Ben Franklin: The Freemason
One of the key founders of the Unites States of America was Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). His role in science was profound, and he was among the most influential members in creating the most important documents in our nation’s founding. For this reason, there are endless records, biographies, and autobiographies discussing his great achievements. Even so, there is much about this man that is not well known, and this study explores his celebrated role in America’s founding as well as the less-talked-about elements of his life.
Franklin was a member of the fraternal organization of the Freemasons, and in 1731, he was inducted into the Masonic lodge of St. John in Philadelphia1. The following year, Franklin helped to create the bylaws of his lodge, and by 1734, he had risen to the highest rank of a Grand Master. Regarding Franklin’s role as a Freemason, there is evidence to suggest the possibility that, although he was a Grand Master, he had other motivations to become a member. It seems that Franklin used Freemasonry to his advantage in order to become the significant member of society that he was. Although Freemasonry was a vehicle for his success, his integrity remained intact as he profoundly influenced society and was a loyal Mason. He was a complex man: he held simple values and sincere morals and was simultaneously an opportunist. It is important to examine the many accomplishments and actions in Franklin’s life in order to reveal an honest and unbiased portrayal of this key historical figure.
A background of Franklin’s life in terms of his childhood, religious and spiritual beliefs, hobbies, and work is essential in understanding the man he became. Franklin’s early life sets the stage for the prominent character into which he would develop. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the largest cities in colonial America, to Josiah Franklin and Josiah’s second wife, Abiah Folger. He was the fifteenth of the seventeen Franklin children, and the youngest boy. Raised as a Christian, he also attended Boston Latin School for a short time before dropping out to work as an apprentice printer to his brother, James, who created the first independent newspaper in all of the colonies.2 To his disappointment, he was not permitted to write for the paper; however, illustrating his desire to write and be published, he created an alias and sent in articles which were printed. When his brother discovered the deception, Franklin fled from Boston and from his apprenticeship. Arriving in Pennsylvania, Franklin began a new life.
Unhappy with the current newspapers in Philadelphia, he was advised by the city’s mayor to go to London in 1723. Franklin spent three years in London working as a printer before returning to the colonies to work as a bookkeeper, clerk, and shopkeeper, gaining knowledge all the while. He made it his mission to acquire knowledge and expertise, and this is what brought him his fame: Franklin’s “thirst for knowledge had made him the best self-taught writer and scientist of his times” (Isaacson 146). At age 24, Franklin joined the Pennsylvania Gazette, reinforcing his passion for publishing and adding local commentary to the paper.
His interest in learning a wide range of disciplines is displayed in his founding of ‘the Junto.’ This was a club which he created, making it clear that even in his pre-Masonic phase he was interested in group meetings to discuss ways to better the society in which he lived. In his autobiography, Franklin writes about this club:
“In the Autumn of the preceding Year I had form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintance into a Club for mutual Improvement which we call’d the Junto. We met on Friday evenings. The Rules I drew up requir’d that every Member in his Turn should produce one or more Queries on any Point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the Company” (Franklin 48)
This group was dedicated to learning, with an important goal of ‘mutual improvement,’ and it represented both Franklin’s early intellectual curiosity along with his willingness to lead and to create. These same passions would soon guide him to the secret order of the Freemasons, and along its path to the position of Grand Master.
Franklin’s tendencies as a pioneer and lobbyist for societal betterment were exhibited in his political maneuvers, and recognized by other influential Freemasons at the time including Paul Revere, John Hancock, John Paul Jones, and even George Washington. Franklin’s reputation, aside from his Masonic ties, was gained from the great intelligence that he displayed throughout his life, especially in his positions of political power. Politics was something that intrigued Franklin all his life, and that which he was quite involved with, chiefly in his later years. Franklin felt it was his responsibility as an American to represent the blossoming nation. During the founding of America, he was one of the older members of the Continental Congress. Being born in 1706, by the time the Declaration of Independence was presented, he was already seventy years old. His age, dedication, and intelligence all were important factors in the respect that the other members gave him. The respect gained by Franklin from the other leading founding fathers is evident in his signing of numerous significant documents that serve as the basic foundations of the nation, and still symbolize its goals and purposes to this day. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution, among other important documents. Franklin’s interest in the success of the young nation is apparent in his hard work drafting the Albany Plan of Union, an attempt at creating a code of laws to govern the people of America3. He writes of his own work, “I projected and drew up a Plan of Union for all the Colonies, under one government so far as might be necessary for Defense, and other important general purposes” (Franklin 108). Though it was a close decision, it was not made the official plan for the colonies. In response to the Congress’ decision, Franklin reflects,
I am still of Opinion that it would have been happy for both Sides of the Water if it had been adopted. The Colonies so United would have been strong to have defended themselves; there would then have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretense for Taxing America, and the bloody contest it Occasioned, would have been avoided” (109).
It is clear that Franklin desired nothing less than the best of his nation in terms of achieving peace and unity, illustrating one of the simple, yet fundamental concepts of Freemasonry that Franklin honored in his everyday life.
Franklin’s personal spiritual life was satiated with various and often changing opinions and beliefs. Franklin is known to have been a Deist; however, it was not always that way. He was born and baptized a Presbyterian. He was not raised as strictly orthodox like his parents because they could not afford a religious education for young Franklin. As a young man, he began practicing and considering diverse religious beliefs and new ideologies. He created a list of his own virtues at age twenty five: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility4. At some point, he and his wife Deborah switched their allegiance from the Presbyterian Church to the Anglican (Aldridge 158). Aldridge adds that Franklin became an Atheist, but his Atheism didn’t last as he “shifted to a fanciful faith in a plurality of Gods” with one “Supreme, most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves;” These are Franklin’s own words (25). Soon, however, Franklin became a thorough Deist, which he would, for the most part, be forever associated with. About Deism, Franklin writes,
“We should love and revere the Deity for his goodness, and thank him for his benefits; we should adore him for his wisdom, fear him for his power, and pray to him for his favor and protection. And this religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our own minds and render us benevolent, useful, and beneficial to others.” (Fay 163)
His religion was a belief in some supreme being, but more importantly, it was a belief that being benevolent and beneficial to others is what each person should strive for. In a letter to his parents, Franklin writes:
“I think vital religion has always suffer’d, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue; And the Scripture assures me, that at the last Day, we shall not be examin’d what we thought, but what we did; and our Recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord, But that we did GOOD to our Fellow Creatures.” (Franklin 173)
Ultimately, he envisioned religion to be a universal vision generally involving the virtue of being a good person, as opposed to a set of rules with a group of adherents.
Another aspect of Franklin’s life which indicates his ideal of societal progress is his impact on science. He is well known as an inventor, and he has an impressive list of creations that are still in use today. He created, among other things, the lightning rod, the glass armonica5, bifocal glasses6, a flexible catheter, and the Franklin stove. His renowned work with kites and electricity that lead to the invention of the lightning rod, also earned him the Copley Medal from the Royal Society. In 1743, Franklin created yet another society, this time scientific-based called the American Philosophical Society, the purpose of which was (and still is today) to help scientists discuss their experiments and discoveries. About the society, Franklin writes, “The One Society be formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the several Colonies, to be called The American Philosophical Society, who are to maintain a constant Correspondence” (Franklin 174). This is yet another example of Franklin’s many areas of specialty and of his interest in leading and being a part of various societies of elevated intellect.
One of the most notable and relevant of Franklin’s pursuits, which is inherently related to Freemasonry, involves published writing. From his early years as an apprentice to his brother, Franklin was always an enthusiast of journalism, publishing, and printing. He understood, from an early age, the power of public opinion, and in turn, the power that publishing provided him. According to Bernard Fay, Franklin used his newspaper primarily to comment on local events and to praise specific people and groups in order to better the society (Fay 171). He thoroughly enjoyed his jobs as a printer, and he was extremely successful. Before Franklin joined the Masons, however, “his news was no fresher than that of his rivals,” but “being a Mason himself allowed him to secure fresher news” (Fay 154). He was able to use his Masonic role to perpetuate his publishing career.
Addressing the complexities of Ben Franklin’s Masonic role is a complex task. It is undisputed that Franklin became a member in 1731, and remained a brother until his death almost sixty years later, in 1790 at age 84. He was the Grand Master of his lodge in Pennsylvania and held the highest position in his state. This was roughly ten years after American Freemasonry began. (Lopez 149). As a Philadelphia publisher and Freemason, Franklin published Anderson’s Book of Constitutions, “the authoritative Masonic document,” according to Greg Taylor, as well as numerous other publications in support of his beloved brotherhood (61). This was the first Freemasonic book to be published in America, and it was also called the “Bible for English Freemasonry.”7 In his autobiography and other writings about himself, however, Franklin hardly mentions Freemasonry at all. There is sufficient evidence, however, of his involvement with the Freemasons within his newspapers and from secondary sources.
In 1776 he was dispatched to Paris, serving as America’s diplomat to France. Here, not only did he join a Masonic Lodge, but became the Grand Master of the “highly influential ‘Neuf Soeurs’ (‘Nine Sisters’) lodge” in Paris in 1778 (Taylor 61). This Lodge of Nine Sisters was a radical freethinkers’ lodge which challenged the orthodox church as well as France’s monarchy, and was a spark for the French Revolution (Shugarts 74). As a member, Franklin, in 1778, initiated the famous philosopher Voltaire shortly before the latter’s death.8 In France, he continued to pursue his intellectual curiosity in this secret society setting, which “not only provided [him] with the cocoon of affection he needed so badly, but also strengthened the spiritual and intellectual ties between his nation and its ally” (Lopez 156-157). This alliance would prove fruitful. While in Paris, Franklin used his Masonic contacts to receive the funds necessary to purchase arms for the American rebels.9 This task was not completed without “flagrantly violating Masonic regulations.” Franklin was never questioned by authorities while he used his position to promote the cause of the American Revolution and acquired financial aid for the colonies.10
Aside from these acknowledged facts regarding his Masonic involvement, there is another perplexing aspect of Franklin’s history with the secret brotherhood. Regardless of what he may have believed at the time, Franklin published anti-Masonic writings in his newspaper. Not only did he show disrespect for the secret beliefs of the Masons by making unsubstantiated remarks in contradiction with their beliefs, but he also used his power as a publisher and printer to become a member of the society that he had just recently criticized. Fay points out that, “sometimes force is necessary. There are some friendships which must be taken by assault. Such was the case of Freemasonry for Franklin” (Fay 145). At first, the Masons of the Philadelphia Lodge of St. John did not think much of him, and Franklin saw that his chances of membership were slim. In addition, according to Fay, Franklin’s club, the Junto, made up of artisans and thinkers, was somewhat of a rival to the brotherhood of the Masons.
The members of St. John’s Lodge knew the importance of public opinion. If newspapers were to stir up public opinion against Freemasonry, they stood at a high risk of being abolished. In any given situation, the public could become furious and work to end Freemasonry, or the government could step in and eliminate the Lodge (146). Franklin, with his publishing power, made the Masons realize that he could use The Gazette either to help them or to destroy them. At first, he had tried one route; he had first written several accounts of the Freemasons in “an amiable tone,” but on December 8th, 1730, Franklin made a point to show that is was time that they chose to be a friend or an enemy (146):
“Their Great Secret is THAT THEY HAVE NO SECRET AT ALL; and when once a man is entered he is himself obliged, se defendendo, to carry on the Jest with as solemn a Face as the rest. We shall not use many Words to persuade the Publick that the following Piece is genuine; it carries all the Marks of Truth in itself.” (146)
This was in fact untrue, despite the fact that he assures the readers of his paper multiple times that it is true. Just this small portion of his article illustrates his purpose. The capitals letters clearly emphasize his point. The Masons want nothing less than for others to think that all they believe in is a simple ‘Jest’ or hoax. This article merely shows the power that Franklin held in his position: a power that the Masons plainly comprehended, and which was substantiated when less than a month later, he was invited to join them.
There are a few ways one can look upon this obvious exploitation of power. It is possible that perhaps Franklin realized that he needed social recognition in order to better society himself, and that this was his only way to achieve this goal. It is also possible that he disagreed with the fact that only the upper class members of society could become Masons. Even for one of these reasons, though, it still seems as if his motivation for becoming a Mason was problematic. Franklin did become the significant and influential member of the society that he desired to be, yet the discrepancy between his opportunistic nature and presumed integrity begs to be questioned.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that essentially displays a selfish compulsion behind Franklin’s actions. Arguably, the reason that perpetuated Franklin’s actions the most was greed: being a member might have given him a superior reputation and helped him with his business:
“Franklin wanted to belong to this circle of serious, rich, influential men, who could aid him so much in his career. In London he had seen how rapidly Masonry made its way among the important men, among the intellectuals and the most intelligent of the upper middle class. It spread over the United States with the same success…Franklin realized what power was represented by such international affiliation and how important they could be for a journalist and printer.” (Fay 146)
Franklin clearly capitalized on opportunities. The honor of becoming a Freemason in Franklin’s day opened doors to a new position in society, and lead to a more prominent place. Not only did this allow him to sell more copies of the Pennsylvania Gazette, but it also helped him become a well-known politician, and ultimately gave him a new sense of respect in the community. The Freemasons, for Franklin, “represented another step up in the social ladder; many of the town’s top merchants and lawyers were Freemasons. Social mobility was not very common in the eighteenth century. But Franklin proudly made it his mission” (Isaacson 106). Fay describes Franklin’s opportunism thus: “He was interested in every form of success….He wanted to be a Mason and he needed to be one” (Fay 190, 145). But how self-interested was Franklin?
It is true that as his position in the Masons was promoted, the prestige that he received, in turn, grew, along with the prestige of the order itself. However, it is also possible to see his actions in a different light. Shugarts agrees that his decision was “part of an urge to make respectable social connections,” but he also explains an important point that should be noted: In Franklin’s day and age, it was “fairly appropriate,” according to Shugarts, for a young man such as Ben Franklin to act in such a way for the purpose of social mobility (73). As times changed, the thought that his manipulation seemed to be exceedingly unreasonable may not be valid, and it is plausible that this kind of behavior was considered normal and quite acceptable in 1730.
There is, perhaps, an additional interpretation regarding Franklin’s actions. Franklin thoroughly understood the principles of Freemasonry. He was knowledgeable enough to know not only that what he claimed was tenuous, but also that the main principles of the brotherhood meshed well with his own beliefs at the time. He was twenty five years old, and although his set of beliefs was changing rapidly, he was at a stage of his life (1730) during which Deism was central to his spirituality. “He knew also that all his ideas on religion, and politics and the future of humanity corresponded with those of Masonry” (Fay 146). He may have used his publishing power to become a member, but he was still a perfect Mason. All of his ideals relating to the human race, his belief in a ‘supreme being’, his own religious tolerance, his yearning for power and status, and his love for sharing intellectual curiosity with other like-minded people, especially in a group or ‘club’ setting, provided the ideal match for young Franklin and for the Masonic brotherhood.
This final interpretation of Franklin’s crafty path to becoming a Mason is perhaps the most compelling, proven by his apparent and extensive dedication to the secret organization. Not only did he hastily rise to the rank of Grand Master of his Lodge, become the presiding Freemason in Pennsylvania, and help to spread Freemasonry in Europe, but he also did this dutifully until the day he died almost sixty years after he was originally initiated. He was to the end loyal to the Masonic ideals and the organization, and he even worked to improve the public image of the society:
“From the first and always he was a faithful Mason…He set himself to the task of beating down the numerous serious prejudices which the public held against the Masons. In the same newspaper in which he had published his impertinent report against them…he inserted discreet but flattering notes on Masonic activities and ceremonies at home and abroad.” (Fay 145-146)
It seems that even if Franklin over-exercised power to achieve his goals, his usurping of the interests of others was not significant, and the positive outcomes of his career outweighed his professional deviations. He had very basic reasons to respect and keep faith in the society of the Freemasons, and he explained his trust in them to his skeptical mother in a letter: “I assured her that they are in general a very harmless sort of people, and have no principles or practices that are inconsistent with religion and good manners” (Franklin 173). He respected his Brothers for their peaceful ways and for their principles of which, he promises his mother, are not principles to disapprove of. Franklin not only respected the Masons, but became an important member, nearly extinguishing the belief that an overtly selfish motivation existed. However, Bernard Fay elaborates on his point that Franklin flattered Freemasonry in his newspaper with the valid point, “It was thus that he pushed himself forward” (Fay 146). It is also very possible that his use of the newspaper to portray the Freemasons in a positive light was another endeavor to improve the public’s perception of the brotherhood, and in turn, improve the public’s perception of Franklin. None of this self-interested action, however, results in any negative consequences, and although his motives may have been questionable, he proved time and time again to be among the most influential men in Freemasonry and the nation’s history.
There are numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the Freemasons and specifically some convoluted speculation about conspiracies involved with the founding of America. Some theories hypothesize that the Masonic goal is political dominance or the creation of an isolated Utopia. How much did Franklin use his membership in the society to influence the fledgling nation upon its founding? Franklin’s public role in the nation’s founding is well-known; however, he may have had a secret agenda. There is no way to know for sure, and one can only speculate.
Franklin favored remaining connected with Europe, so it is clear that he did not support the theory of America acting as a new Utopia. Shugarts adds his opinion,
“Benjamin Franklin was a signer [of the Declaration of Independence], a Freemason, a wily fellow, and a man of huge importance, but none of his pursuits smacked of a conspiracy to run the new country. So it doesn’t make sense to say that the Freemasons took over the United States from the start.” (Shugarts 82).
But still other theorists, like Manly Hall, claim that Franklin was part of the ‘Order of the Quest’ whose goal was to construct a Utopian democracy in the New World (Taylor 61). There is no clear evidence supporting that Franklin had a secret Masonic agenda relating to the founding of the nation. It seems that Franklin was a simple man, with simple goals, and who desired success. As Fay put it, “Franklin took account of all that could help him to success, but he was, above all, a printer” and this remained true throughout the 1780’s and his life. (Fay 150).
Franklin was a pioneer who wanted, more than anything, to create a more perfect society. Continual progress was extremely important to him, proven time and time again throughout his long life. He was still hard at work in his eighties when he died. It is possible, presumably, that he desired America to be a Utopia, but it was hardly his ‘secret mission’ as a Freemason. Instead, Franklin saw so many things in our society that needed change, and assumed the duty of making his community a better one: “In Philadelphia there was no police, no firemen, no lightning, no paving, no sanitary service or energetic administration. Franklin took upon himself the burden of setting forth these useful ideas” (Fay 171). Whether for a secret purpose or not, Franklin played a major role in the founding of America partly because of his high status and political power, but more significantly because of his desire to create a humane and intellectual civilization.
In a sense, Franklin might be argued to embody the definition of an influential figure. Franklin was a complex man, but with simple goals. He wanted success, but more importantly, it seems he wanted success because he knew that with success, he could accomplish more. And there was so much that he wanted to accomplish. He had faith in science and faith in a supreme being. He believed in the future of humanity and in progress. As a result, he became an important member of society and an influential founding father and scientist. His extraordinary qualities as a person, his boundless intellectual curiosity, his desire to create a better society, and his genuine morals of doing good and helping others, are what have and will continue to inspire thinkers and authors of nonfiction and fiction alike around the world. It is for this reason that it would not be a surprise to see Franklin’s name appear in the lines of The Solomon Key, whether he is presented at the heart of a Masonic conspiracy or not.
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