The 1723 Constitutions were a product of their time and of the authors’ values and beliefs. Perhaps key to understanding this context is an appreciation of the febrile political and religious nature of the early decades of the eighteenth century, a period marked by the political fallout from the death of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, and the accession of Prince George of Hanover as George I of Britain two months later.
A vocal minority was opposed to George and his coronation in October 1714 was followed by riots in towns and cities from Canterbury to Shrewsbury and Taunton to Norwich. London was not immune. The king’s return from the Lord Mayor’s banquet in November was disrupted by protesters, while rioting broke out at Whitechapel.
Taking advantage of the discontent and building on an existing support base, the Earl of Mar raised James Stuart’s royal standard at Braemar the following year in the hope of fomenting rebellion in Scotland: the 1715 Jacobite Rising. He met with initial success and a swathe of Scotland went over to the Pretender, as did the border counties of Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland.
The Jacobite insurrection was a product of several factors, including lingering Scottish resentment at the corruption that had accompanied the passing of the Act of Union by the Scottish Parliament just eight years earlier. Members of the Scottish aristocracy had been bribed with cash and honours and Robert Burns’ castigating comment that Scotland had been ‘bought and sold for English gold’ reflected the political reality.
Other factors were equally important. Many in Britain were hostile to the choice of Prince George over James Stuart, the late queen’s half-brother. But although James was Queen Anne’s closest living relative he was a Catholic and thus excluded under the Act of Settlement which limited the succession to James I’s Protestant heirs alone.
Arguably more worrying for the British government were James Stuart’s other allies – France, Spain and Sweden. Putting down the 1715 Rising did not destroy Jacobite opposition and successive British governments feared that a French or Spanish-backed invasion in tandem with another uprising could or would destroy Hanoverian Britain: George I would be deposed; the government dismissed; and the political clock dialled back forty years with the crowning of an absolutist Catholic monarch.
Such concerns were genuine, shared widely, and justified, in part if not in whole. In the following five years there would be three further attempts to destabilise Britain: 1717, 1719 and 1721. The dates are significant, the first coinciding with the formation of the first Grand Lodge of England and the last with the installation of the Duke of Montagu as its first noble Grand Master.
This was not coincidental. During the 1720s, Grand Lodge provided support for the Hanoverian status quo. Its Constitutions embodied the philosophical principles that lay behind the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and the 1689 Bill of Rights, and through the influence of the Duke of Montagu, the Duke of Richmond, Dr Jean Theophilus Desaguliers, George Payne and others, Freemasonry was transformed into an organisation that advanced an Enlightenment agenda, championed aspiration, and opposed absolutism.
The changes were effected through the introduction of new Masonic ritual and the rewriting of Freemasonry’s Charges and Regulations to advance principles that included constitutional government; religious tolerance; the promotion of education and science – a world interpreted through rational observation rather than religious diktat; meritocracy; and democratic accountability.
The presence of a Huguenot – Desaguliers – within the most influential circles of Grand Lodge was significant. The Huguenots – French Protestants – had fled France in their tens of thousands from the mid-1680s into the early 1700s. An estimated 50,000 lived in London alone, around 10% of the capital’s population. Heavily persecuted in France and deprived of their civil liberties for their faith, the Huguenots were among the most patriotic of Britons and fervent supporters of George I. They were motivated, educated, and willing to assimilate, and were disproportionately represented within Freemasonry, an organisation which had gained stature as a beacon for the aspirational within Society.
Within barely a decade of the establishment of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, Freemasonry had become the largest and arguably most influential of Britain’s many clubs and societies. Indeed, it remained so into the twentieth century.
Among the factors that gave Freemasonry appeal was the publication and promulgation of the 1723 Constitutions. The book was pioneering, promoting leading-edge Enlightenment principles:
The 1723 Constitutions also provided a legal framework for Freemasonry, a rulebook which was emulated by virtually every other secular club and society in Britain and around the world.
Masonic practices introduced in the 1723 Constitutions include the election of Officers subject to democratic accountability, with one member wielding one vote; majority rule; orations by elected officials; national governance; and written constitutions. They were accompanied by an ideology – philosophical principles – based on meritocracy and egalitarianism among aspirational men. Margaret Jacob, a prominent historian, notes that ‘this identity did not prevent the lodges from being hierarchical and everywhere eager for aristocratic patronage, but it did ultimately tilt the lodges in the direction of being schools for government, inculcating principles for a more republican politics. It was a social atmosphere within which the new ideas of the age, religious toleration, scientific literacy, and intellect rather than birth as the criterion of excellence, could flourish.’
Freemasonry’s tenets were embraced in America, Europe, and elsewhere. Historians note how Freemasonry built ‘polity within sociability’, ‘the political content of its moral vision and discourse’, its ‘imitation and initiation of forms of governance’, and its ‘strongly federal organization’.
Freemasonry fostered an Enlightenment culture, setting out its principles in its Charges and specifying an organisational structure in its Regulations. They were accompanied by a historical tradition – a faux history – inherited from the medieval guilds that traced Freemasonry’s evolution to ‘Adam, our first parent’, adding legitimacy in a tradition-based society and demonstrating how the 1723 Constitutions represented a fulcrum, a pivot, on which Freemasonry turned from its medieval past to a modern present and future.