ourteen presidents have been Freemasons, a society that seeks to strengthen and improve the community by doing the same for the character of its membership. Many of these presidents commented positively on their membership in the group, and some even cited Freemasonry as a foundation to the way they governed.
While Freemasonry is first and foremost “a system of morality,” it should be noted that some of these presidents — including George Washington and James Monroe — were slaveowners, a practice that would seem to contradict the principles of the organization.
Washington spoke effusively about his respect for the tenets and principles of Freemasonry, and remained active in the society, even while he was president. Meanwhile, we know almost nothing about President Monroe’s life as a Freemason. James K. Polk, James Garfield and Warren G. Harding all publicly acknowledged their association with Freemasonry and participated in masonic activities during their tenures as president.
Here are quotes from 10 Freemason presidents known to have spoken of their association with the society.
“My attachment to the Society of which we are all members will dispose me always to contribute my best endeavors to promote the honor and propriety of the Craft.”President George Washington
The above quote is one of many that Washington made about Freemasonry during his life. As can be surmised from these remarks, Washington took his obligations as a Freemason to promote honor and integrity seriously. He made similar comments in letters to the leaders of lodges of Masons across the country. More than any leader of his time, Washington was known as a man of unquestioned moral integrity. Notably, he was the same man in private and public, and his commitment to being ‘just and upright’ molded him into a world leader. Washington participated in masonic rituals during his presidency, including one in which he laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capital, another indication of his commitment to the society.
“Freemasonry is an institution calculated to benefit mankind.”President Andrew Jackson
It’s hard to square President Jackson’s remarks that Freemasonry is “calculated to benefit mankind” with his efforts that engineered the eradication of thousands of Native Americans by starvation, exposure, and illness. Yet, Jackson was active in society, even when he was president — he participated in a masonic ceremony in Fredericksburg in 1833. Jackson was also the first Past Grand Master of Freemasons (in Tennessee) to serve as president.
While president, Andrew Jackson stood by as Georgia violated the federal treaty by seizing nine million acres inside the state that had been guaranteed to the Cherokee tribe, despite a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that said that the state had no authority over the tribal lands. President Jackson subsequently brokered a deal in which the Cherokees agreed that they would vacate their land in return for territory west of Arkansas. The agreement resulted in the ‘Trail of Tears,’ the forced relocation of 15,000 Cherokee Indians that claimed the lives of 4,000 of them.
“Devoutly wishing that for centuries to come, your ancient and venerable [masonic] Lodge may continue to shed forth the light of Masonry…”President James Buchanan
James Buchanan will be remembered as the president who failed to act to stop the succession of southern states that led to the Civil War in which 620,000 Americans were killed. While the above quote sheds very little light on President Buchanan ideas on leadership, his remarks speak of his devout faith that Freemasonry provides a platform for members to gain wisdom. It should be mentioned that, during his presidency, Buchanan received threats from people who thought he had done a poor job in the months leading up to the Civil War. In this period, several local Masons who were members of a lodge where he was Past Master (i.e., head of the lodge) took turns standing guard at his home to protect his person and property, indicating Buchanan’s strong ties to the society.
“We all meet on the level.”President Andrew Johnson
According to masonic tradition, when dealing with all people, most especially fellow Masons, you should treat them as equals. President Johnson made this remark at a masonic ceremony, when someone suggested that a chair be brought to the reviewing platform for me. President Johnson refused, saying “We all meet on the level.”
Yet, in succeeding President Lincoln when he was assassinated, Andrew Johnson did anything but meet on the level, when it came to implementing the slain leader’s civil rights vision. Instead of leading the southern states to embrace civil rights for the emancipated slaves, he delegated that authority to the states themselves. In most cases, these states used this authority to suppress the civil rights of African-Americans, and eventually to implement Jim Crow laws.
“After the battle of Opequan, I went … to the field where there were about 5,000 Confederate prisoners under guard … I noticed the doctor shook hands cordially with a number of Confederate prisoners. He also took from his pockets a roll of bills and distributed all he had among them. … On the way back to our camp I asked him, ‘Did you know those men or ever see them before?’ ‘No,’ replied the doctor. ‘I never saw them before.’ ‘But how did you know them, and why did you give them money?,’ I asked. ‘They are Masons, and we Masons have a way of finding that out.’ ‘But,’ I persisted, ‘you gave them a lot of money, all you had about you. Do you ever expect to get it back?’ ‘Well,’ said the doctor, ‘if they are ever able to pay it back they will. But it makes no difference to me; they are Brother Masons in trouble, and I am only doing my duty.’ I said to myself, ‘if that is Masonry, I will take some of it myself.”President William McKinley
Some presidents are known for one policy or issue. Abraham Lincoln is remembered for preserving the Union, while Herbert Hoover is remembered for being president during the onset of the Great Depression. President McKinley, on the other hand, had his hand in many issues, ranging from the Spanish-American War to the reform of the Civil Service. As governor of Ohio, McKinley spoke out against lynching, but as president, he did little to support civil rights for Black people.
One of McKinley’s priorities, however, was ending sectionalism — that is to say, sections of the nation prioritizing their region over that of the whole of the United States.
It is evident that young McKinley was impressed with the doctor’s cordiality with Confederate prisoners, and one could see how the physician’s kindness to these prisoners may have made an impression on him that he carried all the way to the White House to battle sectionalism. In a similar vein, it should be noted that McKinley received his masonic degrees as a union officer in a southern lodge where many of the Masons were Confederates.
“One of the things that attracted me so greatly in Masonry that I hailed the chance of becoming a Mason, was that it really did live up to what we as a government are pledged to — of treating each man on his merits and as a man.”President Theodore Roosevelt
While President Roosevelt hardly saw all Black Americans as equals, meritocracy was one of his core beliefs. Roosevelt “admired individual achievement above all things,” and defended Black Americans who served as public officials, some of whom he appointed to prominent positions. For example, he nominated Dr. William Crum, a Black American as customs collector in Charleston — and faced considerable political opposition because of the color of Crum’s skin — but stood steadfast behind him.
“Masonry is democratic, in that it insists that we are all equal of opportunity. It is not democratic in that it insists that we are all equal, whether we have the same character, the same experience, the same ability, the same spirit of self-sacrifice.”President William Howard Taft
With the blessings of then-President Theodore Roosevelt — who decided not to run for a third term — Taft, who was vice-president at the time, captured the presidency in 1909. In the above quote, President Taft suggests that he supports equal opportunity some of the time — and not for everybody. Interestingly enough, Taft opposed women’s suffrage, noting: “On the whole, it is fair to say that the immediate enfranchisement of women will increase the proportion of the hysterical element of the electorate.” In the civil rights arena, Taft seems to have taken little interest on the issue, aside from meeting with African-American leader Booker T. Washington, and publicly endorsing his program for advancing the cause of African-Americans.
“I have come in contact with Brother Masons throughout this country, and I have seen the splendid work that Masonry is doing for our fellow man. … The more I come in contact with the work of the Masonic Fraternity the more impressed I am by the great charitable work and great practical good work in which we are carrying out, especially in that line which is so close to my heart — the care of little children.”President Franklin D. Roosevelt
It would have seemed odd for President Roosevelt to focus on policies promoting after-school programs for children or prenatal care at a time that 15 million Americans were unemployed. Roosevelt used the lion’s share of his first term to address systemic issues the country faced, many of which led to the Great Depression, which in turn had a devastating effect on children. With unemployment rates at 25 percent, many families that had been middle-class during the 1920s slipped into poverty, contributing to rising incidence of hunger and malnutrition among children.
Children benefitted directly and indirectly from many New Deal programs — hallmarks of Roosevelt’s administration. The greatest benefit children saw was the jobs provided by New Deal programs, allowing parents to adequately support their families. Additionally, millions of malnourished school children benefited from the Works Progress Administration school lunch program. The New Deal also changed the public mindset about charity: Previous to the New Deal, assistance to the needy fell almost exclusively under the scope of charities. The above quote indicates that that care of children is close to Roosevelt’s heart — and that he encourages Freemasons to do whatever they can to support the cause that he would champion as president.
“We represent a fraternity which believes in justice and truth and honorable action in your community…men who are endeavoring to be better citizens…[and] to make a great country greater. This is the only institution in the world where we can meet on the level all sorts of people who want to live rightly.”President Harry S. Truman
During President Truman’s famous whistle-stop campaign of 1948, the common mantra from supporters was “Give ’em hell, Harry!” Reflecting on this later, Truman remarked: “I never did give anyone hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.” Years later, Truman biographer David McCullough wrote: “Truman held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fears,” which accurately summarizes Truman’s above quote.
“Masonic principles — internal, not external — and our order’s vision of duty to country and acceptance of God as a Supreme Being and guiding light have sustained me during my years of Government service … Masonic precepts can help America retain our inspiring aspirations while adapting to a new age.”President Gerald Ford
To read President Ford’s remarks, one would think that his presidency saw the rise of a new technology — like the Internet, television or radio. While it didn’t, Ford was faced with a collection of unenviable tasks — the challenge of mastering inflation, reviving a depressed economy, solving chronic energy shortages and trying to ensure world peace. And that didn’t even include the fallout from the Watergate scandal — which he was not part of — but which meant he inherited distrust in government. Yet, President Ford frequently spoke of God, not the least of when he pardoned President Nixon. During his address on pardoning his predecessor, Ford noted that he believed himself to be a servant of God, which fairly reflects his quote above.
These presidents likely joined the fraternity for different reasons. For almost all of them, it was probably done — to varying degrees — for either professional and political benefit.
Notably, President Taft joined Freemasonry shortly after he became president. Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt became a Freemason while serving as vice-president — several months before the assassination of President McKinley, a fellow Mason, elevated him to the presidency. Andrew Jackson, other hand, received his degrees some 30 years before he became president, though the date of his conferrals is uncertain.
When I was a kid, my mom thought that I’d have my own talk show because I was always asking people lots of questions about themselves. When I graduated college, I began living my own dream as a reporter for a news media outlet. As a journalist, I spoke daily with public affairs officers who represented diverse government and corporate clients.
I soon realized that public affairs combined the best of both worlds of journalism and television talk shows — I get to learn interesting and unusual things about people who worked with me, I then get to tell their story. With this thought in mind, I spent two years at CIA, where I was a supervisor in the Public Communications Branch at the Office of Public Affairs.
As a strategic communicator, I juggle many balls — but I’m a writer first. Writing is my first love. You can say that I’m addicted to it.
On a personal level, my parents taught me the value of travel when I was young, and since then, I’ve been an avid traveler — I have visited 20 countries. Though I’ve learned important lessons from each of my trips, my trip to Chile — the string bean-shaped country — was my favorite.
To learn more about me and my digital travels, visit my Twitter page.