George Washington, Founding Father and First President of the United States of America, was an eminent Freemason. But while we know that he was a Freemason, we know relatively little about the life and political and military career of George Washington, at least in Europe. Then what was this man's extraordinary career ? And did being a Freemason influence George Washington's public career ? In the present article, we will try to explore the destiny of this illustrious Freemason, who became one of the greatest figures in American history.

The early years of George Washington 

George Washington was born on 22 February 1732 at Pope's Creek in the English colony of Virginia, into a family of wealthy tobacco planters. Given the role he would play in American independence, it is amusing to note that he was given the name George in homage to King George II ! Having received an excellent education, he proved to be particularly gifted in mathematics and topography. At the age of 16, he became a surveyor and mapped large swathes of territory in Virginia and then in the western territories.

In 1752, his half-brother, Lawrence Washington (1717 or 1718-1752), died of tuberculosis. He was a military man who had served under Vice-Admiral Vernon in the Caribbean and was commander of the Virginia militia. George succeeded him as head of the militia and thus began his military career.

Military career in the service of England

In 1755, sent to drive out the French who had settled in Ohio, George Washington and his men killed 30 Canadian militiamen led by the Sieur de Jumonville, who lost his life in the process. This event, which the French described as a murder, made Washington a household name in Virginia and London. Jumonville's brother led 500 men to capture Washington, who was only released after signing a written confession to Jumonville's murder. Washington would always claim that it was a mistake and that he had signed a document in French that he couldn't understand.

This incident was one of the many skirmishes that heralded the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), which can be considered the first global war, since military operations took place not only in Europe, but also in America and India.

Also in 1755, Washington became aide-de-camp to General Braddock, commander-in-chief of the British forces in America. He took part in Braddock's campaign to take Fort Duquesne in Ohio, which ended in a bitter failure for the English and saw their general-in-chief fall in battle. At the battle of Mohongahela, which marked the end of this campaign, Washington skilfully organised the English rearguard and allowed the vanguard to withdraw, which had the effect of limiting the number of casualties in the British ranks. From then on, he was known as the Hero of Mohongahela, and thus became an American military hero. He was then given the task of guarding the western frontier of Virginia, with a relatively small force.

In 1758, General Forbes undertook a new operation to dislodge the French from Fort Duquesne, which turned to be successful. Washington took part, but it was his last campaign on the English side. He then withdrew to his homeland, where he married in 1759.

The prosperous planter who became the first President of the United States 

Back on his land, Washington set about making it more profitable by selecting new seeds and experimenting with new tools. He acquired new land, diversified his activities by exploiting fisheries and lived lavishly, bringing furniture and wine from Europe and organising sumptuous receptions.

But as he grew richer, Washington found himself increasingly confronted with the economic measures imposed by London on the American colonies, and the monopoly on products imported from England. Like most of his compatriots, it was above all economic reasons that gradually made Washington hostile to the English metropolis. In 1769, he supported the proposal to boycott English products put forward by his friend George Mason (1725-1792), the richest planter in Virginia. These commercial tensions escalated in the following years, culminating in the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, considered to be the first act of insurrection leading up to the War of Independence.

The War of Independence began in April 1775 and in June of the same year, Washington was chosen by the Continental Convention to be Commander-in-Chief of the insurgent armed forces. On 4 July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, proclaiming the independence of the Thirteen American Colonies, which would henceforth form the United States of America. And the Continental Convention called on France to come to its aid against the English. Louis XVI hesitated for two years before committing himself militarily and financially to the Americans, but by 1777 French volunteers, including the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), had already come to the aid of the insurgents. In August 1778, the squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral d'Estaing (1729-1794) arrived off the American coast. But this initial force proved insufficient, despite the help provided by the flotilla that had been reinforced from St Domingue under the command of Admiral de Grasse-Tilly (1722-1788), the father of Alexandre de Grasse-Tilly, who played a decisive role in the creation of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in America and its introduction into France. An expeditionary force of 6,000 was therefore sent in 1780, under the command of Lieutenant-General Rochambeau (1725-1807). Thanks to this increased French support, the Americans gained the upper hand over the English. On 3 September 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ratifying the existence of the United States of America and maintaining the domination of England over the Canada.

After the withdrawal of the last British troops, Washington resigned as Commander-in-Chief on 23 December 1783. He withdrew from business and returned to his lands in Virginia, having no political ambitions for the time being.

Nevertheless, he noted the insufficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, which served as a constitution for the new state, and from 1786 he argued for the drafting of a new Constitution. He was elected as Virginia's delegate to the Convention of 1787, whose purpose was to revise the Articles of Confederation, and was chosen to preside over it. The Convention adopted the Constitution on 17 September 1787, which was ratified by the thirteen  states on 21 June 1788. It came into force on 4 March 1789, and on the same day George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States of America by the Electoral College.

He was re-elected for a second term in 1793, at the end of which, in 1787, he refused to consider a third term. He once again returned to his land to look after his farm. In 1798, Samuel Adams, the second President of the United States, appointed him Lieutenant-General of a reserve army to be raised in the event of the French invasion that had been feared. But these fears proved unfounded and George Washington died of a respiratory infection on 12 December 1799.

Washington's Masonic career and the role of Freemasonry in American Independence 

On 4 November 1752, the twenty-year-old George Washington was admitted as a Freemason in the Lodge of Fredericks (now Lodge No. 4 of the Grand Lodge of Virginia). He was raised to Master on 4 August 1753 and subsequently became an honorary member of several other American lodges.

He was by no means the only protagonist of American independence to have been a Freemason. Many influential insurgents were Freemasons, including Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, James Otis and John Hancock. But other illustrious figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams were not. And of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, only 9 have been identified as Freemasons.

On the French side, there were also many Freemasons. Lafayette's Masonic affiliation is well known, but historical studies show that many general, senior and junior officers of the French expeditionary corps were Freemasons, starting with the Commander's own son, the Viscount de Rochambeau. It has been established that 8 of the 19 general and senior officers were members of the Order, including the Comte de Ségur, the Comte de Vauban, the Comte de Deux-Ponts and the Comte de Fersen (Rochambeau's aide-de-camp, who became a favourite of Queen Marie-Antoinette on his return from the American campaign). Among the colonels and other officers, there were also many prestigious names, such as the Comte du Plessis, the Comte de Saint-Simon, the Marquis de la Palisse, the Vicomte de Noailles, etc. It is certain that the Masonic affiliation of many French officers encouraged contact and even fraternisation with the American officers.

Should we see here the clue of a Masonic plot at the origin of the American Revolution, as some have claimed ? That would be forgetting that the English side also had a large number of Freemason officers and that many regiments (particularly Irish) were home to military lodges which had greatly contributed to the spread of Freemasonry in the New World.

Freemasonry nonetheless played a role in the insurrection that led to American Independence, and then in the construction of the new State, not as an organisation that pulled strings in the shadows, but as a place of exchange where new ideas of Liberty, Fraternity, Nation and Democracy were developed and circulated. However, the American Lodges as such never entered into the political debate and gave no instructions as to the position to adopt in relation to the insurrection and the British. 

The indirect role played by Freemasonry in the birth of the United States was later magnified in American culture, particularly around the figure of George Washington. For example, when he laid the foundation stone of the Capitol on 18 September 1793, he was openly wearing Masonic Regalia. Several pictorial representations have been made of this event, which can be considered the most important in American Masonic history. But before that, albeit more discreetly, Freemasonry had already been present at his inauguration as President on 30 April 1789, as he took the oath of office on the Bible used by St. John's Lodge No. 1 in New York for its business. Since then, Presidents Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush have chosen to take their oaths on the same Bible.

An unsuccessful project must also be reported. In 1779, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania proposed George Washington as Grand Master of all Masons in America, even though there was no American Grand Lodge, but as many Grand Lodges as there were States. American Union Lodge No. 1 in Massachusetts attempted to form a National Grand Lodge, but the federalist spirit prevailed and the project was finally abandoned. This attempt nevertheless shows the extent to which the emblematic figure of George Washington had been associated with Freemasonry, to the point where some would have wished him to preside over the destiny of the Order throughout the United States.

June 03, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu