• D.C. Freemason

Of Treaties and Masons

Members of the English Delegation in Washington, DC (Left to Right): Lord Tenterden, Sir Stafford Northcote, Sir John A. Macdonald, Grand Master George Robinson, Mountague Bernard, Sir Edward Thornton.

In early 1871, American and British diplomats assembled in Washington, D.C. for a series of intricate negotiations. During the American Civil War, Confederate vessels sailing from British ports plundered northern ships navigating the Atlantic. As hostilities concluded, the American government sought compensation from Great Britain for aiding and abetting the southern rebellion and addressing other territorial concerns. The British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Edward Thorton, agreed to dispatch a delegation to settle the dispute. President Ulysses Grant tapped Secretary of State Hamilton Fish to lead the American delegation while Ambassador Thorton selected George Robinson, the Earl of Grey and Ripon. As the delegation made their way to the United States, the District’s masonic community quickly realized that were upon a momentous occasion, as the Earl of Grey and Ripon held another title: the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. 

Details of the High Commissions trip to the United States, Evening Star Feb 24 1871

A wave of excitement swept across the District. Master Charles F. Stansbury announced Robinson’s arrival during a special Grand Lodge session on March 8, 1871. The body voted to call upon the Grand Master during his stay in Washington and arranged a reception committee for his arrival. Stansbury contacted the Grand Master on March 10 and received a response from Charles Aubrey, Lord Tenterden and the delegation’s secretary. Aubrey, himself a Freemason, accepted the invitation on Robinson’s behalf and arranged for both men to meet for a preliminary chat at the delegation’s residence on 1311 K Street. After a pleasant discourse, Robinson accepted Stansbury’s invitation to attend the Grand Lodge’s reception and banquet on April 10. To mark the special occasion, the Grand Lodge of DC issued invitations to each sitting Grand Master of America to join the jurisdiction for the special reception. Stansbury also requested that the George Washington Gavel from Potomac Lodge No. 5 to be present at the occasion. Flowers, banners, and British flags graced the halls and windows of the Grand Lodge’s building on 9th and F streets in preparation of the Anglo-masonic delegation. 

Charles Stansbury, Grand Master of DC

The festivities began at 6:30 PM on April 10, when Grand Master Stansbury called the special Grand Lodge communication in order. Grand Secretary Noble D. Larner entered the lodge room to announce the visiting American Grand Masters: John R. Holbrook of New Hampshire, Asa Smith of Connecticut, R. A. Lamberton of Pennsylvania, John H. B. Latrobe of Maryland, Samuel Lawrence of Georgia, Alexander H. Newcomb of Ohio. United States Senator William Sprague of Rhode Island and Representative Jackson Orr of Iowa served as proxies for their respective states. Around 7 PM, Larner introduced Styleman Le Strange, the British Legation’s secretary, who was seated next to Benjamin Perley Poore, an eminent mason from Massachusetts. Larner then introduced Lord Tenterden, “Past Master of the Lodge of Harmony, of London.” 

Left to Right: Lord Tenterden and Styleman Le Strange.

Stansbury then recognized the Grand Marshall who announced the Grand Master of England, escorted by Past Grand Master R. B. Donaldson and the Senior Grand Warden J. B. Gibbs. After formal introductions and grand honors, Grand Master Stansbury welcomed the assembly with his brief remarks. “This is the first instance,” noted Stansbury, “ in the history of American Freemasonry in which an opportunity has been afforded to the fraternity to extend Masonic hospitality to the Grand Master of Masons at once of our mother jurisdiction and of our mother country…We are glad to acknowledge, both personally and Masonically, the tie which binds us to the country…and whence we have derived not only much of what is valuable in our system of public law and polity, but a common inheritance..and a history illustrated by devotion to the rights of man and principles of sound constitutional liberty.”

George Robinson, the Earl de Grey and Ripon. Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England

Stansbury then presented the George Washington Gavel to Robinson, who provided his own introductory comments. “I assure you sir, I esteem it a great honor to have been thus received by the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia; an honor which I am well I owe, not to my personal merits, but to the fact…that I am the representative of the Grand Lodge of England…I esteem it a most fortunate occasion…fortunate for Masonry in both countries, that there should at length have taken place so close a union between Masonry in America and Masonry in England, as that you show now, for the first time…received within the walls of this important Grand Lodge, the Grand Master of English Masons.”

As Robinson concluded his remarks, the District’s masonic choir erupted into a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” Stansbury rapped the Washington Gavel to close the first portion of the program. A procession formed and exited the room into the banquet hall, which had been decorated with English and American flags. The Grand Masters, Grand Lodge officers, and guests took their place at a long table on the east side of the hall. Two long tables were placed on the North and South sides and a center table had been set for members of the press. Portraits of the Queen Victoria and George Washington hung behind the Grand Master’s seat, suspended on either side of the Grand Lodge’s banner. 

Stenograph of the Grand Lodge Masonic Temple

As the dinner portion of the evening concluded, Stansbury purged the room of all except Master Masons, after which a table lodge was opened. The Grand Master of DC provided a brief opening to the festivities that lay ahead. “It was our desire,” he began, “to give to this meeting an international character, by presenting here the Masonic Fraternity of the New World, in the attitude of welcoming to our shores the representatives of the Masonic Fraternity of the Old World.” Stansbury then proceeded with the first toast, which he dedicated to Queen Victoria. 

The Grand Master introduced the first toast with a personal account of the infamous July Fourth banquet in London, hosted by American Philanthropist and J.P. Morgan co-founder George Peabody. “Mr. Peabody desired to adorn the walls of the banquet hall with the portrait of the Queen. This fact becoming accidentally known to Her Majesty, she voluntarily directed that the celebrated portraits by Winterhalter, of herself and Prince Albert, should be placed at Mr. Peabody’s service, and they were hung at the head of the banqueting table…and there was presented the interesting, and somewhat extraordinary, spectacle of a celebration of the Independence of these States, held in the British capital, not only with the sanction of the British Queen, but with her cordial participation, and that Queen the granddaughter of George III.” The celebration later caused a stir as Peabody chose to toast Queen Victoria before President Franklin Pierce, which caused then Ambassador to London and future President, James Buchanan to leave the celebration in a huff. 

Before their second toast, the Grand Tiler announced the arrival of the Canadian Prime Minister, and delegation member, Sir John A. Macdonald and his aide-de-camp Lieutenant-Colonel H. Bernard. Macdonald was a dominant figure in Canadan politics and  elected to serve as the country’s first Prime Minister in 1861.

John Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada

The second and third toasts were dedicated to the President of the United States and the Grand Master of England. Robinson then took the floor and provided his remarks on the occasion, ending with a nod to Queen Victoria and George Washington: “You said, sir, that Her Majesty the Queen was the granddaughter of George III. Happy is it that time has healed the wounds of the past, and that I, a Minister of the Crown of England, can esteem, as I do esteem most sincerely, that it is a high and signal honor upon this occasion to sit at the right hand of one who is clothed with the scarf of Washington, and who rules us with the gavel of the first President of the United States...and If it should be good fortune of my life to contribute, in however small a degree, to that great and noble [cause], I shall feel that I have accomplished much.”

The Grand Master of Maryland, John H. B. Latrobe, provided the response to the ensuing toast, dedicated to the Grand Masters of the United States. Labtrobe reminded the crowd of the fraternal link with England. “Our earliest colonist left the Old World to escape, in many cases, from political bondage; but the bonds of science literature, and art they brought with them across the sea...and their descendants have, ever since, hugged the chains that Shakeespeare, Milton, Bacon, and Newton forged. They have clung closely, too, to “the Mystic Tie” of our ancient brotherhood.” 

The ensuing three toasts were dedicated to the Brethren of England, America, and Canada. Stansbury invited Donaldson to respond on behalf of his Canadan brethren and provided a remarkable anecdote about a masonic event during the American Revolutionary War:  “When I was a young man and a young mason, I assisted at the Centennial Celebration of a Military Lodge, that had been established in one of the oldest and most renowned regiments in her Majesty’s service...In the fortune of War, the charter-chest of that Military Lodge became a prize of war to a vessel of the American Navy, during your Revolutionary War.  The Lodge of that regiment thought it had forever lost the evidence of its existence as a Lodge, yet, in the midst of war, in the midst of hostilities, notwithstanding the struggle then going on, George Washington, the Commander of the Armies of the United States, did not forget that he was a Mason; but, in the most cordial and fraternal spirit, he returned, with a brotherly and friendly letter, the lost property to the Lodge.” 

Dr. Albert Mackey provided the response to the next toast dedicated to Freemasonry. Toasts were then offered to Royal Arch Masonry and the Order of Knights Templar. Bro. Perley Poore, a member of the Supreme Council of the Northern Jurisdiction, provided the response for the toast to the Scottish Rite. Senator Sprague and House Representative Orr responded to the toast to the visiting brethren while the last two toasts were dedicated to the memory of George Washington and to the honor and virtue of Women. 

Left to Right: Rhode Island Senator William Sprague, Iowa Representative Jackson Orr.

With the evening winding down, Stansbury opened the floor for final comments. Grand Master Robinson stood once more to thank the Grand Lodge for their hospitality and propose a final toast to the Grand Master. The evening’s events concluded in great harmony. 

The Grand Master and the rest of the British delegation met with American diplomats throughout 1871 and eventually struck a deal. The terms awarded the United States 15.5 million dollars and an apology for destruction caused by British-built ships but the British government declined to admit guilt. Coined as the Treaty of Washington, the terms set a precedent for international arbitration that later impacted the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations. For his service, Queen Victoria awarded Robinson with the title of first Marquess of Ripon and later appointed him as India’s Viceroy and Governor-General. Robinson resigned as Grand Master in 1874 after his conversion to Catholicism. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s eldest son and the future King Edward VII, was elected Grand Master the same year. 

To preserve the momentous occasion, the Grand Lodge contracted with famed photographer Alexander Gardner to produce portraits of Robinson and the other visiting dignitaries. Gardner received posthumous acclaim for his depictions of the Battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln, and the trail and execution of John Wilk Booth’s conspirators. The Grand Lodge portraits and a detailed account of the Grand Master’s visit were compiled for a souvenir commemorative booklet, forever preserving the remarkable moment in Anglo-American fraternal relations.