Monday, January 21, 2013

"Six Freemasons from Edinburgh" and the White House

I blame the dark winter day. Someone e-mailed me asking about the "six Freemasons from Edinburgh without whom the White House would not have been built." I had a sudden warm feeling and envisioned those master craftsmen leaving Scotland, sailing to New York or Philadelphia, greeted there by Federal officials, escorted to the Potomac, housed and feted with due ceremony before they got to work, all accompanied by Masonic choral music composed by Mozart! (The print above is from 1858 and of Freemasons parading from Edinburgh but what the hey....)

George Washington was a Freemason, a relationship immortalized in the iconography of the great man.

Many Masonic websites celebrate that and many of them add "Records in the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum indicate that Bro. George Washington recruited six Masons from Edinburgh, Scotland to help build the White House in Washington, D.C."

Complete roles of the workers on the public buildings, now in the National Archives, date from 1794. For example here are the names of the masons working at the Capitol in December:

Alexander Reed
Robert Graham
David Ogilvie
James Logan
William Fisher
Henry Cook
John Henry
James Henry
Neal McKeever
John Bennett
David Kay
Robert Oliver
Andrew Shulls
John Cochran
Peter Larimore
Nath. MaCleish
William Beard
William Symington
Thomas Allen
Alex Williamson
Robert Tolmie
William Simpson
Hugh Somervill
James Somervill
Joseph Cockran
James Jack
John Shaw
Thom. Barth
Frederick Nie
Thos. Dollar
George Jacob
David Waterson

Plenty of Scottish names there. Did the list include six special emissaries from Edinburgh? If so they all made 10 shillings a day. However, the legend refers to the White House -- 6 Edinburgh masons at the White House -- and that December there were 5 masons working there: Henry Edwards, George Blagden, Robert Vincent, James Dougherty, and David Cumming -- pretty close number-wise especially in the mists of legendary time. Alas, Blagden was English, born in Attercliffe, South Yorkshire.

But providing names and dates doesn't quite answer the implications of the myth about the "six Freemasons from Edinburgh." I think the point of the legend is that something magical happened in Washington. Master masons came from Scotland to build our Monuments to Freedom.

To be sure, the gentlemen trying to organize the building of Washington, which included Washington, Jefferson, and the commissioners Washington appointed, pined for Scottish masons to come to work on the public buildings, but they were longed for foreign masons because they might come cheaply. Americans of the ruling class then had a stubborn conviction that all American labor was over paid and that European workers were eager to come to America and would work for less pay, perhaps even as indentured servants.

In a 5 July 1792 letter to a Georgetown merchant named John Laird, who was going back to Scotland, the commissioners offered to pay 12 shillings Sterling a month for laborers he might find in Scotland, single men only. They also sought indentured servants, promising freedom to common laborers after two years work, less time required from mechanics: "They will be employed in public work only, and their living found as free men, we desire the Mechanicks to work only, Sixteen Months,
and the Laborers two Years, from their arrival at this Port." (Commrs letterbook vol. 1 pp 97-8

In the 18th century, anyone who did physical labor was a "mechanick," but, as in this letter, a distinction was drawn between mechanicks who practiced a particular trade and "common laborers." The wage offered is a bit more difficult to parse. Using the rate of 4 shillings Sterling at $1, the commissioners wanted to pay laborers $3 a month. At that time, they were hiring slaves at the rate of $5 a month (money going to the slave owner, of course.) Another interesting remark in the letter: the commissioners only wanted "single men only." Their goal was to build the city without peopling it with working class families.

President Washington wrote to the Commissioners keen on getting only indentured labor: " would be better for the person employed to get them, to have them indented at the time of engaging them, specifying the number of years they are to serve to commence at the time of their landing in the U.S.... And if mechanics of a particular description are most essential it would be well, in order to secure their Services beyond the term for which they might be engaged for their passages, to stipulate at the time of engaging them, that they should serve one, two or three years over and above that time at £ ... per year." etc. etc.

Washington left the wage blank. It went without saying that he wanted it as low as possible. What he was especially after was a low wage set for as many years as possible. Thus, there would be no demands for higher wages.

Washington added that he heard that German labor would be cheaper, though he thought an attempt should be made to indent some workers from Scotland, "whence many good and useful mechanics may undoubtedly to be had. I have been more particular in respect to Germany because they may probably be obtained from thence on better terms than from other quarters, and they are known to be a steady, laborious people."

Six masons from Hamburg, anyone?

In due time, Laird, who went to find workers in Scotland, wrote back to the commissioners that with "great demand and building going on in all the towns.... It is our opinion good men could not be engaged to go to America unless they were assured of near double the wages they get here."

The President was dumbfounded and urged the commissioners to redouble their efforts: "The more I consider the subject, the more I am convinced of the expediency of importing a number of workmen from Europe to be employed in the Federal City. The measure has not only oeconomy to recommend it, but is important by placing the quantity of labour which may be performed by such persons upon a certainty for the term for which they shall be engaged."

George Walker, a Scottish merchant who was a big landowner in the new city, was prompting the President. And not only would Walker solicit workers in Scotland, but inquiries would be sent to Holland and a man sent to France.

Nothing came of any of those efforts.

Of course, many of the masons working on the Capitol and White House were immigrants but most had been in the country several years. In 1794 the masons originally from Scotland, objecting to some favoritism accorded the masons from Ireland, prefaced their petition to the commissioners by saying: "We the under named Masons, who were induced to come from different parts of the continent to the Federal City, under expectations of meeting with good wages...." They were already in America when they heard about work in the new city.

But there we are still in 1794. We do know about one mason who came to the city earlier and he became the first supervisor of construction at the White House. However, although he boasted of building castles in Scotland, Collen Williamson was not sent by the Grand Lodge in Edinburgh. He was a relative of the Georgetown tavern keeper John Suter. He came down from New York City where he had been working. You can see the contract between him and the commissioners in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division:

Masons began laying stone at the White House in April 1793. So perhaps the transplanted Scot Williamson sent to Edinburgh for six master masons? The newspaper account of the laying of the cornerstone at the Capitol in September 1793, which was a Masonic ceremony preceded by a parade of Masonic lodges, lists Williamson "Master Mason" as one of the principal celebrants. He's the only mason listed.

Williamson didn't work out. James Hoban, the carpenter/architect who designed the White House, didn't like him and he persuaded the commissioners to fire Williamson on the grounds that he was too old, 65. Williamson complained about that treatment to both Presidents Washington and Adams, and demanded to be rehired. He bragged about his accomplishments in Scotland and his work on the foundation of the White House. In none of those letters is there any mention of the "six Freemasons from Edinburgh."

Here is a taste of how Williamson importuned the presidents. This to the newly inaugurated John Adams:

"I should not have troubled you in writing but considering myself still in the public employ, I think it my duty to give information of what has been going on here for too long a time. There is a James Hoban, an Irish carpenter engaged as arcteck for the President's house from Charleston and soon after came acompany of thives his former associats.... The gentlemen here says it was good policy in Hoban to get me putt out of place fore then there was non to restrain them, they did as they pleasd, this man have been a recepticle for all the Irish vagbons that came in his way, there is noting here but fighting lying and stealing and will be as long as this man is in power..."

But with Hoban's rise, the city's Masonic Lodge was organized with that son of Kilkenney, not anyone from Edinburgh, as its leader.

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