The Masonic Concept Of Liberty
Freemasonry and the Enlightenment
by W.Bro Alex Davidson

Past Master, United Masters Lodge no. 167 NZ Constitution
Past Master, Lodge of the Liberal Arts no. 500 NZ Constitution

The newly-made mason quickly assimilates the admonitions of the Craft. He has been instructed never to propose, or at all countenance, any act that may subvert the peace and good order of society, and to pay due obedience to the laws of the state. He is directed to abstain from discussing any political or religious topic in the lodge, and, by inference, at the meal or supper which follows the meeting.
If he eventually assumes the chair of K.S., he signifies his acceptance of the Ancient Charges and Regulations, the third of which enjoins him not to be concerned in plots or conspiracies against government, but patiently to submit to the decisions of the supreme legislature. He receives the approbation of his peers if he is a peaceable subject and law-abiding citizen.

In the course of his endeavours to make a daily advancement in masonic knowledge, our hypothetical mason finds that the Craft has ancient injunctions against political discussion and revolutionary action. The old ‘Sinclair Charters’ of Scotland explicitly acknowledge the patronage and protection of the crown, and in a manuscript from the mid-seventeenth century, it is demanded of masons:
‘. . . that you bee true men to the Kinge without any treason or falsehood and that you shall noe no treason or falsehood but you shall amend it or else give notice thereof to the Kinge.’ (Buchanan Manuscript).

The second Charge of the Constitutions of Anderson (1723) contains the affirmation that ‘a mason is a peaceable subject to the Civil Powers, wherever he resides or works, and is never to be concerned in plots and conspiracies against the peace and welfare of the Nation.’ The situation would seem to be quite unambiguous.
However, after further research, our good mason cannot help but remark a glaring contradiction in the history of Freemasonry. He discovers that the American revolutionary leaders of 1776, many of the draughters of their Constitution and Bill of Rights, and indeed the first presidents of the United States, were both Freemasons and rebels against their lawful sovereign and government. Even more alarmingly, many of the principal political actors of the French Revolution, particularly during its first phase, were prominent French Freemasons, mobilised under the originally masonic slogan of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.
Advancing in time from 1789, he finds that the great revolutions of the following century are led by Freemasons: Simon Bolivar, José de San Martin and Bernardo O’Higgins in South America; Vicente Guerrero, and later Benito Juarez, in Mexico; José Marti in Cuba, José Rizal in the Philippines, and Guiseppe Garibaldi in Italy. Most notably, the Texans who rebelled against the government of Mexico, and fought a successful war of secession, were predominantly masons, and indeed, all the presidents and vice-presidents of the Republic of Texas were masons too! What is he to make of all this?

The great paradox of Freemasonry is that its history is inextricably interwoven with the history of 18th and 19th century revolutions, at the same time as its writings firmly reject political disobedience and condemn subversion and revolt against the government of any land. I intend to unravel this paradox by two approaches; one philosophical, the other historical. For the former, I have adopted the thesis advanced by Giuliano di Bernardo, professor of philosophy, and for the latter, I refer particularly to a volume by Margaret Jacob, professor of history (but not, obviously, a mason). The two approaches, as we shall see, are not only compatible but complementary.
It is often stated that the original Constitutions of the Order were formulated within a particular historical context in England, characterised by dissidence between the royal house of Hanover on the one hand and the supporters of James Francis Edward Stuart, or James III for the Jacobites, on the other. With supporters of both factions in the English lodges, attempts were made to avoid conflict by protecting both. The situation was actually more complex than that, as we shall see, but this image makes a good starting point. Not wishing to inflame political differences between the brethren, it is claimed that Anderson wisely excluded the topic from polite lodge discourse, and emphasised the loyalty and peaceable nature of Freemasonry’s members.
Curiously, however, the Constitutions of 1723 specifically forbade the expulsion of a brother for such political crimes as fomenting revolution, although they insisted that ‘the loyal Brotherhood must and ought to disown his rebellion.’ The key to understanding the equivocal attitude towards dissent is the concept of liberty, and the philosophical context within which the brethren of the time understood this term.

The 18th century lodge records speak much of the ‘liberty’ of the brothers, or lay emphasis on the older term, ‘fraternity’, or, in seeking to describe the relationship between all brothers, speak of ‘equality’. What, precisely, did the Freemasons of the time mean by these words? ‘Liberty’ was clearly conceived of as something different from the custom of the guild to confer on its members the ‘freedom and privileges’ of practicing their craft. Mackey’s masonic encyclopædia of the early 20th century notes:
‘The word freedom is not here to be taken in its modern sense of liberty, but rather in its primitive Anglo-Saxon meaning of frankness, generosity, a generous willingness to work or perform one’s duty.’ (...)
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