The tradition may have had its genesis at a ceremony marking the laying of the cornerstone at the University of Virginia. On the morning of October 6, 1817, a large crowd gathered at the site of the first pavilion. According to Philip A. Bruce, “the doors of all the stores were locked, private houses shut up, and the entire population of the little town darkened the road to the College.” In addition to the citizenry of Charlottesville, James Madison, James Monroe, and Jefferson were also present. The cornerstone, Bruce says, was laid "with the customary state by Lodges; Reverend William King was the chaplain, John M. Perry, the architect, and Alexander Garrett, the worthy grand-master. President Monroe applied the square and plumb, the chaplain asked a blessing on the stone, the crowd buzzed, and the band played ‘Hail Columbia.’” Evidently it was customary for masons to direct many public ceremonies, such as laying cornerstones, opening bridges, and dedicating halls. Thus surrounded by masonic pomp and circumstance, Jefferson must have seemed a part of the organization simply through association. It should be added that Local Lodges 60 and 90 have never claimed Jefferson as a member, either in a regular or honorary capacity.
Another Jeffersonian link to freemasonry predates the laying of the cornerstone. In 1801, the “Jefferson Lodge” was organized in Surry, Virginia. The name probably reflected republican exuberance after the election of 1800 and should not be taken as evidence for Jefferson’s membership. It is curious, however, to find a lodge named for a non-mason; the usual practice is to name the lodge after a fellow mason of local or national stature. The Alexandria Lodge, for example, became Washington Lodge after the death of its famous grand-master. Indeed, to name a lodge after an individual is uncommon; most lodges simply assume the name of the town or county where they are located.
Finally, Jefferson's longstanding interest in architecture and mathematics, both prominent in masonic lore, could have made a masonic connection likely in the public mind.
However, the fact remains that no references to freemasonry have been found in Jefferson’s papers, and given his clear aversion to secret societies (Cincinnati, for example), his membership remains unlikely. Masonic scholars have also reached the same conclusion; an especially thorough review of the evidence (or lack thereof) of Jefferson's ties to the Freemasons appears in William Denslow's 10,000 Famous Freemasons. An even more thorough account of failed attempts to confirm Jefferson's rumored Masonic activities in Paris appears in The Encyclopedia of Freemasonry.
- Russell L. Martin, Monticello Research Report, January 1989; revised Anna Berkes, June 2010.
Primary Source References
1800 January 31. (Jefferson to Bishop James Madison). "[Wishaupt] believes the Freemasons were originally possessed of the true principles & object of Christianity, and have still preserved some of them by tradition, but much disfigured. the means he proposes to effect this improvement of human nature are ‘to enlighten men, to correct their morals & inspire them with benevolence. secure of our success, sais he, we abstain from violent commotions. to have foreseen the happiness of posterity & to have prepared it by irreproacheable means, suffices for our felicity. this tranquility of our consciences is not troubled by the reproach of aiming at the ruin or overthrow of states or thrones.’ as Wishaupt lived under the tyranny of a despot & priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, and the principles of pure morality. he proposed therefore to lead the Freemasons to adopt this object, and to make the objects of their institution, the diffusion of science & virtue. he proposed to initiate new members into this body by gradations proportioned to his fears of the thunderbolts of tyranny. this has given an air of mystery to his views, was the foundation of his banishment & the subversion of the Masonic order, and is the colour for the ravings against him of Robinson, Barruel & Morse, whose real fears are that the craft would be endangered by the spreading of information reason & natural morality among men."
1817 August 31. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "Ellen tells me that a request is communicated thro’ Mr Randolph & yourself from the Freemason societies of Charlottesville to be permitted to lay the first brick of the Central college. I do not know that I have authority to say either yea or nay to this proposition, but as far as I may be authorised, I consent to it freely."
- Beha, Ernest. A Comprehensive Dictionary of Freemasonry. New York: Citadel, 1963.
- Beless, James W. "Thomas Jefferson, Freeman." Scottish Rite Journal 3 (1998). Text available online.
- Whalen, William J. Handbook of Secret Organizations. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966.
- 1. Philip A. Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919 (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 1:189-190.
- 2. Henry Leonard Stillson, History of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons (Boston: Fraternity Publishing Co., 1892), 548.
- 3. William R. Denslow, 10,000 Famous Freemasons from A to J (Kessinger, 2004), Part 1, 1:292. Text available online.
- 4. Albert G. Mackey and H. L. Haywood, The Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (Kessinger, 2003), 2:644-5. Text available online.
- 5. Ibid., 3:11. Text available online.
- 6. Founder of the Order of the Illuminati.
- 7. PTJ, 31:350-1.
- 8. Family Letters, 418-19.