The Andersonian contradiction was noticed and satirised immediately the Society came to public attention, including by Franklin in the US.[i] The sharpest questions concerned the personal motivations of individual ‘Masons’ and the purpose of the Society. Was it nothing but a men’s club with pretentious ceremonial? Was it seditious only because it insisted on secrecy or was it a hot-bed of political intrigue? London’s ‘Freemasonry’ was recognisably different from that which quickly evolved elsewhere yet the literature has been very slow to concede any difference. Jacob emphasised the diverse ways in which ‘freemasonry’ was experienced across Europe. Her whole case, however, depended on there being only one ‘Freemasonry’ which had magically evolved after 1717-21 into an example of ‘modern’, or ‘Enlightened’ civil society. No matter where they were, lodges remained ‘a replica of the British example’ for which she provided no definition, only assertions by engaged partisans, for example: ‘Freemasonry is justly called the School of Virtue…’ (p.6) Her conclusion included: ‘In short, these new men are self-disciplined, as well as charitable towards one another, and their new ethics come from their recently discovered idealism as embodied in their dedication to freemasonry.’ (p.7) Her only explanation for the apparent popularity of ‘Freemasonry’ is a circular argument: ‘It would seem that the constitutional and legislative environment was what attracted men on the Continent to the first lodges.’ (p.4) This is the thesis her opening claim required her to prove.

One who seemed not to share Jacob’s view was Nicolaevsky: ‘Freemasonry was never a unified movement, even within a particular country.’ [ii] He went on: ‘This is even truer if we speak of the political role of masonry, and particularly in France in the period that interests us – that is, the period in which the First International was formed.’ He declared he was not speaking of ‘official masonry’ but of another stream, often repudiated and spurned as ‘irregular’: ‘ Outwardly, these groups had the form of a masonic organization and bore a masonic name, the Lodge of the Philadelphians (Loge des Philadelphes). Some of the members may in fact have considered themselves masons. But veteran masons, those who headed the lodges, must have realized that their lodges had little in common with real masonry.’  This is still confused. He implies the inclusion of these spurned ‘lodges’ in ‘Freemasonry’ otherwise his assertion that ‘it’ was never unified makes no sense. Again, there is need for a definition of what’s in and what’s not. Later, in the same article he asserts that: ‘The role of these undercover, government-persecuted masons in the forming and developing of the First International was enormous.’ Billington, on the conservative side of politics, argued that 19th century political reformers also ‘grew out of occult Freemasonry’ and what he called ‘Pythagorean passion’: ‘Most importantly for our story, Masonry was deliberately used by revolutionaries in the early nineteenth century as a model and a recruiting ground for their first conspiratorial experiments in political organisation.’ [iii]

These attempts to clarify only add to the confusion. The Philadelphian Rites seem to have influenced 19th-century reformers but it was not their occult character, whatever was meant by that, which impressed the radicals – it was more likely to have been, as Billington observed, their ‘organisational’ aspects. Of the two meanings of ‘occult’ – secretive and ‘involving the supernatural’ – it may have been the first which governments feared but Masonry’s formal barriers to the outside world – oaths, guards at the lodge entrance and handsigns – were hardly impenetrable.

Very recent authors have continued to struggle with this problem of ‘Freemasonry’s’ politics. Despite supporting its supposedly a-political essence, Berman asserted in 2017 that ‘In the two decades that followed the establishment of the new Grand Lodge (in London), freemasonry’s (sic) leaders were driven by a desire to defend and protect the status-quo.’ He wrote:

Its [ie the original London Grand Lodge’s] political, financial and social connections were an advertisement that presaged opportunities for influence and patronage, and in conjunction with a two-decades long press campaign the organisation was propelled to a position of pre-eminence in Hanoverian society, and across Europe and into the Americas.[iv]

Neil Kamil, a little earlier, chose esotericism as the essence and used Hogarth’s etchings as evidence:

Hogarth’s pictorial history for (the) London of (John) Fludd’s theories of geomancy and memory, maps and inventories similar strategies of ‘invisible mixing’, alchemic ‘withdrawal from the multitude’ and astral rebirth…Ultimately the congregants (in Hogarth’s Hog Lane) return to the ‘art and mystery’ of their workshops and Masonic lodges through the ‘double door’ of Fludd’s fortress of memory.[v]

These are no more adequately comprehensive than earlier conflicted approaches though Jacob’s suggestion of a pantheistic, Hughenot thread could be usefully brought into contact with both Berman’s and Kamil’s interpretation as parts of a larger context. For example, the London GL may well have been a strategic alliance of anti-Jacobite and Hughenot leaders who used their international refugee networks to negotiate with a government anxious to cover its own clandestine efforts across the globe.

It seems unlikely that ‘Freemasonry’s’ popularity in 18th century Europe was due to any one thing, even less likely that ‘new’ forms of governance were responsible. Elections, record keeping, mass assemblies and negotiated decisions had all happened before in many cultures. Harland-Jacobs made a stir in 2012 when she argued that the British Empire was ‘a Masonic enterprise.’ [vi] For her there was still only one ‘Freemasonry’ but ‘it’ was not merely convivial. Central to her thesis were the lodges inside military units which moved as England’s imperial strategies changed. Estimates for the total number of regimental lodges have been around 500, with most chartered by Grand Lodges other than the one in London. Wikipedia, 2017, asserted that ‘up to 1815, the regimental lodge was the most important (factor)’ in the spread of both the Empire and ‘Freemasonry’. Irish Masonic historian Chetwode Crawley had been equally explicit but vague a century before: “These lodges permeated everywhere; everywhere they left behind the germs of Freemasonry.” These authors provide no context and continue to assume that the reality matched the Andersonian theory. Romantic images of life inside military lodges, such as those of Rudyard Kipling, do not jell with real life and line up too easily with the projected 1723 image of the Order and the Empire. There are no known accounts of how a lodge rebuilt itself after its ranks were depleted by fighting, disease or desertion, for example. The known accounts do not explain either how the supposed prohibitions on discussing religion or politics within the lodge survived in an atmosphere suffused with political and religious issues and when ‘even the meanest very seriously (discussed) laws, property rights, privileges, etc, etc’.[vii] No explanation is provided as to why the bulk of these charters was issued, not by the London Grand Lodge but by either the Grand Lodge in Dublin or the breakaway Ancient Grand Lodge in London. The Grand Lodge of Ireland issued its first traveling warrant in 1732 and between then and 1813 it warranted nearly 200 such lodges. The Ancients issued 108. The Royal Artillery had 28 Ancient lodges! Surviving evidence strongly suggests that if they operated at all once they left the English land mass, lodges were largely ad-hoc and were held together by a diversity of motivations. Those which maintained a sense of cohesion were probably strongly attached to ‘their’ regiment, perhaps ‘their’ commanding officer, rather than Andersonian theory.

Harland-Jacob’s work broke a long-standing mould but how the ritual of the Society of Free-Masonry’s, which was still being created at the time of its first meetings, fared in conflict zones would be worth knowing. It is known that it was not considered adequate across the Channel or the Atlantic or even in parts of Britain outside London’s immediate influence and was very quickly and dramatically altered. Remarkably little is known about how these variations came about. The ‘Ancient York Rite’, for example, appeared in Ireland in the 1740’s before it or something like it became influential in the ‘Antients Grand Lodge’ set up in London in the 1750’s. This ‘York’ system included the ‘Royal Arch Degree’, which became perhaps the most popular and most-practised Masonic degree ever invented. A re-union in 1812 of ‘the Ancients’ and their London-based opposition, appears a retreat by London to safer ground where defences could be strengthened against a raft of Continental changes which had happened in the interim. The ‘new’ combined EF claimed ownership of only the Apprentice, Workman and Master Mason Degrees, aka ‘Blue Freemasonry’, and the contested Royal Arch degree. An explosion of so-called ‘Higher’ or ‘Occult’ Degrees and which amounted, according to their inventors, to nothing more than extensions of ‘Freemasonry’, had added over ninety distinct ceremonies.

Non-regimental lodges in overseas ports were obvious means for merchants and trading company personnel to gain official cover for their short-term purposes, including the surveillance of locals. Profits, morale, socialising and discipline were all at risk if good local relations were not maintained or if internal threats were not countered. It is inconceivable that these lodges were not directly involved in port and garrison politics, or that they were not forced into adopting arrangements which purists would see as ‘compromising’. The first known Masonic lodge in the US was set up in New York around 1729 and almost immediately became a vehicle for political in-fighting. Lepore’s recent account has shown with a ‘lacerating attention to detail’, rival mercantile/politicians contending ‘in a colonial society that combined freedom and slavery, … stark cruelty and vaulting ambition.’ [viii] Finding his opponents in ‘the Court Party’ already dominant in established lodges, James Alexander and other gentlemen of the ‘Country Party’ in 1737 established a ‘Manhattan lodge of Freemasons’, (Lepore, 2005, p.139) thereby precipitating open conflict. Acting as campaign headquarters in that year’s election the lodges were centrally involved in a contest which quickly escalated from cold to hot. Lepore at one point in the proceedings provided the commentary that:

…Into this highly charged debate involving rival printers and playful, dangerous, even fatal pranks about politics and Masonry, stepped John Hughson. Just after the ad for the stolen Masons’ tools ran in Zenger’s Weekly Journal, just after William Bradford printed the Masons’ secret oath in the New York Gazette, just at the time of Evan Jones’ trial [on a charge of manslaughter arising from a supposedly mock-initiation], John Hughson shared the secret of a plot with black men he had only just met, (he had taken them) to his house, (where he had) initiated them. It can hardly have been a coincidence. (Lepore, 2005, p.143)

Lepore has interpreted these events as either a variety of ‘prank, that grew out of proportion’ (p.143) or as a typical example of Papal duplicity, or both. (pp.182-183) She has assumed that the official Masonic literature can be trusted. Greater understanding of the century’s Masonic history might have caused her to ask whether the slaves were deluded subjects of white conspiracies, or were self-aware agents furthering their own conspiracy. Not being a Freemason and unaware of the significance of the different Masonic ‘strands’, she did not track the Rite or Rites used by the factions to identify themselves.

From the first, ‘English’ Masonic lodges, ie lodges in England paying allegiance to the London GL, were diverse in membership and motivation. Some were clearly intended for ‘the quality’ and some for the hoi-polloi, while others were ‘custom-built’, for example, to accompany regiments overseas, or to support trading activities in foreign ports. Within each there were differences of opinions about the purpose for gathering. From the first there were partisans for a range of options not always or merely political – Hanoverian royalists, religious activists, entrepreneurs, anti-Hanoverians, and hermeticists.

The lack of a sensible definition also continues to impede attempts to untangle genuinely ‘Masonic’ activity, whatever that might turn out to be, from that of other fraternal/secret societies. The ‘Masonic idea’ appears to consist of elements which have elsewhere been used to define ‘fraternalism’ as a whole. Theoretical ‘Masonry’, therefore, sits as a sub-subset of the larger set already bifurcated into ‘secret (fraternal) societies’ and ‘non-secret (fraternal) societies.’ The three centuries since 1717 is the period during which these societies have proliferated. Groups of men and women met to discuss ideas – scientific, philosophic, agitational – to feast, to organise member benefits, and/or to attract and exploit the vulnerable. They were not all ‘Masonic.’ That the spectrum of fraternal/secret/benefit societies, from its beginning, included the heights of society and the lowest should have been sufficient indication that the idea carried different messages for different people, and that it was made use of for different reasons.

[i] L Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Vol2, UPP, 2013, pp.83-4.

[ii] B Nicolaevsky, ‘Secret Societies and the First International’, on-line at <libcom.org> or the site of the Masonic Grand Lodge of British Columbia and the Yukon. (2018)

[iii] J Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men, Transaction Books, 2010 edn, p.93.

[iv] R Berman, Espionage, Diplomacy and the Lodge, The Old Stables Press, 2017, p.255.

[v] N Kamil, ‘Fortress of the Soul – Violence, Metaphysics and Material Life in the Hughenots’ New World, 1517-1751’, John Hopkins, 2005, p.674.

[vi] J Harland-Jacobs, Builders of Empire, 2012.

[vii] J Wardroper, Kings, Lords and Wicked Libellers: Satire and Protest 1760-1837, Murray, 1973, p.3.

[viii] J Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Vintage, 2005, quote from a review in The New Republic, 2017.