George Washington was a Mason. So were Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe (Monroe’s Masonic apron appears in the James Monroe Museum photo, above). No fewer than eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were at least thirteen of the signers of the Constitution. Was James Madison a Mason, as is sometimes stated? How about his father James Madison Sr.? Looking through the documents in the Montpelier Research Database (MRD) can help us sort through conflicting claims.
Some writers have suggested that James Madison was a member of a Masonic lodge in Princeton, or that he was a member of Hiram Lodge No. 59 in Westmoreland County. Neither lodge has surviving records to support these claims.1For example, Christopher Hodapp states that Madison was a member of Hiram Lodge in his book Solomon’s Builders: Freemasons, Founding Father and the Secrets of Washington, D. C. (2006). Hodapp notes that Hiram Lodge’s records have been lost. By using the MRD, however, we can find Madison’s own words on the subject: “I never was a mason, and no one perhaps could be more a stranger to the principles, rites and fruits of the institution.”2James Madison to Stephen Bates, January 24, 183, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 37437.
Library of Congress image
Madison made this remark when asked to comment on an anti-Masonry pamphlet in January 1832. While Masonry (or Freemasonry) traces its origins to medieval stonemasons’ guilds, it was primarily a fraternal organization by the eighteenth century, with rituals that made symbolic use of builders’ tools such as the trowel, the level, the plumb, and the square and compass (still familiar today as the primary Masonic emblem). Gentlemen of the Revolutionary era joined a Masonic lodge for camaraderie with others who embraced Freemasonry’s Enlightenment ideals, such as freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and the equality of man. By the 1820s and 1830s, however, suspicion of the secret organization was rising in the United States. Freemasonry’s Deist philosophy brought it into conflict with Catholic, Lutheran, and other Christian churches, and its sometime support of slavery brought it into conflict with the abolitionist cause. The 1826 disappearance and possible murder of William Morgan, a former member who planned to publish Masonic secrets, further fanned suspicion of the organization. Anti-Masonry became a movement in its own right, so much so that a specifically anti-Masonic party ran a candidate for President in November 1832 and won Vermont’s electoral votes.3“The Strange History of Masons in America”, JSTOR Daily, August 3, 2017, accessed March 1, 2019.
While Madison wasn’t a Mason, he wasn’t an anti-Mason either. In his January 1832 letter, Madison continued that while he had never considered Masonry “dangerous or noxious,” the number of people speaking out against it made him think that it was “at least susceptable of abuses.” (Madison received another treatise on “Masonry & Anti-Masonry” in June 1832 as the election approached. His reply indicated that the topic was “a subject to which I have paid little attention, but which seems now to have acquired much importance in the United States.”)4James Madison to William L. Stone, June 25, 1832, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 19140.
Like Son, Like Father
The fact that Madison did not mention his father in his January 1832 letter may suggest that James Madison Sr. was not a Mason either. If his father had been a Mason, it would be more difficult for Madison to claim such a complete lack of familiarity with Masonic principles and rites, and Madison would have had the opportunity to cite his father’s character as a recommendation of the organization.
In fact, it would have been challenging for either Madison or his father to have been an active Mason, since it was not until 1825 that the Independent Orange Lodge No. 138 was established.5 Ambrose Madison is listed on the Orange Lodge’s December 13, 1825 charter as the Junior Warden; this is likely James Madison’s nephew (William Madison’s son, 1796-1855). The Lodge’s minute books for 1824-1856 are missing. See http://www.grandlodgeofvirginia.org/lodges/138/history.asp, accessed March 5, 2019. Until that time, the nearest Masonic Lodges were located in Culpeper (Fairfax Lodge No. 43, chartered in 1794), Louisa (Day Lodge No. 58, possibly chartered in 1799), Charlottesville (Widows Sons Lodge No. 60, chartered in Milton in 1799 and moved to Charlottesville in 1815), and Fredericksburg (Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4, chartered 1758.)6See Lodge History pages for individual lodges at http://www.grandlodgeofvirginia.org/lodges/frmAllLodges.asp, accessed March 5, 2019.
Joining the Honorable Fraternity?
There is one particular letter that some have cited as evidence that Madison was a Mason. In 1795 John Francis Mercer congratulated Madison on his marriage by making a tongue-in-cheek reference to Madison “becoming a free Mason—a very ancient & honorable fraternity” and alluding to Dolley as “the fair prophetess who has converted you to the true faith.”7John Francis Mercer to James Madison, February 11, 1795, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 11181. The online Papers of James Madison notes that Mercer was making a figurative comparison. In actuality Mercer meant that Dolley had “converted” long-time bachelor Madison to embrace the institution of marriage and to join the “ancient & honorable fraternity” of married men! (Madison had done so on September 15, 1794.) No reply from Madison to this letter survives.
Inspired by working stonemasons’ aprons, Masonic aprons became a badge of membership and rank, and were worn during meetings. This Masonic apron, adorned with a variety of Masonic symbols, belonged to James Monroe and dates to 1786-1789. [James Monroe Museum photo] Both George Washington and James Monroe were Masons; a Masonic apron belonging to Washington can be seen here.
Laying the Cornerstone
As a member of the Board of Visitors of Central College (the future University of Virginia), Madison was present at the laying of its cornerstone on October 6, 1817. The ceremony as described by another Visitor, John Hartwell Cocke, included a number of Masonic elements. Madison’s presence at the ceremony, however, is not an indication that he was a Mason. Madison marched in procession with his fellow Visitors, not with the Masonic delegation. When the Masonic instruments were offered to the Board of Visitors, it was then-President James Monroe (a Visitor and a Mason) who performed the ritual act of trying the cornerstone with the square, the level, and the plumb. Madison clearly participated in the cornerstone ceremony as a member of the Board of Visitors, and did not perform any ritual actions that would suggest that he was a Mason himself.8Entry of October 6, 1817, John Hartwell Cocke, Diary 1816-1818, box 23, Cocke Family Papers, MS 640, etc., Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, MRD-S 39746.
This pipe bowl, decorated with the Masonic square and compass, was found in Montpelier’s South Yard in 2016. (Read more about the pipe bowl here). If neither James Madison nor his father had Masonic ties, it is all the more likely that someone in the enslaved community owned the pipe – someone who was making his own statement about liberty and equality, virtually under Madison’s nose.
Madison had many colleagues who were Masons, and he shared many of the Enlightenment ideals which were embraced by Masonry, like freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Given the lack of documentation for Madison joining a Masonic lodge, and Madison’s own statement that he was not a Mason, we can conclude that Madison lived in a culture influenced by Freemasonry, without choosing to become a member of the organization himself.
Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian
Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail and locating the perfect Madison quote for any occasion.