Enlightenment and Freemasonry
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789
Courtesy of the Carnavalet Museum, Paris, France
The all-seeing eye above the tablet is there to remind the viewer that his thoughts and deeds are being observed by a superior being. Many young leaders of the French Revolution were Freemasons and learned this during their initiation into the Craft. It is not surprising therefore that after they established the Eye of Providence - the Great Architect of the Universe - as a symbol for France's new egalitarian society they fixed it as the emblem of their civic-minded fraternity.
In his introduction to Volume V of the World Epochs, Professor Carl Becker characterized the 18th century as the Era of Revolutions. The political revolutions that established government on the principle of majority rule in America and France at the end of this century were preceded by revolutions in Natural Science, Moral Philosophy, Technology, and the Arts. Professor Becker suggested that the central figure in this progressively violent age of social change was the “arisen intellect.” Well? What exactly roused it, and why were its effects so all-encompassing?
The answer to these questions is found in Freemasonry. Freemasons carried their unprecedented message of public virtue, benevolence, and self-improvement to every corner of the 18th century’s rapidly changing society.
Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby (1768)
Freemasonry was not just the expression of a new social concept. It was the Royal Art. Learned members of the 18th century’s thinking class applied it as they moved from Aristotelianism into modern science, as they rejected revelation in favor of rational religion, and as they abandoned God’s word as the source of right behavior and became utilitarians. Civic-minded members of the 18th century’s privileged classes practiced this Royal Art by organizing benevolent associations to ameliorate the condition of those less fortunate and by pressing for social reform. Individuals in the swelling underclasses applied it by striving to become more like their betters.
The top-level flow of ideas was accompanied by bottom level behavioral changes in which the urban poor adapted to industrialization. There were few urban centers when the scientific revolution began in
the 17th century. The lowly sorts who became the urban underclass in the 18th century had labored on country estates in the 17th century. As industrialization gained momentum through the 18th century the numbers of urban poor grew. As their numbers grew, they transformed from ignorant, neglected shreds into an organized and irresistible political force. This happened first in England, then in France, then elsewhere.
Between these upper and lower horizontals was a cross-grained middle strata comprised of civic-minded citizens from the new commercial upper classes and an increasingly able middle class. These good men and women were sufficiently disturbed by the suffering of those beneath them that they undertook to help.
The Enlightenment was not, in other words, a marvelous trickling down of ideas from the high plateau into the low lands and valleys. The revolution in the world of ideas did not cause the man on the street to see the world in a new way. He was left to fend for himself until his benevolent betters extended their helping hands and began to press for social reform. To the extent the worldview of the man on the street changed, it changed because he became increasingly aware of his right to express his opinion in political matters.
The social strata of the 18th century's stratified societies co-existed peacefully through its first three quarters. But while philosophes debated whether God exists and whether right
Dinner of the Philosophes by Jean Huber (1773)
behavior promotes “the greatest good for the greatest number”, while assorted upper and middle class helpers worked to improve the plight of the downtrodden, the bottom dwellers were digesting the masonic-like creed of “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
During these seventy-five years, the man on the street first learned to cope. Then he endeavored to improve himself. As he did this, he discovered that he was not being treated fairly. He then embraced the ideas of social reform his betters were pressing. Joining his hard-pressed neighbors, he rioted in the streets and broke things. Leaders appeared and began to direct what had been random expressions of public anger. In America these new political men organized a “patriotic” movement, which they soon transformed into an “independence” movement. Patriots in France were several years behind, but in 1789, after rallying the people with calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity, they stormed the Bastille and overthrew the ruling monarchy.
Camille Desmoulins, Freemason, in le Palais Royal
by Honore Daumier (c. 1865)
Those who have built their knowledge of Thomas Jefferson with information from biographies written by academic historians during the last century do not know that as many as half of Jefferson’s friends and associates in France were Freemasons.
George Washington was a Freemason. Although he was not in France with Jefferson, he was Jefferson's superior. Benjamin Franklin was a Freemason and served two years as the Worshipful Master of the Paris Lodge of the Nine Sisters. John Adams was not a mason, but William Short, Jefferson's secretary and "adopted son" became a Freemason during his school years at Jefferson's alma mater. When David Humphreys became a mason is not known.
by Charles Willson Peale (1807)
Benjamin Franklin by Charles Willson Peale (1785)
William Short by Rembrandt Peale (1806)
George Washington at Princeton
by Charles Willson Peale (1788)
Note: It is interesting to note that the artist who painted this portrait of George Washington and the ones of Benjamin Franklin, and Joel Barlow, and who also painted an early portrait of Thomas Jefferson, was himself a Freemason, having joined the same lodge that William Short later joined.
Joel Barlow, who was not in the diplomatic service when he arrived in France in 1788, affiliated with the Lodge of St John in Hartford Connecticut in 1788.
Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the American constitution before coming to France in 1788, was not a Freemason.
As Worshipful Master of the Nine Sisters lodge, Franklin was responsible for instructing apprentices in the principles of fellowcraft. The tenets of Freemasonry were peculiar to itself, he explained. This is how he described them:
They serve as testimonials of character and qualifications, which are only conferred after due course of instruction and examination. These are of no small value; they speak a universal language, and act as a passport to the attentions and support of the initiated in all parts of the world. They cannot be lost as long as memory retains its power. Let the possessor of them be expatriated, shipwrecked or imprisoned, let him be stripped of everything he has got in the world, still those credentials remain, and are available for use as circumstances require. The good effects they have produced are established by the most incontestable facts of history. They have stayed the uplifted hand of the destroyer; they have softened the asperities of the tyrant; they have mitigated the horrors of captivity; they have subdued the rancor of malevolence; and broken down the barriers of political animosity and sectarian alienation. On the field of battle, in the solitudes of the uncultivated forest, or in the busy haunts of the crowded city, they have made men of the most hostile feelings, the most distant regions, and diversified conditions, rush to the aid of each other, and feel a special joy and satisfaction that they have been able to afford relief to a Brother Mason.”
Franklin went on to enumerate the tenet of Freemasonry: Charity, Benevolence, Community, Morality, Education, Belief, Truth, and Justice. Of Community, Franklin said:
While each lodge is created from individual members and while individuality is treasured, lodges are designed to be sociable and to encourage mutual works. Brotherhood is a key tenet in lodges and that is one reason why Freemasonry is designed to allow men to meet together.
Detail: Gouverneur Morris
by Thomas Sully (1808)
Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786)
Col. David Humphreys
by Gilbert Stuart (c. 1809)
Picture Detail: John Adam
by Mather Brown (1788)
John Adams left Paris to become the American Ambassador to the Court of St James on 24 May 1785. Franklin left Paris in early July to return home. Jefferson became the head of the delegation after Franklin’s departure. Short, who was a cousin by marriage to Jefferson’s deceased wife, arrived in Paris in November 1784. He came as a private citizen in hopes of joining Jefferson’s staff, which he did. Humphrey arrived about the same time, having been appointed by the Congress to serve as secretary to the American delegation.
Madame Helvetius was probably the first of these three salon hostesses to befriend Jefferson. She lived in Auteuil, the village next to Franklin’s. Madame’s salon attracted many of her late husband's friends who were philosophes with interests in science. After Claude Helvetius’s death in 1771, Madame helped his masonic friend, astronomer Jerome Lalande, to establish a “masonic learned society” in his honor. The Lodge of the Nine Sisters was chartered in 1776. Its mission was to promote the arts and sciences. Many younger members of Madame’s salon were members of this lodge. Foremost among these were her lifelong companion, Pierre Cabanis, and his fellow ideologues Constantine Volney and Destutt De Tracy. Madame also entertained writers Dominique Joseph Garat, and Nicholas Chamfort. Somewhat older were Abbé Sieyes and Comte Pierre Louis Roederer who would distinguish themselves as theorists for the approaching revolution. In addition to Lalande, freemason scientists and encyclopedistes in Madame’s circle included d’Alembert and Diderot (both of whom died before 1785), and Abbé Morellet. Lavoisier was not a mason. Several other senior lumieres were not initiated masons but traveled in masonic circles. These included Baron d’Holbach, Abbé Raynal, Buffon, Abbé Galiani. Jefferson knew all these men and developed close associations with several of them.
Franklin also introduced Jefferson to Madame d’Houdetot. Madame was an Americaniste who attracted admirers of the great American experiment in Liberty. In addition to Frenchmen who traveled in America, like Hector St-John de Crèvecoeur, she collected visiting Americans, like Franklin, Jefferson, and Gouverneur Morris. Where Madame Helvetius’s guests expected to discuss science and the arts, Madame d’Houdetot’s expected to exchange enlightened opinions on politics. Madame developed her optic walking and talking with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s advocacy for social equality, public virtue, and community responsibility for promoting the common good made him a beacon for revolutionaries in the generation that followed his. Many of these men were Freemasons like Rousseau. In Madame’s salon Jefferson would have encountered Brissot de Warville, Louis-Sebastian Mercier, Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport, and Alexandre Lameth. Others, like (the junior) Comte de Mirabeau, expressed the enlightened ideas of the Bavarian Illuminati, which had taken root in the La Loge des Amis Reunis. Baron Grimm was the lover of Madame’s cousin and sister-in-law, Madame d’Epinay. His interest in music brought him into contact with Rousseau, the encyclopedistes, and Baron d’Holbach. Holbach introduced Grimm to opinion makers like Jean-Francois de la Harpe and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard who were probably also Madame’s guests. Although he met them in other places, Jefferson probably also encountered Louis Alexandre, duc de la Rochefoucauld, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Lafayette in Madame’s salon.
Pre-revolutionary Paris has been described as a societal galaxy filled with solar systems. Individuals succeeded in Parisian society by orbiting within one or more of these social networks. Jefferson was introduced to Parisian society by Franklin who orbited through three of them—the salons of Madame Helvetius, Madame d'Houdetot, and the Duchesse d'Anville. Jefferson’s social life became centered in relationships he formed in these three inter-connecting networks.
Jefferson probably first heard of the duc de la Rochefoucauld when he read the letter Crèvecoeur posted to him while he was crossing the Atlantic to France. Franklin probably introduced Jefferson to la Rochefoucauld at one of his gatherings in the fall of 1784. Jefferson probably met the Duke’s mother in the summer of 1785 during a weekend at la Roche-Guyon, which was their country estate forty miles northeast of Paris. Abigail Adams described the Duchesse d’Anville as tall and lean and surrounded by “a circle of Academicians”. Elsewhere the Duchesse is described as “the friend of economists”. She may have begun her association with economists when Turgot came to Paris in 1774. It is more likely that she met Quesnay, Victor de Riqueti (the senior Marquis de Mirabeau), and Du Pont de Nemours after her son assumed the management of the family’s estates in the early 1760s. Her interests in physiocratic economics and social reform would have been reinforced by her conversations with Diderot and d’Alembert, who were both Freemasons. Turgot would have introduced her to his protégé, Condorcet. By the winter of 1786, Lafayette had joined Jefferson as a member of the Duchesse’s circle. The “old woman” appears to have joined her son, his cousin François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Condorcet, Jefferson, Lafayette and other periodic guests in discussing how to create a constitutional government in France. These conversations stimulated Lafayette to draft a bill of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson reviewed. By the fall of 1786, reform was a center of Jefferson's interest. Of the reformers in his new circle, the duke and his cousin were Freemasons as were Lafayette, Mirabeau, and Du Pont de Nemours.
The first French lodge whose existence can be verified was founded in Paris in 1725 by the Earl of Derwentwater. In 1728, Jacobite members of this lodge recognized Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton, as their Grand Master. Four years later the London Grand Lodge deputized this Parisian lodge, which then became known as the La Grande Loge de France. In 1743 it called Louis, Comte de Clermont and prince of the blood, to be its Grand Master. Clermont served in this post until his death in 1771. Soon after his death, the lodge divided and the larger part, under the name of La Grande Orient de France, called Clermont’s cousin to be its Grand Master. Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orleans, afterward the 6th duc d’Orleans and later Philippe Egalitaire, assumed the post in 1773 and retained it until his beheading in 1793.
Louis Philippe Joseph had fallen out with Louis XV in 1771 after the King attempted to abolish France’s provincial parlements and replace them with assemblies of his own appointments. The targeted parlements had responded with letters, countersigned by the Duke, refusing to confirm Louis XVs improvised system. This created bad blood between the two branches of the Bourbon family, which continued after the coronation of Louis XVI. Louis Philippe Joseph's courageous stand garnered for him the admiration of the people of Paris who subsequently viewed him as their defender against the tyranny of an unchecked French monarch. This in turn triggered a political awakening in the mind of the Duke who relished being leader of the opposition to the royal government. When he became Grand Master of the consolidated lodges of Frances, he found himself at the center of a massive network of reformers and political male-contents. He used his wealth and his position as the landlord of France’s most stylish emporium to promote this opposition. Many of its activities were organized by the rising generation of Freemasons in gatherings at the Palais Royal. Notable members and observers of this enterprise were:
Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orleans,6th duc d’Orleans
Grand Master, la Grande Orient de France
Rousseau,Brissot de Warville, Maribeau, and Duport were all Freemasons
Cabanis, Volney, de Tracy, Garat
were all Freemasons
Rochefoucauld, Lafayette, and Liancourt were Freemasons. Condorcet was said to be a Freemason, though no record exists of his initiation.
Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre
Pierre Louis Antoine
Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos