Washington: The Man and the Mason
By Bro.Geo. H. Sawyer
"Native goodness is unconscious; asks not to be recognized, But its baser affectation is a thing to be despised. Only when the man is loyal to himself shall he be prized."
Here and there on the world's calendar of time the finger of the Almighty has during its progress over the pages rested with peculiar significance and left its imprint indelible and unmistakable. These imprints mark the red letter days of history and of progress. Sometimes the day thus set apart by the Master Builder commemorates some deed or battle which he would have us recognize as a milestone of advancement on the highway which leads to that last great day when God shall be acknowledged in deed as well as word the Father of us all and when all men shall be as brothers.
But again this finger print is occasioned by the dedicating of a date as the birthday of some man or woman destined to perform a mighty service for God, humanity and the world. Strange it seems that the little month of February should commemorate the births of the two greatest men whose names adorn the pages of American history. Should any one presume to doubt that an All Wise God has from the very beginning guided this nation of ours, let him study with care the biography of Washington and of Lincoln and learn there the lessons that He would teach. Never should honor be paid the memory of one of these noblemen on his natal day without mention being made of the services of the other.
Washington and Lincoln --what names with which to conjure. God intended the latter to supplement the work of the former and that their memories might be preserved in common, he caused their natal days to be in close proximity on February's meagre page. Washington born in honor and in plenty, and Lincoln in humility and poverty, teach us the lesson sorely needed in these latter days that patrician and plebeian, rich and poor, high and low, are distinctions not to be reckoned with in anything that pertains to things American. Then, too, how similar and yet how vastly different were these great Americans. Here again can God's plan be read. At a period in the world's unrest a man was needed whose heart beat in close accord with manhood's struggle for equality, and yet a man withal whose dignity, seclusion and apparent sternness of character forbade at all times a familiarity which meant anarchism and destructic. In witness of this note well the horrors of the French Revolution. But in Lincoln's time a purely local measure in a certain sense demanded a man who training, manner and method made him familiar almost to contempt. Austere dignity and seclusion wou have made a Washington in Lincoln's time a farce and Lincoln in Washington time a national tragedy. To Washington the Father and Lincoln the Savior of our country we bow in humb reverence.
While as a nation we this day pay homage to the memory of Washington, is peculiarly fitting that Masons we meet in our various Masonic homes and in solemn quietude around our several altars contemplate the virtues of this man and Mason; this great character who exemplified every virtue which Masonry inculcates. So intimately are the history of Masonry and the life of Washington interwoven that th seem but the web and woof of the same fabric. The year 1732 marks the birth year of Washington, and about that date for the first time recognized Masonry makes its formal appearance on American soil in the form of established lodges. From that date until the present time Masons and Masonry have played important parts in the wonderful history of our republic. This is not the occasion for the lauding of this order nor does the institution need or demand public commendation. As we review the history of the past, however, we cannot but be grateful that Masons have been permitted under the providence of God to contribute as they have to liberty and progress as exemplified in the development of the United States. Let us be thankful that not one word in the obligation that we take nor one act in the mystic rites which we indulge conflicts in the slightest degree with our duty to God, our country, our neighbor, or ourselves, but rather fosters and impels the noblest and the best in the way of social, civic, and religious advancement.
Briefly let us call to mind a few of the events in the history of our country in which Masons and Masonry have played important roles. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 perhaps will for all time be shrouded in mystery and yet it is scarcely to be doubted that Masonic brothers wont to meet in the rooms above the Old Green Dragon Tavern of Boston could have lifted the veil of mystery had they been so disposed. It was a Masonic messenger in the person of Paul Revere who on the "18th of April in '75" carried the message flashed from the tower of the Old North Church on that historic night so many years ago. Bunker Hill was forever consecrated by the shedding of precious blood. Masonry here offered as its sacrifice the Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts in the person of Gen. Warren, whose name is ever mentioned in every account of that memorable engagement. By a strange coincidence it happened that on the very day that Warren fell, another brother in the person of Washington received his commission as Commander in Chief of the American forces. The Declaration of Independence is acknowledged the world over to be the most profound exposition of civic and religious liberty that was ever penned by man. History and tradition inform us that among the signers of that era-forming document were several leaders of public thought to whom Masonic teachings were a constant source of inspiration.
On the roll of Masonic honor in connection with the Revolutionary War besides the aforementioned are to be found the names of the following whom we delight to designate as brothers: Benjamin Franklin, the astute diplomat and statesman; Baron Steuben, the Prussian drill master; Gen. Israel Putnam, the two Randolphs, Edward and Robert Livingston, Gen. Knox, and last but not least the great LaFayette, the companion and confidant of Washington who in the dark days of intrigue vindicated the character of his brother when wrongfully traduced. To him America owes a debt of gratitude beyond measure. To what extent the fraternal bonds buoyed up and encouraged these men during those long eight years can be understood somewhat by a review of the correspondence of the times.
On the 30th of April, 1789, Washington took the oath of office as the first president of these United States. The ceremony was a most impressive one. The oath was administered by Robt. E. Livingston, the Chancellor of the State of New York and the Grand Master of Masons in that state. The Bible on which rested the hand of Washington as he entered into that solemn engagement had been taken from the altar of St. John's Lodge No. 1 of New York City. Having taken the oath, Washington in reverence kissed the page of the sacred volume. The leaf whereon his lips had rested was then folded and after the ceremony the honored volume was returned to its cushion of crimson velvet on the altar where it remains until this day.
On two other memorable occasions in the career of Washington as President did Masonry play an historic part. On the 15th of April, 1791, with Masonic ceremonies was laid the southeast cornerstone of the District of Columbia from which point was surveyed the area comprising the federal grounds, the location of which had with deference been left to Washington; and again on the 18th of September, 1793, with the most elaborate and impressive of Masonic ceremonies Washington as Grand Master protem. laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building itself in the city which bears his name. At least eight brother Masons since the days of Washington have occupied the president's chair. From first to last the history of Masonry in America has been an honorable one.
But it is to Washington, the man, that we wish this day to pay our homage. Someone has said that the perpetuity of this nation depends upon the spirit and the manner in which the American people observe their patriotic days. If this be true it behooves us to look well to the charge that the rising generation lacks in these three essentials--restraint, respect and reverence. Lord Brougham has said that "The veneration paid to the immortal name of Washington will ever be a test of the progress which our race makes in wisdom and in virtue."
We have stated that Washington exemplified every virtue which Masonry inculcates. At the age of 20 he sought admission into the mystic order and soon after the attainment of his majority he was made a Master Mason. The teachings of the order impressed him deeply and his connection with it was intimate and constant. The story of his life is too well known to justify repeating. We can profit most perhaps by causing to pass before our eyes some scenes which tend to show the man and the virtues which were his.
The home life of Washington affords a beautiful picture of devotion to wife and mother. He was an ideal son and husband. What tribute could be greater ? He was a man passionately fond of his home and nothing on earth would have been so in harmony with his conception of a happy and contented life as to have been permitted to have spent his days in the supervision of his beautiful Mt. Vernon estate. But during the forty seven years from the time of his majority until his death at sixty eight, public duties of the most exacting nature forced themselves upon him, and hardly did he retire to peace and quietude at any period but that some new duty confronted him, and when duty called, personal comfort and preference were laid aside. Extracts from letters written by him to personal friends at the close of the war breathe the satisfaction he felt at being able once more to live the private life. One of these extracts reads as follows: "The scene has changed. On the eve of Christmas I entered these doors an older man by nine years than when I left them. I am just beginning to experience the ease and freedom from public care which however desirable take some time to realize. I hope to spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the affections of good men and in the practice of domestic virtues. I have not only retired from all public employments but I am retiring within myself and shall be able to view the solitary walk and tread the paths of private life with a heartfelt satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all, and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers."
But how soon this dream was shattered. There followed the stirring days of the Constitutional Convention and the eight years of the presidency. Again he retired voluntarily to private life, but once more came duty's call. Scarcely had Adams been seated in the president's chair when France assumed such a belligerent attitude that war clouds hung thick and heavy. Washington received and reluctantly accepted the command of the provisional army against France and repaired at once to Philadelphia to perfect plans for a military campaign. This was at the age of sixty five. Fortunately the sentiment of France changed and Washington was spared. But all this teaches well the lesson to man and Mason that when public responsibility seeks the man he has but little right to resist the call.
Two of many beautiful pictures tell the story of Washington's devotion to his mother. The fall of Yorktown had been accomplished. The war was over. His journey from New York to Virginia had been a continual ovation. At Fredericksburg he stopped to visit his aged mother. He allowed no pageantry or pomp to mar the scene. She was alone. Her aged hands were busy with household duties as he crossed the threshold. She smiled as she turned to greet him. A mother's embrace and kiss were more to him than the flying of banners and the blare of trumpets. Not a word was said of the mighty conflicts. To her he was not the humbler of Great Britain's power. He was the son for whom she had sacrificed and who in manhood's years had crowned her life with glory, not as commander-in-chief of the American army but by virtue of a pure and upright life. With a mother's solicitude and only as a mother can, she noted the furrows which seven years of the nation's sorrows had plowed deep upon his brow.
That evening a gala event was planned in the city in honor of Washington's presence. The distinguished men of this and other nations who had accompanied Washington to the city, together with the brilliant company of Virginia's best, were in the receation hall. Mother Washington consented to be present although she said demurely that her dancing days were over. Leaning on the arm of her son she emerged among the happy group. A beautiful picture she made dressed in the plain but becoming gown of the Virginia lady of olden times. With quiet reserve and dignity she met the flower of Virginia society and the polished attentions of gallant French officers present. Courteous she was but with naught of haughtiness as their compliments fell upon her. At an early hour she retired saying simply that she wished the company much joy in their entertainment but it was time for old folks like her to be in bed. Again on the arm of Washington she left the room. To the army officers present who were familiar with the artificial distinctions of society life in the old world this scene was a revelation. With wonder unrepressed they said among themselves that any country which produced mothers such as that would never lack for illustrious sons.
In the spring of 1789 on his way to New York, the Federal Capital, where as President-elect he was to take the oath of office, Washington once more, ever mindful of filial duty, stopped at Fredericksburg to see his mother. He came to explain to her that again his country demanded his services but that he would soon return. With prophetic vision she interrupted: "You will never see my face again; my great age warns me that I shall not be long for this world. But go, George, fulfil the high duties which Heaven appears to assign you, and may Heaven's and a mother's blessings attend you." Washington hid his face on her shoulder and wept. Her prophecy was all too true. In a place of her own choosing near a ledge of rocks where she was wont to go for prayer, her body rests- -a spot made sacred to American liberty by a mother's prayers for her son as he bore the nation's burdens.
Washington is said by some critics to have been stern, cold and unresponsive. Perhaps in a measure the charge is true so far as outward manifestation is concerned. But we must remember that this was a transition period from the artificial dignity and pomp surrounding power as manifested in office, and that growing desire to break from all such artificiality and to reduce all to the level of absolute equality in form and effect. Neither extreme is safe nor can long exist. One of the greatest secrets of Washington's power lies in this very element. But that underneath a stern exterior there beat a brother's heart let no one doubt. If doubt there be, read again the story of Valley Forge. During that awful winter Washington's headquarters were at the home of a Quaker minister. One day, 'tis said, this good old Quaker, while wandering in the woods, accidentally came upon the person of Washington absorbed in audible prayer. The minister is reported to have remarked after this experience that he never from that moment doubted for an instant the outcome of the struggle for such prayers must needs be answered.
Of the words he uttered there ?
The fate of nations then was turned
By the fervor of that prayer."
Perhaps the scene which tells most of his inner heart life is that enacted at Fraunces' Tavern in New York City December 4, 1783. The occasion was the gathering of the principal officers of the war to take final leave of their commander. "As Washington entered the room and stood before them for the last time he could not conceal his emotions. Filling a glass he raised it and said: 'With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you; and most devoutly do I wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.' And then, his voice trembling with emotion, he added, 'I cannot come to each of you, to take my leave; but shall be obliged to you if you will come and take my hand.' Gen. Knox stood nearest him. Washington grasped his proflered hand, and, incapable of utterance, drew him to his bosom with a tender embrace. Each officer in turn received the same silent, affectionate farewell. Every eye was filled with tears, every heart throbbed with emotion, but no tongue interrupted the tenderness of the scene. To those who had known him only as a stern commander, it was like Joseph's making himself known to his brethren; but to those who had met him as a brother in the lodge room it was but the renewal of the mystic grasp, and the well known silent embrace they had known before."
Turned once and gazed, and then was gone--
It was his tenderest and his last."
Another virtue taught by Masonry is that of benevolence. To what extent this was exemplified in Washington's career let the following excerpt from a letter by him at the beginning of the war give testimony. This letter was written to the one in charge of his estate at Mt. Vernon and at a time when the demoralized condition of his army might well have demanded his whole time and thought. "Let," he said, "the hospitality of the house be kept with regard to the poor. Let no one go away hungry. If any of this kind of people should be in want of corn, supply their necessity, providing it does not encourage them in idleness. I have no objection to your giving my money in charity when you think it will be well disposed. I mean that it is my desire that it should be so." This together with the fact that for all his sacrificing service during the war he would accept nothing but his expenses puts to shame the graft and greed of public life today.
His eight years of the presidency having passed, how eagerly he sought the quietude of Mt. Vernon and the happy private companionship of his wife. In a letter he expressed it thus: "To the wearied traveler who sees a resting place and is bending his body to lean thereon I now compare myself." But political enemies forgetful of his services and sacrifices were seeking to malign him. To his everlasting credit and greatly to his comfort he was able to say that "conscious rectitude and the approving voice of his country" removed the sting of criticism.
Less than three years were allotted to Washington's life in private. His fatal illness began on the evening of December 12, 1799. The physician gave no hope. " 'Tis well," said Washington, "I am not afraid to die." At the foot of the bed, her face buried in the curtains, the faithful wife prayed in silence that the end might be a peaceful one. Her prayer was answered. "It is well, all is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through." Thus went out the life of Washington.
Appeared before the Great White Throne
As pure and spotless, we believe
As the leathern apron he'd received
So many years before.
With full Masonic ceremonials, together with the burial service of the Episcopal church conducted by his pastor and Masonic brother, his body was laid to rest in a tomb near which it now reposes. The Bible on which he had taken the oath of office as president was brought from the lodge room in New York and played a conspicuous part in the ceremonies of the day. Washington's war horse, riderless that day but carrying saddle, holsters and pistols, took its place in the procession.
What wondrous changes in these more than a hundred years since that far off funeral day. From a struggling nation among the humblest in history to a world power whose influence is second to none is the record of our rise. But in this very thing lies lurking our greatest peril. That the virtues of Washington and the ideals for which he and his compatriots fought may be preserved unsullied, let us here and now as citizens and as Masons rededicate ourselves to the service of God and humanity and thus in the truest nse do honor to his memory.
Lord of our far flung battle line--
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget--lest we forget."
-Source: The Builder - February 1916