First Masonic book published in America
February 17, 2009
Among the many gems in the library's collection is the first Masonic book printed in America. The book is called The Constitutions of the Free-Masons and was printed in June 1734 by Benjamin Franklin.
Why did Franklin print this book? It seems likely that Franklin had perceived that copies of the first edition of the Constitutions (which was published in 1723 in London) were not easily available in the British colonies and, businessman that he was, he decided to print a new edition.
Franklin’s Constitutions was printed when Franklin was only 28 years old, almost exactly at the time that Franklin became Grand Master of Pennsylvania. Interestingly, Franklin did not give himself credit anywhere within the book for being the printer. How do we know then that Franklin printed this item? One way we know is that scholars have attributed this book to Franklin’s press on the evidence of the type used – a sort of typographical forensics. There is also further, secondary evidence, such as the series of advertisements for Franklin’s Constitutions which first appeared in Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette in May 1734, all explicitly stating that the book is “Reprinted by B. Franklin.” It's interesting to note that Franklin called his edition a "reprint" (and didn't give himself credit as the printer anywhere in the book). In fact, if you compare his "reprint" to the 1723 edition, you can see that he tried to mimic the look of the original. (Speaking of mimicking the look of the original, a very well done digital (but not digitized) copy of Franklin's 1734 Constitutions is available here.)
Franklin’s Constitutions is an exceedingly rare book. Three fairly recent bibliographic censuses have been done for this book – in 1971, 1974, and 2003 (see the end of this post) – each of which counted less than twenty existing copies of this book in the world. That being said, there may be more copies of the book in private hands. Our copy was described in the 1971 census by Harold V.B. Voorhis as follows. You will notice that many aspects of marks in this book are noted:
14 – Academy-Borneman Copy
I found this unbound copy in the Academy Bookshop in New York in 1933. It was purchased with a library in Long Island, New York, bound with other items and removed after purchased by the bookshop. It was sold to Brother Borneman of the Committee on Library of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania for $500. After his death it was sold at auction in the Parke-Bernet Galleries to an unknown bidder for $500. It is now rebound. On page 30 is the signature of “Lewis Evans” and on page 86 there is an unidentified word at the bottom. Several pages of the book contain circular water-marks about the size of a silver dollar. The circle is quartered by diagonal lines and in the quarters are the letters “S-P-D-S” starting at the top, reading left to right.
I will briefly address the watermark mentioned above, if only to say that while this is certainly evidence of a very interesting kind (although I’ve not been able to trace which paper maker used this watermark), it does not give evidence of who owned the book, but rather who had a hand, in a way, in making the book.
I'm interested in "marks in books" - those traces of evidence that tell us more about a book's past (for example, who owned a particular book before it came to reside in our library), and so I was excited to find out that, as mentioned above, our copy of Franklin's Constitutions contains the signature of a former owner of the book, Lewis Evans, as well as the date 1741. Lewis Evans was an important early mapmaker, draftsman, and geographer. He was an associate of Franklin's as well - and Franklin published the book that accompanied Evans's famous 1755 A General Map of the Middle British Colonies (another item in our collection, that we'll address in a future post).
A question that I'd like to answer, but haven't yet, is why did Lewis Evans purchase Franklin’s reprint of the Constitutions? I haven't found evidence that Evans was a Freemason. Also, why did Evans obtain this book in 1741, as he presumably did, seven years after the book was published? Franklin most likely printed the Constitutions with the hope that members of various colonial Masonic lodges would buy up the edition. As late as 1750, though, Franklin was still advertising remaindered copies for sale.
Did Evans buy his copy out of curiosity about Freemasonry? Or, because he was a business associate of Franklin, did Evans obtain the book at a reduced cost or possibly even receive it for free, since Franklin was clearly not having an easy time selling out the edition he printed? These are questions I don't have answers for yet. I'm hoping that, with further research, more answers may possibly come to light.
Sources for censuses of Franklin's Constitutions:
Voorhis, Harold V.B. "Benjamin Franklin's Reprint of Anderson's Constitutions of 1723: The First American Masonic Book." Transactions of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, Volume 84 (1971), pp. 69-74.
Miller, C. William. Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia Printing, 1728-1766: A Descriptive Bibliography. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974. Cat. no. 80, pp. 39-40
Walgren, Kent Logan. Freemasonry, Anti-Masonry and IIluminism in the United States, 1734-1850: A Bibliography. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 2003. Vol. 1, cat. no. 1, p. 3.