Sometimes, even the practices within the
lodges themselves overlapped with those of
the state. When Dutch Freemasons organized the Grand Lodge of The Netherlands
in 1756, they borrowed the decentralized
structure of the republic’s main legislative
body, which contained elected representatives of most provinces, preserving a high
degree of sovereignty for each province.
(The Grand Lodge even recommended
this system to German lodges, which were
having difficulty arriving at a comparable
system of national cohesion.) Just like
its legislature, the Grand Lodge of The
Netherlands adopted a decentralized governance, permitting independence among
Dutch lodges – one likely model for the
American system of state-wide grand lodges.
FIRST, THE NATION;
THEN, THE WORLD
In the 1750s, the grand master in The Hague,
the Baron de Boetzelaer, spoke about the
Freemasons holding a “national assembly
at The Hague.” At these assemblies, broth-
ers were organized into ceremonial rows.
The first row symbolized the “Staten van
Holland,” the legislative body of the prov-
ince of Holland. Behind this stood a row of
brothers described as representing the national grand master.
The officers of the lodge, visitors, and all the other brothers stood
behind. So arranged, they sang and affirmed their symbolic unity. Were they unifying the nation as well as the lodges? Perhaps
unconsciously, they were doing both. By the 1750s nationalism
was rising throughout Western Europe. In the American lodges,
loyalty to local bodies gradually came to seem more real and
relevant than did the edicts coming from London.
But more than nationalism was at work in Masonic sociability, and the democratic ideals that followed. The scope
widened to encompass the world. This cosmopolitanism
meant that in every major city, lodges might have regular
visitors from anywhere in the Western world and its colonies,
and yet, simultaneously, see the nation as a site where virtue
and merit should be rewarded. The Enlightenment initiated
reforming impulses that were felt in many areas, but its assault
on privilege and corruption also suggested that new men were
needed in government service.
SCHOOLS OF GOVERNMENT
And so, more than any other new form of sociability, the lodges
became schools of government – places where the reformist impulses of the Enlightenment could be focused on one’s immediate
surroundings, potentially on one’s immediate province or state.
In the 1770s the French Grand Lodge sought to contribute to
the common good by having a public presence in Paris. In addition to a national representative assembly with one man, one
vote, the Grand Lodge set up charity funds for brothers and sisters fallen on hard times. It was an important shift in their role.