The first Masonic lodges in colonial America were in towns with strong trading and social links to England. But as the colonies expanded and became more prosperous, other settlements formed along the coast and in the hinterland. Freemasonry developed alongside, eventually taking root across all thirteen colonies.
From the 1730s through to the late 1750s, American Freemasonry was relatively elitist, its members drawn from planters, merchants, government officials, lawyers, and other prominent settlers.
Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, for example, brought together many of the city and province’s more eminent men and membership of the Lodge was viewed as a badge of gentility and cultivation. Indeed, in the late 1740s, almost all of Philadelphia’s freemasons were merchants, professional men, shipowners, or successful artisans, described by historians as the ‘creators of the political, intellectual, literary and cultural life of colonial Philadelphia’.
The same was true of Freemasonry elsewhere, not least in Massachusetts, Virginia, South and North Carolina, and Georgia, where the social position and financial standing of members was mirrored in those chosen to serve as Provincial Grand Masters.
Benjamin Smith, the Provincial Grand Master of South Carolina and subsequently PGM of South and North Carolina, was one of South Carolina’s most successful merchant traders and factors, with a client base that stretched across both Carolinas and a business that included exporting naval stores, deerskins and agricultural products, and importing dry and manufactured goods, wine and spirits, and, less admirably, the slave trade. Smith’s commercial success was mirrored in politics. Elected to the House of Assembly in 1746, he served as Speaker from 1755-63 and was offered but declined membership of South Carolina’s Royal Council.
The Provincial Grand Master of Virginia, Presley Thornton, a planter and slave owner whose family had migrated to the colony in the 1640s, represented Northumberland County in the House of Burgesses almost continuously until 1760, when he was appointed to the Royal Council. Thornton was among the colony’s most affluent citizens and enjoyed a lifestyle typical of an eighteenth-century Virginia plantocrat, with membership of several elite fraternal societies, including freemasonry.
Joseph Montfort, the PGM of North Carolina, a merchant-trader and landowner, led the construction and development of Halifax Town where his focus was not limited to building the physical infrastructure but included raising the town’s social profile. It is in this context that his drive to establish a Masonic lodge at Halifax Town can best be understood: Freemasonry was a mark of sophistication and the Lodge a space for gentlemanly association.
Other PGMs had similar wealth and position. George Harison, the PGM of New York, held the office of Searcher and Surveyor for New York, a position that put him second-in-command at the Customs Office. It was a pivotal role. New York was one of America’s most important ports and an entrepôt for trans-shipping goods to and from Britain, the Caribbean and along the eastern seaboard. And Sir John Johnson, the last PGM of New York, was the principal heir to Sir William Johnson, the largest landowner in the province of New York, a merchant and trader whose land holdings across the Mohawk Valley exceeded 400,000 acres.
Key changes took place in America from the late 1750s. This is described in the Irish in North America, who helped to broaden Freemasonry’s social base and accessibility. Another development was the emergence of African American Freemasonry, a topic explored in Prince Hall Freemasonry and Freemasonry after the Civil War.