Vol. XXIX No. 6 — June 1951

Famous American Cornerstones

The Capital City of the United States is every American’s pride; every American “owns” a little of it, feels himself to some extent a part of it.

The connections between the Nation’s Capital and Freemasonry are every Mason’s pride! Every Mason in the Union “owns” a part of the historic associations between his order and the government (and the expressions of government in its great buildings) and feels himself to some extent a part of that history.

In Washington, D.C., are three structures dear to the heart of every man, woman and child who has ever seen, desired or planned to see them - the three which pilgrims always want to first visit — the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument.

All three were begun under Masonic auspices; all three had cornerstones laid by Masonic hands; all three have Masonic associations which are a part of history, and the first of its forty cornerstones, marking the boundaries of the District of Columbia, carved out of Maryland and Virginia, was also Masonically laid.

That Masonry was vital in George Washington’s eyes has been shown in a hundred ways, but perhaps never more than on that occasion which links together Washington, the Mason, and Washington, the President, the laying of the cornerstone of the United States Capitol, September 18, 1793.

This ceremony, so important both historically and Masonically, was conducted by the Grand Lodge of Maryland, which body invited Washington to assist the grand master pro tem. It was reported in the Columbian Mirror and Alexandria Gazette of September 23, 1793, at great length and the description, too long to include here, indicates that for the small and struggling nation and the little town of Washington (as it was then), the most elaborate preparations had been made and a most impressive ceremony conducted. Washington was escorted by Lodge No. 9 of “George Town” and Lodge No. 22 of Virginia, a company of volunteer artillery, a band, the Alexandria Volunteer Artillery and in “the second order of procession” as the contemporary account has it:

The Surveying Department of the city of Washington; Mayor and Corporation of Georgetown; Virginia Artillery; Commissioners of the city of Washington and their Attendants; Stone-cutters and Mechanics; Masons of the first degree; Bible, etc., on grand cushions; deacons, with staffs of office; Masons of the second degree; Stewards, with wands; Masons of the third degree; wardens, with truncheons; Secretaries, with tools of office; past masters, with their regalia; Treasurers, with their jewels; Band of music; Lodge No. 22, Virginia, disposed in their own order; Corn, wine, and oil; Grand Master pro tem Brother George Washington, and Worshipful Master of No. 22, of Virginia; Grand Sword Bearer.

George Washington, attended by the grand master pro tem of the Grand Lodge of Maryland, laid a silver plate, marking the cornerstone, which was engraved as follows:

This southeast cornerstone of the Capitol of the United States of America in the city of Washington, was laid on the 18th day of September 1793, in the thirteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the presidency of George Washington, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial as his military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties, and in the year of Masonry 5793, by the President of the United States, in concert with the Grand Lodge of Maryland, several lodges under its jurisdiction, and Lodge No. 22, from Alexandria, Virginia. Thomas Johnson, David Stuart and Daniel Carroll, Commissioners. Joseph Clark, R.W.G.M. pro tem., and James Hoban and Stephen Hallate, Architects. Colin Williamson, Master Mason.

The second Capitol cornerstone was laid July 4, 1851, at the beginning of the building of the Senate and House of Representative wings. Benjamin B. French, grand master of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, laid the stone with the appropriate ceremonies, in the presence of Grand Master Evans and Grand Secretary Dove of Virginia, and the President of the United States pronounced the stone successfully laid.

Millard Fillmore was President and Daniel Webster, secretary of state. Neither were Masons.

Deposited in the cornerstone was a composition handwritten by Daniel Webster; in it he stated that the stone was laid by the President of the United States and the grand master of Masons. This statement concludes: “If it shall hereafter be the will of God that this structure shall fall from its base, and its foundation be upturned and this deposit brought to the eyes of men, be it then known that on this day the Union of the United States of America stands firm; that their Constitution still exists unimpaired and with all its original usefulness and glory; growing every day stronger in the affections of the great body of the American people and attracting more and more admiration of the world.”

The Capitol’s third cornerstone was laid September 18, 1932, because that was the bicentennial year of Washingtons birth. The ceremonies were very elaborate, done in costume and preceded with a parade in which two thousand Masons and eight thousand citizens besides participated.

Reuben A. Bogley, grand master in the District of Columbia, presided over the ceremonies and spread mortar on the new cornerstone set in the floor of the Capitol just beneath the east steps. The same silver trowel wielded by the first President was used, as were the gavel Washington handled and the Bible on which he took his Masonic obligations.

These cherished relics, owned by three of the oldest lodges in the District of Columbia and Virginia, were brought from the archives of the Masonic Fraternity for the ceremonies. The Bible is owned by the Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 (Virginia), the gavel by Potomac Lodge No. 5 (District of Columbia), and the trowel by Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22.

In the absence of President Hoover, who sent last-minute regrets that he could not attend, the principal address was made by Representative Sol Bloom of New York, associate director of the United States Bicentennial Commission.

The articles deposited in the copper box which was in turn deposited in the third cornerstone included: 1,000-year-old T.V.L. square, bronze mirror, presented by the Tang Dynasty of China. Other items placed in the box consisted of newspapers recording the previous day’s event, copies of the program and general order for parade formation, a history of the District grand lodge together with its 1931 Proceedings, a history of the participation of the grand lodge in the Bicentennial commemoration, minutes of the 1932 convention of the George Washington Masonic Memorial Association, photographs of Grand Masters Bogley and of George R. Gorsuch of Maryland and Grand Secretary Keiper, two nails from the floor of the banquet hall at Mount Vernon, miniature of the George Washington knife, replica of the Washington gavel, a picture of George Washington as President and Mason, a Bible donated by Past Grand Master Gratz E. Dunkum (District of Columbia), a United States flag donated by Grand Commander L. Whiting Estes (District of Columbia) Washington, the Man and Mason, a book by Charles H. Callahan, past grand master of Virginia, and Washington’s Home and Fraternal Life, by Carl H. Claudy. In addition to these, Bicentennial coins, medal, pamphlets and bulletins of Masonic lodges and other papers were placed in the box.

The cornerstone of the White House, national residence of Presidents of the United States was laid Masonically, but for many years no particulars were available as to the ceremony. How or why they were lost is anyone’s guess. There was no Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia at that time and the records — if there were any made by “The Free-Masons of George Town,” who could only have been members of Lodge No. 9 — are missing.

The 31st Congress established a special Commission — to determine plans for the general renovation — indeed, as it has turned out the entire rebuilding of the interior of the White House. This Commission discovered a copy of the City Gazette, a newspaper published in Charleston, South Carolina, dated November 15, 1792. Apparently it is the only copy in existence. It contains a full account of the White House cornerstone laying with a statement that “under the stone was laid a plate of polished brass with the following inscriptions:

This first Stone of the President’s House was laid the 13th day of October 1792, and in the 17th Year of the Independence of the United States of America.

George Washington, President
Thomas Johnson,
Doctor Stewart,
Daniel Carroll, Commissioners
James Hoban, Architect
Colin Williamson, Master-Mason
  Vivat Republica

James Hoban was later to become the first master of the first regularly constituted lodge in Washington — No. 15 of Maryland, now Federal No. 1 of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. The newspaper account states that “The ceremony (of the cornerstone laying) was performed by Brother Casoneva, master of the lodge.” This is a misspelling of the name — Peter Casanave was master of Lodge No. 9 in 1792, according to early Grand Lodge of Maryland records.

The stone has not been located although the Congressional Commission believes its position has been approximately determined by the use of a mine detector. Whether it will come to light in the renovation of the White House now in progress no one knows, although it is understood that as little disturbance as possible is being given the walls and foundation, while the new steel skeleton framework is being installed within them.

The Washington Monument cornerstone was laid July 4, 1848, by the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, Grand Master Benjamin B. French presiding. Delegations were present from the Grand Lodges of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas — a splendid tribute, when the difficulties of transportation of a hundred years ago are considered.

Among the Masonic relics present was the chair used by Brother Washington when master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, of Virginia, and his apron and sash; the ancient records of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4, showing the entrance of Brother Washington into Masonry, and the gavel used at the Capitol cornerstone laying.

The Monument’s site was selected by Washington on the meridian of Washington City, a mile due west of the Capitol, and due south of The White House.

It was at first intended to build it by subscription, and to make it 600 feet high; “the highest structure in the world.” The subscriptions ceased before the Civil War came on, when the obelisk was but 54 feet high, and work was stopped.

In 1882 Congress made an appropriation to finish the Monument, and it then passed into Government possession. It is 55 feet square at the base and 555 feet, 5 inches high.

Its weight is estimated at 81,120 tons. The walls, at the base, are 15 feet thick. An elevator makes frequent trips and a square “spiral” staircase reaches nearly to the top.

Nearly two hundred memorial stones line the inside of the shaft, given by individuals, militia companies, fire companies, states, cities and towns, labor unions, benevolent societies, various fraternal organizations, schools and colleges, a political party, Sunday schools and churches, Native Americans, various foreign countries, newspapers, Masons, lodges and grand lodges.

Fourteen grand lodges contributed memorial stones, many of them artistically carved to be set in the interior of the shaft. Other Masonic bodies contributed seven more memorial stones.

Due to that ever-present hunger for mementos and souvenirs, many of these carvings have been badly defaced by visitors who climb the steps and pry off pieces of stone with canes, umbrellas, or even tools brought for that purpose.

When completed the Monument was dedicated Feb. 21, 1885 and the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, under M.W. Myron M. Parker as grand master, conducted a ceremony somewhat similar to a cornerstone laying. The square, the level and the plumb were applied to the Monument and found it correct in all particulars, and the corn of nourishment, the wine of refreshment and the oil of gladness were poured by officers of the grand lodge.

While the approximate position of the cornerstone is known, it is actually buried deep in tons of stone and cement and will never be recovered until the monument falls or is otherwise destroyed.

It is a matter of intense pride to Masons everywhere that the three structures in this country most symbolic of our democracy and our independence, were laid under Masonic auspices, by Masons, according to the ancient usages and customs of the Craft.

The Masonic Service Association of North America