Freemasonry claims a connection with guilds of ARTISANS from the Middle Ages and indeed with artisans of antiquity, but as an organization it dates to the early 18th century. The first Grand Lodge was that of Britain, formed in 1717. The movement spread with the ideas of the Enlightenment, which it advocates, throughout Europe and the Americas. Freemasonry both took an interest in questions related to slavery and racial discrimination and debated the inclusion of people of color from a very early date in its history.
Freemasonry is a product of the liberal Enlightenment and generally upholds its ideas about human nature, proper social order, and progress. Masons collectively believe in the freedom of individual humans, especially in matters of conscience and religion. Although most Masonic groups require members to believe in a Supreme Being, none accepts any form of coercion in matters of faith, and this characteristic put Masonic groups at odds with countries that wanted to preserve privileges for an established church in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most Masons support secularism as the most appropriate relationship between church and state. The secularist models that Masons could support ranged from the North American, in which many churches can exist, nondenominational religious expression is common in the public sphere, and atheism is tolerated if not exactly accepted, to the Continental European or Spanish American, in which there is an active hostility toward religion in the public arena. Anticlericalism is common among Masons in the Continental tradition, which is the one most often followed in Latin America. Anticlericalism can mean active hostility to the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH and its clergy, as in MEXICO, or a more limited hostility to any public or political role for the church. Masons in the British and North American tradition are often members of Protestant churches, while in the Continental European tradition it is unusual for a Mason to be a regular church attendee of any denomination, and Catholics who belong to Masonic organizations are excommunicated.
Most Masons also support republican institutions, either wholeheartedly, as most Continental European Masons did in the FRENCH REVOLUTION and revolutions of 1848, or at least in part, as when most British Masons supported political reform and democratization of Britain’s monarchy during the 19th century. As a result, Masonic groups were a part of Europe’s revolutionary coalition during the early 19th century and have supported gradual liberal reforms since. Most Masons, especially in the Americas, believed at least in theory in the abolition of slavery, though in practice these beliefs were often tempered by racist assumptions about the ability of people of color to survive independently or to participate in society as equals. Many prominent American political leaders were Masons, including Benjamin Franklin and Presidents GEORGE WASHINGTON, JAMES MONROE, and ANDREW JACKSON.
Freemasons also generally believe in progress, that is, that natural laws and/or Divine Providence is moving human society forward toward greater prosperity, freedom, and equality. Acceptance of the dominance of science as a way to discover truth is often a part of this. For many white Masons in the 19th century, this was taken as a promise that, even if racial prejudice meant that they were unable to see blacks as fully equal for the time being, in the future they would become so. Masons in Latin America, such as Porfirio Díaz of Mexico and Benjamin Constant Botelho De Magalhães of Brazil, were prominently associated with positivism, a liberal philosophy that justified temporary racial discrimination in the interests of “uplifting” the “lesser” races through government intervention.
Free People of Color and Freemasonry
One important organizational element of freemasonry that was a barrier to many people of color was the requirement in most lodges of the British tradition that members had to be freeborn. In fact, this did not entirely prevent free people of color from joining Masonic lodges, even when they had been born slaves. In North America, the free black man PRINCE HALL formed the first black Masonic lodge in MASSACHUSETTS in 1775. His background is obscure, and he may have been able to demonstrate that he was born free, but it is also possible that he had been freed and that the British Grand Lodge that enrolled him knew this and overlooked it. Prince Hall fought on the American side in the WAR OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, 1775–83, and during and after the war he formed other lodges in other states in the North among the many black veterans of the conflict. The status of these lodges was questionable, both because many members had been born as slaves and because freemasonry in the United States was organized with one Grand Lodge in each state. Prince Hall’s lodges could not affiliate with the white lodges because membership and affiliation votes must be unanimous, and any one white member who harbored racial prejudices could disrupt the process. As a result, the Prince Hall lodges remained organizationally distinct from white freemasonry until the 20th century and still are not fully integrated.
In the rest of the Americas, free people of color had a somewhat easier time fitting into institutional freemasonry. The Grand Orient of France had men of color as members in the 18th century. Freemasonry caught on in Haiti even before the HAITIAN REVOLUTION and remains an important part of elite sociability to this day. The revolutionary leader TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE was a Mason, probably of high degree, and appears to have been a member of the same lodge as some of the most prominent planters in the colony. His former master, Bayon de Libertat, was a Mason and probably his sponsor in the lodge. In France and the colonies after the fall of Napoléon, there was some reluctance to admit new free colored members, but enough lodges remained true to their liberal ideas that no segregated black Masonic organization sprung up in France. In the Spanish and Portuguese Americas, Masonic organizations were also quite popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and as were many other institutions in the Iberian Americas, they were open to free men of color who had the right social connections. Belonging to the right Masonic lodge was an important element of social promotion in MEXICO and BRAZIL during their periods of liberal reform in the mid-19th century. Mexico even had dueling Masonic institutions, the York Rite and Scottish Rite, the former more liberal and open to free people of color, the latter more linked to aristocratic and royalist groups and harder for anybody with African ancestry to enter.
For free men of color, freemasonry represented another way to achieve common ground with prominent whites and assert claims to common humanity and citizenship. At the same time, it offered an opportunity to form networks among free men of color, especially in the United States. The liberal principles of freemasonry affirmed the equality and citizenship of free people of color, at least in principle.
Stewart R. King
Bullock, Steven. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Grey, David. Inside Prince Hall. New York: Anchor Communications, 2004.
Roundtree, Alton G., and Paul M. Bessel. Out of the Shadows: Prince Hall Freemasonry in America, 200 Years of Endurance. Forestville, Md.: KLR Publishing, 2006.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1981300145