Freemasonry and Reconciliation in Moore County

freemasonryThey saw themselves as building a new republic.  But in Moore County, North Carolina, their first task was to heal a community.

Before the Revolution, the Masonic lodges of the coastal cities had helped to train the leaders of those cities in the skills of gentlemanly behavior, creating a cohesive elite whose members were bound to each other not only by ideals of tolerance and civility but by a collection of highly emotional rituals.  In the aftermath of the Revolution, however, Freemasonry expanded rapidly westward, broadening its membership as it grew.  The new brothers were professional men, merchants, and local community leaders, seeking the status and the networks that the fraternity had offered to the coastal elites.  Like the early Quaker meetings and Baptist churches, Masonic lodges created small, supportive communities within a chaotic world, a world in which people were constantly in motion and community institutions and networks of trust were still undeveloped.

The goals of the fraternity broadened as well. Perhaps unconsciously, for most of the previous century the fraternity had been training its members in the skills of representative democracy.  Masonic ideals were now expressed not merely in terms of gentlemanly sociability and self-restraint, but in terms of the virtues deemed essential for a republican society:  learning, religion, morality, community service, and respect based on individual merit.  Especially in the interior, education was a high priority.  Although they would not have described their goal in that way, the Masons were promoting a cognitive shift: away from self-interest, local loyalties, and purely conventional thinking, and towards an understanding of abstract moral rules.

The economy of Moore County had been shattered by the chaos of the Revolution, but perhaps more important was the shattering of trust, the severing of social bonds.  When the smoke of the conflict cleared, neighbors on both sides looked around at each other and saw the predators who had robbed and beaten them, burned their farms, and terrorized their families. The families of men who had been imprisoned or forced to flee were still being besieged by lawsuits for imaginary debts, aimed at relieving them of whatever property they had left.  It was in this devastated community that the Pansophia Lodge of Masons was first established.

The majority of the members of the lodge bore Highland names.  County leaders were heavily represented—the largest slaveholders, and the majority of local officials.  The first thing one notices, however, is the presence of names from both sides of the conflict.  Many members were Patriot veterans or sons of veterans, some of them officers in the Continental Army.  There were also at least four men whose fathers or brothers had been murdered in cold blood by Patriot vigilantes, in some cases for no greater crime than befriending Loyalists.  At least two others, one of them an ambitious man who went on to hold several public offices, had seen their families’ property plundered and confiscated by the Patriots.  When the Solemn Grove Academy was founded in 1805, there were five lodge members among the first trustees, at least one of them from a Loyalist family.  In re-establishing the bonds of brotherhood between the families of former enemies, the members of the Pansophia Lodge were redefining themselves as Americans.

Further reading: Stephen Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood offers a perceptive, deeply researched and highly readable analysis of the role of Freemasonry in the early American Republic.

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