(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)
“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 1: the Man
Benjamin Brown French was born on September 9, 1800 to a prominent and respected New Hampshire family. His father, an eminent lawyer, served several terms as the State’s Attorney-General. While his parents encouraged him to attend college, French chose a brief stint in the military before returning home to pursue law. His interests, though, morphed into civil work when he was elected assistant clerk of the state senate. And in 1833, he received an appointment to serve as an assistant clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington. He held the position of Chief Clerk for several years until 1847 when he lost the election by a single vote.
Following his defeat, French served as President of one of the first telegraph companies, the Magnetic Telegraph Company, which oversaw the expansion of the communication device across the United States.
He returned to public service in 1853, becoming responsible for the care of all federal buildings in Washington D.C. as the Commissioner of Public Buildings and Grounds under his friend, President Franklin Pierce.
So Washington’s and
Twined in a wreath shall be,
One gave a Nation to the
The Other keeps it free.
French pursued Lincoln for several months for a formal appointment. Upon learning that Mrs. Lincoln had fallen out of favor with her Commissioner of Public Buildings, he campaigned for the position. At a particularly personal meeting at the White House, French notes Lincoln’s warmhearted reception. After pressing Lincoln once more in the Oval Office, Lincoln “looked up with his peculiar smile and eyetwinkle and said ‘the fifth, Mr. French, the fifth; you understand!’
The position of Commissioner granted French unprecedented access to Lincoln’s inner circle. He was in charge of maintenance on “the Capitol, the White House, Washington’s Avenues, public squares, reservations, bridges, administering Capitol police.” This also translated into a close partnership with Mrs. Lincoln. While originally cordial and warm, French’s relationship with the first Lady became contentious. French wrote to his brother that the “Republican Queen…plagued me half to death with wants with which it is impossible to comply, for she has an eye to the dollars!” In contrast, his relationship with The President was one of mutual respect and admiration. They enjoyed each other’s company and, as French noted in his journal, “honest old Abe, who calls me ‘French’ and always tells me a story when I go to talk with him.”
French’s legacy extends into the hallowed battleground of Gettysburg. He participated in the Dedication of the field in 1863; serving as aide to the Marshal-in-chef. He penned a song called the “Consecration Hymn” which was song during the ceremony by the Baltimore Glee Club. Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address followed and inspired French to comment in his journal that in that speech, Abraham Lincoln became the “idol of the American people.”
French woke up the next morning to the sight of streetlights, usually extinguished by then, still burning outside his window and a guard posted in front of his home; informing him of the news. He quickly dressed, loaded a pistol, and rushed to the Capitol to lock down the building. He may his way to the home across from Ford’s theater to find Lincoln alive but barely holding on. French stayed with Lincoln until he could no longer hold on. Watching Lincoln’s body travel back to the White House, French retired to his home to rest from the day’s events; a brief moment of pause for what would become a hectic couple of weeks. French spent the several days following planning and arranging a state funeral. His son, Ben, personally built the pine catafalque to hold the coffin. His wife designed and sewed the black funeral cloth cover that was draped on the coffin.
He served the term of Commissioner for another two years until the Republican Congress abolished his position; backlash for supporting Democratic President Andrew Johnson. He later took a minor, and in his words humiliating, clerk role at the Department of Treasurer until his death.
French died on August 12, 1870 from heart failure and lung congestion. “His masonic hat, badge, and sword were on the lid of the coffin” during the funeral services. His coffin was transported to the Congressional Cemetery “where he was laid to rest amid throngs of mourners in the glow of Masonic torches.”