Vol. XL No. 6 — June 1962

A Moment of History

Sumner G. Whittier

This Short Talk Bulletin is the work of Brother Sumner G. Whittier, former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Director of the Veterans Administration under President Eisenhower, a member of Galilean Lodge, Everett, Massachusetts. This Short Talk is a condensation of the address he delivered in Trenton, New Jersey, on December 16, 1961, at the Annual Feast of St. John the Evangelist, which marked the 275th anniversary of the founding of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey.

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Tonight we are poised at one point of time in Trenton, New Jersey. You have deliberately selected one moment of history in the decades stretching behind us to acknowledge — December 18, 1786. How was it with the men who came over frozen rutted roads that chill December evening to meet in the little village of New Brunswick?

The Revolutionary War had ended. Yet everyone felt despair and desperation, and suffering. This was 1786. With the British surrender, there had been excitement, high hope, jubilation, an independent nation, and the newly-written Articles of Confederation.

But what had happened to those dreams by 1786? They had grown very dim. “The league of friendship among the states seemed to be turning into a league of dissension.” Congress was sinking into utter contempt. The quarrels among the states were growing positively dangerous. No group suffered more from the chaotic state of affairs than the army, which failed to receive the food, pay, or clothing that it needed. Its officers had a frequent toast: “Here’s to a hoop for the barrel,” — for if a hoop were not furnished, the barrel seemed likely to collapse into a pile of staves.

The Articles of Confederation had broken down almost completely. American affairs had reached a desperate pitch. A serious commercial depression had set in after the Revolution, as it has after many wars.

Indeed, the outlook in 1786 could not have been blacker. Not only was the country without any vigorous governmental machinery; the thirteen states had become so disorderly that men spoke of possible war between some of them.

The states were quarreling over boundary lines, arguing, breaking heads in some places. The courts were issuing conflicting decisions; the federal government could not regulate commerce, impose tariffs, had no authority to levy taxes for national purposes; and the states had begun their own negotiations with foreign countries. States managed Indian affairs to suit themselves, and Georgia began and ended an Indian war.

When internal disorders threatened the security of property in great areas, the sober middle classes grew alarmed. When the depression became heaviest in 1785 and 1786, it produced intense hardship wherever people lived close to the subsistence level. All along the frontiers, money was scarce, markets were prostrated, and crops rotted on the ground for want of takers. Debtor groups demanded that the state government print paper money to move their crops and pay their obligations.

Greenwich, Massachusetts, reported the foreclosure sales of land took place daily at one-third of the true value, cattle sold at half price, and taxes during the preceding five years had equaled the whole rental of the farms. The antagonism between the poor and the well-to-do became intense.

Seven states issued paper money. In Rhode Island, measures were passed so that every man could satisfy his obligations with practically worthless currency. The paper money forces failed to carry the two legislatures of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and there armed disturbances took place. The conservative legislatures had levied heavy taxes to pay the Revolutionary debt. An agrarian revolt broke out. The adjournment of the legislature in Massachusetts in 1786 was the signal for an uprising led by a veteran of Bunker Hill, Daniel Shay — an uprising referred to as Shay’s Rebellion. He and his men tried to plunder the national arsenal at Springfield, but were stopped by the state militia.

General Knox wrote Washington that New England had twelve or fifteen thousand men who held wild beliefs. “Their creed is that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of the British by the joint exercise of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all.” Washington wrote: “there are combustibles in every state which a spark might set a fire in,” and he spoke the general view.

Merchants were desperate over the lack of a uniform currency. They had to deal with a curious hodgepodge of coins minted by a dozen nations, many clipped and short in weight; with counterfeit pieces; and with a maddening variety of state and national paper bills, fast depreciating in value.

Spain had defiantly closed the mouth of the Mississippi to American commerce. No means existed by which traders could be sure of collecting money due them. The fast-growing body of American manufacturers was at the mercy of price-slashing competition from Europe.

But the worst evils arose from the deliberate impediments raised against commercial intercourse between the states. In the first three years after the peace, all the states except New Jersey placed duties on imports. Delaware and New Jersey created free ports for European wares, while other states passed laws to encourage the direct shipping of English goods. Restrictions were laid on the movement of vessels, so that New Jersey men could not cross the Hudson to sell vegetables in New York without paying heavy duties. Feelings among the states grew more and more savage.

Holders of Federal and state securities viewed with anguish the chaotic financial conditions of the time and the popular aversion to taxes. In the last fourteen months under the Articles of Confederation, interest on the internal and external debt of the nation was approximately 14 million dollars while the national revenues were only $400,000!

Such was the moment of history in America — and New Brunswick, New Jersey, the night the first assemblage gathered of which this night is inheritor. Such was the moment of history in which the Grand Lodge of New Jersey was founded. Some Masonic representatives had arrived early, greeted old friends, and, had they wanted to, could have talked about current bad conditions; there was much to be gloomily discussed. But these men had come to establish, to create, to unify.

Tonight’s occasion automatically selected a moment of history for us to examine: the hour of an assemblage held by our Masonic forebears, and the climate and the conditions of the nation and the world in which they lived. It was a desperately troubled time, and the uneasiness was real and widespread.

These men and their families had faced the ravages of revolution - moments of almost utter hopelessness. If you think that the Russian threat at this moment is ominous, how do you suppose men and women felt as the American Revolution loomed and broke over them — with more than half the population against it — with an insane king directing British destinies? It was a time that was barbarous and cruel. Consider the rudimentary state of medicine — the brutal treatment of the insane with its ugly Bedlam, or of dentistry, or of the way prisoners were handled, or the endless hours small children and women were forced to work. Men, wrestling, gouged out one another’s eyes.

Man has always faced The Bomb in one way or another, no matter what its name. Go back beyond 1786 into the recesses of history. Try to feel that black hour of a bitter century when Jesus Christ was stretched upon the cross, nails driven through hands and feet, a thief crucified on either side of Him. . . . Call it challenge or call it crucifixion. Picture the war-ravaged world in the time of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, when the fearsome new weapon was the phalanx, the massed onrush of long spears against which no army could stand. Select what century you will, and somewhere within it looms the threat — whether it is crucifixion, burning at the stake, or the new invention of the crossbow, which devastated the armies that faced it first.

Or think of the introduction of gunpowder, which seemed so terrible that men said civilization could not survive such a weapon. Or the aeroplane carrying explosives — what dread that stirred! How many times in days past and years gone by have men faced the bomb? Over and over again. But men have met the challenge; and men have suffered. Yet with it all, progress has been made.

Men are not yet wholly civilized. War is still the instrument by which they solve their international problems. Cruelty and indignity are abroad on many continents. Men dream of civilization; men hope; men aspire; men struggle down the long road toward some universal goal of harmony, toward the universal dream of “Peace on Earth; Good Will to Men.” In one of the darkest moments of American history, in 1786, the Masons of New Jersey met in New Brunswick to lay the foundation for such a dream in their commonwealth.

Is it different now from times past? Some men do raise a stark query: "Should we surrender or compromise because the enemy has so devastating a weapon?”

At what point can the menace be stopped, and how? In Korea ago we took a stand at the 52nd parallel, and many young men died. When will we have to take another stand as demanding of flesh and fortune? Must this decision be more terrifying because greater numbers may die? Is not death an individual moment? No man has more than one life to give for his country; no man can die more than a single time. A bow and arrow could kill as completely. If our nation depended upon your risking your life, the lives of your family, would not patriotism surge within you and the risk be accepted?

The nature of the challenge is not different because this is an atomic era. More may die, but each still dies alone. Each must find his individual answer. This is our moment of history, and I submit to you that this hour is not different from other moments in history, and it is not different from the many challenges that men will have to meet in the aeons of the future.

In the face of the threat, how shall we conduct ourselves? What shall we do? There are no easy answers. There were none when Jacques DeMolay faced his inquisitors and the stake, when George Washington stood against the massive and mountainous troubles here on the square miles of New Jersey. Each man within himself must find his answer, must seek the symbols by which he lives, must conduct himself with dignity as it is possible to find dignity.

Each must keep alive the dream and the hope, and believe that somehow together we shall conquer the menaces that beset us. But, whatever the eventual outcome, each must play his part, however difficult, even hopeless, the struggle appears. We can look about us and be reassured that the world has come far forward, that the threat we face now has been met in the past. Freedom and religion have survived — and will!

In the testing time some men will be traitorous, some cowardly, some hard to understand, but others will remain stalwart and true to the ideals they have chosen. We of this fraternity, through moral inculcation and through symbolism, have tried to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood by joining men in mutual respect and belief in human dignity. Masons live by brotherly love, truth, temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice, by the teachings of fidelity and integrity in our private as well as our public lives.

For all the uneasiness of our day, for all the sore and troubled minds and hearts because of the mushrooming cloud that symbolizes the burden of the bomb, we look back this night and know that men have always been challenged. We know that the men who met in 1786 ago, as we meet tonight, faced monumental demands and challenges; yet, however shadowed the glimpse of their tomorrows, however dim the future appeared as through a glass darkly, we can see (as they could not) what they were able to accomplish. America is still free upon a planet where freedom lives in spite of fire, dungeon, and sword, in spite ofwars and rumors ofwar. Men of faith and men of courage have somehow prevailed.

One American president asked himself the question: “What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?” And, answering his own question he said: "It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling seacoasts. Our reliance is in the love of liberty that God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit that prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere.”[1]

This truth the last one hundred and seventy-five years could not change. It is our prayer and our task that, one hundred and seventy-five years from now when this grand lodge is celebrating its 350th anniversary, the same maybe said about this moment of history, by a people thankful and free and at peace.

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  1. Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Edwardsville,” Sept. 11, 1858.

The Masonic Service Association of North America