(Member: Potomac Lodge No. 5)
(From the Archives highlights interesting stories of past D.C. Freemasons and other hidden historical gems found in archives of the Grand Lodge of D.C. - ed)
There will, perhaps, never be a man like Benjamin B. French again.
“This distinguished Brother,” writes Kenyon Harper, author of the Official History of the Grand Lodge of D.C., “...may properly be called the Father of Latter-Day Masonry in [D.C] , and it involves no invidious comparison to say that in the century now closed no man has more permanently left the impress of his individuality and genius upon our local institution, nor was more widely or favorably know throughout the Masonic world.”
Luckily, French left behind a detailed and robust library of personal papers. He documented everything and anything of he felt was of importance; including meetings with Presidents, his opinions of political and social events, and other commentary and strategy. His notes, in some instances, are the only sources of information for certain important events in D.C. history.
In fact, there is so much to note about this man that we’ll need two posts to do it. In this post, we look at French, the man; and next time, we’ll look at French, the Mason. And as you’ll see, both aspects of his life are equally impressive and noteworthy.
Benjamin B. French Part 2: the Mason
The Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was ushered in on a surprisingly pleasant Fourth of July in 1851, as a rain storm from the previous night provided a brief respite from the deep, D.C. summer humidity and created a perfect day for a cornerstone ceremony. Among a flurry of flags, bands, cheers, and pomp and circumstance stood Benjamin Brown French, the Grand Master of Masons of the District of Columbia. Draped in one of George Washington’s aprons, French and his Grand Lodge procession marched up Pennsylvania Ave. to the site of the United States Capitol on their way to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol’s new extension. Even in the presence of the nation’s chief executive, President Millard Filmore, on the Fourth of July in the Nation’s capital, all eyes were on the Grand Master. It was French in his element, and in 1851, the height of his Masonic power.
Bro. Benjamin B. French began his Masonic career in 1825 at King Solomon’s Lodge No.14 in New London, New Hampshire. He moved to Newport, New Hampshire two
French arrived in D.C. during the height of the Morgan Affair and attended meetings sporadically until 1846 when he affiliated with National Lodge No.12. That same year, on November 3, French was elected Grand Master of Masons for the District of Columbia. It was a role he would serve in for seven years, until 1853 when he declined to accept his re-election. (Interestingly though, he served as Grand Master again in 1868.)
MW Bro. French was also an active participant in both the York and Scottish Rites. He received his Royal Arch Degree in Columbia Chapter No. 15 (now No. 1) in November 1846 and served as Most Excellent High Priest in 1847. During the same year he was elected Grand King of the Grand Chapter of Maryland and the District of Columbia and served in that role until 1855, when he declined to continue. His interest in the Commandry led him to successfully revive the organization in the District of Columbia through Washington Commandry No.1. He served in the role of Commander (the Blue lodge equivalent of Master) for almost 12 years. In 1850, he was elected Grand Recorder of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States and Grand Secretary of the General Grand Chapter of the United States. He held both positions until 1859 when he was elected Grand Master of Knights Templar of the United States; a position he served for six consecutive years.
French received the Scottish Rite degrees in 1851. His position within the York Rite bodies enabled him an audience with leadership across a spectrum of masonic organizations, including Albert Pike. In a journal entry recorded on January 12, 1853, French recalls one of his earliest meetings with Pike: “…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.”
French forged a close relationship with Pike and lobbied tirelessly to get him a pardon for his actions following the Civil War. On December 12, 1859, Pike, as Sovereign Grand Commander, personally conferred upon French the 33°. A decade later, French became a Lieutenant Grand Commander.
So, on the 75th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1851, French was perhaps at his most triumphant. A detailed report of the Capitol cornerstone extension event was recorded in the Daily Republic. What was not mentioned was that while he served as the Grand Master of Masons for the District of Columbia during that event, he was also the Grand King of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of D.C. and Maryland, the Grand Secretary of the National Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the Grand Recorder of Grand Encampment of Knights Templar. (!!)
The President adjusted the stone and invited Grand Master French to see that it was laid properly. French examined the stone and placed corn, wine, and oil upon it. He then said: “With this gavel, which was used by the immortal Washington, at the laying of the cornerstone of that Capitol, and clothed with the same apron that he then wore, I now pronounce this cornerstone of this extension of the capitol well laid, trust, and trusty.”
The cornerstone was laid at precisely noon. A signal was given, and a round of fire was shot from the Capitol, Navy Yard, and Arsenal to mark the occasion. The ceremony concluded with a round of speeches from Grand Master French, the Grand Orator, the President.
French lived a long and interesting life. He arrived in the Nation’s capital to serve as a desk clerk and became a nationally-recognized figure through his Masonic affiliations. The Capitol extension ceremony was just one of many opportunities that French used to show off the Grand Lodge of D.C. and its role in shaping the history and political philosophy of the United States. And his personal contribution to the Craft is still felt across the District.
In 1853, a Lodge was chartered in his name – an incredibly rare honor, especially considering that he was still alive, and the Grand Master. Benjamin B. French Lodge No. 15 consolidated with Acacia Lodge No. 18 in 1972, but in another testament to the high regard of French, even a hundred years later, the Lodge kept only his name moving forward. And today, BBF Lodge (as it is lovingly referred as) enjoys a spot as a thriving and popular Lodge with a reputation for scholarship and ritual excellence. It’s a reputation French himself would have been very pleased with.