Vol. XXXIX No. 11 — November 1961

Morality and Freedom

Conrad Hahn

On March 5, 1770, a nervous detachment of British troops opened fire on a mob of Boston’s citizens, who had gathered to protest the military occupation of that city by His Majesty’s soldiers, as well as acts of parliament that were designed to keep the colonies dependent on the Mother Country.

Four men fell that day. Three of them died immediately; one, the next day. Indignation rose to such a fevered pitch, that the adroit Samuel Adams was able to use it as the lever for forcing the withdrawal of the hated “red coats” to an island fort in Boston harbor.

A day or two later, the church bells tolled the mourning of a grief-stricken city. The hearses rolled along the muffled streets to a common grave for the first four martyrs of the American Revolution. Comrades in the cause of liberty, they were now comrades in the “vasty halls of death.”

In January 1776, an English immigrant by the name of Thomas Paine published a sensational forty-seven page pamphlet entitled Common Sense. Written in a clear and forceful style, it advocated absolute independence with arguments that stirred the blood as well as convinced the reason. It was the clarion call that made the War of Independence inevitable. Even George Washington has attested to its stimulus to action. The Declaration of Independence, written later in the same year by Thomas Jefferson, owes much of its moral fervor and many of its ideas to the passionate convictions of an erstwhile English Quaker. Neither Paine nor Jefferson were Masons.

The name of Brother Paul Revere will always stir the pride of American Freemasons because of his patriotic deeds and exploits. They need no rehearsal. But New York had a daring Paul Revere of its own during the Revolutionary War, who rode the lanes of Putnam County to warn the local patriots of a British thrust to seize the Tilly Foster mine near Brewster, an important source of iron ore for the American war effort. Flying from British bullets, this brave courier succeeded in alarming the country-side just in the nick of time. This daring rider was no Freemason, however. It was a young woman, Sybil Ludington by name.

One of the darkest moments in the history of the war occurred in 1780, when the key position of West Point almost fell into the hands of the British. Astride the passages of the Hudson River, this strong point was a barrier to the British plans to move northward and to isolate New England. Its capture would have cut the colonies in two.

One man, not by bravery, but by the most odious treachery in the decalogue of war, almost succeeded in surrendering West Point to the enemy without a fight. That traitor was Major General Benedict Arnold. Benedict Arnold, it must be admitted, had been a Freemason.

These four incidents from the period of the Revolution may serve to counteract a tendency in Masonic writing and speaking that exaggerates the part that Freemasonry played in the winning of our liberties and in the establishment of our government, to the extent of making those events an exclusive Masonic affair. Freemasonry as an organization was NOT involved in that affair. Individual Masons were — on BOTH SIDES of the struggle!

The part played by Freemasons in the founding of this great nation is glorious enough, in all good conscience, when we stick to the facts. But when Masonic writers assert that more than fifty of the fifty-six Signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons, that with the exception of four delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that assembly could have been opened as a Masonic lodge, or that all of Washington’s major generals as well as most of his brigadier generals were Freemasons, because he could trust none but his brethren of the leather-apron Fraternity, we make our great institution ridiculous in the eyes of all serious historians who know the facts and have labored to interpret them honestly.

But worse than that, we do a grave injustice to thousands of our patriotic ancestors, women as well as non-Masons, when we seek to create the impression that Freemasons were the chief architects of our liberty and government.

The influence wrought by Freemasons on the events that led to the founding of this nation is tremendously significant, not just because patriots like Washington, Franklin, Hancock, LaFayette, Randolph, and many others were Masons, but chiefly because of the moral importance that these men helped to infuse into the concepts of freedom and government.

The most remarkable fact about the winning of American independence was the “tone” set for it by its most distinguished leaders, a spirit of noble contention, or rather emulation, which has earned for a man like Brother George Washington international respect and acclaim. In spite of enmity and bloodshed, in spite of suffering and privation, in spite of bitter partisanship, the founding fathers displayed an unusual confidence in mans potentials for brotherhood and understanding.

They had a vigorous passion for liberty, truth, and justice. They conceived of a nation wherein all men might enjoy the freedom to accept the responsibilities of self-discipline, self-government, and self-enlightenment. They dreamed of a brotherhood of well-informed citizens; and they labored with tolerant forbearance to bring it into being.

If Freemasonry insists on claiming the principal role in the events of 1770 to 1789, then Freemasons must search their hearts and consciences to find the answer to a bitter question: Why has so much of the dream remained just a dream? Where have the Masons been since their illustrious ancestors pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,” to the establishment of a government of freedom with justice, and of equality before the law?

We must never forget that in addition to the story of marvelous achievements and material progress, the history of our country is a catalog of exploitation and waste, of costly experiments, of fratricidal war, of monumental greed, and of a creeping paralysis of the whole concept of the freedom and dignity inherent in the individual citizen.

Washington had hardly gone out of office at the end of his second term, when there began a reign of passion and tyranny in our federal government that is almost unbelievable. The scare of a war with France had passed, but some of the leading members of the Federalist party sought to direct the hysteria whipped up by the threat of war to curb liberty at home. Denunciations of democracy had grown to be a habit with many Americans, because of the bloody excesses of the Revolution in France. A way had been found to utilize mobs as instruments of political warfare.

In 1798 Congress hastily passed the Sedition Law, which provided heavy fines and imprisonment for anyone who opposed governmental measures or who wrote anything against the President or Congress that could be pronounced “malicious.”

It was “pure politics” in its ugliest sense — an instrument to make the Chief Executive and Congress immune to criticism. It was a crude denial of justice, for it negated the Constitutions First Amendment, with its guarantee of free speech and a free press.

No time was lost in putting the Sedition Law to work. One by one, courageous newspaper editors were sent to prison. Because of the injustice, calumny, and abuse heaped upon the defendants by partisan judges in these tragic “sedition trials,” thousands took refuge in silence. Juries were hand-picked for conviction; the courts were crowded with rowdies who taunted the defendants. Judges were notoriously prejudiced. When Charles Holt was on trial and invoked the Bill of Rights in his defense, he was scathingly rebuked by the bench for his “frivolity.”

Most infamous of all the judges who presided at these sedition trials was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Samuel Chase. He openly boasted that he would teach those “Jeffersonian rebels" an expensive lesson or two. Samuel Chase was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; yet less than twenty-five years later he had become a hated symbol of anti-democratic tyranny and injustice. While the Masonic Fraternity was never disgraced by the membership of such a man, who earlier stained his patriotism by trying “to corner” the flour market during the revolution, it must be confessed that it has often claimed as a brother the leader of this Federalist tyranny, a man more influential than the President, John Adams. Alexander Hamilton was his name. In his detestation of Jefferson’s belief in the virtue of the common man, Hamilton completely ignored whatever obligation he may have taken to labor for the Brotherhood of Man.

Less than a decade after the inauguration of its first president, the United States of America denied its birthright of freedom and equal justice for every citizen. It was a serious moral crisis, created by fear and greed for power. Fortunately for the American people as a whole, the founding fathers had provided a method for correcting such a dangerous moral breakdown. The average man cast his ballot against immoral injustice in the very next election. Jefferson was elected President, and the Federalists were driven from power, never again to capture the citadel of the federal union.

Freemasons were involved in this time of trial — but only as individual citizens and not as an organization. Where the individual Mason was devoted to the principles of justice, truth, and brotherhood and had the courage to speak out for his beliefs, he suffered persecution at the hands of legal but immoral judges. Where he had succumbed to the fear of “the common man” and his potential excesses, as revealed in the French Revolution, he became identified with the villains of one of the ugliest dramas in American history.

But Freemasonry can no more be blamed for those excesses than it can take exclusive credit for the founding of the republic. Freemasonry’s objectives have never been political; they are in the realm of the spirit; they are morality and brotherly love.

America has always been a fortunate country. In spite of times of crisis, this nation has generally succeeded in developing good leaders, who have been able to heal the wounds after critical failures and to inspire in their countrymen a rededication to the ideals of the republic and a new effort to realize the American dream.

In the period following the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts, known in history books as “The Era of Good Feeling,” when this nation was stirred by the challenge of the West and the burgeoning industrialism in the East, there appeared in every state strong leaders, men of force and character, who seriously tried to promote the public interest and welfare.

One such outstanding figure was DeWitt Clinton of New York. He was a nephew of Brigadier General George Clinton of the Continental Army, who became the first Governor of New York in 1777 and Vice President of the United States in 1805. From him DeWitt Clinton had inherited a strong love of his country and a keen sense of the responsibility of the individual citizen in a democracy.

Elected United States Senator from New York in 1802, he resigned the next year to become Mayor of New York City, serving with two brief interruptions, until 1815. As a leader in civic and state affairs, DeWitt Clinton performed many outstanding public services, the most permanent of which was the establishment of the New York City public-school system. He was actively interested in all scientific and social questions; he encouraged steam navigation; he improved the penal code and the treatment of criminals; and he vigorously advocated the building of the Erie Canal.

This waterway became a political issue, and Clinton was elected Governor on the strength of it, serving from 1817 to 1823. In this official capacity he broke ground for the work at Rome, New York, in 1817. In the first year of his third term (1825-1828) he opened the canal for navigation. His is truly a great name in American history.

DeWitt Clinton was a Master Mason. In fact, he was one of the most active and interested Masons of his time. The ideals that motivated his public service were reinforced and strengthened by his Masonic labors. The Fraternity rightfully takes pride in this distinguished brother.

But what can be said of the leadership that guided the destinies of our great country to the terrible conflict of the Civil War? There was much of greatness in it; there was also meanness. But all of it was powerless to stop the fratricidal struggle of 1861 to 1865, because it never faced squarely the great moral issue involved.

For more than thirty years the leaders of our nation fought a savage political battle merely to contain or to extend a system of human slavery. Compromise followed compromise, none of which ever satisfied either side; until finally passions flamed into a cruel warfare, which pitted brother against brother, and even fathers against their sons.

It was one of the bloodiest struggles that the world has ever seen. The casualties in some of its bitterest battles were relatively greater than those in most of the battles of World Wars I and II. In the crucial battle at Antietam Creek in Maryland in 1862, there fell in the short space of twelve hours, more than 25,000 men of the contending armies!

That war was the product of irresponsibility and recklessness, which only a young and growing nation could suffer from and still endure. But the price is still being paid; and the passionate interest with which Americans still study and re-study that great conflict is an indication of their concern with its continuing aftermath and of the collectively troubled conscience of the American people about its causes and its results.

One great moral force was produced by this titanic struggle - Abraham Lincoln — but at the time his special gifts of charitable understanding and mutual forgiveness were needed most, to “bind up the nations wounds” and “to do all to achieve a just and lasting peace,” he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. The ultimate in recklessness and irresponsibility had been achieved.

Masons naturally take pride in the countless anecdotes of brotherly love and assistance that were reported from the fields of combat. Many were the acts of kindness and relief, of succor and even salvation, which Masons in the opposing armies rendered to each other.

But when Masons proudly point out the Masonic idealism and heroism that went into the founding of our nation, by the soldiers of the Continental Army, by the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and by the framers of the Constitution, they should also ask humbly: Where were the great Masonic leaders, whose devotion and understanding, whose wisdom and practical application of the tenet of brotherly love might have prevented the senseless and bloody Civil War?

It’s a hypothetical question, of course, but it opens up a vast field of speculation concerning the morality of freedom. And that is truly Freemasonry’s concern.

More than ever it is true today. It is appallingly clear that ever since the United States became the leader of the free world when the Cold War began, the problems of statesmanship have become not only more numerous and complex than ever, but also to a great degree more baffling.

Men now recognize the absolute necessity, both of wise planning in the national policy, and of expertness in the execution of our plans. We live in an age not of temporary and relative danger, but of permanent and absolute peril. Irresponsibility and recklessness cannot be tolerated.

The gravest danger that our country faces is internal disunity and dissension. Our democracy is afraid and uncertain because it has lost the confidence of our founding fathers in the moral imperatives of freedom.

Too many of us call ourselves Northerners or Southerners, Italians or Irishmen, Protestants, or Catholics, or Jews. We are Americans! If we are to preserve a true democracy, a union of free and responsible citizens, we cannot look with quietude on some of the divisive forces in our national life.

Another area of disunity is being fostered by the concept of labor as a separate class. The working man enjoys a unique position in America. The history of unionism is one of America’s greatest stories, but some of its spokesmen assert so strongly that unions must have special privileges and immunities, especially from regulatory powers of the civil authorities, that they actually succeed in spreading the doctrine among some of their members that “My union comes first. I’ll take orders from the committee before I’ll take them from the government.” Freedom under law is seriously endangered when the morality of freedom is flouted as openly as this.

Another problem of segregation is being created by the spread and growth of private educational agencies under sectarian auspices. To separate children in schools devoted primarily to the propagation of sectarian doctrines, instead of allowing them to integrate their understanding and experiences in common schools attended by children of all citizens, is segregation of a most unfortunate kind, because it fails to develop the understanding and respect that should be accorded to all sects and denominations in a democratic society.

The injection of this problem into a national political campaign and into the deliberations of the Congress shows how harmful this divisiveness can become, for one of the most discouraging results has been to stifle honest discussion, the precious heritage of free men. The cry of “intolerance” has been widely used to silence dissenters from a “popular” point ofview, and insincere conformity is regarded as a laudable “tolerance.”

Real freedom has always been a flower of individual morality and truth, but when the plant withers, the blossom must inevitably die. And this is the area of public life in which Freemasons ought to be concerned. Freemasonry is morality in action. . . . and the morality of freedom is a proper speculative concern. Freemasonry can never tell a member what he shall believe or what he shall accept as a philosophy of political freedom. Freemasonry can never tell him how to vote or how to serve his community politically.

But Freemasonry has the right to insist on his moral enlightenment, and to help him achieve that important understanding. Freemasonry has the right to help him learn the morality of freedom. This is an area that might be spaded for vital and challenging programs. Masonic lodges could sponsor community meetings, open to wives and families and friends, in fact, to the public as a whole, where the morality of freedom is discussed and emphasized, by lecturers, forums, panel discussions, and groups for study.

The philosopher Santayana once remarked that if democracy is to succeed, the common citizen must be something of a saint and something of a hero. This is a simple truth, for, in the last analysis, the success of a democracy’s collective statesmanship depends on the intelligence and virtue of the common citizen.

To those two great democratic necessities Freemasons might well devote their loyalty and labors. This is a great country, founded on a great moral ideal. It will remain great just so long as it preserves her virtue and intelligence! And that’s what Masonic Light is for. Let there be Light!

The Masonic Service Association of North America