Freemasonry in South Carolina dates back to 1734/35, with the first lodge in Charleston established in conjunction with Boston freemasons under a warrant from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. It was probably this lodge – Solomon’s Lodge – which received a warrant from the Grand Lodge of England brought to South Carolina in 1736 by John Hammerton (d.1762), who was subsequently Provincial Grand Master.
Hammerton returned to England frequently and during his absences the Provincial Grand Lodge elected replacements without reference to London. They included James Graeme (d.1752), a Barbados-born attorney with a profitable law practice in Charleston. He was a member of the Commons House of Assembly and one of the colony’s leading figures, appointed sole judge of the Court of Vice Admiralty in 1740, Chief Justice in 1749, and a member of the Royal Council in 1750.
James Wright (1716-1785), PGM in 1738 and Deputy PGM in 1739, became acting Attorney General for the province in 1738 aged 22. The position was made permanent four years later when Wright returned from studying at Gray’s Inn in London. Following his appointment as South Carolina’s parliamentary agent in London, Wright was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Georgia in 1760 and shortly afterwards succeeded as Governor.
The last of South Carolina’s elected Provincial Grand Masters was Benjamin Smith (1717-1770) (pictured), one of the colony’s leading merchants and planters. Elected at the age of 25, Smith served as PGM until the arrival of Peter Leigh, the colony’s Chief Justice, in 1754. Leigh died in 1760 and London appointed Smith as his replacement with authority over both South and North Carolina.
The decision to appoint a PGM for the two Carolinas is significant. The provinces had been administratively separate for half a century and the expansion of Smith’s remit to include North Carolina suggests that freemasonry was now established in that province – and that Smith was in a position to be effective. He had business and family networks across North Carolina, not least with the planters who had relocated from South Carolina to Cape Fear.
The first lodge in North Carolina, St John’s Lodge at Wilmington, was established in the early 1750s. The warrant constituting the lodge was issued by the Grand Lodge of England in 1754 and the lodge assigned No. 213 on the Grand Register. It continued to be recognised as an English lodge until 1813.
There are several interesting details of the lodge’s early years. The Wilmington Town Book refers to a ‘Masons’ Lodge’ valued in 1756 at £140 for rateable purposes and taxed at ‘£1 8s’, placing the building in the upper third of properties in Wilmington by taxable value. It demonstrates that a permanent lodge building existed in the town in the 1750s and that the members had financial substance and were relatively numerous. Lodge meetings were afterwards held at other locations, including St James’s Church and the courthouse, or met in members’ houses,. A probable explanation is that the lodge building had been razed by fire, a constant danger in Wilmington. Although the names of only a handful of members have survived from the colonial period, those that have were from the town’s elites.
In South and North Carolina freemasonry was a mark of sophistication. English freemasonry set the example. London was the pre-eminent global hub, the capital of Britain’s expanding Empire, and the largest metropolis in Europe with a population that in the 1760s was three times that of North and South Carolina combined. It was the philosophical, commercial, political and social heart of Empire and since most colonists considered themselves part of Greater Britain, rather than American, London was their constitutional and spiritual capital.