Freemasonry in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

by Hans Schwartz (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 370 Pages


This groundbreaking work explores the important role of the 18th century masonic movement in transAtlantic trade, politics, and social development. It offers important new insight into the role of freemasonry in forming international trade networks, its role in organizing resistance to British rule in the American colonies, and masonry’s role in the development of Haiti, the wider Caribbean, and the African Atlantic. With special focus on the vibrant international masonic networks emanating from Boston and Saint Domingue, this book explores the formation of commercial and political networks that altered the face of the Atlantic world and the early American republics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Part I Introduction
  • 1 The Ancient and Honorable Society
  • 2 Global Growth, Politics and Persecution: The Grand Lodge and Universal Freemasonry
  • Part II Print Culture in Creating and Connection Franklin’s “Masonic Democracy”
  • 3 “Lovers of the Liberal Arts and Sciences”: Freemasonry and the Scientific Enlightenment
  • 4 From Noah to Newton: Creating the History of an Ancient Society
  • 5 Navigating the Masonic Globe: Print Culture, Masonic Communication and Connection in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic and Beyond
  • Part III New World Networks: The Craft from Puritan New England to the Sugar Isles
  • 6 St. John’s Grand Lodge Boston: “Masonry in British America has Wholely Originated from Us.”
  • 7 The Grand Lodges’ Correspondence: Communication and Connection in the British Masonic Atlantic
  • 8 Making Headlines: The Craft in the Colonial Press
  • 9 The Lodge of St. Andrew: “Headquarters of the Revolution”
  • 10 Revolutionary Boston and Beyond: Freemasonry and the Sons of Liberty
  • 11 Boston’s African Lodge: Hub of the Black Masonic Universe
  • 12 Freemasonry Across the Black Atlantic
  • 13 Perfect Scots, Peevish Gauls, and American Republicans: The Far—Flung Masonic Networks of the French Caribbean
  • 14 Commerce, Connections, and Conspiracy Theorists: Pennsylvania’s Grand Lodge of Santo Domingo
  • Epilogue: “To Vie with the Best Established Republic”
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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The Ancient and Honorable Society

“As the success of every political affair depends in a great measure upon the secrecy with which it is carried on, and the welfare of the society of free-masons, which in its institutions may vie with the best established republic… so the society of free-masons has flourished during so long a time by secrecy alone…”1

Whether or not Bostonian sea Captain Zebina Sears had by 1817 read the 1762 pamphlet A FREE-MASON’S ANSWER TO THE Suspected AUTHOR of a Pamphlet, ENTITLED JACHIN and BOAZ; or, an authentic Key to Free-Masonry quoted above, freemasonry, secrecy and the establishment of new republics led him on a real-life odyssey that could vie with the wildest tales of Stevenson, Melville or any weaver of mariners’ yarns. Sears, commander of the brig Neptune, had captained three privateering voyages in the service of the state of La Plata in the Argentine war of independence. It was in the service of another nascent Latin American nation, Mexico, that Spanish forces captured Captain Sears and imprisoned him on the coast of North Africa. Masonic secrecy and brotherhood with Spanish officials, Moroccan Muslims and a Jewish merchant in Africa were to free him from both the Spanish authorities and Barbary slavery and deliver him safely home to Boston.

Spanish lawyer and anti-Napoleonic guerrilla turned Revolutionary Francisco Xavier Mina had fled to England following a failed coup he had led against King ←3 | 4→Ferdinand VII. There he joined South American patriots, determined to continue the fight in the colonies. Mina next sailed to Norfolk, Virginia where he succeeded in raising support for the cause, leaving with a flotilla of three ships which headed south to target Spanish ships from a base on Galveston Island. Seeking further support, Mina went to New Orleans in February, 1817 where he bought two ships, the Cleopatra and Captain Sears’ Neptune. On April 11 this small army landed at Soto la Marina at the mouth of the Santander River with eight ships and 235 men, Zebina Sears and the Neptune among them. After several small victories the rebels were routed and captured. Francisco Mina’s saga ended by firing squad on November 11, 1817, but Sears and four other Americans landed in Cadiz, news relayed to their countrymen by the Newburyport Herald on September 1, 1818, two months after their arrival in Spain. According to the American Minister at Gibraltar Horatio Sprague, Captain Z. Sears of Boston, Mr. T. Weston of Philadelphia and Thomas C. Conklin of Baltimore were confined at Ceuta, though Sears later told family he had been held at Melilla, both penal colonies on the North African Coast.

The tale of Zebina Sears’ escape from Spanish captivity and Moroccan slavery is best told in words of descendant Alfred Sears: “Being a mason, the captain received good treatment from the commander of the transport, himself a Mason. By similar fraternal aid, he escaped from Melilla to the Moorish coast and there by the good offices of a Mohometan [sic] Moor, who recognized him as a brother Mason, he was rescued from the hands of the man who, though slavery had been abolished in Morocco, wished to keep him in bondage. The Mahometan escorted Captain Sears to the interior, where he turned him over to a Jewish Mason bound for Fez. There, he was taken in charge by some English merchants and finally reached his home in Boston, after an absence of three years.” The National Intelligencer reported on his escape, “Gibraltar, July 19, [1819] Capt. Zebina Sears, who has been long a captive of the Spaniard, and confined on the Island of Melillo [sic], on the coast of Barbary, has made his escape, and got among the Moors. It is expected he is now at Tangiers”. Ironically, while Zebina suffered brief enslavement in a Moorish merchant’s caravan the revolution in Spain had compelled the king to grant amnesty to all political prisoners, including Sears’ compatriots. Captain Sears finally sailed into Boston Harbor on the schooner Eagle on May 20, 1820.2

Sears was saved first by several masonic brothers in the service of the Spanish crown, then by his Moroccan Muslim brother who conducted him to a Jewish freemason who found him a free berth on an English merchant ship by way of Marseille, France. The masonic fraternity was deeply embedded in every facet ←4 | 5→of Captain Sears’s journey. It played a major role in maritime commerce among American, British and Jewish merchants. Freemasonry contributed to the republican revolutionary movements in Spain and Latin America in which Sears had become embroiled, and ubiquitous in the maritime trade of England and well established at Marseille.

Boston, the start and end point of Zebina’s adventures, holds distinction as the first and most important port in the spread of freemasonry across the New World and a focal point of the story which follows. The printed word and the merchant seaman combined to create an interconnected masonic movement spanning the Atlantic and beyond. That story will be told alongside the tales of many of Zebina Sears’ brother masons, in the pages to come. Much of the story centers around the three grand lodges, two white and one black, in Boston. Saint Domingue served an analogous role in the French Caribbean; and, as the story unfolds, there will be stops in many ports of call spanning the major empires of the Atlantic World.

Beginning in a London tavern exactly one century before Sears’s capture, masonic internationalism, ideology, administrative structures and masons’ strong sense of shared identity and brotherhood made Sears and his rescuers, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Citizens of the Masonic Democracy”. The institutions of Franklin’s masonic democracy—its constitutions, laws, international diplomacy—were dispersed across every continent Europeans had made landfall upon, so that the Ancient and Honorable society truly “could vie with the best established republic.” Indeed, an enlightened ‘parallel republic’ is perhaps the best way to view the eighteenth century masonic movement in keeping with the identity of its brethren.3

In 1717, four lodges of freemasons in London, led by the elite membership of the Horn lodge, agreed to form the Premier Grand Lodge of All England. Though not stated overtly, these highly placed “free and accepted masons”, virtually none of whom had any real connection to the building trade, had more in mind than simply obtaining power over a loosely connected group of social clubs and actual “operative” stonemasons. Within a few years they published and publicized the history, constitutions, and laws of their new “ancient and honorable” society, asserting a bold claim as an elite order which had served as the vanguard of progress and civilization throughout the ages beginning in antediluvian antiquity. They courted noble celebrities to serve as grand masters and in other high offices, and used their connections in powerful and influential circles to recruit elite membership. Making skillful use of public pageantry, the vibrant London press, and the intellectual tides of Newtonian science, antiquarianism, club ←5 | 6→sociability, Whig political ideology and cosmopolitanism which swirled together into the British Enlightenment, they created a multifaceted organization offering multiple levels of appeal to a wide swath of British and Continental society. Carried by merchants and cosmopolitan aristocrats, two decades on the newly revamped society of freemasons had spread from their four London lodges across Europe to the court of Czarist Russia, into North Africa and the Mediterranean, Bengal and India, and from New England to the West Indies. In 1733, the first provincial grand lodge in the Americas appeared in Boston.

The ritual, history, and ideology created by the architects of the grand lodge of England was cohesive enough to imbue the organization with a sense of pride and purpose and to give masons around the world and across ethnic, religious, and political borders a sense of common identity strong enough to erase those boundaries in their dealings with foreign brethren. At the same time, it was flexible enough to adapt to local sensibilities and realities and to appeal to different men in different ways. Although the Premier Grand Lodge of All England has maintained primacy as the wellspring of masonic knowledge and organization, it was never able to exert complete authority over the entirety of the masonic nation it had created. Nor was it able to maintain uncontested control of the invented history or ritual which it had so successfully marketed as the legacy of an ancient order. The claim to having been one part of a venerable, global organization created room for others to claim equal and even more authentic masonic legacies and for intellectuals in and out of the fraternity to debate the true origins and intentions of this “ancient” fraternity. The emphasis on supporting and advancing the progressive socio-political order of Hanoverian England was reinterpreted by radical republicans in both North and South America, Europe, Ireland and even among some Britons to support subversive and even revolutionary movements.

Freemasonry was the first truly global, secular, private organization. Within a few decades of the founding of the grand lodge in 1717 merchant seamen and cosmopolitan elites had spread freemasonry across Europe, the Americas, and Asia and had a foothold in Africa. The global reach of freemasonry crossed borders political, spiritual, racial, and imperial. The travelogue of Maryland doctor Alexander Hamilton records an episode in Philadelphia in which a Barbadian gentleman alleged, among other things, that the fraternity was an “imperium et imperio”. Dr. Hamilton stated that “though not a mason himself” he considered the fraternity harmless. Within five years of that 1744 conversation the doctor had become the Master of the colony’s first lodge, which in turn gained its authority through the most active masonic hotbed of the colonial Americas, Boston.4

←6 | 7→The nexus of elite London masons who formed the first Grand Lodge in 1717, was actively connected with both the political and the scientific side of the Enlightenment. However, this was not the fraternity’s only purpose, and for the average mason probably not its main focus. The Craft offered a combination of sociability with the prospect of social climbing. Doing business was another important objective. In the bustling English port of Bristol, pilots flew masonic flags to attract the attention of brother sea captains putting in to port. Once in port, there were any number of lodges in which a brother might find freemasons involved in commerce or in the many trades servicing the bustling maritime world of the mid-1700s. Freemasons in Saint- Domingue proudly informed the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania that they sent a brother to the harbor to find any masons who may have arrived on foreign ships and offer them whatever aid they might require. Merchants and planters, their aid was both fraternal and commercial. Captain George Smith reported a similar practice in French ports where British prisoners of war disembarked during the American War of Independence: “during this last war people were employed along the coast to find out who were free-masons among the prisoners of war; and those who were fortunately found to be such, were immediately taken out of confinement, had free liberty to walk in the city where they pleased, and were most generously supplied with every thing they, in their different stations, stood in need of.” Stories of the rescue of masonic prisoners of war abound from the 1740s to the Second World War and from Indian country to Zebina Sears escape from Morocco.5

Had the English masonic “grand architects” of 1717 lived to see the end of their century they might have been dismayed by many of the novel formulations and interpretations the highly protean society they had created had gone through in its amazing expansion to every inhabited continent. Even so, they would have gloried in seeing Paris’s Loge Neuf Souers, a lodge that catered exclusively to scientists, artists, and the nobility, where intellectual lights from across Europe met under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin, America’s greatest scientific mind. Whatever they might have thought of the Revolutionary United States, the ubiquicy of their masonic “Craft” among its founders, leaders, and freemen may well have gratified the group’s Royal Society Fellows, magistrates, and other London elites who turned an archaic organization of the late Middle Ages into a massively popular international fraternity. At the same time, it was a popular movement of the Enlightenment so resembling an alternate republic, or empire, spanning Europe and her vast imperial holdings around the world that religious and secular authorities across Europe, Ibero-America and ultimately even in the United States sought its extermination.6

←7 | 8→Contemporary Masonic intellectuals such as Franklin and the anonymous author of A Freemason’s Answer as well as the fraternity’s detractors saw the Craft- as freemasonry came to be called- as a transnational institution binding them to brethren around the world; a parallel republic. Freemasonry had its own system of jurisprudence and diplomacy. Lodges issued certificates which served as passports and maintained and upheld international masonic law through print culture and correspondence that crossed both oceans and national borders. Another part of the enduring mystique of freemasonry was the seemingly uncanny ability of masons to identify brethren and locate lodges in far flung ports of call. An eighteenth-century freemason, be he a common seaman, a merchant captain, a gentleman aristocrat, or even a prisoner of war, was able to navigate the global “republic of masonry” in an age in which communication was slow, literacy far from universal, and when many kinds of information taken for granted in the modern day were often difficult or impossible to obtain. Commercial networks and the remarkable Masonic print culture that sprang up in the 1700s created mental maps of the masonic world that crossed national, imperial, religious, social and geographic boundaries. Moreover, the international masonic community overlapped the major diasporic nations of the Atlantic, the Huguenots, Jews, and the Black Atlantic. Each of these groups adopted and interpreted masonic ideals in their own way and contributed to the development of the international fraternity.

What follows is the first attempt to understand freemasonry’s role as a global movement, focusing primarily on the Atlantic world and in particular on the role the craft played in the commerce, politics and cultural development of the colonial Americas. It will trace the overlapping evolution of freemasonry as an intellectual movement supported by a rich print and material culture and its role in European expansion. This tale covers a far wider territory than Brother Sears’ great escape, but much of it occurs in ports of call familiar to that republican pirate: Boston, the Caribbean, along the Atlantic trade winds, and in the intellectual worlds of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. As a work of synthesis, it begin by connecting the important and excellent work of previous scholars on British, European, and early American freemasonry with the original works of eighteenth century freemasons to reinterpret freemasonry as a parallel republic, at least in the minds of the most enthusiastic brethren.

From here, the present work charts new ground by elucidating the importance of the Craft in cross—imperial Atlantic commerce and migration. Traders carried masonry throughout the New World and to the non-European old world. In so doing, they brought a vibrant cultural movement and a sense of shared identity ←8 | 9→and connection that transcended political and religious division and on a more practical level developed networks of intercontinental business, both legal and illegal, that greatly enhanced the development of the Atlantic economy. Masons used print culture to create a shared sense of identity, what Ben Franklin termed “the Masonic Democracy” and an earlier Boston sermon called the “kingdom of Masonry”. By the 1760s Danish Brethren referred to masonry’s “Republican freedom,” while the Grand Lodge of Austria stated that “every lodge is a democracy”. As the eighteenth century progressed into the Age of Revolutions, creoles from Northern New England to Haiti to South America inspired by masonic ideals and practices became the leaders of independence movements and the founders of the new American republics.7

A recent story passed on by former Grand Librarian of Massachusetts Cynthia Alcorn illustrates the sustained belief in the freemasonry’s connections to utmost antiquity. Several young members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect entered the library after having finished a tour of the grand lodge. One politely inquired about the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts does contain various masonic ‘treasures’ including a pistol belonging to Brother John Paul Jones and a lock of Brother George Washington’s hair encased in a golden urn crafted by Brother Paul Revere; however, the Ark of the Covenant is not ensconced in any Masonic building in Boston. In another case, the master of a lodge in urban Lynn, Massachusetts related that a candidate entered the fraternity, finished his three degrees of ritual initiation- Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason- then asked the master to perform an exorcism on his house, which “had spirits”. The new master mason was bewildered to find that this is not a service provided by masonic lodges. Widespread among contemporary masons is the belief that the fraternity is a secretive continuation of the Knights Templar, a tale created by eighteenth century French Freemasonry, more recently supported by John Robinson’s popular but deeply flawed Born in Blood: the Lost Secrets of Freemasonry.


X, 370
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (August)
freemasonry freemasons Atlantic world American Revolution trade networking Saint Domingue American history African American history commerce colonial migration Freemasonary in the Revolutionary Atlantic World Hans Schwartz Boston
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. X, 370 pp., 32 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Hans Schwartz (Author)

Hans Schwartz earned his doctorate in Atlantic World and early American history from Clark University and his masters in history from Salem State University. He has presented papers at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, the German Historical Institute, and the Ars Quoatuor Coronati conference, among others, and has published chapters in several books on freemasonry. As a professor, he has taught at institutions including Northeastern, Clark, and Endicott College as well as in Japan.


Title: Freemasonry in the Revolutionary Atlantic World