Freemasonry and U.S. Presidents

"The Initiated Eye" Extended Until February 26, 2011

02 Have you visited the Museum’s exhibition, "The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry, and the Architecture of Washington, D.C."? Worried that you’ll miss it? Well, fear not – we are extending it for one more month. "The Initiated Eye" will now be open until Saturday, February 26, 2011. We hope you will make plans to see it before it disappears!

"The Initiated Eye" presents 21 paintings by artist Peter Waddell, based on the architecture of Washington, D.C., and the role that our founding fathers and prominent citizens (many of whom were Freemasons) played in establishing the city. The depictions of historical events, activities, and ceremonies carefully explain and demystify Freemasonry for the public. In addition to the paintings, approximately 40 objects from the National Heritage Museum collection enrich the exhibition.  The Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. We are located at 33 Marrett Road (Route 2A) in Lexington, Massachusetts. Please visit our website for more information.

This painting, The Age of Reason Made Manifest, shows the working plan for the city of Washington, D.C., laid out on a desk at Monticello. The creative dialogue between Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), George Washington (1732-1799), and Pierre L’Enfant (1754-1825) resulted in a classically-inspired vision and plan for Washington, D.C. Although the vast majority of the design was realized, a few key landmarks seen here were not built. The Supreme Court building was to have taken the form of a Roman temple at the site of Judiciary Square; the Washington Monument would have been an equestrian statue of George Washington; a rostral column would lie south of it; and a cascade flowing from a pyramid would grace the base of Capitol Hill. 

The paintings in the exhibition were commissioned by, and are the property of, the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C., with all rights reserved. This exhibition is supported by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A.

The Age of Reason Made Manifest, 2005, Peter Waddell, Washington, D.C., Courtesy of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C.  Photograph by Carol Highsmith.

New to the Collection: An Apron with a Story

2009_080T1 Recently, the Grand Lodge of AF & AM of Illinois generously donated a Masonic apron to the National Heritage Museum.  Regular readers of our blog will know that the Museum is fortunate to have a top-notch apron collection – and that we are always looking to add aprons with interesting stories.  This one does not disappoint!

Although this apron is in only fair condition, it came with a typewritten note that explained, “Apron taken from casket [of President Grover Cleveland] by Mrs. Emily Hurlburt, a first cousin, of Hammond, Ind.  Mrs. Hurlburt gave apron to her son, Mr. Chas. W. Hurlburt.  Mr. Hurlburt died recently and his son, Mr. Wm. Hurlburt not being a member of the craft, wished some one interested to have it, and gave it to Jack Mundinger.”  While it is not unusual for us to receive objects with notes like this, it was exciting to get an apron associated with a U.S. president.  And, we are always wishing we had more history about the objects in our collection – who owned them and when, for example – so this note just added to the interest.

At the same time, even though we love this kind of note attached to an object, we have cultivated a strong sense of skepticism every time we read one – presidential association or not!  So, I did some research and turned up a number of facts that seem to contradict the information in the note.  First of all, Grover Cleveland was not a Freemason, although he seems to have been “sympathetically disposed to the Craft” according to numerous websites.  This assessment seems to stem, in part, from a remark Cleveland made at a banquet following the dedication by the Grand Lodge of Virginia of the monument erected to Washington’s mother, Mary.  Cleveland stated that he “regarded it as his misfortune that he had never been made a Mason.”  There was talk at one time in the Grand Lodge of New Jersey of making him a Mason “at sight,” but it never happened.  So, the odds that Cleveland ever wore or owned this apron seem pretty slim.

So, then I tried to investigate the family connection that is outlined in the note.  Another dead end because, as far as I can tell, Cleveland did not have any first cousins named Emily.  And, then, I found an account of Cleveland’s funeral in the New York Times from June 26, 1908, where it notes that the only relatives expected at the funeral were Cleveland’s sister, Rose, and his nephew, Cleveland F. Bacon.  I suppose that this cousin, Emily Hurlburt, could have taken the apron from the casket at some kind of private family viewing, but it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t have attended the funeral as well.  That leaves aside the question of why Cleveland would have had a Masonic apron in his casket to begin with, since he was never a Mason.83_46_1S1

The apron itself probably dates to the 1825 to 1850 period and is printed with a design that seems to resemble one on an apron by Lewis Roberson and Oliver T. Eddy of Vermont (at right), already in the Museum's collection.  If you compare the two, you will notice a number of similar motifs and a similar layout.

Despite the contradictions in the accompanying note and the very slim possibility that this apron ever belonged to President Cleveland, we are pleased to add the apron to our collection.  It represents yet another early 1800s apron design, which will allow us to compare and contrast many other aprons in our collection.  Although the apron's story of presidential associations is probably not true, it still tells a tale that captures our interest!

Top: Masonic apron, 1825-1850, American, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of the Grand Lodge of AF & AM of Illinois, 2009.080.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Bottom: Masonic apron, 1814-1822, Lewis Roberson and Oliver T. Eddy, Wethersfield, Vermont, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Paul D. Fisher, 83.46.1.  Photograph by John M. Miller.


How Many Presidents were Freemasons?

79_34_1T1 It never ceases to amaze me how much inaccurate information is out there concerning Freemasonry. One of the most common questions circles around how many U.S. presidents were Freemasons – and from there, many people wonder about how many Freemasons signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The answers to these questions range from well-established – how many U.S. presidents were Freemasons – to less clear-cut – how many signers of the Constitution were Freemasons. When searching the internet for more information about this topic, be warned!  There are many websites with inaccurate information. So, allow me to offer an accurate, clear answer.

Fourteen U.S. presidents have been Freemasons, meaning that there is conclusive evidence that these men received the Master Mason degree: George Washington; James Monroe; Andrew Jackson; James Polk; James Buchanan; Andrew Johnson; James Garfield; William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt; William Taft; Warren Harding; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Harry S. Truman; and Gerald Ford.

Nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons during their lifetime, though not necessarily in 1776: William Ellery; Benjamin Franklin; John Hancock; Joseph Hewes; William Hooper; Robert Treat Paine; Richard Stockton; George Walton; and William Whipple. 77_75_6DI1

Things get a little less clear when it comes to the Constitution. It seems that at least nine of the signers can be conclusively documented as Freemasons: Gunning Bedford Jr.; John Blair; David Brearly; Jacob Broom; Daniel Carrol; John Dickinson; Benjamin Franklin; Rufus King; and George Washington. Some sources suggest that an additional four men were Masons, while other sources make the total number even higher. Additional research – and debate – is welcome. It is also important to be clear about how you are defining a Freemason: Is it men who have received the Master Mason degree? Or is it any man who took the Entered Apprentice degree? Do “Masonic signers” have to be Freemasons when they signed the document, or at some point in their life? Let me know what you think in a comment below!

For more information about Freemasonry, please visit the National Heritage Museum website. Also, you may want to check out an excellent Masonic website that is the brainchild of Paul Bessel:  It includes much useful information about American Freemasonry.

Top: Presidents of the United States, ca. 1861, A. Feusier, lithographer, and F. Bouclet, publisher, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, collection of the National Heritage Museum, Special Acquisitions Fund, 79.34.1.  Photograph by David Bohl. 

Bottom: The Declaration of Independence, 1840-1880, John Francis Eugene Prud’homme (1800-1892), New York or Washington, D.C., collection of the National Heritage Museum, gift of J. Robert Merrill, 77.75.6.

All the Way with LBJ!

2009_071DP1 In a previous post, we showed a few of the political textiles in the National Heritage Museum collection.  Recently, we were given an object associated with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s (1908-1973) 1964 campaign – a red plastic Stetson-style cowboy hat.

The silver label on the front shows a steer’s head and the initials LBJ.  The donor and her siblings wore this hat during childhood play, but it probably dates to the 1964 Democratic convention.  During the election that year, Johnson ran against Republican Barry Goldwater (1909-1998).  Johnson’s campaign images focused on his identity as a Texan; he was often photographed wearing a hat like this one.

After the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) in November 1963, Johnson vowed to continue to pursue the slain president’s goals, particularly working on civil rights initiatives.  Johnson gained popularity during the remainder of Kennedy’s term and it was clear early on that he would be victorious in 1964.  The only question was how large the landslide would be.  Indeed, election night 1964 found Johnson the winner, with 61% of the vote and the widest popular margin in history – more than 15 million votes.

Incidentally, Johnson did receive the first Masonic degree, Entered Apprentice, in 1937 at Johnson City Lodge No. 561, Johnson City, Texas.  But he did not receive the second and third degrees, so is not included on the list of U.S. Presidents who were Freemasons.

LBJ Cowboy Hat, ca. 1964, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Susan Ward, 2009.071.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Roger A. Fischer, Tippecanoe and Trinkets Too: The Material Culture of American Presidential Campaigns, 1828-1984, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., ed., Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images, volume 2, 1900-1992, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Jordan M. Wright, Campaigning for President, New York: Smithsonian Books, 2008.

New to the Collection: Mourning McKinley

2008_021_5DP1 Commemorative glass and ceramic platters, mugs and pitchers were popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s – particularly those bearing the likeness of one of our presidents.  But, this glass platter, which was donated to the National Heritage Museum in 2008, the gift of Robert and Edith Zucker, seemed somewhat eerie to me given its inscription, “It is God’s way / His will be done.”

A quick search of the life dates on the platter, “Born 1843 / Died 1901,” confirmed that the man depicted is William McKinley, 25th president of the United States.  McKinley was assassinated while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  So, I initially attributed the rather severe verse to vestiges of somber Puritanism or to Victorian mourning ideals.

However, additional research turned up a far more pertinent explanation for the words on this commemorative platter.  According to the New York Times on September 14, 1901, McKinley’s last words as he died that day were “Good bye.  All good bye.  It is God’s way.  His will be done, not ours.”

Born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, McKinley became a teacher until the Civil War broke out.  He enlisted in the Union Army, eventually achieving the rank of brevet major.  After the war, he became a lawyer in Canton, Ohio.  He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives and held two terms as governor of Ohio.  In 1896, McKinley was elected president of the United States, and was elected to a second term in 1900.  Unfortunately, his life was cut short on September 6, 1901.  On that day, despite the presence of Secret Service agents, anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz shot McKinley while he was shaking hands at a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition.  Despite quick medical attention, gangrene set in around McKinley’s wounds and he died on September 14, 1901.

In addition to his distinguished political career, William McKinley was a Freemason.  He received the first three degrees from Hiram Lodge No. 21 in Winchester, Virginia, during his Civil War service.  After the war, McKinley affiliated with Canton Lodge No. 90, Canton, Ohio, later becoming a charter member of Eagle Lodge No. 431 in Canton, Ohio.  He was also active in Royal Arch Masonry and the Knights Templar.

President William McKinley Commemorative Platter, ca. 1901, collection of the National Heritage Museum, gift of Robert and Edith Zucker, 2008.021.5.  Photograph by David Bohl.

A White House Foundation Stone

Init Eye White House At the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) became aware that the White House needed extensive repairs.  Plaster was cracked, floors were sagging and repeated coats of white paint had covered the decorative carving on the exterior.  Upon further examination, the conditions were discovered to be even worse than anticipated.  A refurbishment project for the White House was undertaken over several years: the interior was completely removed and the exterior walls were supported with stronger foundations.  A steel frame was built within the shell.

During an inspection of the construction, President Truman noticed carvings on some of the stones in the original White House walls.  These marks were “signatures” left by the eighteenth-century stonemasons who worked on the original construction.  President Truman, an active Freemason, arranged for many of these stones to be sent to Grand Lodges across the United States.

The stone pictured here was sent to the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts in 1952 along with a letter signed by President Truman.  The president explained that “these evidences of the number of members of the Craft who built the President’s official residence so intimately aligns Freemasonry with the formation and founding of our Government that I believe your Grand Lodge will cherish this link between the Fraternity and the Government of the Nation, of which the White House is a symbol.”GL2004_0146S1 White House Stone

One of the White House foundation stones is on view as part of the National Heritage Museum’s exhibition, "The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry, and the Architecture of Washington, D.C."  The exhibition presents 21 oil paintings by Peter Waddell based on the architecture of Washington, D.C., and the role that our founding fathers and prominent citizens – many of whom were Freemasons – played in establishing the layout and design of the city.  The exhibition is supplemented with approximately forty objects from the National Heritage Museum’s collection. 

"The Initiated Eye" will be on view through January 9, 2011.  The paintings in the exhibition are the work of Peter Waddell, and were commissioned by, and are the property of, the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C., with all rights reserved.  This exhibition is supported by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A.

Left: Within These Walls, 2005, Peter Waddell (b. 1955), Washington, D.C.  Courtesy of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C.  Right: White House Foundation Stone, 1792-1800, American, Collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts at the National Heritage Museum, GL2004.0146.  Photograph by David Bohl.

The Initiated Eye: Freemasonry and the Architecture of Washington, D.C.

Initiated Eye with Compass Have you read the new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, yet?  Maybe you put it on your holiday wish list?  If your answer to either question is yes, then you probably know the basic outline of the story – it takes place in Washington, D.C., and makes reference to a number of prominent D.C. sites, many of which have a connection to Freemasonry. 

The National Heritage Museum’s new exhibition, "The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry, and the Architecture of Washington, D.C.," explores this same topic, bringing a little bit of Washington to Lexington, Massachusetts.

"The Initiated Eye" presents 21 oil paintings by Peter Waddell based on the architecture of Washington, D.C., and the role that our founding fathers and prominent citizens – many of whom were Freemasons – played in establishing the layout and design of the city.  The exhibition is supplemented with approximately forty objects from the National Heritage Museum’s collection.  The paintings and the objects explain and demystify Freemasonry for those who are unfamiliar, while also encouraging Masons and those who have read books like The Lost Symbol to look closer.

The painting shown here depicts a meeting between President George Washington (1732-1799) and surveyors Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820) and Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806).  Congress designated the location of the new capital on January 24, 1791.  Ellicott and Banneker surveyed the ten-mile-square tract of land and produced a base map of the area.  In the painting, a brazier warms the early spring day in the tent filled with surveying instruments and Masonic artifacts.  The terrestrial and celestial globes symbolize the universality of Freemasonry.92_021_1a-fS1 compass

Accompanying this painting in the exhibition is a surveyor’s compass made between 1849 and 1857 by Charles F. Helffricht (1816-1863) of Philadelphia.  All compasses measure horizontal angles with reference to magnetic north.  In addition, surveyor’s compasses have vertical sights to aim at distant objects.

"The Initiated Eye" opens December 19, 2009 and will be on view through January 9, 2011.  The paintings in the exhibition are the work of Peter Waddell, and were commissioned by, and are the property of, the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C., with all rights reserved.  This exhibition is supported by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A.

Left: A Vision Unfolds, 2005, Peter Waddell (b. 1955), Washington, D.C.  Courtesy of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C.  Right: Surveyor’s Compass, 1849-1857, Charles F. Helffricht (1816-1863), Philadelphia, PA, National Heritage Museum, gift of Charles E. Daniels, 92.021.1a-f.  Photograph by David Bohl.

George Washington in Lexington

EL2006_002 Leutze GW CN Painted by lauded German American artist Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), George Washington as a Master Mason portrays America’s first president as if he is presiding over a lodge meeting. 

The Scottish Rite Valley of Detroit purchased the painting in 1927 for display in their newly constructed and impressive Masonic Temple.  Exhibited in Detroit for decades, George Washington now watches over the National Heritage Museum’s auditorium.  A loan from the 32º Masons of the Valley of Detroit brought the painting to Lexington.

Interested in depicting inspirational moments in history, Leutze featured Washington in several compositions.  The best known of these continues to be George Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze first exhibited this now-iconic image to great acclaim in 1851.  Critics considered it a “great modern painting” in its day. 

But why did Leutze choose to paint Washington surrounded by Masonic tools and wearing an apron thought to have been given to him by Marquis de Lafayette?  (For more on the apron once believed the handiwork of Madame Lafayette, visit the Masonic Museum and Library of Pennsylvania.)  As far as we know, Leutze himself was not a Freemason.  New Yorker John Riston paid the princely sum of $10,000 for the large (over ten feet high) painting.  The artist likely created the work to fulfill a specific request from Riston.  Further research may help us understand the reason behind  Riston’s commission.  In the meantime, we hope you will enjoy Leutze’s celebration of one of America’s best-loved heroes in his role as a Mason on your next visit to our auditorium.

George Washington as a Master Mason, 1856.  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1816-1868.  Lent by the 32nd Degree Masons, Valley of Detroit, Michigan, EL2006.002

Making a Mason at Sight: The Case of President-Elect Taft

Taft_portrait With president-elect Barack Obama waiting to be inaugurated in January, it seems like an opportune moment to look at a previous president-elect and the story of his unusual entry into Freemasonry. William Howard Taft (1857-1930), who served one term as president (1909-1913), is one of the fourteen U.S. Presidents who were also Freemasons.

As we've just come to an election whose campaign lasted about twenty months, it's interesting to note that Taft was elected President during a time when campaigns seemed quaintly short - Taft complained that he disliked the campaign of 1908, stating that it was "one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life." Indeed, despite having served as President of the United States, Taft felt that his greatest accomplishment was having served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (he's the only person to have held both offices), a position he was appointed to in 1921 and which he served until his retirement in February 1930, a month before he died.

Freemasonry was a tradition in Taft's family. His father, Alphonso Taft, was a prominent member of Kilwinning Lodge No. 356 in Cincinnati and two of William's brothers had already been raised Masons, in ceremonies that included the participation of their father. But William Howard Taft didn't become a Mason in the traditional way, as his father and brothers did. Instead, he was "made a Mason at sight." But what exactly is making a Mason at sight?

Louis L. Williams (a Masonic historian who was heavily involved with the formation of our library and who is one of the namesakes of our library) writes in his book on the subject, Making a Mason at Sight:

I originally thought that the Grand Master might take the proposed recipient off to the side, or to some private place, and possibly obligate him in one or more degrees, and simply declare him to be a Mason henceforth and thereafter. I was many years a Mason before I learned that under normal procedures the Grand Master would convene an Occasional Lodge, with the requisite number present, and then, by issuing a dispensation for the purpose, proceed to confer all three degrees on the candidate. The Grand Master would waive the petition, balloting, Catechism, and the like, but the degrees themselves were usually conferred in full, including lectures and charges, but usually on the same day, and in proper succession. This is the usual and proper way it is done, although using his unique and unquestionable power, the Grand Master could pretty well proceed as he might see fit.

As Williams points out, the phrase "making a Mason at sight," brings to mind an activity that has a sense of immediacy, rather than something that is planned out, although making a Mason as sight is, generally, a ceremony that is planned out well in advance. (The actual ceremony of making a Mason at sight also has some interesting parallels to contemporary Freemasonry's one-day degree conferrals (a.k.a. Grand Master Classes) which are a hotly debated aspect of Freemasonry today. If you are interested in that topic, there's no shortage of opinion to be found. You can find plenty of arguments made both for and against these classes.) 

Taft became a Mason just a few weeks before his inauguration as President on March 4, 1909. On February 18, 1909, the Grand Master of Ohio, Charles S. Hoskinson, convened an Occasional Lodge at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Cincinnati for the purpose of making the President-elect, William H. Taft, a Mason at sight. Fourteen Grand Masters of other jurisdictions were in attendance, along with many other Masonic dignitaries. Because making a Mason at sight is a relatively rare event (except, perhaps, in Pennsylvania, which Williams refers to as being in a "class by itself" because of the number of Masons that have been made at sight), and because it was being done for a man who was to be sworn in as President of the United States the following month, this was, understandably, a remarkable occasion. The New York Times reported that there were 800 people in attendance, with 2,000 more being turned away. Taft affiliated with Kilwinning Lodge No. 356, the lodge that his father and brothers belonged to.

Yet this event, while widely celebrated, was not without controversy. After Taft was made a Mason at sight, hundreds of letters flooded Masonic magazines, written by Masons who decried the practice of making a Mason at sight. While most Masons appear to have supported Taft's being made a Mason at sight, some Masons were upset. Those who objected appeared to have done so because they believed that the practice went against the whole idea of meeting "on the level" and the tacit agreement that all brothers are equal in the lodge. By singling out a powerful individual to be made a Mason by another arguably powerful individual (the Grand Master), critics contended that this went against the very tenets of the professed equality within the fraternity. Edward M.L. Elhers, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of New York said that while he had great respect for Taft, he censured those involved for the act of making him a Mason at sight, by saying "Princes and paupers stand equal in the eyes of Masonry, and I deprecate the lodge that allows Masonry to fall at the feet of does not matter whether it is President-elect Taft or anyone else, the Cincinnati lodge deserves the severest criticism of all Free Masons."

One might imagine that after becoming a Mason in a ceremony that lasted no more than a couple of hours, and with the duties of being President of the United States, that Taft might not have been an active Freemason. Yet it's interesting to note that on April 22, 1909, just a little over a month after being inaugurated as President, the New York Times reported that President Taft attended a regular session of the Temple Masonic Lodge in Washington, D.C. where he "saw the third degree worked upon several candidates."

Interested in finding out who else has been made a Mason at sight? Check out this list at Paul Bessel's website.

Want to read more about the topic? Take a look at:
Williams, Louis L. Making a Mason at Sight. Bloomington: Illinois Lodge of Research/Masonic Book Club, 1983.
Call number: 32 .W724 1983

Today's illustration of Taft is from:
Wolf, Simon. The Presidents I Have Known From 1860-1918. Washington DC: Press of Byron S. Adams, 1918.
Call number: E 176.1 .W85 1918