The first Masonic lodges in America were established in colonial trading centres, principally Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Savannah, locations with strong mercantile and social links to England. Freemasonry then spread to and took root in similar trading and administrative hubs across the thirteen colonies, with the number joining rising substantially, including within the colonial elites. Indeed, Freemasonry became so popular that in 1734 Benjamin Franklin considered it worthwhile commercially to reprint verbatim the 1723 Constitutions. The book was sold not only in Philadelphia but across the colonies from Charleston to Boston.
In essence early American Freemasonry was English Freemasonry and it was this that provided the foundations for growth over the next three decades. But from the late 1750s another structure took root. This was Antients Freemasonry, the seeds of which were spread via the transatlantic migration of Scots Irish and London Irish. The combination would create American Freemasonry largely in the form we see today.
When one pictures the Irish diaspora in America, the quintessential images are those of a Boston policeman or Philadelphia firefighter; the Chicago River dyed green on St Patrick’s Day and marked elsewhere by green and white parades in cities across America. These images are a testament to the more than four million mainly Southern Irish who dominated nineteenth and twentieth-century migration to the United States and whose legacy resonates today.
But the pattern of eighteenth-century Irish migration was fundamentally different.
An estimated 300-400,000 Irish migrated to North America between 1720 and 1800. They included Catholics, Quakers and Anglicans, but by far the largest component, well over three-quarters, were Presbyterians – Scots Irish – the majority from Northern Ireland.
Although the number of eighteenth-century Irish migrants is modest when compared to the millions who arrived over the following two centuries, it is significant and was equivalent to 10% or so of America’s white population which in 1790, at the time of the first census, stood at around 3.2 million.
Many Irish had migrated initially to England – ‘the closest place that wasn’t Ireland’ – and from there sailed to America. Others sailed directly. Those with agricultural leases or businesses that had value sold up and used the proceeds to fund their fares to America and acquire land. Those that could not travelled as indentured labourers, working for up to five years to pay-off their debts. They departed from London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and from Belfast, Londonderry, and Dublin, and from Ireland’s minor ports, with destinations that included Charleston, Baltimore, New York and Boston, but especially Philadelphia, the first port of call for the vast majority of Irish migrants.
A minority of Scots-Irish migrants were already freemasons when they arrived in America. Others were initiated afterwards. And as they moved west to settle the backcountry of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and south and west along the wagon trails into the Piedmont where they would make up around half the frontier settler population, they carried their Freemasonry with them or embraced it on arrival.