We’ve oft-heard “the Founders were all Freemasons.” Well, no. Many of the Founders were Freemasons. George Washington was. Ben Franklin was. Thomas Jefferson, from what I have studied, was not. Yet, Freemasonry perfectly resonated with Jefferson’s beliefs and that of the American Founding as a whole. Freemasonry was generally monotheistic. It was also, alas, bigoted against atheists (see their original book of constitutions). It was kind of like the Boy Scouts, any religion will do. Only atheists need not apply.
What follows is an excerpt of a letter from Jefferson to his friend Bishop James Madison (cousin of the fourth American President) lauding not just Freemasonry but also illuminated Masonry. In there, Jefferson also includes his appreciation for unitarian Christian Revs. Joseph Priestley and Richard Price “who believe[d] in the indefinite perfectibility of man.” While I haven’t seen proof that Bishop Madison was a unitarian, he certainly was, like Priestley and Price an “enlightenment” Christian who believed in heterodox notions like man’s perfectibility and made the “Christian” case for the French Revolution.
I have lately by accident got a sight of a single volume (the 3d.) of the Abbe Barruel’s ‘Antisocial conspiracy,’ which gives me the first idea I have ever had of what is meant by the Illuminatism against which ‘illuminate Morse’ as he is now called, & his ecclesiastical & monarchical associates have been making such a hue and cry.
Barruel’s own parts of the book are perfectly the ravings of a Bedlamite. But he quotes largely from Wishaupt whom he considers as the founder of what he calls the order. As you may not have had an opportunity of forming a judgment of this cry of ‘mad dog’ which has been raised against his doctrines, I will give you the idea I have formed from only an hour’s reading of Barruel’s quotations from him, which you may be sure are not the most favorable. Wishaupt seems to be an enthusiastic Philanthropist.
He is among those (as you know the excellent Price and Priestley also are) who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man. He thinks he may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, & of course to render political government useless. This you know is Godwin’s doctrine, and this is what Robinson, Barruel & Morse had called a conspiracy against all government. Wishaupt believes that to promote this perfection of the human character was the object of Jesus Christ. That his intention was simply to reinstate natural religion, & by diffusing the light of his morality, to teach us to govern ourselves. His precepts are the love of god & love of our neighbor. And by teaching innocence of conduct, he expected to place men in their natural state of liberty & equality. He says, no one ever laid a surer foundation for liberty than our grand master, Jesus of Nazareth. He believes the Free Masons were originally possessed of the true principles & objects of Christianity, & have still preserved some of them by tradition, but much disfigured.
The means he proposes to effect this improvement of human nature are ‘to enlighten men, to correct their morals & inspire them with benevolence. Secure of our success, sais he, we abstain from violent commotions. To have foreseen the happiness of posterity & to have prepared it by irreproachable means, suffices for our felicity. The tranquility of our consciences is not troubled by the reproach of aiming at the ruin or overthrow of states or thrones.’
As Wishaupt lived under the tyranny of a despot & priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, & the principles of pure morality. He proposed therefore to lead the Free masons to adopt this object & to make the objects of their institution the diffusion of science & virtue. He proposed to initiate new members into his body by gradations proportioned to his fears of the thunderbolts of tyranny.
This has given an air of mystery to his views, was the foundation of his banishment, the subversion of the masonic order, & is the colour for the ravings against him of Robinson, Barruel & Morse, whose real fears are that the craft would be endangered by the spreading of information, reason, & natural morality among men.