The Inauguration of the Washington National Monument

Michael Rizzotti

In an earlier study on the dedication of Quebec’s monuments, I realized that these civil events revealed interesting details about the mythical edification of society as a whole.1 Consequently, I chose to expand my field of research to include at least one of the major U.S. monuments. My goal in doing this is to reveal how the process of dedication of the Washington National Monument, in Washington D.C. is kindred to American civil religion and how it is a mythological showcase of the U.S.’ ideological foundation. As we shall see, the dedication of monuments is a privileged ritual that discloses the consecration of American civil religion in society.2 By the same token, these ceremonials reveal how America’s most celebrated political hero yields a mythological significance of primal importance.3

I will take a close look at two aspects of the inauguration: the ritual and the mythical. The first deals with the festivities of the ceremony that act as an introduction to the orators and their speeches. The second relates to the content of the speeches themselves which eulogize, better yet, mythologize the hero to whom the monument is dedicated.

At the inauguration, the hero whose identity is immortalized in the stone is literally consecrated by the monument. The people who congregate for the ceremony recreate a time of vital significance in history. By the same token, the audience -the elected representatives of society as a whole- endorses the hero as a national figure who is chosen as a prototype of American political foundation. By their presence they acknowledge the hero’s meaningful legacy to history.

As I have described elsewhere, the discovery and foundation of a new territory has a mythological significance. The first to discover a new land, or the first president of a new political reality is a primal event of historical and mythological significance. His name and his role in American history has a unique place above all other historical figures and events.

Thus, the Washington National Monument was erected to celebrate the primordial in the United States’ history, similar in fashion to the erection of temples and sacred buildings dedicated for the most sacred purposes. In that respect, the Monument becomes central in American history. To use Mircea Eliade’s words, the Monument becomes an axis mundi.4 The axis from which everything began and from where everything flows. As such, the Washington National Monument symbolizes the beginning of the nation’s political history built at the center of the political power of the United States of America.

The type of monument chosen is fitting. Nothing could have better represented the hero’s grandeur. No monument could have been more adequate to express how central the hero is to American history and politics. Moreover, the shaft could not have been more appropriate to symbolize the idea of the center, order and hierarchy.

The type of structure and the site were specifically chosen to reflect a symbolic and mythical expression. The people responsible for this task were concerned about finding the most appropriate place.

It may be here remarked, with reference to the site selected for the Monument, that the foundations were laid but a short distance to the east of the meridian line run, at the instance of the President Jefferson, by Nicholas King, surveyor, October 15, 1804…This line, by the president’s instructions, passed through the center of the White House, and where it intersected a line due east and west through the center of the Capitol a small monument or pyramid of stones was placed…5

The center yields an important symbolic significance in most mythologies. As a sacred space it stands apart from the ordinariness of its surrounding. In the world of mythology, the axis mundi is represented in different forms: a tree, a mountain, a ladder, or a pillar. Yet they all symbolize the communication between the two cosmic arenas: heaven and earth, and the center and its periphery.

Similarly, the Holy of Holies was at the center of the temple of Jerusalem, also considered to be at the center of the world. In Greek mythology, the shrine of Apollo at Delphi was also declared the earth’s center. For Islam, the Muslim Dome of the Rock is the sacred place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.6


In its proportions the ratios of the dimensions of the several parts of the ancient Egyptian obelisk have been carefully followed.7

These remarks by Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief engineer in charge of the Monument, were made to reveal that it was to be a larger replica of an Egyptian obelisk -an erected stone carved into a four sided pillar crowned with a small pyramid called the pyramidion. The Washington Monument is a much larger replica than the original obelisks found in Egypt. These were made out of a single block of rock, whereas the capital’s structure is made of 36,000 blocks of stone.

The Egyptians usually erected the obelisks in pairs in front of Egyptian temples. They were believed to be sacred. Scholars are still uncertain about their specific use or function. Obelisks are nevertheless a unique symbol of Egyptian culture. Romans were so fascinated by the pillars that they moved several of them to Rome.

In ancient Egypt, the pyramidion that crowned the monolith was probably covered with gold to reflect the sun’s rays.8 The pyramidion, in all likelihood, also crowned the great pyramids of Egypt. Technically, the obelisk symbolizes a ray of light emanating from the sun. The pointed pillars were perhaps relevant symbols of light and life, and the daily course of the sun as opposed to the pyramids that were symbols of darkness and death, and the setting sun. The earliest obelisks are believed to have been erected in the 4th dynasty (circa 2613-2494 BC). No examples from that era remain today.

In the late 19th century, the government of Egypt gave one of the two Ramses’ obelisks ornating the Luxor temple to France where it stands in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. Two other obelisks were shipped to England and to the United States. Both were taken from Heliopolis. They were dedicated to Thutmose III and bear the inscriptions and legends of two pharaohs: Thutmose III, and Ramses II (1304-1237 BC). One stands on the Thames’ embankment, in London, the other is in Central Park, in New York City.

The connection between the Washington National Monument and the gift from Egypt is, to say the least, a suitable symbol of the continuity between an ancient civilization and an emerging one.

History of the Monument

The Washington National Monument Society was founded in 1833 because Congress did not keep its promise to erect a monument deserving of the national hero. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to collect the necessary funds before the Society took over. And it was not until 1884 that the Monument was finally completed.

In 1853, Congress appropriated $50,000 for the erection of an equestrian statue of George Washington. It was unveiled on February 22nd 1860 in the east park of the Capitol. The Society viewed the statue as unworthy of the national hero and persevered to build a monument equal in stature to George Washington.

In 1835, two years after the foundation of the Society, its first president, John Marshall, died and was replaced by the ex-president of the United States, James Madison. Upon the death of James Madison, the Society amended its constitution so that the president in office became ex-officio president of the Society. Andrew Jackson was the first to honor this function under the newly amended constitution.

On the 4th of July 1848, the first cornerstone was laid. To celebrate the occasion a ceremony was organized.

By January 1853, the Monument had risen 126 feet above ground.

On March 8th, 1854, a block of marble sent by Pope Pius IX as a tribute to George Washington and America that was to be part of the giant structure, was stolen.9 The suspicion quickly pointed toward a group known as the Know-Nothings. A secretive anti-Catholic political movement, who at the time enjoyed considerable Masonic support.10 The group had frequently expressed in the daily press the view that the stone sent by the Roman Catholic Church should not be part of the Monument. The theft enraged the Catholics in the U.S. and abroad. It also alienated part of the population from the funding of the Monument.

The Society subsequently fell at the hands of a narrow political faction influenced by the Know-Nothings. It practically froze the progress of the Society toward the funding and construction of the Monument. Finally, in February of 1859 the Society decided to end its internal stalemate and adopted a new charter to eliminate any opposition to the completion of their project.

One year later, the Civil War further delayed progress in the construction.

The war and the poor state of the economy slowed the collection of funds and the completion of the Monument. Not until 1874 did the construction gain any momentum. It was largely due to the interest of the Masonic Order and other organizations like the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Independent Order of Red Men, the Temperance, and other fraternal bodies. But the success of the enterprise was mostly owed to the special interest of the Masonic Order who supervised the completion of the Monument.

On December 6th, 1884, the giant structure was finally completed. The last piece of stone was put atop the marble shaft measuring 555 feet and 5 inches.

On February 21st, 1885, the Capitol proceeded to the dedication of the Washington National Monument. All of the capital’s dignitaries were present as Rev. Henderson Suter said a prayer at the beginning of the ceremonies. Shortly after, a Masonic function took place at the base of the Monument, followed by the address of the Grand Master Mason, Myron M. Parker. The dedication was completed by the oration of Hon. Robert C. Winthrop.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Grand Master Mason at the laying of the cornerstone and later at the inauguration of the Monument. The organization played a sizable part in the collection of the funds to build the structure. But there is another reason for the brotherhood’s interest in the building and their overwhelming presence at the ceremonies. George Washington was himself a Freemason.

The dedication

The great show that is the dedication enables us to unveil how the mythical and the ritual work hand in hand in the building of the national identity. The greater the hero, the larger the ceremony, and the bigger the monument. The rank and stature of dignitaries is also akin to the grandeur of the hero. Everything is planned carefully. The order of the march, the sequence of the orators, the speeches, the music, and the dramatic display of the festivities. But the most important feature of the dedication are the speeches themselves. The orators have put forth their best rhetoric abilities to eulogize the hero in all his glory.

Appropriately enough, the first president of the United States of America and the origins of rhetoric have something in common: democracy.

The first rules of rhetoric appear to have begun in Syracuse, circa 500 BC. When exiles returned to their homeland after being dispossessed of their property by a despotic ruler, they had no written records to prove the ownership of their property to the new government. In order to solve the disputes, a newly democratic system of debate was devised where verbal claims of ownership could be settled. To help the litigants improve their persuasiveness, teachers, some of them Sophists, developed rules of elocution and persuasiveness. As a result, a new discipline was born: rhetoric. The term comes from the Greek word rhema which was later translated into Latin as verbum, meaning word.11

The discipline eventually evolved into the science of speaking effectively so to persuade an audience. At about the same time that the Monument was being built, rhetoric was being dropped from the cursus studiorum in the colleges of Europe. In the second half of the XIXth century, classical rhetoric lost its appeal in the schools as a general discipline. Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the subject.12


Although the Monument is a visible structure that everyone can see, the dramatic effect of the ceremony cannot be reproduced. The only thing that remains for us is an account of the festivities and the record of the speeches. Frederich Harvey’s account in History of the Washington National Monument and Washington Monument Society, published in 1903, holds tremendous value for our study. And although the speeches are devoid of the rhetorical effect of the delivery, their content is a valuable data for analysis. The book reveals the important aspects of the ritualization and mythologizing process of the image of the First President and the Founding Father of the United States of America.

The primal function of rhetoric is to make a speech as convincing as possible, making the content plausible and believable. Yet the ultimate purpose is to convince the audience to believe in the sacred validity of the Founding Father. To achieve these goals the Romans had three principles of elocution: docere, delectare, and movere: namely, to teach, to captivate, and to move the audience.

These functions are also applied to the sermon, from the Latin sermo meaning to talk. Similarly, Rabbis use their rhetorical abilities to instruct the law. The Koran is most efficient and most beautiful when it is read aloud. In Zen Buddhism, the verbal use of paradox, or koans, is most enchanting when spoken. And the elocution of the Tao te Ching of Taoism is considered to be the most beautiful form of expression of the Chinese language. Furthermore, Jesus Christ did not write his message, he proclaimed it. The kerygma of the Word is most effective when it is preached. It is quintessential in the propagation of faith. Similarly, political speeches are essential in the promulgation of ideology.

Hence, the word is used to promote and edify a reality in the mind of the people who listen.

Today, the mass-media applies similar techniques in advertising to influence their audience.

The speeches

Harvey’s document accounts for two ceremonies. The first, at the beginning, at the laying of the first cornerstone, and the second, at the completion of the superstructure. Both are equal in importance, yet are 37 years apart.

The first ceremony was celebrated on the 4th of July 1848. For the occasion, the president of the United States, James K. Polk, and dignitaries of the capital were present, as well as Senators, Representatives of Congress, the Military, delegations from the States, and several Indian tribes. In addition, 15,000 to 20,000 spectators were all gathered for the festivities. On that day, the initial stone, a block of marble weighing twenty-four thousand five hundred pounds, was laid.

The following is a newspaper excerpt that describes the mood of the festivities:

The day was fine. The rain had laid the dust and infused a delicious freshness in the air. The procession was extensive and beautiful…When the lengthened procession had reached the site of the Monument they were joined by a whole cortege of ladies and gentlemen; and we are free to say we never beheld so magnificent a spectacle.13

The whole setting has a central goal: to focus the attention on the speeches that recreate the life and image of the hero who is the object of the celebration. These eulogies, also called panegyric, have for their sole purpose to glorify and consecrate the Founding Father. The rhetorical function is to influence the audience to collectively hail the national hero.

The whole gathering is besieged by the sacredness of the event. As the speeches affect the crowd, the crowd in return collectively sanctions the message. In the process, the image of George Washington is mythically anointed as a primordial hero, vital to the nation’s identity. As the Monument that stands erected toward the heavens in the background, the orators proclaim the hero a primordial symbol, visible to all.

The man is the monument; the monument is America.14

The ceremony began with a prayer delivered by Rev. Mr. McJilton. In it he outlined the purpose of the dedication: “We plant in earth the shaft that points to heaven”. A tribute to the man who was the instrument of God in the fight for freedom. The Reverend also disclosed his concern for peace. He expressed his apprehension about the union. And he condemned the “savages of the wilderness” as an obstacle to the free exploitation of the “unknown treasures” and “limitless territory to the industry and enterprise of man”.

The Reverend also mentioned “Thy church” without reference to any specific creed, except that it is “of a certain faith”. He concluded by asking the blessings and mediation of Jesus Christ, “our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.”

The prayer was followed by an oration from Honorable Robert C. Winthrop, Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is the main speech of the ceremonial. Winthrop was presumably a man of renowned oratorical skills since he was to be invited to the dedication 37 years later.

the setting….America
the hero……..Washington, Father of his Country
the quest…….Liberty and Independence
the obstacle…treacherous enemies
the mentor…..Divine Providence
the outcome…the Republic and its Constitution

His speech is similar in content and in tone to the Reverend’s eulogy. He repeated and expanded on the same themes, most of which are summarized in the thematic outline above.

The first category relates to the origin of the American nation and its politics, of which George Washington is the chief protagonist. The New World is the stage for the hero’s actions which were guided by Divine Providence: they led to the Revolution and the Constitution of the United States of America. In his quality of first president, he is hailed as the original founder, the Father of his Country.

The elocution refers to the General by different designations, several of which have already been mentioned. Other titles point to the more ethereal quality of the man: The idol, the favorite of heaven who yielded a magic power and majestic authority.

His star has been seen in every sky, and wise men everywhere have done it homage.15

The hero’s quest outlines a desire for Liberty and Independence. Washington is the embodiment of these goals in the midst of the colonial struggle.

The obstacles to his pursuit are referred to as the foreign powers, the wilderness, the heathen Indians, and the treacherous enemies that he victoriously overcomes by his personal prowess.

The mentor is depicted as the Providence, the Great Spirit, and the Divine Hand that guides the illustrious hero at all times.

The outcome is stated as:

He has built his own monument. We, and those who come after us in successive generations, are its appointed, its privileged guardians. This widespread Republic is the true monument to Washington. Maintain its Independence. Uphold its Constitution. Preserve its Union. Defend its liberty.16

As soon as the Honorable Robert C. Winthrop finished his eulogy, he was followed on the podium by Mr. Benjamin B. French Esq., Grand Master of the Masonic fraternity of the District of Columbia, who began by saying:

Why have we assembled here to-day (sic)? What means this immense crowd around us? For what, beneath a July sun, on this anniversary of the birthday of a nation, has this vast multitude come up, as came Israel of old to the dedication of the Temple of the Lord?16

The rest of the speech reiterates the same themes that we have outlined above, with the exception of stressing the fact that the first president was a Freemason.

After his speech, he descended to the cornerstone and performed a Masonic ceremony at the laying of it.


The dedication, unlike the festivities at the laying of the first cornerstone, were performed at two locations. It all began at the foot of the Monument and continued in a long procession toward the Capitol into the Hall of the House of Representatives.

The first part of the festivities began at 11 o’clock on February the 21st, 1885. The celebrations took place in the presence of a great number of visitors from all parts of the country. The chairman of the Commission, Hon. John Sherman, presided over the order of the proceedings while the band played on. The first to step on the podium was Rev. Henderson Suter who said a prayer. He was followed by Dr. James who read a speech written by W.W. Corcoran.18 Then, Myron Parker, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, performed his Masonic ceremonies and delivered his address. He was followed by the engineer of the joint commission, Col. Thomas L. Casey, who made some remarks about the construction of the giant structure before he delivered the Monument to the president of the United States. Finally, President Chester A. Arthur gave a very brief speech dedicating the Monument to the “immortal name and memory of George Washington”.19

Surprisingly, the dedication was not as elaborate as the laying of the cornerstone. The most interesting part is the peculiar Masonic ceremony performed by Myron M. Parker: the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. The brief example below illustrates the dialogue used by the members of the order for their ritual:

GRAND MASTER. Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master,
what is the proper implement of your office?

DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. The square, Most Worshipful.

GRAND MASTER. What are its moral and Masonic uses?

DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. To square our actions by square
virtue, and prove our work when finished.

GRAND MASTER. Have you applied the square to the
obelisk, and is the work square?

DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. I have, and I find the corners to
be square; the workmen have done their duty…20

After the ritual, the Grand Master gave his address. In it, he described how George Washington was a most distinguished brethren who had openly expressed his love and devotion for the Order throughout his life.


As the first part of the festivities ended, the crowd followed the dignitaries in a procession to the Capitol, clearly visible at a distance. They were escorted by the Army and the Navy. The parade is described as being imposing.

At the Capitol, all the dignitaries were gathered in the Hall of the House of Representatives for the official dedication. The president of the Senate, Hon. George F. Edmunds, presided. He called the assembly to order. He introduced the Rev. S. A. Wallis who offered a prayer.

Then, Hon. John D. Long, a representative from Massachusetts, was introduced. He read an oration written by the same Hon. Robert C. Winthrop who had delivered a speech at the opening ceremonies, thirty seven years earlier. He was unable to attend due to illness.

In between the orations, lively music was performed by the United States Marine Band.

The content of Winthrop’s address is basically the same as the earlier one. The veneration given to the immortal name of Washington can be singly noted:

The glory of Columbus can never be eclipsed, never approached, till our New World shall require a fresh discovery; and the glory of Washington will remain unique and peerless until American Independence shall require to be again achieved, or the foundations of Constitutional Liberty to be laid anew.21

It was followed by a speech from Hon. John W. Daniel, of Virginia, who rendered an “eloquent” oration. He described with verve the great qualities of the national hero:

…the genius of Washington was as full-orbed and luminous as the god of day in his zenith.22

He explained to the assembly that the glorious hero was full of his ancestors’ qualities of a “higher and manlier trait of the Anglo-Saxon”.

The proceedings came to a close. At the end of which a short benediction was pronounced by Rev. John A. Lindsay D.D., chaplain of the House of Representatives.

The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.23

The image of George Washington

The mere mention of the name George Washington can easily stir lively feelings of pride and patriotism in the hearts of Americans. These emotions are hard to explain and describe. Yet the devotion is tangible. Men have died and killed for these feelings. They are at the core of what it means to be American.

The hero’s image unleashes patriotic sentiments that are a powerful source of pride and national identity. With George Washington, the image is immortalized in the monumental stone. The mortal man has been set apart to be consecrated. The ordinary being is transcended into an immortal hero erected at the political center of the U.S. He is literally consecrated as the symbol of America’s political identity. His symbolic image has eclipsed the mundane reality of his being. The mortal has been separated from the immortal which is embodied in the Monument.

The symbolic reality of the Founding Father has overlapped the historical into the mythical. With the dedication he has been consecrated as more than man. The heroic and mythical aspects of the figure have transcended and supplanted the historical. As a consequence, Washington’s name suggests not only images of the hero but a reality bigger than life, an unfathomable entity: the center of political power of the United States of America and the content of an entire cosmology. And the Monument is its metaphor.


Soon after Washington’s death, in 1799, at about the same time that the Monument was being commissioned, a great deal of attention by the country’s elite was focused on the image of the first president. His death swiftly buried criticism concerning any misgivings about his life as a general, and as a president. He soon became the subject of a nationwide movement of eulogies meant to aggrandize his personal standing. As the nation made its first steps toward finding its national identity, George Washington became more and more the focus of a country-wide image making campaign.

Numerous books were written about his exemplary life: The Life of Washington, written by Mason Locke Weems of Dumfries, Virginia, is a typical example of the myth-maker of that era.24 The movement lasted throughout the century and Weems’ book became the prototype for many other biographies that deified the Father hero. Soon, George Washington was not only described as a father figure, but as “more than man”, and as an “immortal Olympian”. His image transcended that of national hero to become in many ways that of a mythical “Father”. Authors and orators were not content to merely extol his image above all other heroes, some even compared Washington to Christ and his mother to the Virgin Mary.25

Among the vast number of biographies of the era, especially those written before 1855, one could easily be led to believe that Washington was a demigod who descended on earth with the sole purpose of creating a new country and  freeing its people, and then returned to heaven as soon as his mission was accomplished.26

The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 on the ceiling of the dome in the rotunda of the Capitol  Building is another good example of the deification of the national hero.

The views outlined above show how the mythical and historical processes work hand in hand in the edification of a national identity, and how the boundaries between the two are blurred. These processes were further endorsed by a collective appropriation and recognition of the American hero. The cultural identification set the standards for a social consensus that became central to the development of the country’s identity. As such, the mythologizing of George Washington played a central role in the integration of the American political reality.

Washington the Freemason

The ceremonies we have described are revealing in many ways. At both festivities a representative of the Freemasonry was present to honor their illustrious brethren. Not unusual, since the brotherhood played a substantial part in the funding of the structure. But the Monument is also a great architectural salute to the Masons themselves. It is a worthy tribute to the first president of the United States who was also a brethren.

George Washington was the first, but not the last, president to be a Freemason. Several past presidents of the United States have been Freemasons, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, as well as 9 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution.27

In addition, many other heroes of the American Revolution were also Masons; Paul Revere and John Hancock are only two examples. Benjamin Franklin was also a leader of the Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, and published the first Masonic book in America in 1734.


To fully understand the foundations of America’s mythical process, a few words about the origin of the elusive brotherhood are in order.

It evolved from the stonemason guilds of England and Scotland. When the major building projects -mostly churches and cathedrals of Europe- came to an end, several stonemasons who did not practice their skills any longer stayed on in the fraternal association and formed lodges, the name given to their basic unit. The first lodges were founded in London, England, in the late  XVIIIth century. It is at that epoch that architecture acquired a more metaphorical sense. The grandiose stone buildings began to symbolize human structures, reflecting an ideal humanity built to the glory of the Great Architect of the Universe.

More legendary stories attribute the origin of Masonry to the Garden of Eden. While other versions link its beginning to the building of the pyramids of Egypt, and to Hiram Abif, King Salomon’s Master Architect, the legendary builder of the first temple of Jerusalem.

Currently, there are more than ~6 million Freemasons in the world.28  Most of them live in the U.S. and Canada. As a nonsectarian and nonpolitical association, the fraternity appeals to a wide cross section of the male population. They believe in a Supreme Being and emphasize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Freemasons are said to admit in their rank men of every nationality, religion, and political persuasion. In order to join, a new member must be introduced by an existing brethren.

Most of the operations and activities of the Society are shrouded by an aura of mystery. Most of it results from the oath of secrecy they must make in regards to the identity of its members.

The early American brotherhood was able to survive an anti-Masonic wave following the abduction and possible murder of Captain William Morgan in 1826. Morgan had planned to publish an article about Masonic secret dealings. Evidence of his murder was linked to the Masons. The public outcry against the organization lasted 10 years and slowly boiled down afterward.

During World War II, the Masons were outlawed and dispersed by Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. After the war, they soon regained their popularity in non-communist countries, particularly, the United States.

Among its most popular members: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Henry Ford, Charles A. Lindbergh, Irving Berling, Gen. Douglas McArthur, John Wayne, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

Because of its Anglo-Saxon origins, nineteenth century Masonry in the U.S. might convey the idea that the order was predominantly male, white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. But a closer look at a cross-section of its members reveals that a more accurate description would be: a white, generally non-Catholic, male organization. In San Francisco of last century, for instance, most of the Jewish adult male population belonged to the brotherhood. Which prompted an anonymous Jewish brethren to write, in 1865, in the San Francisco’s Hebrew:

If there be any religious system more closely connected with the institution [of Masonry] than others, it is Judaism.29

Although the order claims to be open to all races and all religions, the American lodges refused to initiate any Americans of African descent as a brethren and rejected the legitimacy of any of their Masonic lodges. In 1775, the Grand Lodge of England instigated the first lodge of Americans of African descent in Boston, which eventually assumed the status of grand lodge.

During the time the Monument was built, the organization was mostly a middle class order that mirrored the mores and mentality of the epoch: piety, sobriety, moral responsibility, thrift, and industry. In many respects, it exemplified the Protestant ethic at its best.

The raison d’être of the brotherhood was to promote charity, equality, fraternity, morality, and faith in the Supreme Being. It supplied its members with a sense of fraternity, prestige, and occasionally financial aid. It also provided business connections and networking. On a national level, Masons claimed among its members presidents, senators, and other dignitaries who established the rules for accessibility in the political arena.

The fraternity’s activities however were not entirely reclusive and esoteric. The order also participated in social events. A typical example here is the role they played in the ceremonies at the inauguration of the Washington Monument. Another example of their social acceptance and popularity is further evidenced by their participation at the laying of the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty, in 1885.

Sociologically, the Masonry  reflected the craze for associations, brotherhoods, fraternities, and women’s clubs that became prominent throughout the country during the second part of the nineteenth century.30 Between July and September of 1874, over two hundred pledges were received by societies and organizations from every part of the country to help fund the construction of the Monument. The trend underlined an important facet of the American social fabric of that era.

The social disruption brought about by  industrialization and massive immigration had a major impact on the political institutions of Washington D.C. During these social changes, a great number of Protestant churches were affected by the transition. The development of the scientific vision of the world, brought forth by the Darwinian evolutionary theories, challenged some fundamental beliefs and tenets of the Christian faith. Fraternities like the Masonry provided its members with a network of sanctuaries for Old Testament precepts.

The great influx of immigrants disrupted the basis of a stable social order inaugurated by the Anglo-Saxon elite, of which George Washington was promoted as a symbol. Hence, the brotherhood was a male political haven against the foreign invasion that threatened the nation at its foundation. It gave its members a sense of cohesion against the constant changes and chaos of the outside world. But mostly, the organization was a stronghold to promote true Americanism.31

The order relied on a national network of loyal members, some of whom were among the most powerful men in the country. These ramifications made it an effective hierarchy. To protect their efficiency as a group, and to keep the higher hierarchy from public scrutiny, the new members were sworn to secrecy of its rituals. Yet the fraternity was not so much preoccupied with any esoteric purpose inasmuch as to keep from public view a number of secret procedures, signs, and passwords used in the rituals which brought the brethren step by step one echelon closer to the “light”.

The oath of secrecy also enforced among the members a sense of cohesion and fraternity which inspired unity and the idea of belonging. It also delineated and separated their sacred internal male world from the profane and chaotic world outside. The brethren, in other words, set themselves apart from the uninitiated masses.

The ritual of initiation gave the brethren a sense of election, while the boundaries of the Masonic temple reinforced the separation between the inside and the outside world. The temple morally and physically edified a sacred asylum against the non-initiated profane world.


At the outset the brotherhood view the Roman Catholic Church with suspicion. The distrust was equally shared by the Holy See in Rome. The mutual distrust is but a distant echo of the split brought about by the Reformation and counter Reformation. The ensuing religious antagonism in Europe explains the scope of the animosity between Catholics and Protestants that continued to thrive in North America.

On April 20th, 1884, less than a year before the inauguration of the Monument, Pope Leo XIII issued the Encyclical Humanum Genus, condemning Freemasonry.32 The Papal letter criticized the brotherhood for “rising up against God Himself” and “despoiling the nations of Christendom”. The Pope further argued that the reason for the brotherhood’s obsession with the secrecy of its members was devised to hide the insidious designs of its leaders so to escape any retribution. Not surprisingly, Freemasonry was increasingly seen as a danger and a challenge to the Church’s authority in a politically troubled Italy. They were suspected of secretly fomenting to infiltrate all political ranks in order to promote secular ideas and finally to unseat the Church of its political powers.33

It is during the XIXth century that a schism between the regular and the irregular Masonry lodges appeared. The first, which were not condemned by the Church, upheld the reference of “the Great Architect of the Universe” -God. They did not get involved in politics, respected all faiths and churches, and were not secretive.34 The second group, however, deleted the reference to “the Great Architect of the Universe”, it called for the ruin of the papacy and the Church in Italy. In France, it was responsible for the anti-clerical laws of the Third Republic. It even proclaimed its Masonry as “the Counter Church”. It is this secretive type of Masonry that was condemned by the Church.

The Masons’ ample involvement in the funding as well as at the inauguration of the Monument provides proof of their extensive influence on American politics as a whole. The project embodied a conviction in the American way of life of which George Washington is the prototype. They made sure that the erected structure laid the foundation for a healthy Americanism so to endure the onslaught of any moral degeneracy from the chaotic world outside. The man, the Monument, the brethren, stand visibly erect at the center of the capital and point at all these ideals.

As we have seen, the distinction between the purely secular, the mythical, and the religious is blurred in the  process of the edification of the Monument of George Washington. The mythical preempted and transcended any divisions between any strict religious denominations and political factions in society to become a supra-religious reality. A religion above all other religions, an American civil religion.

C. Moody Plummer of the Trestleboard was only more extreme than most when he declared Protestantism itself to be a religion of warring sects “as intolerant often of each other as human action can be,” while Masonry was “the only religion which can become universal and is [therefore] true religion.”35

American civil religion

The term civil religion comes from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract.36 Robert N. Bellah applied the title to the American political arena to outline the religious content of the inaugural speeches delivered by American presidents.37

The idea of an American civil religion first came to his attention with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961. He noticed that his address was full of religious references to God and the nation, described in very idyllic form. He also noticed that most of the past presidents’ inaugural speeches had the same type of references: a call for devotion to the nation described in its ideal form, where the divine Providence plays a guiding role in shaping the destiny of the United States of America.

Four statutes of the J.F.K. inaugural speech:

a) The right to independence: “Laws of Nature and
Nature’s God”.

b) All “are endowed by their Creator with certain
inalienable Rights”.

c) God is witness to America’s good will: “The Supreme
Judge of the world for the rectitude of our

d) The U.S. reliance on God’s Providence: “a firm
reliance on the protection of divine Providence”.

Except for the references that allude directly to a biblical God, Bellah observes that the content of most speeches do not advocate any particular religious creed. There is no specific mention of Jesus Christ or Yahweh, for instance, since the purpose of the discourses is to form a consensus and represent the multicultural aspect of the society to which they are addressed.38

Yet Bellah notes that among the first presidents many also use references to the Bible. Especially to suggest a connection between the New World and Israel, the Exodus, the Chosen People, the promised land and the New Jerusalem. These analogies, in the context of a predominantly Protestant background of the first presidents, were inevitable.

Although Bellah acknowledges the connections with Judeo-Christian tenets, he carefully dispels any suggestions that American civil religion has any doctrinal Christian content, or is a substitute for Christianity. He contends that civil religion has a different role than religion, since it is specifically political. As such, it appeals to all the people of all backgrounds. To Bellah, American civil religion is an understanding of the American experience in terms of a “transcendent ethical vision”.39 This interpretation of the universal and transcendental is only meaningful if made in relation to the origin and destiny of the U.S. political model of freedom and democracy. Bellah further points out that the God of civil religion is a God of order and freedom rather than of love and forgiveness. It is a God mostly concerned with the history and destiny of the United States.

The American civil religion attracted a great deal of attention among the intellectuals of the nineteen seventies. Despite Bellah’s success there was plenty of criticism, most of which was directed at the author’s definition of religion. Especially questionable was the universal validity of its meaning. In this respect, a more appropriate term to describe it is Paul Tillich’s definition of quasi-religion.40

Most of the Founding Fathers had a Christian background, more specifically, Protestant, since most of them emigrated from Europe. With this in mind, the American civil definition of religion is limited by these cultural and geographical parameters. This view of religion, for instance, ignores the aboriginal cultures that were present at the time of the foundation of this nation. It makes the natives  conspicuously invisible.41 Furthermore, there is no mention of the cultures brought by the Americans of African descent.42

American civil religion, as outlined by Bellah, is a supra-political institution predominantly concerned with Judeo-Christian precepts. The historical foundations and later developments edified and maintained the image of George Washington as the prototype of the American civil religion. This ethical model and the hierarchy of political power was set at the beginning. The American New Order originated by the Founding Fathers was appropriately sustained to preserve their sacred power, as illustrated by the number of presidents since Washington who have been Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and white.  That premise was consecrated at the outset by the inauguration of the George Washington National Monument, the primal model of the presidency. The only exception is John Kennedy, a Catholic.

To that effect, the Latin saying captures the essence of rule of politics, cujus regio, ejus religio: the religion of the rulers becomes the creed of the land.

As we have seen, myth plays a considerable part in the evolution and integration of ideology. The power behind the language of myth is to define, confine, and control the scope of the national identity. By the same token, it shapes a meaningful consensus in culture and society.

American civil religion, as it relies on its governmental institutions and on the presidency -in terms of the charisma of the office- embodies and fulfills in many respects the same function as religion. As Bellah observed: “The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm of a religious dimension.”43 This remark introduces yet another very complex point of contention: the separation of church and state. Bellah brings up the question briefly but does not clarify the issue. No doubt there is a danger, more so today because of the effective use of mass-media in the creation of a national consensus. But also because the religious and the political may be identified or confused as a single and legitimate reality by a greater number of people living in a secularized world. As a consequence, the State becomes the only unquestionable source of economical power and political truth. This theological truth is amply suggested by the symbol that epitomizes the relation between Freemasonry, politics, the economy, and civil religion in America.

1$      IN GOD WE TRUST      1$

On one side of the dollar bill we have the portrait of our celebrated hero. On the other side, a symbol of Freemasonry: the pyramid crowned by the all-seeing-eye inside the pyramidion. The latter also represents the zenith of political power overseeing the pyramidal order of hierarchy. And at the center of the bill is the caption that embraces the ultimate icon of American civil religion.


1 I turned my attention to this subject in my Masters’ thesis entitled: Interpretation Religieuse de l’Origine Mythique de la Nationalite: L’Inauguration de Monuments Nationaux (1840-1900), Montreal, UQAM, 1978.
2 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, New York, Seabury Press, 1975; and Beyond Belief; Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, New York, Harper & Row, 1970.
3 The whole ceremony is related in Frederick Harvey’s, ed., History of the Washington National Monument & Washington National Monument Society, Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, 1903.
4 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper & Row, 1959, 12.
5 Idid. F. Harvey, 43. Taken from the National Geographic Magazine, vol. 6, 149.
6 In myths, the hill and the mountain are important places where the earth and the heavens meet. It is where the divine greet the human, where the above touch the below, and the sacred and the profane converge.
7 Ibid. F. Harvey, 224.
8 For more about the obelisks of Egypt see Labib Habachi’s, The Obelisks of Egypt, Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 1984.
9 The same year the Immaculate Conception became an article of faith.
10 The movement also fought unsuccessfully to minimize the anti-slavery sentiments of that time.
11 Rhetoric was later developed by Aristotle in works like Rhetoric and Topics. It eventually became the means of putting into practice, especially with the help of argumentation, the wisdom one acquires in philosophy. Later, the art was most skillfully applied by the Roman master orator and statesman Cicero, as described in his De Oratore (55 BC). In the first century ad, rhetoric became the subject of an important educational treatise entitled Instituto oratoria by the Roman Quintinllian. It evolved until the middle of the XIXth century into a major educational discipline and one of the seven liberal arts. But, as the last century faded, rhetoric as a “general” science was slowly being supplanted by the increasingly popular natural sciences. See Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, New York, Methuen, 1982, and, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1971.
12 See Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977.
13 Ibid. F. Harvey, 46.
14 Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington, Man and Monument, Boston, Little, Brown Co., 1958, 213.
15 Ibid. F. Harvey, 126.
16 Ibid. F. Harvey, 130.
17 Ibid. F. Harvey, 136.
18 The speech is not included in Harvey’s book.
19 Ibid. F. Harvey, 104-105. For some unknown reason the president’s dedication was overshadowed by the other addresses.
20 Ibid. F. Harvey, 214.
21 Ibid. F. Harvey, 252.
22 Ibid. F. Harvey, 278.
23 Ibid. F. Harvey, 285.
24 Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, ed. Marcus Cunliffe, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1962.
25 Bernard Mayo, Myths and Men, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1959, 33, and the whole chapter on Washington, 25-49.
26 William A. Bryan, George Washington in American Literature, 1775-1865, New York, Columbia University Press, 1952, 118. Also, Richard V. Pierard & Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion & the Presidency, Grand Rapids, Academie Books, 1988.
27 They are: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Jonhson, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, both Roosevelts, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Jonhson, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
28 In 1964 the Masonic Order enrolled about 1 out of every 12 men in the U.S.
29 “Perhaps the most surprising representatives in the Masonic non-evangelical alliance were the large number of Jews. In Gilded-Age San Francisco, Jews comprised 12% of the brotherhood’s membership, about the same proportion which they formed in the city’s adult, white, male, non-catholic population as a whole. Considering the strictly Protestant origins of Freemasonry, this high proportion of Jewish members is extraordinary.”  Carl Guarneri, and David Alvarez, ed., Religion and Society in the American West, New York, University Press, 1987. p.240.
30 Between 1880 and 1900, more than 460 associations were formed in the U.S.
31 See the book by Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984, 70.
32 Leo XIII, Humanum Genus, April 20th 1884, in, The Papal Encyclicals, 1878-1903, Raleigh, McGrath Publishing C., 1981, 91-101. He was not the only Pope to condemn the brotherhood. Others were: Benedict XIV, Pius VII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX. The Catholic Church was not the only denomination in the U.S. to warn against lodge affiliation. Among them: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Christian Reformed Church, Church of the Brethren, Assemblies of God, Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites, Church of the Nazarene, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), United Brethren, Wesleyan, the Free Methodist churches, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. General Booth of the Salvation Army also condemned the organization. Finally, in 1874, the National Christian Association coordinated a Protestant opposition to secret societies. However, the ban was not strictly enforced.
33 These hostilities go back even farther in time; as early as 1738, Pope Clement XII had already threatened to excommunicate anyone belonging to the order.
34 In Great Britain, the “regular” Masonry scrupulously obeys a law requiring it to provide its membership list to Justice.
35 Ibid. Carl Guarneri, 236.
36 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in, The Essential Rousseau, New York, New American Library, 1974.
37 Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief, New York, Harper & Row, 1970, 168-189.
38 George Washington’s first inaugural address of April 30, 1789 alludes to God as the “Almighty Being”. It is a good example of his deist Masonic interpretation of the divinity.
39 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant, New York, A Crossroad Book, 1975, 142.
40 Paul Tillich distinguishes pseudo from quasi-religion. The first is an intended and deceptive similarity with religion, whereas the second indicates a genuine similarity which is not necessarily intended. See, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963, 5f.
41 Charles H. Long, Civil Rights, Civil Religion: Visible People and Invisible People, in, American Civil Religion, ed. by Russel E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, New York, Harper Forum Books, 1974.
42 Appropriately labeled by Ralph Ellison as the “Invisible Man”. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, New York, Vintage Books, 1972.
43 Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief, New York, Haper & Row, 1970, 171.

Leave a Reply