National Treasure, the dim-witted but smashingly successful Nicholas Cage adventure, may not have been good history or a good movie, but it did get one thing right: Freemasonry was an extremely powerful force in early America. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were both Masons, and for Lewis in particular, the ethics and spiritual values he discovered in the Masonic lodges of Virginia and St. Louis were central to his life. In fact, his identity as a Mason appears to have been weighing on his mind in his last hours on this earth.
A little background helps explain how Freemasonry became so central to the lives of Lewis, Clark, and other elite men of early America. As the name indicates, Freemasonry has its roots in the medieval guilds of bricklayers and stonemasons who built the great cathedrals of Europe. How it evolved into a powerful secret society is a subject of some historical dispute. The short version is this: as the Catholic Church locked horns with dissidents and reformers all across Europe, an event known as the Protestant Reformation, the old medieval guilds were taken over by outsiders–mostly intellectuals, well-to-do middle class men, aristocrats, and clergymen. In a world where taking the wrong side was often fatal, witches and heretics were still being burned, the Inquisition was in full swing, and Galileo was on trial for insisting that the earth revolved around the sun, it seems probable that these men were seeking an underground means to exercise freedom of thought and be able to discuss moral and scientific issues safely.
Though this movement may have been gradual, modern Freemasonry is generally dated from 1717, when four London lodges amalgamated under the leadership of a Presbyterian minister named James Anderson. At that point, it spread rapidly through Great Britain, Europe, and America. As the decades progressed, Freemasonry dovetailed nicely with the spread of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that rejected religious dogma, elevated reason and scientific inquiry, and gave rise to the idea that freedom, democracy, and tolerance should be central to human existence.
In fact, it can said without much exaggeration that “truth, justice, and the American way” are principles from the Masonic creed that became embedded in our culture to the point that we now naively believe them to be universal truths shared by all. Freemasonry’s religious and spiritual underpinnings were embodied in secret lore that included ethics, philosophy, and degrees men worked to achieve, both to measure their own progress and as a symbol of the passage from youth to manhood to old age and death. The lore incorporates much Christian language and symbolism, and often leads people to conclude erroneously that the Founding Fathers espoused modern-day Christian beliefs.
In early 1797, at the age of 22, Meriwether Lewis joined the Door to Virtue Masonic Lodge #44 in his home of Albemarle, Virginia. Never one to do anything casually, Lewis threw himself into the fraternity in spite of being an active-duty Army officer at the time. He rose quickly to Royal Arch Mason, held office in the lodge, and promoted charitable activities for the men to become involved in. And just because Lewis went west in 1803 doesn’t mean he forgot about being a Mason. From some journal notations, it appears that Lewis began recruiting William Clark to join the Masons while the Expedition was still preparing to get underway at Camp River Dubois in the winter of 1803-04. He seems to have continued to reflect on Masonic ideas while in the wilderness.
On August 6, 1805, while exploring the high country near present-day Three Forks, Montana, Lewis named the Jefferson River, then assigned Masonic names to three of its tributaries, dubbing them the Wisdom, Philanthropy, and Philosophy. Lewis noted that the names would commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s “cardinal virtues, which have so eminently marked that deservedly selibrated character through life,” but it should be noted that they may also correspond to the pillars of human virtue embodied in Freemasonry. The names didn’t stick, and today the three tributaries are known as the Big Hole River, Ruby River, and Willow Creek.
A couple of weeks later, Lewis’s penned one of his most famous journal passages. The birthday reflections of August 18, 1805, are often seen as a wilderness cri de coeur, a sad foreshadowing of Lewis’s death just four years later. But some historians have suggested they might just as easily be Lewis’s attempt to write his own Masonic “words to live by.” Judge for yourself:
This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.—
In any case, Lewis became involved again in the Masons at his earliest opportunity. After returning to civilization, he was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, with its seat of government in St. Louis. In late 1808, Lewis helped found St. Louis Lodge #111 and became its first “Worshipful Master.”
Lewis was probably a little disappointed that the ever-practical Clark did not take to the Masonic philosophy the way that he had. But Clark did join the Masonic Lodge in St. Louis and attended meetings occasionally. In his later years, Clark made a room in his own house available for lodge meetings (which presumably he also attended). When he died in 1838, Clark had a Masonic funeral.
Ironically, Lewis would go to his grave without any ceremony at all. In 1809, he died at the age of 35 at a remote inn on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, shot to death in an incident that may have been either suicide or murder. There is no record of any sort of a funeral, let alone a Masonic one. Clark and Lewis’s other friends evidently decided not to try to recover his body, but simply to let him lie where he fell. It would be more than 30 years before the “broken shaft” monument was erected by the state of Tennessee to mark Lewis’s grave.
However, the symbols of freemasonry were not far from Lewis’s heart on the night that he died–quite literally. Each Mason receives a symbolic work apron that is worn during meetings and rituals. Lewis’s was found folded in the pocket of his coat when he died, stained with his blood. The apron was recovered by Lewis’s family and eventually ended up as a treasured relic of the Grand Lodge in Helena, Montana.
It’s worth noting that Freemasonry was and remains a controversial practice. Freemasonry has been denounced by the Catholic Church, which prohibits secret societies. The secretive nature of Freemasonry has led to its being the subject of unpopularity and outright paranoia at various times in history. There have been outlandish claims made about Freemasonry over the years, such as devil worship. Most of these claims originated in a hoax document published in the 1890s and still repeated on the Internet today. Freemasonry was banned in Nazi Germany, which murdered between 80,000 and 200,000 Masons. It was illegal in the old Soviet Union and is prohibited in most of the Islamic world. It has been linked into notorious hare-brained conspiracy theories such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, and the New World Order.
Freemasonry in the United States failed to respond effectively to the enormous social dislocation caused by World War II, abandoning its philosophical and intellectual underpinnings to become a social and charitable organization. Despite the good works done by prominent Masons such as the Shriners, the organization as a whole is unrecognizable as its former self. Today the demographics of Masonry (most members are over 70) don’t bode well for the future, though there are some recent indications that new lodges are organizing and winning new members by savvy use of the Internet. In Europe Freemasonry remains a strong influence that more closely resembles traditional Freemasonry of the past.