller

Sent: Thursday, January 23, 2014 11:56 AM

Subject: Re: Aitkin Bible 

Hello Ray,

I really don't find it odd that George Washington would have sworn his inaugural oath on the Bible "borrowed" from nearby St. John's Masonic Lodge.  After all, Washington had a long history with Freemasonry, beginning in 1752 when he joined the Fredericksburg Virginia Lodge.  Later on, in 1788, he became Worshipful Master of the newly-chartered Alexandria Virginia Lodge.  In 1793 he sat for a portrait in full Masonic regalia and after his death he was buried with full Masonic honors conducted by the Alexandria Lodge.

Of course Washington was extremely familiar with the forms of Masonic oaths.  For example, the Worshipful Master's oath ends with "So help me God and keep me steadfast" followed by kissing the Bible.  So use of the phrase and the following action would not necessarily have seemed out of place to him  -- or so it appears to me.

As you know, the inaugural Bible still belongs to St. John's Lodge and is exhibited at Federal Hall National Memorial except when removed by the Masons for other events, including some presidential inaugurals.  

Steve Laise
At this point, it appears to me that Steve Laise is responding more as a Masonic public relations representative than a responsible historical commentator. So, this is how I responded:

The extent of GW's participation at Masonic Lodge meetings are most likely overrated. Here's a snippet from Paul M. Bessel's website, GW and Masonry, at
Rev. G.W. Snyder, who said he was with the Reformed Church of Fredericktown, Maryland, sent Washington a letter on August 22, 1798, saying, "a Society of Free Masons, that distinguished itself by the name of 'Illuminati,' whose Plan is to over throw all Government and all might be within your power to prevent the Horrid plan from corrupting the brethren of the English Lodges over which you preside."  
September 25, 1798, Washington wrote a letter to Snyder, including the following language, referring to Masonic lodges: "... to correct an error ..., of my presiding over English Lodges in this country. The fact is I preside over none, nor have I been in one more than once or twice within the last thirty years...."
There's also this summarizing snippet: 
Washington attended at most 3 meetings, possibly fewer or none (he may have attended dinners but not the preceding meetings), of the lodge that today is called Alexandria-Washington Lodge #22, and of which he was the first Master [April 28, 1788] under its Virginia Charter. While he was Master of that lodge, he did not do anything to assist the work of the lodge, and he attended, at most, one meeting (if he attended that one), when officers were reelected. There is no indication that he actually presided as Master on that occasion and it is unlikely that he did so. Paintings and sculpture showing Washington presiding as a Master of that or any other Masonic lodge are probably based only on wishful thinking. [No reports, either, of GW's attendance while federal gov't located in NYC Federal Hall.]
Some Masons may have gotten carried away with their delight that the most eminent citizen of the United States, George Washington, joined the Freemasons when we was very young and continued to be a member throughout his life and wrote letters supporting Freemasonry, and they may have attempted to portray him as an active and enthusiastic member of the Craft even though the evidence indicates that he was not. 
George Washington was apparently a Mason who was not very interested in attending lodge meetings, although there is considerable evidence that he was happy to be a member and publicly supported Freemasonry.

There's similar information provided by Frank Grizzard in his book George Washington: A Biographical Companion, page 123; namely:

Washington himself received a Masonic funeral, although he had wished for a private burial [my italics]. According to Washington's Private secretary, Tobias Lear, the family acquiesced to a request from the Alexandria "Militia Freemasons [who] were determined to show their respect to the General's memory by attending his body to the grave."


Jonathan Rowe said...

Great work as always Ray!

Samnites said...

Wish to have his casket conveyed by "Eight Freemasons" is right in his will. Evidently Mr. Laise is one of those internet types who love exercising their imagination without bothering to do research.

Samnites said...

Correction of previous post. Comment should have been in response to Mr. Soller, not Mr. Laise, whose
observations were correct.

Ray Soller said...

Samsonites, when I looked into GW's will this is what I found:

The family Vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger Scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out. In which my remains, with those of my deceased relatives (now in the old Vault) and such others of my family as may chuse [sic] to be entombed there, may be deposited. And it is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.

Source: See here. There's no mention of a request that his casket be conveyed by "Eight Freemasons."