Building the University: Freemasonry, SJT and GW

It’s been traced back to orchestrating the Jack the Ripper killings, concealing the true identity of Jesus’ children and secretly running the world. Closer to home, this semi-secret organization has ties to GW and American history – through University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

Freemasonry traces its history to medieval European stonemasons, who worked on grand cathedrals and other civic projects and organized themselves to secure better wages and protect their craft. But the organization still exists today with members from around the world, including Trachtenberg, who was sworn in on the same Bible that President George Washington, also a Mason, used 200 years earlier for his Oath of Office.

“They sent two husky guys with the Bible shackled to their wrists,” Trachtenberg said of the Bible used in his swearing-in ceremony, held in the Smith Center in the late 1980s. “They thought the inauguration of a president at GW, since it was George Washington’s Bible, made sense and had a certain symmetry.”

Trachtenberg, who is now a 33rd degree Mason – the highest degree in Freemasonry – said that while he is a member of the organization, he is not an avid participant.

“I am not, I confess, the most diligent Mason, but I go when I can and speak at events when they ask me and occasionally write an article for their magazine,” Trachtenberg said.

Upon learning of GW’s ties to Freemasonry since the school’s founding, and Masons’ continued support of the University, Trachtenberg said he was happy to join the organization.

“I was initially reluctant to get involved with anything that was going to consume my time since I wanted to devote myself fully to the University that first year,” Trachtenberg said about joining the organization the first year he was president of GW. “When I realized how important they were in looking after the student body, it was only reasonable.”

GW’s historical Masonic connections

Numerous marks of Freemasonry appear across campus, showing the organization’s ties with GW. Rice Hall, which houses Trachtenberg’s office, is named after Luther Rice, a Mason and Baptist minister who had the original idea of founding the University. President James Monroe, a Mason, signed into law the charter for Columbian College in 1821. Masons continue to donate to GW and have ceremonially laid the cornerstones of at least five of GW’s buildings, including New Hall and the 1957 E Street academic building.

Mason William Corcoran gave the University a building at 1300 H St., which served as a location for the School of Medicine and later as the University Hospital from 1898 to 1948. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Mason, signed a law restoring the school’s 1821 charter and renaming it The George Washington University, after the country’s first president – a Mason, of course. During budget shortfalls in 1910, the University leased space for the Law School on the top two floors of a Masonic Temple at 801 13th St.

Other University buildings including Stockton Hall and the Hall of Government all have cornerstones laid by Masons, according to an article in the 2000 Fall Scottish Rite Bulletin. The Scottish Rite is one of two main branches of Freemasonry.

New Hall’s cornerstone, located to the left of its entrance behind a shrub, bears a plaque commemorating its laying in 1996. 1957 E Street’s cornerstone was also laid according to Masonic ritual in 2002.

Charitable Freemasonry

Daniel Kane, GW professor of business law and public policy, said he was inducted into the Freemasons about 15 years ago and characterized the organization as charitable.

“They really do so much good all around the country,” said Kane, who is the liaison between the University and the Wolcott Foundation, a Masonic organization that raises money for undergraduate and graduate scholarships at GW.

The Wolcott Web site describes the organization as “composed of Master Masons who have a keen interest in the welfare of humankind and take an interest in civic affairs.”

The foundation is comprised of a group of GW faculty and other D.C. Masons who call themselves the High Twelve, Kane said, because they meet once a month at “high noon” for lunch. High Twelve is just one of scores of Masonic clubs around the nation, Kane said. The Wolcott Web site says the club is 75 years old and has 21,000 members across 350 chapters.

In Washington, D.C., Kane said Masons are the elites of the town.

“All the best people in town are Masons,” Kane said about the congressmen, judges and Washington elites he said are members of the society. “They’re very reputable people too. You don’t hear about these types of people involved with political scandals. They’re just good people.”

“I wish I had 200 groups like that helping the University,” Trachtenberg said of the Wolcott Foundation. “They have been nothing but value added, some of the sweetest people I’ve met since becoming president of GW.”

Mason origins

Dr. S. Brent Morris, a Masonic historian and author of the upcoming “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry,” said Freemasons began as a precursor to the modern-day union, protecting their trade and getting better wages for their work. The brotherhood of construction workers, then called masons, helped rebuild England.

After the Great London Fire in 1666 and a series of plagues that put value on any able-bodied worker, demand for skilled stonework declined and Masonic lodges began to admit prominent locals as accepted Masons.

Morris said the Freemasons had to protect trade secrets they had taken years to learn.

“If we’re going to lay out a huge cathedral and we want the corners of the building to be square,” Morris said, “that requires geometric knowledge.”

Morris believes that Masons had to adopt secret signals and passwords because nearly everyone in medieval Europe was illiterate.

“You finish (a project) and you don’t have any work,” Morris said. “So you travel to the next job, but your boss down there can’t write or read, and neither could your old boss. Well you know a secret password to show you’ve been apprenticed.”

Freemasonry is the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world. In the United States, Freemasons contribute nearly $500,000 a day to various causes, including 22 children’s hospitals and about 200 speech and language centers for children, Morris said. With a lack of a defined governing body, members are linked to one another through mutual recognition, Morris said.

Many founding fathers were Masons, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. However, they, like Trachtenberg did not keep their affiliation a secret, Morris said.

Wearing a Masonic apron and specially made tools, Washington ceremonially laid the cornerstone of the Capitol Building in 1793. When President Harry Truman, also a Mason, ordered a remodeling of the White House in the 1950s, stones were uncovered that bore the signatures and symbols of those Masons. Truman sent these stones to lodges all across the country, writing that they demonstrated the “link between the fraternity and the government.”

In all, 14 known U.S. presidents were Masons, and three of the last four University presidents were Masons, including Cloyd Heck Marvin, the namesake of the Marvin Center. Morris said there is no evidence that Masons run the U.S. government, but some critics say they unfairly help one another.

Morris said, “It indeed creates a network.”

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