Theses Doctoral

The Only Universal Monarchy: Freemasonry, Ritual, and Gender in Revolutionary Rhode Island, 1749-1803

Biagetti, Samuel Frank

Historians, in considering Freemasonry in the eighteenth century, have tended to define it in political terms, as an expression of enlightened sociability and of the secular public sphere that supposedly paved the way for modern democracy. A close examination of the lodges in Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, between 1749 and 1804, disproves these received notions. It finds that, contrary to scholarly perception, Freemasonry was deeply religious and fervently committed to myth and ritual. Freemasonry in this period was not tied to any one social class, but rather the Fraternity attracted a wide array of mobile, deracinated young men, such as mariners, merchants, soldiers, and actors, and while it was religiously heterogeneous, the Fraternity maintained a close relationship with the Anglican Church. The appeal of Masonry to young men in Atlantic port towns was primarily emotional, offering lasting social bonds amidst the constant upheaval of the eighteenth century, as well as a ritually demarcated refuge from the patriarchal responsibilities of the male gender.
Masonry celebrated the holiness of kingship in its myths and symbols; far from hotbeds of revolution, the lodges were haunted by the Jacobite movement, which was firmly royalist and traditionalist. Its main political impact in Anglo-America came in the aftermath of independence, when Masonic art and rhetoric helped to carve out a sphere of sacred institutions and loyalties—such as the Constitution, the Navy, the judiciary, and the figure of George Washington—that purportedly stood above partisan politics, and hence could take the place of the overthrown monarch. Far from proto-democratic, Freemasonry appealed to men’s longing for the unity and stability of a restored Biblical kingdom; the lodges operated largely by social deference and suppressed internal politicking. The Masons summed up their mission in their repeated toasts in the 1790s that prayed, “May universal Masonry be the only universal monarchy.”


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Brown, Christopher L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 6, 2015