Benjamin B. French: The Mason Who Completed the Capitol

MW Benjamin B. French, 33°, 1855-1865. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-cwpbh-02440 (digital file from original neg.)

November-December 2011

By Paul Rich, 32°

Right: MW Benjamin B. French, 33°, 1855–1865. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-cwpbh-02440 (digital file from original neg.))

The nineteenth century was the time of many prominent Masons, but Bro. Benjamin French was such an exceptional one that he requires special notice.1 He knew every president from Bro. Andrew Jackson (1833) to Bro. Andrew Johnson (1867) and organized Lincoln’s inaugural and the Gettysburg memorial dedication (at which Lincoln have his famous address). He oversaw the completion of the U.S. Capitol with its new dome and President Lincoln’s funeral, visiting him on his deathbed. His house was on the site of the present Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Commissioner of Public Buildings in Washington, Bro. French lost the job because of his anti-slavery views and then was reappointed by Lincoln. He chaired the Board of Alderman of the District, headed the Telegraph Company, and chaired the District relief committee to support families of soldiers during the Civil War.2

Initiated in 1826 in New Hampshire and courageously serving Corinthian Lodge as Master in 1831, 1832, and 1833 during the Anti-Masonic period, he was also Grand Marshal of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire. After moving to Washington in 1846 he joined National Lodge No. 12, was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge from 1847 to 1853, and in 1868 became Grand Master again after much persuasion. He was active in both the York and Scottish Rites.

In his diary French describes an early encounter with Albert Pike on Wednesday, January 12, 1853: “passed the day at my office and the Capitol, and in the evening attended a meeting of the Encampment of Knights Templars, and conferred the orders on Albert Pike, Esq. of Arkansas. He is a scholar and a poet. Was an officer in the Mexican War and a man I am disposed to hold in High estimation.” Then, on February 6, 1853: “Thursday evening, Washington Encampment met and we conferred the orders of Knighthood on General Sam Houston. We had a full encampment, and everything went off admirably.”3 In 1851 French had received the degrees of the Scottish Rite and on December 12, 1859, SGC Albert Pike conferred upon him the 33°.4 He was the first Mason from the District of Columbia to be so honored. In 1870, he was made Lieutenant Grand Commander of the Supreme Council, Southern Jurisdiction.5

Arguably no Mason has been associated with more public Masonic functions over a longer period in the capital than Bro. French.6 When Grand Master he laid the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution in 1847. In 1848 in a grand ceremony, he laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. In 1850, accompanied by President Zachary Taylor, he laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in Richmond, Virginia. Again as Grand Master, wearing the original apron used by Washington, French laid the cornerstone of the Capitol extension on July 4, 1851, following which a pilgrimage was made to Washington’s tomb with an address given by French. Nearly twenty years later, in 1867, he accompanied President Andrew Johnson to Boston for a national meeting of the Masonic Knights Templar, of which French had also been Grand Master. On April 15, 1868 he presided over the dedication of Washington’s first statue of Abraham Lincoln.7

The connection of French and Masonry amazingly continues. A few years ago it happily fell to Benjamin B. French Lodge to raise Peter French, great grandson of Benjamin French. The family has deposited a treasure of papers in the Library of Congress that are waiting to be researched by Masonic scholars.

Bro. Benjamin B. French exemplifies the strength of Masonry in Washington at this critical time. The period after the war was marked by an enormous increase in American wealth, by waves of immigrants, and for Masons in the District as in many parts of the country, a time of unprecedented prosperity. Prof. Steven Bullock observes that in the twenty years after 1855, more men joined than in the 125 previous years, and that “By 1884, Masonry had experienced extraordinary growth. Its membership rolls far exceeded their pre-1826 peak.”8


Endnotes

1. See his biography, Ralph H. Gauker, History of the Scottish Rite Bodies in the District of Columbia, centennial edition (Washington, D.C.: Mithra Lodge of Perfection, 1970), 1–74.
2. Donald B. Cole, John J. McDonough eds., Benjamin Brown French, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828–1870 (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1989), 165, 189–90, 211, 303.
3. John Vergalla, “Benjamin B. French,” Voice of Freemasonry, vol. 20, no. 3: 13.
4. Bro. French was a close friend of Albert Pike. He worked incessantly to get a pardon for him after the Civil War. Fred W. Allsopp, Albert Pike (Little Rock, Ark.: Parke-Harper, 1928), 180, 220.
5. Vergalla, “Benjamin B. French,” 13.
6. Bro. French may have been the only Grand Master of the Grand Lodge to be impersonated long after his death: Grand Master Renah Camalier costumed himself as French for the 100th anniversary observation of Washington Centennial Lodge No. 14. Robert F. Ensslin, Centennial Celebration: Washington Centennial Lodge (Washington, Gibson Brothers, 1953), 6.
7. Vergalla, “Benjamin B. French,” 13.
8. Steven C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730–1840 ( Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 316. Bullock hypothesizes that anti-Masonry changed Masonry itself, forcing it to become more acceptable to the public.