Resting on Our Laurels: Who Is Not A Freemason?
By John Bizzack, Ph.D.
Lexington Lodge No. 1, Masonic Study Group, Rubicon Masonic Society
When we rely too much on long-past successes for continued fame, reputation or recognition, we fall into the category of resting on our laurels. Doing so with regularity also means we are probably losing rank, although we think those laurels will always carry us.
The idea of resting on your laurels dates back to leaders and athletic stars of ancient Greece. In Hellenic times, laurel leaves were closely tied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Apollo was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, and the plant eventually became a symbol of status and achievement. Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles. Venerable Greeks and Romans, or “laureates,” were thus able to “rest on their laurels” by basking in the glory of past achievements. Only later did the phrase take on a negative connotation, and since the 1800s it has been used for those who are overly satisfied with past triumphs. 
Members of the Craft today indeed rest on the institution’s laurels and there’s plenty of them in the long history of Freemasonry upon which to rest – at least for a while. However, Freemasons often appear to sit and point to only what was and ignore what is the reality.
Lists of “famous Masons” saturate the Internet and may be found in many interesting articles, books and presentations. It’s great branding to be able to count George Washington as a brother Mason, just like we should tout the particular Masons who also signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or were appointees of the Supreme Court. The list can go on – and it does, over and over again.
The various extensive lists of “famous Masons” goes on to the extent that we find, if examined closely, some “famous” men have made the list even though the evidence to support them is troubled with the lack of something called fact. What depreciates the veracity of these kinds of lists, by extensively using them to promote or continue to “brand” Freemasonry due to the celebrity status and accomplishments associated with these men, comes down to two things. One, is that we have no proof that Freemasonry made these men great, as it were, or whether Freemasonry simple offered a place for great men to assemble. Two, some men on the list were not Freemasons in the first place.
The first issue can always be debated. The second, specifically in the cases of the men noted in this essay, is not all that disputable when facts surrounding the claims of Masonic membership are properly examined in context.
The topic of “famous Masons” came up one evening at a presentation I was making. I was amazed at the number of men in the room who were convinced of the Masonic affiliation of one particular historically famous man: Davy Crockett.
Perhaps, it is Crockett’s reputation for rugged individualism, his standing as a true early pioneer or his heroic sacrifice and death at the Alamo that often keeps his name alive on lists of “Famous Masons.” I was always a fan of Davy Crockett’s story and found it interesting that he was always listed as a Freemason. I also appreciate logic, good judgment, facts, and contextual thinking, so once I began to closely examine the evidence supporting claims that Crockett was a Freemason I found there existed some serious questions about whether or not that was accurate.
Later, I realized the wide-spread belief that Crockett was a Mason served as an example – a metaphor of sorts, illustrating two more things. One, how eager Masonry can be to link themselves to historically famous men even when there’s little or no evidence to support the claim, and two, how some Mason’s will quickly embrace such an idea despite being based on little or no evidence yet still proclaim their belief is rooted in fact.
These two observations led to a more significant one and it is not intended to serve as a reproof or criticism of any particular group or individual Mason. Blindly accepting the long-standing, wide-spread belief and promoting the claim that Davy Crockett, the defender of the Alamo, was a Freemason, is a clear illustration of the failure to seek out the truth and simply accept that which is handed down, passed on and promoted as truth. In essence, doing so flies in the face of many of the reasons Freemasonry evolved in the first place.
Now, clearly every Mason doesn’t have the time, much less interest in running down all the facts surrounding whether or not a man whose name consistently appears on “Famous Masons” lists was actually a member of the fraternity. If evidence to the contrary does exists, however, and in the spirit of truth, a Mason should recognize his responsibility to offer correction.
Within these observations comes yet another. We’ve passed on the notion that Crocket was Mason since the last decade of the 19th century. Today, it is simple accepted by many and in some jurisdictions fiercely defended. Much the same has happened with our practice of the blueprints of Freemasonry as a system. We’ve interpreted our positions about administering the mechanics of the Craft, its intentions and components, and watered down much of it to suit our respective convenience as we continue to pass on less and less to each new generation. We only pass on what we have been exposed to when we don’t labor sufficiently to search further for truth.
The question is not whether we wish Crockett was initiated and made a member of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Freemasonry. The question is, should he be claimed as a Freemason based exclusively on the fragile information posing as the evidence that he was initiated and became a Freemason that has been used as “proof” since the early 1890s until 2013.
The evidence on which to base the answer to that question can be found in When History Fails, Legend Prevails : Questioning the Evidence of Claims of the Masonic Affiliation of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, a book that documents the real evidence along with the reasons the troubled-evidence used for over one-hundred years should be seriously questioned.
Yes, the book, as you can see from the sub-title, also explodes the myth surrounding the years of claims that another famous frontiersmen was a Mason: Daniel Boone.
Several lodges, since the book was published in 2013 that had posted “Famous Masons” lists on their websites have removed Crockett’s name. One such lodge was located in Texas where Crockett is justly revered and honored for his role in the Texas Revolution for Independence.
There’s no question lists of “Famous Masons” represent opportunities for positive marketing and promotion of the Craft. The true laurels of Freemasonry, however, do not need the support of lists noting historically celebrated men who were Freemason. The influence Freemasonry has had on the world is much larger than the most famous of the men who were Masons found on such lists.
Our seemingly endless proclivity to promote famous Masons in the forefront of efforts to keep the past history of the fraternity alive through the accomplishments of the famous men who were members, should never be accepted as a singular solution for moving Freemasonry into the future, as some believe. It is important, of course, but it might very well be more important to re-introduce the practices and mechanics of what the fraternity was when these celebrated historical figures were members: a more complete system of the progressive science of self-improvement through Masonry.
1 - Evan Andrews, 10 Common Sayings With Historical Origins, The History Channel, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/10-common-sayings-with-historical-origins.
The following two chapters are excerpts from When History Fails, Legend Prevails: Questioning the Evidence of Claims of the Masonic Affiliation of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Autumn House, 2011
When History Fails, Legend Prevails
Accepting an interesting story as fact without questioning the evidence to support it has consequences, especially when the story involves beloved historical figures or events, making it particularly tempting to believe without additional inquiry. Interesting stories of this nature can, over time, take on a life of their own especially when initial information is further quoted, referenced or cited as if it had all been thoroughly corroborated.
When a story, particularly one based on unconvincing, dubious information or simple error is cited and used as a reference and then later continues to be quoted by others, fact soon becomes a battered relic. When that occurs, rules of logic and context are dramatically altered leaving a wake of astonishing conclusions. When this takes place such information is compounded to the extent that it appears accurate through the process of mere repetition and thus becomes difficult to refute because so many wish to believe it.
There are times too when such a story or account is cited, but the user of such information is not aware of the original unconvincing details or that the original details were evidence-troubled to begin with. Either way, once such a story gains momentum it generally evolves into “fact”.
Unraveling such ambiguities can be difficult; however it can be done. If one is aware of such a circumstance but makes no attempt to correct it, then a new standard is set: one that places little value on the need for accuracy of facts and the importance of proof.
An Assortment of Freemasons & Standards of Proof
Anyone curious about Freemasonry who searches the Internet, periodicals, or books, will find a surplus of lists with titles like Most Famous Freemasons, List of Important Freemasons, Historically Important Freemasons, Well Known Freemasons, Notable Freemasons, Freemasons in the Vatican, Freemasons in Sports, Freemasons in Hollywood, etc. Some lists are frauds, some are disjointed in their claims, and few should boast of being one-hundred percent accurate. Very few of these lists cite references or follow any uniform standards of proof demanded by historians or those who wish to confirm sources before accepting the information as accurate.
There are people noted on such lists and in books, articles and various publications as Masons, who are not. There are people who are Masons, but don’t tell everyone and therefore do not make it onto any lists. There are those who are Masons and do not care if their names show up on lists or not. And finally, there are those who like the idea of certain people being Masons even if they are not, like Thomas Jefferson. No credible evidence exists that he was a member of the fraternity; nonetheless, Jefferson and other prominent names often appear in these lists.
Masonic lodges do not make press releases announcing new members or publish their membership rosters. Yet state Grand Lodges and local lodges are an excellent and reliable starting point to confirm whether a person has been or is a member of the fraternity. Unsurprisingly, as in all organizations or businesses, records do occasionally get lost, or destroyed by fire, flood, natural deterioration, or carelessness, a fact used by some in bolstering the Jefferson-was-a-Freemason argument.
When records are lost, however there are other circumstances that can support the contention that a man was a Mason. Masonic funerals, when accompanied by other corroborative family records or by verifiable accounts of association provided by a confirmed Mason who can vouch for the person in question is one method, however even some of those accounts must be further scrutinized. The mere possession of Masonic pins and rings, aprons or tattoos or an offhand comment about Masonry by itself is not sufficient, let alone overwhelming confirmation that a man was or is a Freemason.
William R. Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons was originally a four-volume set of books published by the Missouri Lodge of Research between 1957 and 1960. The series is one the best known and respected collections of Masonic biographies. The series contains information about celebrated Masons as well as those who have made significant contributions to society along with information about lesser known Masons. Denslow’s work is a very often cited resource. He was very careful in compiling his series about the information and entries he made. If an affiliation could not be confirmed, he noted that fact, while also noting what information was known or offered that suggested or confirmed a man was a Mason. Unfortunately, some citations of his work over the years only note that a person is listed in his series, thus representing to some that if a name of a person is listed by Denslow then that person is confirmed as a member of the fraternity.
Regardless, some names continue to end up on lists of Masons because of only scant evidence, meager accounts of events that are largely circumstantial, misunderstandings, faulty sources or overly enthused list makers keen to link an historical or prominent figure to Masonry.
For example, we occasionally see a belief that every general who served under Washington in the American Revolution was a Freemason: a supposed requirement set forth by Washington. It is important that Freemasonry’s effect on the American cause not be under- nor overstated. The Revolutionary Army did indeed forge strong bonds around Masonry, but this bond ran up and down, among both the officer ranks and field soldiers. There are multiple accounts of military lodges throughout the Continental Army and reports of officers who even wore their badges of Masonic office on their uniforms according to Steven C. Bullock’s, 1998, Revolutionary Brotherhood.
Bullock also notes another fact of the times that should not be understated: Southern planters like Washington and General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee did not have a great deal in common with New Englanders like General Nathaniel Greene, a Quaker from Connecticut, and Generals George Clinton, Elias Dayton, Joseph Frye, and Henry Knox from other Northern colonies, and still less in common with Lafayette from France or von Steuben from Germany. Masonry provided a common bond and attachment, and it is easy to understand that they would have gravitated toward each other because they were Freemasons.
In 1992, Sydney Morse wrote Freemasonry in the American Revolution. In his book he referenced a letter authored by General Lafayette which mentioned Washington and Masons. Lafayette wrote that Washington "never willingly gave independent command to officers who were not Freemasons. Nearly all the members of his official family, as well as most other officers who shared his inmost confidence, were his brethren of the mystic tie.” Lafayette’s words may have led many to the erroneous interpretation that every officer in Washington’s general corps was a Freemason. Even if he had wished it so, the fact is that Washington did not have total liberty in appointing his generals; Congress appointed many of them for political reasons.
We know today from Masonic historian Paul Bessel and other legitimate sources that a total of 74 men were commissioned as generals in the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783. Extensive research as of 2011 confirms that 33 of those generals were Freemasons (46%). The requirement of being a Freemason before one could serve under Washington as a general is either a fabrication or simply a misinterpretation of Lafayette’s writing. No doubt Lafayette put a great deal of emphasis on being a Freemason himself and was very close to Washington, not only during the war but also in his presidential years and later. He may have witnessed circumstances in which Washington expressed his preference for Freemason officers before sharing “innermost confidence;” however, records and documentation do not support the conclusion that all his generals were members of the fraternity.
Just as no single person speaks for or on behalf of Freemasonry, no single source is endorsed by state or local lodges as a “master list” of names of Masons. Any legitimate Masonic web site or book that publishes such a list, partial or not, risks their credibility unless their list includes some caveat of disclaimer.
Research and leg work are required to meet an acceptable standard of proof in confirming any historical figure as a Freemason. Consistent use of a standard of proof provides a level of certainty, and that standard should be clear and convincing as well.
If a person credits his accomplishments or place in history due to his membership in or the direct influence of Freemasonry, that’s one thing. If he is accomplished and has a place in recorded history and happens to also be a Freemason too, it does not necessarily mean Freemasonry was solely responsible for his successes. However, history and reason confirm that Freemasonry has always attracted capable and productive men who were doers, pioneers and free-thinkers. Whether they were, or became historical figures has nothing to do with the fact that millions of men have joined the fraternity for good and valid reasons: to bond and socialize with men who share similar values and ideals, to improve themselves, to become involved in a worthwhile organization, or for all those reasons and more.
Historians often like to point out that Freemasonry was “fashionable,” thus accounting for why so many men in the 1700s and 1800s were part of the fraternity in the United States. It was indeed fashionable: fashionable to associate with men who were trusted and held similar personal values and standards – just as it is fashionable to do so today. Being a Freemason was not something men were in a habit of hiding or denying during this period except during the anti-Masonry movement in the aftermath of the Morgan Affair in 1826. Henry Clay, even with the promise of support for the office of president refused to denounce his affiliation, and Brother Andrew Jackson was elected president in the midst of the anti-Masonry movement never once shying from being known to be a Mason.
Some stories, in an attempt to associate a man with Masonry, point out that a particular man often associated with or was a business partner of men who were known Masons. Associating with men who are Freemasons or being in business with one does not make a man a Freemason.
There are prominent and historical men who have written their autobiographies and memoirs without hesitating to mention their membership in the Craft. Biographers who have delved deeply into the lives of such men find considerable references to Masonry in the personal letters, other correspondence, speeches or comments as well – not to mention their specific lodge where they were initiated. It works the opposite way too when we find a prominent or historical figure who is believed to be a Freemason, but whose autobiographical work, memoirs, personal letters, speeches and his family fail to make any reference or mention of his affiliation to the Craft; we should take that as an reasonable indicator that he was not a Mason.
The latest inaptness regarding historical figures and other prominent men who are purported by some to be members of the fraternity often originates on and from the Internet. Numerous claims that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and his father, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Billy Graham, and even Walt Disney, among others, are often found on web sites declaring these men are Masons. None, however, was or is. The ability to cut and paste opinions, thoughts, unfounded beliefs and plain nonsensebetween social networks, chat rooms, blogs and dazzling, graphic-filled web sites allows the proliferation of unsubstantiated and incorrect information about men affiliated with Masonry.
As noted by the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon (BCY), a well-known and widely respected source of valid and legitimate information about Freemasonry, even pop culture today has infiltrated the insinuation arena regarding claims of who is and is not affiliated with the fraternity within that industry. BCY notes in their page titled, Masonic References in the Hip Hop and Rap Community:
While Masonic references in hip hop and rap lyrics are rare, and are detailed on the Masonic references in music webpage, within the rap and hip hop community itself there appears to be a growing, misinformed, awareness of Freemasonry. There is no documented evidence that any of the artists noted on these pages are or have been Freemasons. In context it would appear that references to Freemasonry and the Illuminati are simply extensions of hip-hop and rap music's preoccupation with the symbols of power and authority.
When Due Trial and Strict Examination is Lacking
Masons are no stranger to the term and meaning of due trial and strict examination.
Before a man who is not known by a Mason may sit in lodge, he undergoes due trial and examination. During such formal examination by designated members of the lodge being visited, he may be asked to demonstrate grips, handshakes, and signs or speak a particular password to substantiate, thus prove he is indeed a Freemason. He may also be asked to present official credentials to give evidence he is a member in good standing of his own regular lodge. If a Mason known to be such vouches for a man who is not known to be a Mason, that is, attests that he knows him to be a Mason and member in good standing, then the man may by-pass a formal due trial and examination and be admitted to the lodge. Masons universally practice this process and those who are not vouched for by a known Mason or successfully pass the examination are not permitted to sit in open lodge.
What makes this practice universal and stringent is that Masons take an obligation to determine… by means of due trail…that a man is Mason before speaking of the mysteries of Freemasonry. Of course, the obligation refers to trying and examining men who are alive, not deceased historical figures. The kind of due trial and strict examination required for the deceased is called research.
In 1900, Edmund D. Halsey, an American author, offered a glowing example of the consequences of ignoring the process of performing reasonable due-trial-and-examination-by-research when writing about historical figures and Freemasonry. Halsey (the Annals of the Grand Lodge of Iowa, Volume XVII, 1901 notes that Halsey is not a Freemason) had written several books about history, but it was his work titled Freemasonry in Morristown in the Revolutionary War published in 1900 as Appendix A to the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey, that led to the wide-spread belief that Alexander Hamilton, the Revolutionary War hero, signer of the U.S. Constitution and first Secretary of the Treasury was a Freemason.
Halsey categorically stated that Alexander Hamilton visited American Union Lodge in Marietta, Ohio on December 27, 1779 and March 6, 1780. By visiting the lodge it would be assumed Hamilton was known as a Mason by men who were Masons, or successfully underwent the appropriate due trial and examination which allowed him to sit in the lodge. From 1900 forward, Hamilton was reported as, and believed to have been, a Freemason although no records existed of his initiation or membership in the Fraternity in any writings by or about him.
Prior to Halsey’s story, there was little if any contention that Alexander Hamilton was a Mason. Sidney Hayden, in his book Washington and His Masonic Compeers, first published in 1866, makes no mention of Hamilton, and that book was unchallenged and considered a valid resource by Masons and historical authorities of the time.
Masonic writer and the historian of the Grand Council of Connecticut Royal & Select Masters, James R. Case ended the belief Alexander Hamilton was a Mason in 1955. Case reported in his essay, The Hamilton Bi-Centennial (reprinted in the 2009, Fiat Lux Vol. 1, published by the Philalethes Society) that a man named Hamilton did indeed visit American Union Lodge in 1779 and 1780, but it was Lieutenant John Hamilton, of the 1st Maryland Regiment and member of Lodge 6 in Maryland. John Hamilton was a later member of Military Lodge No. 29.
Case also noted in his essay, “Since the appearance of the Halsey story, the identification of Alexander Hamilton as a Freemason has been made a matter of record in many articles and publications. The 1946 edition of Mackey's Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry goes so far as to state that it was Alexander who was present at Morristown, "identified because [he was] the only one of that name then holding a commission in the army." This broad statement can readily be refuted by reference to Heitmann's Register of Continental Officers where no less than twenty-two Hamiltons are listed. The DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] Ancestral Register contains at least forty Hamiltons and SAR [Sons of the American Revolution] records have more than twice as many. The Hamiltons were extensively patriotic.”
William R. Denslow in 10,000 Famous Freemasons, also discredits information about Hamilton being a Mason, but aptly points out that Phillip Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s youngest son who was an assistant district attorney in New York, was indeed a Mason; a member of Albion Lodge No. 26 and Master of the same in 1829.
The impulse to claim Alexander Hamilton, a man of such historic note as a Freemason based only on a man with the same last name attending meeting at American Union Lodge, the famous traveling lodge held in the Connecticut Line Regiments of the Continental Army, may have been too sensational of a find for Halsey to resist and others not to embrace. Until Case fully examined Halsey’s claim, many publications referenced Alexander Hamilton as a member of the Craft based exclusively on Halsey’s writing. The event shows precisely why it is critical not to use enthusiasm as a substitute for the facts.
Zachary Taylor who in 1849 ran for the nomination for president in the Whig Party against another Kentuckian, Henry Clay (who was a Mason) has often been recorded as a Freemason despite the fact that he said he was not on several occasions. Known as "Old Rough and Ready," Taylor’s forty-year military career included serving in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War. He achieved fame leading American troops to victory in the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Monterrey during the Mexican–American War.
Taylor professed many times during his public life that he had been associated with many Freemasons and had “always entertained a favorable impression” of the institution. Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons tells us that Taylor said that he would have joined the fraternity had he not been so consumed by “camp duties” and that by the end of his military career he believed he was “too old.” Denslow also notes that the Grand Lodge of New York led several New York lodges in military and civic funeral services for Taylor. The Masonic funeral service is conducted only at the request of a brother or member of his immediate family. The choice always belongs to the family, not to the lodge. There is no record of a brother or Taylor’s family requesting a Masonic funeral. It should be noted that the services referred to by Denslow for Taylor were military and civic and not Masonic, thus Masons attending a funeral out of respect for a man does not make that man a Mason, but it could certainly cause others to believe the man was a Mason.
Those services held by the Grand Lodge of New York perhaps led to the accepted belief Taylor was a Freemason. Zachary Taylor Lodge Number 166 in Kiddville, Kentucky was named in his honor. Marsh Lodge No. 188 in New York referred to him in letters as a “brother.” Two lodges in Portland, Maine sent representatives to attend in his funeral service, and Santa Rosa Lodge in Milton Florida passed a Commemorative Resolution on “the death of “Brother Taylor,” again according to Denslow.
A friend of Taylor’s, Rob Morris, the 2nd Poet Laureate of Freemasonry and Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky when Taylor was president also said, according to Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons (Vol. 3) that Taylor was not a member of the fraternity. The closest Taylor may have gotten to a Masonic event was at the cornerstone-laying ceremony of the equestrian statue of George Washington in Richmond, Virginia, in February, 1850 — not the Washington Monument in Washington DC, as often reported. The mistaken report of Taylor being present at the cornerstone ceremony as president or present at the dedication of the Washington Monument is another glaringly inaccuracy since he was not president when the Richmond cornerstone ceremony took place and had been dead for 37 years when the Washington Monument was dedicated in 1885. Chester A. Arthur was the president and delivered that dedication speech. The discrepancies appear in many publications and even some federal government documents and web sites.
Although not as widespread as stories about Taylor and Hamilton being Masons, there is another mistaken Masonic inference worth noting as an example of how assumption often takes the place of sound research and strict examination – this one involves the pallbearers at George Washington’s funeral.
The actual pallbearers were all lieutenants from the 106th Regiment of Virginia. Those men were Lawrence Hoof, James Turner, George Wise and William Moss. Moss had to be replaced somewhere between the house and the tomb during the process. George Corell took his place.
The honorary pallbearers, (referred to at the time as pall-holders) for Washington were Colonels Charles Little, William Payne, George Gilpin, Dennis Ramsey and Phillip Marsteller. Each man has been reported over the years to have been Freemasons.
While Washington indeed received a Masonic funeral, it did not mean that all the people in attendance, much less all the pallbearers were Freemasons.
The History of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration, Volume II, Literature Series (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1932) offers the facts about the pallbearers at Washington’s funeral. The Commission documents that Martha Washington designated the Masonic Fraternity to take charge of the funeral. She requested, however, that Colonel Philip Marsteller, who was not a Mason, be one of the pallbearers. The five remaining pallbearers were indeed all Masons.
Marsteller was a close friend of George and Martha Washington and former Mayor of Alexandria, Virginia at the time of the funeral. During the American Revolution, Marsteller assisted in raising troops, attended the Continental Congress in 1776, and served as a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Battalion of Lancaster County militia. He also held several other prominent positions during the war.
The assumption that each honorary pallbearer was a Mason seems also to have stemmed from a plaque which was donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1909, which was positioned and dedicated at Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. The plaque bears the names of the actual and honorary pallbearers and reads: In Memory and Honor of the Pall Bearers of George Washington Fellow Townsmen, Brother Masons, Trusted Friends, Comrades in the Cause of American Independence. The notation that some men were fellow townsmen, trusted friends and comrades seems to have been overshadowed by the words, “Brother Mason.”
And so, this circumstance is yet another example of faux extrapolation and factual slanting, not to mention a failure to read the fine print, all of which so often results in historical inaccuracies being perpetuated.