President John Quincy Adams on Freemasonry


jqadamsPresident John Quincy Adams: Letters on the Masonic Institution

“The second manifestation of the force of the Masonic obligation was made visible in the courts of justice… The sheriffs, whose duty it was under the laws of New York to select and summon the grand juries, were, in all the counties in which the deeds of violence against Morgan had been committed, Freemasons. Several of them had themselves been parties to the crime. They did not hesitate to make use of their power as officers of justice to screen the criminals from conviction. The jurors whom they summoned were most of them Masons, some of them participators in the offenses into which it became their civil duty to inquire.”

By John Quincy Adams



It is now twenty years since there sprung up in the United States an earnest and at times a vehement discussion, of the nature and effect of the bond entered into by those citizens who join the society of Free and Accepted Masons. The excitement which arose in consequence of the disclosures then made, had the effect, at least for a time, if not permanently, to check the farther spread of that association. The legislative power of some of the States was invoked, and at last actually interposed, to prevent the administration of extra-judicial oaths, including of course all such as were constantly taken in the Masonic Order. This was the furthest point which the opposition ever reached. It did not succeed in procuring the dissolution of the organization of the Order, or even the repeal of the charters under which it had a recognized existence in the social system. From the moment of the adoption of a penal law, deemed strong enough to meet the most serious of the evils complained of, the apprehension of further danger from Masonry began to subside. At this day, the subject has ceased to be talked of. The attention of men has been gradually diverted to other things, until at last it may be said, that few persons are aware of the fact, provided it be not especially forced upon their notice, that not only Freemasonry continues to exist, but also that other associations partaking of its secret nature, if not of its unjustifiable obligations, not merely live, but greatly flourish in the midst of them.

"Several of them had themselves been parties to the crime. They did not hesitate to make use of their power as officers of justice to screen the criminals from conviction. The jurors whom they summoned were most of them Masons, some of them participators in the offenses into which it became their civil duty to inquire."
“Several of them had themselves been parties to the crime. They did not hesitate to make use of their power as officers of justice to screen the criminals from conviction. The jurors whom they summoned were most of them Masons, some of them participators in the offenses into which it became their civil duty to inquire.”

Fully aware of this state of things, a few private citizens who deeply interested themselves in the investigation of the subject when first agitated, yet feel as if their duty was not entirely performed so long as they shall have left undone any act which in their estimation may have the effect of keeping up among their countrymen a vigilant observation of the nature and tendency of secret associations. Without cherishing the remotest desire, even if they could be supposed to entertain the expectation, of reviving an old excitement, they are nevertheless most anxious to put in a permanently accessible shape, some clear and strong exposition of the evil attending similar ties, as that evil was illustrated years ago in an examination of the Freemason’s Oath. Such an exposition they knew could be found in the writings of the Honorable John Quincy Adams. But although the various papers in which it was first issued to the public enjoyed an extensive circulation at the period when it was written, and without doubt contributed much to the establishment of an improved state of popular opinion, they are believed never to have been collected together in any one form readily open to the public examination. This great deficiency, it seemed to the gentlemen who have been already alluded to, a desirable object to supply. They accordingly undertook the task of publishing the present volume, not as a matter of sale, but solely with the intention of gratuitous distribution. And first of all, they deemed it no more than proper to communicate with Mr. Adams himself, and to get his opinion upon the subject. That gentleman very cheerfully consented to aid the effort, not only by supplying some entirely new documents, which have never before been printed, but also by promising a recapitulation of his views in the shape of an Introductory Essay. The execution of this last engagement has, however, been prevented by the late much regretted illness which has befallen him. The task of preparing a preface has, by this unexpected event, been made to fall into other hands, by which it must be fulfilled in a far less comprehensive and satisfactory manner than it would have been by him.

The Institution of Masonry was introduced into the British Colonies of North America more than a hundred years ago. It went on slowly at first, but from the time of the Revolution it spread more rapidly, until in the first quarter of the present century it had succeeded in winding itself through all the departments of the body politic in the United States, and in claiming the sanction of many of the country’s most distinguished men. Up to the year 1826 nothing occurred to mar its progress or to interpose the smallest obstacle to its triumphant success. So great had then become the confidence of the members in its power, as to prompt the loud tone of gratulation in which some of its orators then indulged at their pubic festivals, and among these none spoke more boldly than Mr. Brainard, in the passage which will be found * quoted in the present volume. He announced that Masonry was exercising its influence in the sacred desk, in the legislative hall and on the bench of justice, but so little had the public attention been directed to the truth he uttered, that the declaration passed off, and was set down by the uninitiated rather as a flower of rhetoric with which young speakers will sometimes magnify their topic, than as entitled to any particularly serious notice. Neither would these memorable words have been rescued from oblivion, if it had not happened that the very next year after they were uttered was destined to furnish a most extraordinary illustration of their significance.

In a small town situated in the western part of the State of New York, an event occurred in the autumn of the year 1826, which roused the suspicions first of the people living in the immediate neighborhood, and afterwards of a very wide circle of persons throughout the United States. A citizen of Batavia suddenly disappeared from his family, without giving the slightest warning. Rumors were immediately circulated that he had run away; but there were circumstances attending the act which favored the idea that personal violence had been resorted to, although the precise authors of it could not be distinctly traced. The name of the citizen who thus vanished as if the earth had opened and swallowed him from sight, was William Morgan. He had been a man of little consideration in the place, in which he had been but a short time resident. Without wealth, for he was compelled to labor for the support of a young wife and two infant children, and without influence of any kind, it seemed as if there could be nothing in the history or the pursuits of the individual to make him a shining mark of persecution, on any account. So unreasonable, if not absurd, did the notion of the forcible abduction of such a man appear, that it was at first met with a cold smile of utter incredulity. Among the floating population of a newly settled country, the single fact of the departure of persons having few ties to bind them to any particular spot, would scarcely cause remark or lead to inquiry. Numbers, when first called to express an opinion in the ease of Morgan, at once jumped to the conclusion that he voluntarily fled to parts unknown. So natural was the inference that even to this day, many who have never taken any trouble to look into the evidence, are impressed with a vague notion that it is the proper solution of the difficulty. In ordinary circumstances the thing might have passed off as a nine days’ wonder, and in a month’s time the name of Morgan might have been forgotten in Batavia, had it not been for a single clue which was left behind him, and which, at first followed up from curiosity, soon excited wonder, and from this led to astonishment at the nature of the discoveries that ensued.

The single clue which ultimately unwound the tangled skein of evidence was this. The sole act of Morgan, whilst dwelling in Batavia, which formed any exception to the ordinary habits of men in his walk of life, was an undertaking into which he entered, in partnership with another person, to print and publish a book. This book promised to contain a true account of certain ceremonies and secret obligations taken by those who joined the society of Freemasons. The simple announcement of the intention to print this work was known to have been received by many of the persons in the vicinity, acknowledged brethren of the Order, with signs of the most lively indignation. And as the thing went on to execution, so many efforts were made to interrupt and to prevent it, even at the hazard of much violence, that soon after the disappearance of the prime mover of the plan, doubts began to spread in the community, whether there was not some connection, in the way of cause and effect, between the proposed publication and that event. Circumstances rapidly confirmed suspicion into belief, and belief into certainty. At first the attention was concentrated upon the individuals of the fraternity discovered to have been concerned in the taking off. It afterwards spread itself so far as to embrace the action of the Lodges of the region in which the deed was done. But such was the amount of resistance experienced to efforts made to ferret out the perpetrators and bring them to justice, that ultimately the whole organization of the Order became involved in responsibility for the misdeeds of its members. The opposition made to investigation only stimulated the passion to investigate. Unexampled efforts were made to enlist the whole power of the social system in the pursuit of the kidnappers, which were as steadily baffled by the superior activity of the Masonic power. In time, it became plain, that the only effectual course would be, to go if possible to the root of the evil, and to attack Masonry in its very citadel of secret obligations.

The labor expended in the endeavor to suppress the publication of Morgan’s book, proved to have been lost. It came out just at the moment when the disappearance of its author was most calculated to rouse the public curiosity to its contents. On examination, it was found to contain what purported to be the forms of Oaths taken by those who were admitted to the first three degrees of Masonry,-the Entered Apprentice’s, the Fellow Craft’s and the Master Mason’s. If they really were what they pretended to be, then indeed was supplied a full explanation of the motives that might have led to Morgan’s disappearance. But here was the first difficulty. Doubts were sedulously spread of their genuineness. Morgan’s want of social character was used with effect to bring the whole volume into discredit. Neither is it perfectly certain that its revelations would have been ultimately established as true, had not a considerable number of the fraternity, stimulated by the consciousness of the error which they had committed, voluntarily assembled at Leroy, a town in the neighborhood of Batavia, and then and there, besides attesting the veracity of Morgan’s book, renounced all further connection with the society. One or two of these persons subsequently made far more extended publications, in which they opened all the mysteries of the Royal Arch, and of the Knight Templar’s libation, besides exposing in a clear light the whole complicated organization of the Institution. Upon these disclosures the popular excitement spread over a large part of the northern section of the Union. It crept into the political divisions of the time. A party sprung up almost with the celerity of magic, the end of whose exertions was to be the overthrow of Masonry. It soon carried before it all the power of Western New York. It spread into the neighboring States. It made its appearance in legislative assemblies, and there demanded full and earnest investigations, not merely of the circumstances attending the event which originated the excitement, but also of the nature of the obligations which Masons had been in the habit of assuming. Great as was the effort to resist this movement, and manifold the devices to escape the searching operation proposed, it was found impossible directly to stem the tide of popular opinion. Masons, who stubbornly adhered to the Order, were yet compelled under oath to give their reluctant testimony to the truth of the disclosures that had been made. The oaths of Masonry and the strange rites practiced simultaneously with the assumption of them, were then found to be in substance what they had been affirmed to be. The veil that hid the mystery was rent in twain, and there stood the idol before the gaze of the multitude, in all the nakedness of its natural deformity.

Strange though it may seem, it is nevertheless equally certain, that the most revolting features of the obligation, the pledges subversive of all moral distinctions, and the penalties for violating those pledges, were not those things which roused the most general popular disapprobation. Here, as often before, the shield of private character, earned by a life and conversation without reproach, was interposed with effect to screen from censure men who protested that when they swore to keep secret the crimes which their brethren might have committed, provided they were revealed to them under the Masonic sign, they did nothing which they deemed inconsistent with their duties as Christians and as members of society. It is the tendency of mankind to mix with all abstract reasoning, however pure and perfect, a great deal of the alloy of human authority, to harden its nature. Multitudes preferred to believe the Masonic oaths and penalties to be ceremonies, childish, ridiculous and unmeaning, rather than to suppose them intrinsically and incurably vicious. They refused to credit the fact that men whom they respected as citizens could have made themselves parties to any promise whatsoever to do acts illegal, unjust and wicked. Rather than go so far, they preferred to throw themselves into a state of resolute unbelief of all that could be said against them. Hence the extraordinary resistance to all projects of examination, that great wall of brass which the conservative temper of society erects around acknowledged and time-hallowed abuses. Hence the determination to credit the assurances of interested witnesses, who seemed to have a character for veracity to support, rather than by pressing investigation, to undermine the established edifice constructed by the world’s opinion.

Neither is there at bottom any want of good sense in this sluggish mode of viewing all movements of reform. Agitation always portends more or less of risk to society, and tends to bring mere authority into contempt. It is therefore not without reason that those who value the security which they enjoy under existing institutions, hesitate at adopting any rule of conduct which may materially diminish it. Such hesitation is visible under all forms of government, but it is no where more marked than in the United States, where the popular nature of the institutions makes the tendency to change at all times imminent. The misfortune attending this natural and pardonable conservative instinct is, that it clings with indiscriminate tenacity to all that has been long established the evil as well as the good, the abuses that have crept in equally with the useful and the true. It was just so in the case of Masonry. A large number of the most active and respected members of society had allowed themselves to become involved in its obligations, and rather than voluntarily to confess the error they had committed, and to sanction the overthrow of the Institution by a decided act of surrender, they preferred to support it upon the strength of their present character, and upon the combination of themselves and the friends whom they could influence to resist the assaults of a reforming and purifying power. Great as was the strength of this resistance, it could only partially succeed in accomplishing the object at which it aimed. The opposition made to the admission of a palpable moral truth, had its usual and natural effect to stimulate the efforts of those who were pressing it upon the public attention. Admitting in the fullest extent every thing that could be said in behalf of many of the individuals, who as Masons became subjected to the vehemence of the denunciations directed against the fraternity, it was yet a fact not a little startling, that even they should deem themselves so far bound by unlawful obligations as at no time to be ready to signify the smallest disapprobation of their character, not even after the fact was proved how much of evil they had caused. After the disclosures of the Morgan history, it was no longer possible to pretend that the pledges were not actually construed in the sense which the language plainly conveyed. That after admitting the possibility of such a construction, the association which for one moment longer should give it countenance, made itself responsible for all the crime which might become the fruit of it, cannot be denied. Yet this reasoning did not appear to have the weight to which it was fairly entitled, in deterring the respectable members of the society from giving it their aid and countenance. DeWitt Clinton still remained Grand Master of the Order after he had reason to know the extent to which it had made itself accessory to the Morgan murder. Edward Livingston was not ashamed publicly to declare his acceptance of the same office, although the chain of evidence which traced that crime to the Masonic oath had then been made completely visible to all. When the authority of such names as these was invoked with success, to shelter the association from the effect of its own system, it seemed to become an imperative duty on the part of those whose attention had been aroused to the subject, to look beyond the barrier of authority so sedulously erected in order to keep them out, to probe by a searching analytic process the moral elements upon which the Institution claimed to rest, and to concentrate the rays of truth and right reason upon those corrupt principles, which if not effectively counteracted, seemed to threaten the very foundations of justice in the social and moral system of America.

It was the province here marked out which Mr. Adams voluntarily assumed to fill when he addressed to Colonel William L. Stone that series of letters upon the Entered Apprentice’s Oath, which will be found to make a part of the present volume. Although this obligation may be considered as constituting the lowest story and least commanding portion of the edifice of Freemasonry, yet he singled it out for examination as the fairest test by which he could try the merits of all that has been built above it. If that first and simplest step proved untenable, it followed as a matter of course, that no later or more difficult one could fare a whit better. Of the result of the investigation thus entered into, it is thought that no difference of opinion can now be entertained. No answer worthy of a moment’s consideration was ever made. It is confidently believed that none is possible. As a specimen of rigid moral analysis, the letters must ever remain, not simply as evincing the peculiar powers of the author’s mind, but also as a standing testimony against the radical vice of the secret Institution against which they were directed.

When the books of Morgan, and Allyn, and Bernard, the admissions of Colonel Stone and of the Rhode Island legislative investigation, had left little of the mysteries of Freemasonry unseen by the public eye, the impressions derived from observation were curious and contradictory. Upon the first hasty and superficial glance, a feeling might arise of surprise that the frivolity of its unmeaning ceremonial, and the ridiculous substitution of its fictions for the sacred history, should not have long ago discredited the thing in the minds of good and sensible men every where. Yet upon a closer and more attentive examination, this first feeling vanishes, and makes way for astonishment at the ingenious contrivance displayed in the construction of the whole machine. A more perfect agent for the devising and execution of conspiracies against church or state could scarcely have been conceived. At the outer door stands the image of secrecy, stimulating the passion of curiosity. And the world which habitually takes the unknown to be sublime, could scarcely avoid inferring that the untold mysteries which were supposed to have been transmitted undivulged to any external ear, from generation to generation, must have in them some secret of power richly worth the knowing. Here was the temptation to enter the portal. But the unlucky wight, like him of the poet’s hell, when once admitted within the door, was doomed at the same moment to leave behind him all hope or expectation of retreat. His mouth was immediately sealed by an obligation of secrecy, imposed with all the solemnity that can be borrowed from the use of the forms of religious worship. Nothing was left undone to magnify the effect of the scene upon his imagination. High sounding titles, strange and startling modes of procedure, terrific pledges and imprecations, and last, though not least, the graduation of orders in an ascending scale, which like mirrors placed in long vistas, had the effect of expanding the apparent range of vision almost to infinitude, were all combined to rescue from ridicule and contempt the moment of discovery of the insignificant secret actually disclosed. Having thus been tempted by curiosity to advance, and being cut off by fear from retreat, there came last of all the appearance of a sufficient infusion of religious and moral and benevolent profession to furnish an ostensible cause for the construction of a system so ponderous and complicate. The language of the Old Testament, the history as well as the traditions of the Jews, and the resources of imagination, are indiscriminately drawn upon to deck out a progressive series of initiating ceremonies which would otherwise claim no attribute to save them from contempt. Ashamed and afraid to go backwards, the novice suffers his love of the marvelous, his dread of personal hazard, and his hope for more of the beautiful and the true than has yet been doled out to him, to lead him on until he finds himself crawling under the living arch, or committing the folly of the fifth libation. He then too late discovers himself to have been fitting for the condition either of a dupe or of a conspirator. He has plunged himself needlessly into an abyss of obligations which, if they signify little, prove him to have been a fool; and if, on the contrary, they signify much, prove him ready at a moment’s warning, to make himself a villain.

Such is the impression of the Masonic Institution that must be gathered from all the expositions that have been lately made. Yet, strange though it may seem, there is no reason to doubt that the Society has had great success in enrolling numbers of persons in many countries among its members, and in keeping them generally faithful to the obligations which it imposed. This, if no other fact, would be sufficient to relieve the whole machine from the burden of ridicule it might otherwise be made to bear. Perhaps the strongest feature of the association is to be found in the pledge it imposes of mutual assistance in distress. On this account much merit has been claimed to it, and many stories have been circulated of the benefits which individuals have experienced in war, or in perils by sea and land, or in other disasters, by the ability to resort to the grand hailing sign. This argument, which has probably made more Freemasons than any other, would be good in its defense were it not for two objections. One of them is, that the pledge to assist is indiscriminate, making little or no difference between the good or bad nature of the actions to promote which a co-operation may be invoked. The other is, that the engagement implies a duty of preference of one member of society to the disadvantage of another who may be in all respects his superior. It establishes a standard of merit conflicting with that established by the Christian or the social system, either or both of which ought to be of paramount obligation. And this injurious preference is the more dangerous because it may be carried on without the knowledge of the sufferers. The more scrupulously conscientious a citizen may be, who hesitates at taking an oath the nature of which he does not know beforehand, the more likely will he be to be kept down by the artificial advancement of others who may derive their advantage from a cunning use of their more flexible sense of right. That these are not altogether imaginary objections, there is no small amount of actual evidence to prove. There has been a time, when resort to Masonry was regarded as eminently favorable to early success in life; and there have been men whose rapidity of personal and political advancement it would be difficult to explain by any other cause than this, that they have been generally understood to be bright Masons. Such a preference as is here supposed, can be justifiable only upon the supposition that Masonic merit and social merit rest on the same general foundation;-a supposition which no person will be able to entertain for a moment after he shall have observed the scales which belong respectively to each.

Another argument which has been effectively resorted to as an aid to Freemasonry, is drawn from its supposed antiquity. To give color to this notion, a very ingenious use has been made of much of the sacred history; but it appears to have no solid foundation whatsoever. Whatever may have been the nature of the associations of Masons who built the gothic edifices of the middle ages, the investigations entered into by those who opposed speculative Freemasonry sufficiently proved that the latter scarcely dates beyond the early part of the last century. The air of traditionary mystery like the aerugo on many a pretended coin, has been artificially added to heighten its value to the curious. Yet such has been its effect, that this cause alone has probably contributed very largely to fill up the ranks of the Society. The rapidity of its growth during the period of its legitimate existence, is one of the most surprising circumstances attending its history. Originating in Great Britain somewhere about the beginning of the eighteenth century, it soon ramified not only in that country, but into France and Germany; it spread itself into the colonies of North America, and made its way to the confines of distant Asia. Although the seeds of the Institution were early planted in Boston and Charleston, they did not fructify largely until after the period of the Revolution. The original form of Masonry was comprised in what are now called the first three degrees-the entered apprentice, fellow craft and master-but during the first quarter of the present century, so thoroughly had the basis been laid over the entire surface of the United States, that the degrees have been multiplied more than tenfold, and in all directions the materials have been collected for a secret combination of the most formidable character. It was not until the history of Morgan laid open the consequences of the abuse of the system, that the public began to form a conception of the dangerous fanaticism which it was cherishing in its bosom. Even then, the endeavor to apply effective remedies to the evil was met with the most energetic and concerted resistance, and the result of the struggle was by no means a decided victory to the opponents of the Institution. Freemasonry still lives and moves and has a being, even in New York and Massachusetts. And at the seat of the Federal government, Freemasonry at this moment claims and obtains the privilege of laying the corner-stone of the national institution created upon the endowment of James Smithson, for the purpose of increasing and diffusing knowledge among men.