Masons pay special tribute to the thirteen Presidents known to be members of the Craft, particularly George Washington. But there were fourteen Presidents, before Washington, who receive so little attention in school textbooks that most students cannot name even one. These are our forgotten Presidents. We refer, of course to the Presidents who served under the most difficult circumstances - the years of conflict with Great Britain for independence and then the years trying to unite the colonies into one Nation.
Of the fourteen Presidents, elected for one year terms, four were Masons. Our Fraternity has the distinct honor of providing two "first" Presidents. Not only was George Washington a Mason but Peyton Randolph, the first President of the Continental Congress, was also a member of the Craft. The other three Masonic Presidents were Henry Laurens, Arthur St Clair and John Hancock.
The greatest of these early Presidents was Brother John Hancock. He was held in such high esteem by the leaders of the colonies that he was elected President three times. It was under his Presidency that the war effort against Britain was initiated in earnest and Washington appointed to direct it. And it was John Hancock, as President of Congress, who boldly and alone affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It was another month before the others began to sign it. Brother John Hancock - an unknown President, but remembered and honored today!
The fourteen Presidents of the Continental Congresses and later of the "United States" under the Articles of Confederation are:
Brother Peyton Randolph (1721-1775) was elected the first President of the Continental Congress in September, 1774. He served as master of the Lodge at Williamsburg, 1773, and was the last Provincial Grand Master of Virginia.
Henry Middleton (1717-1784) was the second President of the Continental Congress. He served from Randolph's resignation in October of 1774 until May of 1775. He was a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner. Born in London, he and General Arthur St. Clair, a Scotsman, were the only non-natives of these early Presidents.
Brother John Hancock (1737-1793) was elected President in May of 1775, re-elected the following year and served to October of 1777. Hancock was a leading Boston merchant, a Major General in the Massachusetts militia and the first Governor of Massachusetts. The British General Gage said of him and Samuel Adams: "Their offenses are of too flagitious a nature to admit of any other consideration than that of condign punishment" He was made a Mason in Merchants Lodge No. 277, Quebec, in 1762 and affiliated with St. Andrew's Lodge of Boston that same year.
Brother Henry Laurens (1724-1792) served as President from November of 1777 to December of 1778. He was a South Carolina merchant. On a diplomatic mission to Holland he was captured by the British and confined in the Tower of London from October, 1780 to December, 1781. He was exchanged for Lord Cornwallis. He is thought to be the first person in America to be cremated at death. He was a member of Solomon's Lodge No.1, Charleston, S.C., and Grand Steward of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina in 1754.
John Jay (1745-1829) served as President from December of 1778 to September of 1779, when he was elected Plenipotentiary to Spain. He was a New York lawyer and, at 34, the youngest of these early Presidents. Later he was to become Governor of New York and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no proof that he was a Mason but Denslow's quotation, in "Ten Thousand Famous Freemasons," of a letter Jay wrote to Washington is tantalizing: "The dissolution of our government threw us into a political chaos. Time, Wisdom, and Perseverance will reduce it into Form, and give it Strength, Order and Harmony. In this work you are a Master Builder and God grant that you may long continue a Free and Accepted One."
Samuel Huntington (1731-1796) was President from September of 1779 to July of 1781. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later Governor of Connecticut. He was President when The Articles of Confederation were adopted on March 1, 1781 the date when Maryland, the last of the thirteen colonies, signed the document. The Articles united the colonies under the title "United States."
Thomas McKean (1734-1817) served as President from July of 1781 to November of 1781. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and said to have written Delaware's first Constitution, later becoming Governor of that State. He may have been a Mason, but no proof.
John Hanson (1715-1783) of Maryland was elected "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" in November, 1781 - the first to begin his term of office at the start of the federal year provided by the Articles of Confederation. This is the date when the nation, previously existing by general agreement only, bound the states in a legal government.
Elias Boudinot (1740-1821) of New Jersey served as President from November of 1782 to November of 1983. He signed the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain in Paris, September 1783. He was the first President, 1826, of the American Bible Society.
Thomas Mifflin (1744-1800) was President from December of 1783 to June of 1784. He was a merchant, Major General in the Revolutionary War, signer of the Constitution and Governor of Pennsylvania.
Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794) was President from November of 1784 to October of 1785. He was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and later United States Senator from that State. He was the author of the "Resolution for Independence" in the Continental Congress, June 1776: "These United Colonies, are and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally dissolved." He might have been the author of the Declaration of Independence but, in his illness, Thomas Jefferson was asked to write it.
Brother John Hancock was again elected to the Presidency in November of 1785 but due to ill health resigned in May, 1786.
Nathaniel Gorham (1798-1796) was President from June of 1786 to February of 1787. He signed the Constitution as a delegate from Massachusetts.
Brother Arthur St. Clair (1784-1818) served as President from February of 1787 to November of 1787. He was a Major General in the Revolutionary War. Previously, as a lieutenant under General Wolfe in the battle on the "Plains of Abraham" at Quebec he seized the colors from a fallen soldier and bore it until victory had been won by the British. He was the first Governor of the Northwest Territory, 1787. His original lodge is not known but it may have been an English military lodge. He signed a request in 1791 for a charter for Lodge Nova Caesarea Harmony No.2 of Cincinnati and is recorded as visiting this lodge many times.
Cyrus Griffin (1749-1810) a Virginia jurist, was elected President in January of 1788. He headed the Congressional Court of Appeals, the forerunner of the U.S. Supreme Court. New Hampshire, the last state to ratify the Constitution, did so on June 21, 1788. Griffin, the last of our "forgotten" Presidents served to March 4, 1789 when the new government under the Constitution became effective.
These are our early Presidents - forgotten for two hundred years.
(By John R. Nocas.
Extracted from the February, 1983 Philalethes Magazine.)
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