February 19 was President's Day, when America honors the 43 men who have ascended to the nation's highest office since 1789, when George Washington took the first presidential oath. Seldom noted amid the school projects is the fact that Washington was the first of 14 of our chief executives who have been Freemasons.
Freemasonry is an ancient worldwide fraternity or club dedicated, its members say, to brotherhood, good works and wisdom.
Some say Freemasonry, also called simply "Masonry," began with the secret societies of ancient Greece and Egypt. Others say its roots lie with the stonemason guilds of medieval Europe. Whatever the roots of Masonry, modern Washington, D.C. is full of the Masonic imagery cherished by the fourteen U.S. presidents who have counted themselves among the Masonic "brethren."
The giant obelisk known as the Washington Monument, for example, was dedicated by Masons. The cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol was laid by George Washington, wearing a ritual apron and using the special tools to which his membership in the Masons entitled him.
A painting of the scene hangs in the hushed wooden offices of retired Navy Rear Admiral William G. Sizemore, 33rd Degree Mason and Director of Education and Americanism at the Mother Supreme Council of the World Headquarters of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, United States of America.
"We take great pride that the father of our country, George Washington, was a Mason," says Sizemore. "And as we've moved along through the history of our country, many of our presidents were Masons. Many of the writers of the Constitution were Masons."
Freemasonry burgeoned during the so-called Enlightenment period of the 18th century. It was a time when many American and European intellectuals, many of whom were Masons, began to question the Divine origins of the monarchy, and to assert that freedom of conscience and religious freedom were universal rights as well as traditional Masonic values.
Past Masonic Grandmaster and current Masonic leader Richard Fletcher of Vermont says because many of these intellectuals were also American revolutionaries, they were able to influence the way their new republic would work. "Freemasons were deeply involved in the creation of this country because a great underpinning of Freemasonry is the right of people to choose their own leaders, the right of people to think for themselves [and] the right of people to vote," says Fletcher. "We also strongly and firmly believe in public education, the right of the people to learn... That's what the United States became. And in its early history, Freemasons played a very prominent role in this."
That is why, according to Mr. Fletcher, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were Masons. The masons are so liberally represented among the early presidents.
"You do not have to become a Freemason to become a good president," Fletcher says, "but I believe some of our great presidents have been Freemasons. And I think there is more than coincidence to this. They were men that believed in freedom. They were men that believed in human rights. They were men that believed in education. They were men that believed you could think for yourself. Their highest goal was to serve the nation."
Richard Fletcher adds that these qualities were integral to the populist style of Masonic President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who was elected to the White House in 1828. "He was viewed as one of the common men. He brought people around him that were 'from the ranks,' and he touched a lot of the populace in this country in a way that made them feel he was friend to all of them and that he was 'their guy.'" Fletcher says Jackson was not "as regal as some of the earlier presidents and was quite down to earth in his dealings with people. But I can tell you one thing: you knew exactly where you stood with the man!"
Many 20th century presidents have been Masons. Both Roosevelts were Masons, for example. And Gerald Ford, our 38th president was a Mason, as was Harry S. Truman , who occupied the Oval Office from 1945 to 1953. Fletcher says he has special respect for President Truman, both as a Mason and as a chief executive. "Harry Truman once said that his decisions, he never gave a second thought to them once they were made."
Fletcher notes that when Truman was a U.S. Senator, prior to becoming President, he held the highest office in Freemasonry, Grandmaster. "And he said on several occasions that he was most proud of this office, because it had been given to him by his brothers. He did not seek it."
George Enders, a guide at the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, says it was a sense of brotherhood between Masons that inspired him to join the fraternity. It is a sentiment he says all masons must share whether they become presidents or not. "Each president had in himself the idea of being friends with everybody," he says. "It's our responsibility to look after each other. Now I don't mean they have to be high[ly] educated -- high judges, multi-millionaires or anything like this. The common man that digs a ditch has the same feelings as that man up there. It makes you stop and think. My country is built on this. And I'm part of my country!"
The worldwide Masonic movement claims an estimated 4.5 million members, with lodges, or chapters, in almost every country in the world