Irish and Antients Freemasonry in 18th-century Middle America

Friday, 07 December 2018

By looking beyond society’s upper ranks for its members, Irish and Antients Freemasonry became an integral part of the development of Middle America during the 18th century, as Dr Ric Berman explains

Think of Irish America and a series of images come to mind: Boston policemen, Philadelphia firefighters, Irish bars decked in green and white, or St Patrick’s Day, with the Chicago River dyed green. The images testify to the more than four million mainly Catholic migrants from the south of Ireland who dominated 19th and 20th-century migration to the US. 

However, in the 18th century, more than 300,000 Irish migrated to North America. Well over three-quarters were Ulster Presbyterians or ‘Scots-Irish’. It’s asmall number compared to later centuries, but at the time that was between 10 and 12 per cent of America’s white population. 

The Scots-Irish gravitated towards Pennsylvania and the North Carolina Piedmont, the plateau between the coastal plain and the Appalachians, where they comprised more than half the population.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES

The two main drivers for migration were financial hardship and reduced economic opportunity – a result of rising land rents and Britain’s anti-Irish trade legislation – as well as the pull of better economic prospects elsewhere. The impact was particularly harsh on Ulster’s Presbyterians, a mix of aspirational middle and lower-middle-class tenant farmers, tradesmen and artisans. Indeed, the situation became so severe that between 1720 and 1790, around half of Ulster’s Protestant population left. 

An obvious destination was England, especially London, which many used as a staging post before leaving for America. For those with little education and narrow skillsets, life was tough and work irregular and poorly-paid. But despite the barriers, a large minority began to prosper, and it was from this stratum of aspirational London-Irish society that Antients Freemasonry was born.

There is a reason the London Irish formed or joined what became known as Antients’ lodges: the majority were excluded from English Freemasonry, a schism that must have felt very real to this group. The divide was both religious and social. Religious, because the Grand Lodge of England (the ‘Moderns’) had to some extent secularised its form of Freemasonry and moved away from past spirituality. And social, because many English Freemasons viewed themselves as an elite and did not wish to associate with the Irish newcomers.

But even Antients Freemasonry was not for the poor. Membership and dining fees – along with the obligatory charitable contributions – excluded most working men. But those who could afford it found many reasons to remain: a relatively exclusive space for fraternal association; a quasi-spiritual experience; and an opportunity for self-improvement. 

Moderns Freemasons were associated with loyalty to Britain, while Antients Freemasonry become the chosen fraternal association for many at the forefront of patriotic opposition

THE CALL OF THE WEST

While tens of thousands of Irish travelled to England in the 18th century, even more sailed west. Those with agricultural leases and businesses sold up and used the proceeds to fund their fares and acquire land. Those with less money travelled as indentured labourers and worked to pay off their debts. They sailed for Charleston, Baltimore, New York and Boston, but especially Philadelphia, the first port of call for the vast majority. 

Pennsylvania was a destination in itself, as well as a distribution point for onward settlement. A minority of migrants were already Freemasons when they arrived in America, with others initiated afterwards as they moved west to settle the back-country of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and southwest along the wagon trails to the Piedmont. 

The chartering of Antients, Irish and Scottish lodges in America’s Middle Colonies is documented from the late 1750s. The Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, formerly Philadelphia Lodge, No. 4, was especially active, warranting lodges across Pennsylvania as well as Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and North and South Carolina. 

Irish and Antients Freemasonry were also transported to America by the British military, many of whose regiments were deployed to Ireland and granted travelling warrants by the Grand Lodge of Ireland before crossing the Atlantic. Others regiments received warrants directly from the Antients Grand Lodge in London, which was keen to encourage America’s ‘right worshipful and very worthy gentlemen’ to join its version of the Craft. Still more operated without a formal charter.

What is significant is that across the Piedmont, and in North Carolina in particular, the establishment of Antients, Irish and Scottish lodges marked the path of Scots-Irish migration and the westward development of America’s frontier. Among many examples are Old Cone Lodge at Salisbury and Phalanx Lodge at Charlotte, both established on the then-western bounds of North Carolina, with each town settled by Scots-Irish migrants travelling down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. 

Lodges at Warrenton and Fayetteville were established on the Fall Line Road that carried migrants south from Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Others further west mark Scots-Irish settlements in the 1780s and 1790s, as the frontier pushed towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. They include Caswell Brotherhood Lodge, Rutherford Fellowship Lodge, and Independence Lodge in Chatham County. And as with their counterparts in London, the minutes show that each lodge comprised leading figures in the community. 

In the run-up to the War of American Independence in 1775 and throughout the conflict itself, many, albeit by no means all, Moderns Freemasons were associated with loyalty to Britain. Some were forced to flee; others faced fines and the confiscation of their assets. In contrast, Antients Freemasonry had become the chosen fraternal association for many at the forefront of patriotic opposition. 

After Independence, Antients Freemasonry was elevated politically, and endowed with Enlightenment virtues and high moral principles. It flourished, with a greater accessibility and inclusiveness that changed American Freemasonry’s social demographics. 

Unlike the Moderns, Antients Freemasonry sourced its members from a broad social spectrum, while at the same time laying claim to a ritual and history dating back to time immemorial – an approach laid out by the London Irish some four decades before. 

By moving the organisation beyond the confines of society’s upper ranks, identifying it with the common good, and providing charity and mutual assistance to a broader spectrum of beneficiaries, Antients Freemasonry became integral to the development of America’s economy and society, and thus to its success.

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