By Bro. Charles H. Callahan, Virginia
GENERAL Washington, having resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the American army, arrived at his home, after an absence of several years, on Christmas eve, 1783, and two days later received a letter from the Master, Wardens and members of a Lodge of Free Masons, which had just been organized in the little city of Alexandria, Virginia, under a warrant from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, felicitating him upon his safe return to private life. In reply to this fraternal communication Washington wrote on December 28th, as follows:–
“GENTLEMEN: With a pleasing sensibility I received your favor of the 26th and beg leave to offer you my sincere thanks for the favorable sentiments with which it abounds. I shall always feel pleasure when it may be in my power to render service to Lodge No. 39 and in every act of Brotherly kindness to the members of it. Being with great truth, your affectionate Brother and obliged humble servant, GEORGE WASHINGTON.”
In the following June the General visited his Masonic Brethren in Alexandria and, according to the minutes, still extant, “was unanimously elected an honorary member of the Lodge.”
In 1788 the Lodge surrendered its Pennsylvania charter, under which it had been known as No. 39, and applied to the Grand Lodge of Virginia for a new warrant. General Washington became the first Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, under the Virginia Charter, which quaint and historic instrument still constitutes its badge of authority. Not only does this venerated parchment contain the name of Washington as Master, but also the autograph of Edmund Randolph, who was then both Grand Master and governor of the Commonwealth, and who subsequently served in the Cabinets of our first President as Attorney General and Secretary of State respectively. In 1805, by permission of the Grand Lodge, the name or title of the Lodge was again changed by adding the sir-name of its first Master, making it Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22. It has been claimed by some writers that General Washington lacked zeal in the cause and work of our institution, and a few skeptically inclined have contended that he was not even a member of the Masonic Fraternity. The fallacy of this contention is positively proven by the records of and personal letters from Washington to this Lodge. Indeed, the Charter itself is an eloquent and emphatic denial of the claim. Mr. Randolph, in wording the instrument, leaves no doubt as to the identity of its first Worshipful Master. After the usual preamble, it sets forth, “Know ye, that we, Edmund Randolph, Esq., Governor of the Commonwealth aforesaid and Grand Master of the Most ancient and honorable society of Free Masons, within the same by and with the consent of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, do hereby constitute and appoint our illustrious and well-beloved Brother George Washington, Esq., late General and Commander-in-Chief of the forces in the United States, etc.” This settles beyond a doubt any question as to whether or not it was the renowned leader of the American Revolution, and the appointment also marks the beginning of the great patriot’s official association with the Masonic Fraternity of his home town; an association which has made a little obscure organization, situated in what was then an old fashioned colonial hamlet, the most famous subordinate Masonic Lodge in America–a veritable shrine to which thousands of patriotic members of the Fraternity from all parts of the country annually wend their way and reverently view the cherished mementos of their illustrious Brother Washington, which hang upon its walls and rest in the alcoves of its sanctum.
The General’s official connection with the Lodge raised it to a conspicuous place in the order from the very beginning of its existence, and, as a consequence, few noteworthy events have occurred in that vicinity in which it has not taken a prominent part. We shall, however, only refer to those that have in some way a direct association with the sage of Mount Vernon. On Friday the 15th of April, 1791, by invitation of President Washington and in the presence of his special commissioners Hon. Daniel Carroll and David Stuart and a large concourse of citizens, it laid the first cornerstone of the District of Columbia; and on the 18th of September, 1793, it acted as escort of honor to the President and assisted in laying the corner-stone of the Capitol of the United States. But the most important ceremony in which the Lodge has ever participated, and which is undoubtedly the most important of its character in the history of the American Fraternity, was the funeral of General Washington on December 18th, 1799. Few people realize how extremely simple and how truly Masonic were the obsequies of this great man. Washington’s last illness was sudden and severe, lasting only twenty-four hours. There were four men at his bedside when he died, viz: Drs. Dick, Craik and Brown and Washington’s Secretary, Tobias Lear. Three of these were members of the Craft; Drs. Dick and Craik were members of his own Lodge, Dick being the Master; and Dr. Brown was the fifth Grand Master of Maryland, while Tobias Lear joined the Lodge in 1803. The funeral ceremonies were arranged by a committee from the Lodge, consisting of Dr. Dick, W. M., Colonel George Deneal, J. W., and Colonels Simms and Little, members. The body was borne from the death chamber at “low twelve” and deposited in the main room on the first floor, and the funeral appointed for “high twelve” on the 18th. Five of the six pall bearers, Colonels Little, Payne, Gilpin, Ramsay an Simms, were members of No. 22, as were three of the four ministers present, one of them being the Chaplain Colonel George Deneal, J.W., commanded the military organizations in attendance while several of his subordinate officers were members of the Lodge. Owing to the late arrival at Mount Vernon of the Alexandric contingent, which was composed of the Masons, militic and a large concourse of citizens, the funeral cortege did not start until three o’clock; but the body was borne from its resting place in the State Dining-room to the front veranda at meridian, and there the assembled throng took a last view of the remains.
The procession moved first north to the “Ha-ha Wall,” which borders the lawn (and which has been recently restored), then east to the walk in front of the mansion, then, by this walk, in a southerly direction, to the old tomb; the militia leading the way, followed by the Masons, the family and other mourners bringing up the rear. On arriving at the tomb, the procession divided column, facing inward; reversing the order of march, the family and relatives passed through the separated lines, forming an inner circle around the tomb; next came the Masons who arranged themselves in an outer circle around the family, while the militia filed back to the crest of the hill, forming a column facing east toward the river. “The ministers performed their divine services, the Masons their mystic rites and the militia closed the ceremonies with resounding volleys over the bier of the fallen chieftain.”
The evening was far advanced and deep shadows fell upon the familiar landscape around the beloved home of Washington, before the Lodge, with its military and civic escort, took up its lonely march over the snow-clad hills of Virginia back to the little town of Alexandria, nine miles away. How distant these scenes now appear under the later splendor of man’s achievement. Several hours were consumed by these devoted Craftsmen in their solemn march through the gathering twilight from Mount Vernon to Alexandria, while in this day of rapid transit tourists board a trolley car at Mount Vernon gates, and, almost paralleling the road over which the funeral cortege wound its way, make the trip in thirty minutes.
On the 12th of January, 1785, the General wrote in his diary: “Went up to Alexandria, attended the funeral of William Ramsay, ye oldest inhabitant of the city. Walked in the procession with the Free Masons; he, being a member of that order, was buried with their ceremonies.” It was this William Ramsay who set apart in his will an half-square of ground for municipal buildings in Alexandria, reserving thereon a site for a Masonic Temple. Facing this plot on the west stands the old city hotel, Washington’s headquarters while waiting for Braddock in 1755; from its steps in 1799-he held his last military review and gave his last military order, thirty days before he died. Facing it on the east is the equally historic Carlysle House, Braddock’s headquarters in 1755, where Washington received his commission as Major on that ill-fated General’s Staff, and in which also, during the conference of the five governors, holding at that time, was made the first suggestion of colonial taxation by the British Parliament; and in the old Court House, which stood on this square, Washington cast his last vote, in 1799- -in it also his will was recorded, January 20th, 1800. In 1802 the Lodge erected its first Temple on the site provided by Ramsay. It was but-a small structure, flanked then on either side, as the more modern and commodious one is today, by diverging wings of the City Hall.
Immediately after Washington’s funeral his friends and relatives began to send, as presents to the Lodge, valuable mementos which had been among the cherished possessions of the General or in some way closely associated with him in life. So numerous were these gifts that in 1818 the City Council of Alexandria, to relieve the congested condition of the Lodge, set apart a room in the City Hall adjoining the Temple for the specific purpose of exhibiting the relics, and the Lodge appointed a custodian of this museum. In 1870 the old frame temple, erected in 1802 with the entire city hall, containing the museum, was burned to the ground. Fortunately, through the heroic efforts of the fire department and a number of Masons who were present and assisted in the rescue, most of the treasures were saved but some of the most valuable were either stolen or destroyed. Among those lost was the bier on which Washington was borne to the tomb, the crepe which hung on the door at Mount Vernon at the time of his death, a portrait of Martha Washington in her youth, Washington’s military saddle, a settee, which stood in the hall of Mount Vernon, Washington’s card table, numerous original letters of the General, the flag of Washington’s life-guard; a bust of the celebrated Paul Jones, presented to Washington by LaFayette, the flag which flew over the “Bon Homme Richard” in her death grapple with the “Seraphis,” presented by Paul Jones; and numerous other historic and highly prized acquisitions went down before the fire king.
Notwithstanding this serious loss, there is- still remaining in the present Lodge room, which was erected in 1872 on the site of the old Temple, the most valuable collection of genuine Washington relics and heirlooms in existence, with the possible exception of the collection at Mount Vernon. There we see the Master’s Chair, presented by Washington, in use for one hundred and seventeen years, now preserved in a glass case. In a niche in the wall, and occupying a space of about 2×3 feet, you are shown Washington’s wedding gloves; farm spurs, pruning knife, a glove he wore when in mourning for his Mother, his pocket compasses, his cupping and bleeding instruments, a little pen-knife his mother gave him when twelve years of age, in his possession fifty-six years; a button cut from his coat at his first inauguration, a legging strap worn by Washington in the Battle of Fort Duquesne, (these were presented in 1803 by Captain George Steptoe Washington, a nephew the General and one of the executors of his will); Washington’s Masonic Apron, embroidered by Madame LaFayette, with silk sash and inlaid box, presented to Lodge in 1812 by Lawrence Lewis, the General’s nephew, who married his adopted daughter, Nellie Curtis. In the same case you see also a picture of Dr. Dick; Dick’s medicine scales, and by their side Washington’s medicine scales; a piece of Braddock’s coat worn in the battle of Fort Duquesne, and other articles of great interest.
In another case is shown the little trowel which Washington laid the corner-stone of the National Capitol, the representatives of the lesser lights used on that occasion and at Washington’s funeral; Washington’s bed-chamber clock, stopped by Dr. Dick at the moment of his death and presented to the Lodge by Mrs. Washington, its hands still pointing to the exact minute of his dissolution, ten-twenty, P.M. It is said to be the only piece of furniture in the room when the General died which has not been returned.
Hanging around the walls are numerous aprons of the General’s contemporaries, some of them of elaborate design with the emblems of Masonry worked in silk, among them are Dick’s and Craik’s. Autographic letters of Washington, and rare old engravings of the Father of his Country and other important personages also adorn the side hall, while paintings of historic characters, from the hands of celebrated artists, embellish the Lodge room proper. Among these we shall only name a few. Probably the most interesting of all is the picture of the General himself, painted from life by Williams of Philadelphia, in 1794, for the Lodge. It is a gem of art. Notwithstanding it has hung in a glaring light for over a hundred years, its bold lines and rich colors are as striking and as fresh to-day, apparently, as they were when it received the last touch of the Master’s brush 120 years ago. Unfortunately, being a pastelle, and, as we have stated, highly colored, this work cannot be satisfactorily reproduced in a halftone, and to be fully appreciated the original must be inspected at close range. The Lodge has a standing offer for this picture of $100,000.
Avoiding publicity, the Lodge has refused all applications to reproduce the picture until a few years ago. Permission was given to have it copied in oil for the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Brother Julius Sachse, in making the request for a copy, stated that his investigations of about fifty paintings of General Washington, many of them made from life, convinced him that the Williams was the most authentic likeness in existence. Not a blemish on the face of the subject has been concealed or omitted. The scar on the left cheek, shown as a dimple by others, the black mole under the right ear and the pock marks on the nose are clearly visible on the original of the Williams painting in the Lodge, and to a less extent in the reproduction in colors given in The Builder, which is made from the same plate as the frontispiece in Charles H. Callahan’s book, “Washington, the Man and Mason,” which is the first and only photographic reproduction in colors ever made.
The history of this great work is brief. The Lodge desiring a correct likeness of their illustrious First Master passed a resolution requesting General Washington to sit for the painting, obtained his consent and employed Williams, an artist of Philadelphia, to execute the work. At the time the painting was made, General Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, representing the Eighth Congressional District, in which Alexandria is situated, in the National Congress, being not only the official representative of their section but a member of the Fraternity, arranged for the sitting and introduced the artist to President Washington. After the work was completed and General Washington had approved it, Williams personally delivered the picture to the Lodge, who officially approved it and paid the artist for his service.
The next important canvas is a life-size painting in oil of Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, Baron in Cameron, for whom Washington surveyed when a boy, from the famous brush of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Being the only picture of the old Lord extant, it has a two fold value, and has been estimated by art critics to be worth $150,000. Besides these we see La Fayette in Colonial uniform, by Charles Wilson Peele, the Pope Peele picture of Washington, a rich engraving of the Washington family by Savage (1798), a life size canvas of LaFayette in Masonic regalia, showing him in his old age, and many, many other unusual works of art, souvenirs and treasures that cannot be either properly described or even scheduled in an article of this kind. It is, indeed, a priceless collection, around which the fondest memories cling and in their association form an enduring fraternal link between the material present and that romantic past.
Upon the erection of the new Temple and City Hall no provision was made to restore the museum and these valuable heirlooms are now kept in a non-fire proof structure erected over a public market and heated by large cast iron stoves. Access to the Lodge itself is through another building by a winding stair and by no conceivable means could all of these treasures be saved from destruction if the combustible temple should fall a prey to a disastrous fire as the original did in 1870.
-Source: The Builder – February 1916