| On this day in 1865, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer, fatally shoots President Abraham Lincoln at a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The attack came only five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his massive army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War.
What did Abraham Lincoln think of Freemasonry and why did he never become a member of our fraternity? In 1860 the Grand Lodge of Illinois recessed their meeting being held during the presidential campaign to call on Mr. Lincoln. During that meeting Lincoln is reported to have told the calling committee “Gentleman, I have always entertained a profound respect for the Masonic fraternity and have long cherished a desire to become a member.”
When a Mason told Lincoln during that campaign that all of the other candidates were Freemasons, especially noting that Stephen A. Douglas was a member of the Masonic lodge in Springfield, Illinois (Lincoln’s hometown), Lincoln replied, “I am not a Freemason, Dr. Morris, though I have great respect for the institution.”The primary qualification to become a Mason is the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being. Lincoln had a fervent belief in God. He was an avid student of the Bible and included many Biblical references in his writings and speeches, the most famous being his second Inaugural address and he regarded the subject of religion as a matter of individual conscience.
One of fundamental tenants of Masonry is that it seeks to make “good men, better men”. This belief would have appealed to Abraham Lincoln who desired to see the best in people in people and to see that each individual could advance in life as much as possible. The Masonic support of the ideas of equality and the brotherhood of all people were also fundamental beliefs to Lincoln.One of Lincolns’ closest friends was Bowling Green a Freemason, Master of his local Masonic lodge, and a member of the original Grand Lodge of Illinois. When Green died in February of 1842, Springfield Lodge No. 4 invited Lincoln to give remarks during the Masonic services for Bro. Green.Lincolns’ idol in politics was Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky. Clay served as Grand Master of Kentucky. During the height of the Anti-Masonic partyin the United States (the early 1830s) and during the time that Clay was running for President of the United States, Clay refused to denounce the Masonic fraternity, even though it would have helped him politically.Why did Lincoln never become a Freemason? Lincoln told the Grand Lodge committee that visited him during the 1860 campaign: “I have never petitioned because I have felt my own unworthiness to do so. I might be overcoming my hesitance and be petitioning at the present time but I am a candidate for political office and by some such action might be misconstrued. For this reason, I must for the present time refrain.”After his death, a friend of his who was a prominent Mason said Lincoln once told him “I (Lincoln) feared I was too lazy to do all my duty as I should wish to were I a member, and I have kept postponing my application”.In May of 1837 Lincoln took on one of his first legal cases, representing the widow and son of Joseph Anderson in their effort to take possession of 10 acres of land presumed to have been owned by Joseph Anderson at the time of his death. However, James Adams, Anderson’s former attorney and an officer of the Springfield Masonic Lodge was found to be in possession of the land basing his claim on a deed executed by Joseph Anderson. Lincoln felt the conveyance of the land was spurious. Lincoln and Adams had a bitter and public feud. Adams charged that Lincoln was a deist. Lincoln probably did not want to join a lodge where Adams was a member and quite possibly would not have attained the necessary unanimous support of the voting brethren.A few years later Lincoln had trouble with another Mason, James Shields who was an Irish immigrant. Shields was a Democrat and became state auditor in 1841. Lincoln and the Whig partyprotested his policies and there were letters published in the newspapers questioning Shields honesty. Shields accused Lincoln of writing these letters and challenged Lincoln to a duel. On September 22, 1842 Lincoln, Shields, and their respective parties crossed the Mississippi River to Missouri for the duel (at that time dueling was still legal in Missouri). Fortunately friends intervened and got Shields to accept Lincoln’s explanation and the duel was called off.The list of prominent people connected to the Civil War that were Freemasons is very long, including Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, Lewis Cass, David Farragut, Sam Houston, Andrew Johnson, Edwin M. Stanton, Gideon Welles, P.G.T. Beauregard, Albert Pick. It is possible that Lincoln saw some of the spirit of brotherly friendship among these Masons and their practice of Masonic ideals had some affect on him.Lincoln was never a Mason, but it is likely that Masonry had some influence on him him and he on Freemasonry. His political philosophy was affected by Masonic ideals that were expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. His spirit of charity during the Civil War was probably affected to some extent by hearing how Masons in the war helped each other while maintaining their ideals. Lincoln was helped in his life by Freemasons from his days at New Salem through his days in the White House.Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865)(The information for this blog entry was derived from an article by Bro. Paul M. Bessel that was presented to the A. Douglas Smith Jr. Lodge of Research #1949 on 7/29/95).