Symbols in Plain View

Washington’s Gavel Proves Masonic Clout

Posted January 13, 2009 at 3:47pm

It’s a cold, dark, windy Friday night, and Jeremy Barnes has come to Capitol Hill on official business for the Freemasons, the secretive fraternal order best known for medieval rituals and a love of architecture.

Barnes is preparing to pick up the “George Washington gavel,” a 216-year-old relic used at the cornerstone- laying ceremonies of Washington, D.C.’s most important buildings. Joining him is a fellow Mason, David, who has asked to be identified only by his first name.

The pair belong to Potomac Lodge No. 5, the oldest Masonry chapter in the District of Columbia. Made specifically for President George Washington to use at the Capitol’s cornerstone laying — a ceremony that has its roots in Masonry — the gavel is considered the pride of the lodge, and will be used the next day when Barnes is installed as the newest lodge master.

“A lot of the things that we still do are exactly models of the ceremonies then,” Barnes says — although he isn’t prepared to share the exact details of the ceremony. “It’s a really cool thing to be a part of something that has so much history.”

Visitors to the nation’s capital often marvel at the classical structure of the Capitol and other structures, such as the Washington Monument. What many don’t realize is that the city is dotted with Masonic symbolism and influence — and that the Freemasons were, and to some extent still are, pivotal in the founding and ongoing life of the city.

The George Washington gavel is one of the living symbols of that influence.

Currently housed at the Capitol Visitor Center’s Exhibition Hall, the gavel sits in a glass case next to other artifacts related to the Capitol’s beginnings, many of them also featuring Masonic influence. To reach it, a CVC curator meets the pair at the Capitol’s north entrance, escorting them through a now-closed (and very dark) visitor center.

After the curator unlocks the case, she shines a flashlight on the gavel as Barnes carefully removes it and places it in a gray, nondescript security box. David then follows Barnes out — rules state that two Masons must be present whenever the gavel is moved.

And despite the Masons’ reputation for secrecy, Barnes just can’t stop talking about this gavel.

“As an organization that’s blessed to have something like this, we almost feel an obligation to share it,” he says. “What good is it if it’s locked away?”

Indeed, if the George Washington gavel could talk, it certainly would have a lot to say.

Silversmith John Duffy created the gavel in 1793 specifically for “Worshipful Master” George Washington. Aside from both being Masons (Duffy reputedly was a member of the Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 in Virginia), the pair shared another connection — Duffy was married to a daughter of Washington’s gardener.

There are plenty of other items on display at the CVC from that ceremony, including a replication of a silver trowel (also a Duffy creation) used in the ceremony and Washington’s official seal (which incorporates Masonic symbols, no less).

Freemasonry came to the American colonies through settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland. By the founding of the new United States, several of the Founding Fathers, most notably Washington, were involved in Masonry.

So it was no surprise that when the new country prepared to build its Capitol, President Washington decided to kick it all off with a Masonic cornerstone-laying ceremony. And the gavel has been used at the cornerstone-laying ceremonies of almost every important monument since, most notably the Washington Monument.

The gavel also was present when President Millard Fillmore laid the cornerstone of the Capitol extension, when President Theodore Roosevelt laid the first cornerstone at what is now the Cannon House Office Building in 1906, and when President Dwight Eisenhower laid the cornerstone at another Capitol extension of the Capitol’s East Front in 1959.

Queen Elizabeth II personally used the gavel to lay the cornerstone of the British Embassy in 1957, and President James Polk did the same at the laying of the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution in 1847. President Harry Truman (a past grand master of the Grand Lodge of Missouri) used it in 1948 at the centennial observance of the cornerstone laying of the Washington Monument.

And aside from a wobbly handle, the gavel is in pretty good shape for an instrument that is more than 200 years old.

Its head is made from the same Maryland marble used in the interior of the original Capitol building, and its handle is dark, native American cherry. A gold cap atop its head was added by the Potomac Lodge in 1856, detailing the gavel’s history.

The lodge is particularly proud to own the gavel, which was kept in its possession for two centuries. And they’ve always been willing to show it off — before loaning it to the CVC, lodge members took it to mostly (but not always) Masonry gatherings about five times a year.

When it came time to put together the first exhibition for the Capitol Visitor Center, officials contacted the Potomac and Alexandria lodges to see if either had any artifacts stemming from the 1793 cornerstone-laying ceremony, according to CVC spokesman Tom Fontana. Fortunately for the CVC, the Potomac Lodge agreed to loan the gavel.

“While there are many unique and remarkable items in the Exhibition Hall, the gavel has special resonance for the Capitol as it relates to the building’s very beginnings,” Fontana said.

While Washington and his gavel might be the most famous Masonic story in the nation’s capital, there’s plenty of other history — and some myths — out there.

Along with Washington, many of the Founding Fathers are believed to have been Masons, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Paul Revere. Some have even suggested that Pierre L’Enfant, who designed the basic layout of Washington, based those designs on principles of Masonry.

(And if you believe some of the more far-out theories, the Masons actually are satanists, and L’Enfant’s design incorporates symbols of the occult. Not surprisingly, the Masons deny this.)

Barnes does believe, however, that Masonry had an impact on the way the United States was established, since so many Founding Fathers were Masons.

As for the Masons’ secret rituals?

“If you’re smart enough, you can find them on the Internet in 20 minutes,” David said. (It should be noted that he’s keeping his name secret not for Masonic reasons, but because he’s afraid he could get in trouble at work for talking to the press.)

Besides, if the Masons were so secretive, they wouldn’t go out of their way to share their most beloved artifact with the world. They’ve even let the United States Capitol Historical Society create a replica of it, which is being sold for $145.

And after Barnes’ initiation ceremony, the Masons returned the gavel to the CVC, where it is expected to be displayed until at least 2010.