Scottish Rite — Sept_Oct_2012
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Jefferson Davis
Chad E. Simpson

The Leader of the Great Rebellion Was a Freemason—Or Was He?

The150th Anniversary of the American Civil War has renewed interest among Freemasons and some historians in the role played by the fraternity and its members in that bloodiest of American tragedies. However, while historians may lament the perceived inaccessibility of Masonic records, Freemasons, who have access to those records, are too often satisfied with parroting the unsubstantiated stories of yesteryear rather than attempting to add to the common stock of knowledge and wisdom. (Michael Halleran in his recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature, is a refreshing example of a Freemason not satisfied with accepting unsubstantiated stories.)

As an instance of this lack of concern for historical fact, consider Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, who is sometimes listed as an example of a famous Freemason. Lists of famous Masons have long been popular with the fraternity, although fame, and not fact-checking, is sometimes the only requisite for inclusion on such a list. A quick Internet search for “Jefferson Davis” and “Freemasonry” yields a handful of websites—some Masonic but mostly Anti-Masonic—that list Davis as a brother Mason. However, this claim is false.

Jefferson Davis was not a Mason.

An article in the January 1886 New York Times refutes the claim that he was a member of the fraternity. The article, titled, “Never Was a Mason—Jefferson Davis’ Reply to an Indirect Attack on Freemasonry” was a response to an anti-Masonic circular sent to Davis himself, which claimed that,

Benedict Arnold, the first traitor to American liberty, learned his patriotism in Hiram Lodge, No. 1, New-Haven, Conn., and died a Freemason in good and regular standing. Aaron Burr, another traitor to the Government, plotted his treason in Royal Arch Chapter, and also died as a Free and Accepted Mason in good and regular standing. Jefferson Davis, a Free and Accepted Mason, led the great rebellion, and the fact did not even taint his Masonic standing, but did have much to do in securing his pardon.

The article goes on to explain that Davis enclosed a copy of the circular with a letter that he mailed to his friend Col- Onel J. L. Power, who was Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Mississippi from 1869 to 1901. The letter is worth quoting in its entirety as it speaks directly to the question of Davis’s membership in the Masonic Fraternity and succinctly states his response to the accusation that he was a traitor.

Dear Sir:

I have received, with others of a similar character, the inclosed [sic] sheet, having a paragraph underlined to secure my attention, and I send it to you to attract your notice. Under the head of “Summary” is a concentrated distillation of malice and mendacity. The main attack seems to be against the fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons, and, as many slanderers have heretofore done, the writer avails himself of a sectional prejudice existing against me to point his attack against Freemasonry, and in less than the three underscored lines perpetrates at least as many falsehoods. First, I, Jefferson Davis, am not, and never have been, a Free and Accepted Mason; second, as a citizen of the sovereign State of Mississippi, I obeyed her commands, and as sovereigns cannot “rebel,” neither led or followed a rebellion, great or small; third, as I had no Masonic standing, the assertion that it was not tainted by the imputed act of mine rests upon a fact, but upon a misrepresentation; fourth, Masonry could not have “much to do with securing my pardon,” as I have never been pardoned nor applied for a pardon or appealed to Masonry to secure to me the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus that I might have the constitutional right of every American citizen to be confronted with my accusers. To exclude possible inference I will add that my father was a Mason, and I was reared to regard the fraternity with respect, and have never felt any disapproval of it other than that which pertains to every secret society. Viewing Freemasonry from a distance, and judging the tree by its fruit, I have believed it to be in itself good. Respectfully and truly yours, JEFFERSON DAVIS.

The advances of the electronic age continue to make more and more historical records easily assessable to even the most casual researcher—the article above may be found via Google in just a few keystrokes. Masonic scholars and researchers should also be aware of other digital treasures; the entire multi-volume set of the Official Records of the Civil War are now Available online as wordsearchable documents. Many Grand Lodges are working with the George Washington National Masonic Memorial to have their annual proceedings digitized and placed online. However, much of the local Masonic records are still contained in dusty tomes that rarely see the light of day.

For those Freemasons who have access to their lodge archives and minute books, now is the time to review those records and add to the common stock of knowledge so that we all might better understand the role of Freemasonry and Freemasons in the Civil War and American society.

Chad Simpson is an officer in the Valley of Columbus, Ohio, NMJ. His interest in Freemasonry began with receiving an academic scholarship from the Grand Lodge of Iowa. He is a KYCH as well as a charter member and secretary of Arts & Sciences Lodge No. 792, Hilliard, Ohio. Chad is employed as the Director of Program Development by the Grand Lodge of Ohio.