Paul Revere and Freemasonry: A Lifelong Pursuit
In a speech made to fellow Freemasons in 1797, Paul Revere claimed that serving as Grand Master was the “greatest happiness” of his life. No one knows exactly what motivated Revere to become a Freemason, but he reaped considerable benefits from his membership, despite periods of turmoil and disappointment.
Freemasonry as a social organization in Massachusetts officially began in 1733, the year before Revere’s birth, when the Grand Lodge of England (1717) chartered St. John’s Grand Lodge in Boston. Although the mason’s trade involved cutting and laying stone, this fraternal society concerned itself with “the cultivation of the mind and the regulation of the manners.”
In 1760, when Revere was 25, he entered St. Andrew’s Lodge, a newer lodge whose members were mostly craftsmen. St. Andrew’s Lodge was chartered in 1756 by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, during a period in which a rift in England had divided Masons between “Ancient” and “Modern” groups. St. Andrew’s Lodge represented Ancient Masonry.
For Revere, Freemason membership provided continuous opportunities for recreation, leadership, political connections, and companionship, especially with those who might not normally have been within his social circle. It also brought customers to his silversmith shop. The ideology likely held a powerful attraction to Revere, as it emphasized a respect for tradition in addition to the enlightened belief that men could create a better world through reason, harmony, and right conduct. Most importantly to Revere, admission was based upon character, and advancement entirely upon merit rather than social status and education. When other leadership positions eluded him, Freemasonry enabled Revere to rise steadily through its ranks.
Revere quickly attained full membership and began serving as an officer in St. Andrew’s Lodge. This pattern continued throughout his active Masonic career. Between 1762 and 1797, there were only four years when Revere was not holding one or more Masonic offices. According to the minutes of St. Andrew’s Lodge, he diligently attended meetings, missing only 16 of 185 held from 1761 to 1771. He finally became Master of the Lodge in December 1770. During this busy period, the Lodge reviewed and initiated candidates, purchased the Green Dragon Tavern as a meeting place in 1764, and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a brotherly relationship with the older Masonic lodges in Boston.
To their dismay, the Ancient Freemasons of St. Andrew’s Lodge were rejected by Boston’s Modern brethren, who considered these “Scotts Masons” to be “irregular.” As a result, a committee including Revere petitioned the Scottish Grand Lodge to charter a Grand Lodge of Ancient Masons in Boston, which would have the authority to charter additional lodges. This was done by 1769, and the Massachusetts Grand Lodge came into existence. Dr. Joseph Warren, a respected physician and patriot leader, served as the first Grand Master and Revere held numerous offices in the Grand Lodge over the years.
The next decade witnessed the beginning of the American Revolution. St. Andrew’s Lodge is often associated with pre-revolutionary activities, particularly the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. Although post-facto lists of confirmed Tea Party participants include only a few St. Andrew’s Lodge members, their meeting minutes suggest involvement. A large gathering at Faneuil Hall protested the arrival of the tea on November 29. The next day, an important Lodge meeting for the annual election of officers adjourned “on account of the few Brethren present. (N.B. Consignees of Tea took up the Brethren’s Time.)” A contemporary sketch of the Green Dragon Tavern by John Johnson, showing Masonic symbols, also carries the legend “Where we met to Plan the Consignment of few shiploads of Tea Dec 16 1773.” The Lodge meeting on that evening was “Closed (on account of the few members present).” Revere was absent. While we cannot confirm with certainty that Revere actively destroyed tea that night, we do know that he left Boston the next morning, employed by “the Selectman of the Town” to “carry the Account of the Destruction of the Tea” to New York. This is his earliest known ride as a messenger.
The death of Grand Master Joseph Warren, killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, was a personal loss for Revere, who held his friend in such high esteem that he named a son after him in 1777. It also created a crisis for Ancient Masons, who thought that Warren’s commission as Grand Master had died with him, leaving the Lodge “without a Head, & without a Single Grand Officer.” As a means of self-preservation, the Massachusetts Grand Lodge elected their own Grand Master in 1777, independent of Scotland. A report issued by Revere and three others in 1782 justified this election, without which Lodges “must Cease to Assemble, the Brethren be dispersed, the Pennyless go unassisted, the Craft Languish & Ancient masonry be extinct in this Part [of the] World.” This was clearly unacceptable.
Given the colonies’ hard-won independence, the 1782 report included resolutions on the authority of the Grand Lodge, claiming that it be “free and Independent in its Government & Official Authority of any other Grand Lodge…in the Universe.” By adopting this bold resolution, the Massachusetts Grand Lodge essentially broke ties with its parent Grand Lodge in Scotland. Grappling with this serious question of allegiance, St. Andrew’s Lodge disapproved. In January 1784, their members met to decide if they would remain under the Scottish jurisdiction or ally with the Massachusetts Grand Lodge. Revere voted for the local Grand Lodge but found himself and 22 fellow Masons in the minority. They were promptly ejected from St. Andrew’s Lodge. Given his strong attachment to the Lodge, Revere was distraught. He went back with a committee representing the “agrieved brethren who looked upon themselves as members of this Lodge.” But they were turned away, and told to make their proposal in writing. Instead, they sued for 48 pounds. Comprising nearly half of St. Andrew’s membership, they felt entitled to half of the Lodge’s funds, which they eventually received.
In March 1784, Revere and his brethren founded a new lodge, also named for St. Andrew, but chartered by the Massachusetts Grand Lodge. It soon took the name Rising States Lodge. Years later, following some discord, this Lodge dissolved in 1810 (after St. Andrew’s Lodge finally decided to surrender its Scottish charter and join the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge).
In 1792, the two Grand Lodges in Boston, representing Ancient and Modern Freemasonry, finally merged, a union Revere helped facilitate. The pinnacle of his Masonic career came in 1794, when he was elected Grand Master of this united Massachusetts Grand Lodge. During his three-year term, Revere chartered 23 lodges and energetically carried out his duties. In 1799, after the death of esteemed Freemason and President George Washington, Revere participated in the tributes and crafted a small gold urn to hold a lock of his hair. Revere’s activity decreased after 1800, possibly due to his new copper mill venture. In 1796, Freemason and diarist William Bentley penned this impression of Revere as Grand Master: “Col. Revere enters into the Spirit of it and enjoys it.” Bentley’s words provide a succinct and insightful summation of a memorable career.
Edith Steblecki is Curator and Assistant Director of the Paul Revere House