The Main Takeaway

The 1723 Constitutions is a radical statement of Enlightenment beliefs, a product of its time and of the authors’ values. It bears almost no relation to today’s Book of Constitutions, a weighty compendium of rules and regulations.

Key to understanding the 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, the accession of Prince George of Hanover as George I of Britain two months later, and the threat posed by ‘the Pretender’, James Stuart.

A vocal minority was opposed to George I, 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, the Earl of Mar raised James Stuart’s standard at Braemar the following year to foment rebellion in Scotland: the 1715 Jacobite Rising. James Stuart was Queen Anne’s closest living relative, her half-brother, but as a Catholic he was excluded from the throne under the Act of Settlement which limited the succession to James I’s Protestant heirs alone.

The Earl of Mar met with initial success and a swathe of Scotland went over to the Pretender, as did part of the border counties of Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland.

The Jacobite insurrection was a result of several factors including hostility to the choice of George I over James Stuart and 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.

Perhaps more worrying for the British government were James Stuart’s other allies: France, Spain and Sweden.

Putting down the 1715 Rising did not destroy the Jacobite threat 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 what was feared to be an absolutist Catholic king.

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 a coincidence. During the 1720s, the Grand Lodge of England provided implicit 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 – Jean Theophilus Desaguliers – within the most influential circles of Grand Lodge was significant. The Huguenots – French Protestants – had fled persecution in France in their tens of thousands from the mid-1680s into the early 1700s. An estimated 50,000 lived in London alone, almost 10% of the capital’s population. Heavily oppressed and maltreated in France where they had been deprived of 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 represented disproportionately within Freemasonry.

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 underpinned Freemasonry appeal was the publication and promulgation of the 1723 Constitutions and its leading-edge Enlightenment principles:

  • religious tolerance, something wholly radical in a world characterised by religious conflict;
  • meritocracy and aspiration at a time when birth and wealth determined success;
  • high standards of interpersonal civility; 
  • scientific and artistic education; and
  • societal and personal self-improvement.

The 1723 Constitutions also provided a legal framework for Freemasonry, a rulebook that would be emulated by many other secular clubs and societies 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 – principles – based on meritocracy and egalitarianism among aspirational men. Professor Margaret C. 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 perhaps most obviously in America, but also in 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 thus fostered an Enlightenment culture, setting out its principles via its Charges and its organisational structure through its Regulations. These were accompanied by a faux traditional history inherited from the medieval guilds that traced Freemasonry’s evolution to ‘Adam, our first parent’. The history served to add legitimacy and demonstrate continuity, valuable assets in a tradition-based society, while the 1723 Constitutions as a whole represented a fulcrum, a pivot, on which Freemasonry turned from its medieval past to a more radical present and future.