An interview with author Alain de Keghel.
American Freemasonry, in context, is challenging to understand as it relates to the rest of the world. In many ways American Freemasonry mirrors the form and function of the lodge but, because it grew-up in the crucible of democracy that was itself, at the time, unique and new to the world at large. American Freemasonry is so different, that it has its own unique designation as “American.” But why does this difference exist? To understand this question, it would take an outsider to examine American Freemasonry. And who better than a Frenchman.
To put American Freemasonry into context I spent some time talking to Alain de Keghel, who is the author of the new book American Freemasonry: Its Revolutionary History and Challenging Future (you can read the press release on the book here) and help shed some light on Freemasonry in North America.
Gregory Stewart (GS) Why write American Freemasonry? What inspired Alain de Keghel to be the one to write it?
Alain de Keghel (AdK): American Freemasonry is an issue which keeps rather controversial in some countries abroad, while people writing, reporting or simply delivering messages about it, not always simply knowing what matters. Quite often they sincerely believe to be aware but they never, by themselves, experienced American Freemasonry which is very diverse. America, as a whole, is a wide country and the addition of people of different creeds, different ethnic origins, different languages and specific cultural areas of origin, making together what we call the “melting pot.” And because I had myself the privilege to live in the USA for a long period of time, benefiting also from the Fraternity of American Masons before of that, for example in Germany and Japan, I felt that it may be useful to share this quite rare experience in writing a book without prejudice. Even though I keep of course a specific cultural French reference simply because my basic roots are there, I tried to do it without any partisan point of view. This requires being familiar with American history which includes also the political side.
Of course any one will agree that Freemasonry shouldn’t interfere in politics — but nobody can ignore the geopolitical dimension of the origins of the American Revolution and the French-British competition of two major powers that included important Masonic Figures like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, La Fayette and of course George Washington. But we have to consider also other Freemasons and political actors like the Admirals Cornwallis and Grasse-Tilly who both took a decisive part along with Rochambeau in the famous battle of Yorktown (October 19, 1781) paving the way to the American independence.
Anyone may conceive that as a former diplomat and a Freemason I have indeed an acute interest in those aspects of French-American relationships as well from an international point of view as from both Masonic and historical ones. All these elements inspired me to write a book to try also to share the analysis from outside America. But I never intended to deliver a message which would pretend to be the “unique truth” which simply does not exist. Objectivity is a noble goal but I frankly believe that it does simply not exists.
GS: The French-British competition? Do you mean the anglo war or some other conflict?
AdK: I was referring more generally to the geopolitics at this period of time where the two then “super powers ” and kingdoms where competing all over the world. And for sure in America during the American Revolution.
GS: The press release for the book puts emphasis on the fact that American Freemasonry was “deeply influenced by the experiences of many early American political leaders, leading to distinctive differences from European lodges.” I’m curious if you could elaborate on this or, perhaps, give an example of one of those influences and what difference it’s manifested into.
AdK: In answering your previous question, I was just referring to major figures and early American political leaders while explaining why I choose to report and analyze American Freemasonry “with French eyes.” America, meaning the United States of America, is a young Nation and it appears to me important to refer to the early roots of this First power in the world today if we try to better understand how it evolved in the run of centuries since the famous arrival of the Mayflower with European refugees looking for absolute freedom of religion. Since absolute freedom of thought belongs to the most fundamental aims of Freemasonry, I would say that many of the first American political leaders spontaneously felt very comfortable with the political philosophy of the Enlightenment which is important for Freemasons all around the world. If you read the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence from Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, you very easily will find references to basic principles and values which belong to the patrimony of the Masonic Order. And it is not by chance because many writers of these texts were Freemasons. By the way, we see here the long lasting influence of this way of thinking since the values they referred to, are still accurate today. It is, to me, the most convincing demonstration that Freemasonry, while preventing of mixing in politics, is by definition a place where the civil society may find some references to ideals and principles of an ethical and political nature.
But, unlike in Europe, the same American segments of the society who emigrated to preserve their sacred right to practice their belief without fearing prosecution, these segments of society have also sometimes developed “protective reactions” which may seem contradictory to their aims. I refer here more specifically to the famous Morgan affair which I explain in my book. This was a major challenge to American Freemasons leading once to the candidacy of an “anti-Masonic party” running for federal elections. Since then, we can observe that the memberships of American Freemasonry kept totally away from its involvement in the political life of the American society.
European lodges never experienced this kind of extreme challenge and still keep outmost interested in debates over new issues like bioethics, control of birth, justice or death penalty just to list a few examples. In some countries, like France, lodges used to be a kind of “laboratory” or think tank where these kinds of issues belong to, of course beside and outside of the political partisan debate. This is one of the major distinctive differences with American Freemasonry which avoids playing any societal role and privileges the practice of ritual and of charity. It is not a critique but simply a matter of fact.
Another major difference remains, of course, and reflects specific social specificities on both sides of the Atlantic. In America white and black lodges work, mostly but not exclusively, seperately. In France, Masonic lodges are places where this kind of separation simply does not exist and could not be possible. But here again it is part of different histories.
GS: I’ve had the chance to speak with both Margaret Jacob and Arturo De Hoyos, so I’m familiar with their exemplar work on Freemasonry, but I’m curious why you chose them to pen the forwards for this book?
AdK: Because I am today mainly dedicated to research and academic activities, writing books and sharing my knowledge as a scholar all over the world. I spend a lot of my time working with Universities and Libraries which simply belong to the natural environment to collect and share accurate information and reliable sources. Having spent many years in the USA and still keeping the good habit to visit your country at least once a year, I have an ongoing good relationships with American academics.
Margaret C. Jacob, PhD, is best known as a professor of history at the UCLA and is one of the world’s foremost Masonic scholars. She is considered a pioneer in the field of the history of civil society with emphasis on Masonic history. For that reason it was important to me to have her delivering, also to American readers, a point of view which matters.
For other reasons, my old friend Art de Hoyos appears to me as one of the American Masons best entitled to write comments on my research since he also is recognized worldwide for his sophisticated Masonic education and knowledge. A Grand Archivist and Grand Librarian of the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction he allowed me, as a French life member of the Scottish Rite Research Society, to implement very important research activities in Washington, DC in order to put more light on the French-American Masonic ties throughout time.
But let me also refer here to my other friend, the past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of California, John Cooper, who also agreed to write an important afterword taking into account what we together did in the nineties and later on for the promotion of inter-Masonic exchanges in Sacramento, Edinburgh and in Paris.
As a matter of fact, these choices reflect a reciprocal confidence of people having different experiences but sharing the same values and one goal: building bridges among people of goodwill!
GS: The title of the book, its dust jacket and interior art leans heavily on the pantheon of American early American Freemasonry. In your work, how deeply did you delve into the other ‘American’ Freemasonry in say Mexico, Canada and further down into South America?
AdK: I am very grateful to you for this question which provides me the opportunity to embrace American Freemasonry in its diversity as I honestly did in my research. If you read my book you will learn that I was also for several years a French Diplomat in charge of representing my country at several inter-American bodies: Organization of American States, ECLAC (a specific body of the UN for economical affairs in Latin America and the Caribbean countries), the Inter-American Bank of Development and the American Regional Health Organization (OPS). My American overview includes, for this reason, a global analysis with a special focus on Latin America. But in my present book, I do not write about this specific and very important dimension. But I just have directed and published, early in July 2017, a new book totally dedicated to Latin America and the Caribbean region. It may be soon also translated in Spanish.
GS: What is this book? Is it out now or is it coming soon?
AdK: This book was meanwhile published — in French so far — in July 2017: L’ Amerique Latine et la Caraibe des Lumieres, Dervy, Paris. It is about to be translated into Spanish and edited in Buenos Aires, Argentine.
One word more about Canada: the Freemasonry in this country belongs to the Conference of American Grand Lodges and I have of course also included a chapter to present it to English speaking readers.
GS: Interesting in your follow up there, you say Canada belongs to the CoAGL (Conference of American Grand Lodges) Why do you think that is?
AdK: It is not an opinion but a matter of fact. Mexican Grand Lodges similarly also included into this masonic regional conference.
GS: In the press release, you establish that there’s a difference between American and European lodges. Could you illustrate a few of what your work defines as differences?
AdK: The answer to this important issue is in fact easy: I have honestly tried to compare both sides and readers will discover in my book what I consider as fundamentally different. So if you allow me would prefer not to elaborate here and to keep the “surprise” for those who will read. But you may have already noticed that I was referring to one major difference. The “racial issue” simply does not exist in European lodges — unlike in America. It appears to me to be a very important difference but there are others which I address in my book. Maybe some reactions of American readers and a kind of dialog could arise from that.
I must confess that this would be of outmost interest for me and some way a privilege to establish such an exchange and dialog with American readers.
GS: Do you think these differences have affected membership levels on both sides of the pond?
AdK: For sure these differences had and still have, in my opinion, an impact on the memberships — but mainly on the influence or input of the Masonic values in the civil society. If you simply look at American statistics — and I do it also quite extensively in my book — you will realize that the memberships is steadily declining in American Lodges since the late 40s of the last century, while it is increasing in France. It is clearly one of the results of differences in addressing Masonic education, societal topics and actual issues.
Masonic education and Masonic tradition are of course both important. But young people connected with a very demanding society expect certainly more.
GS: Do you think the European version of lodge work could be implemented straight out of the box in America?
AdK: I would never say: “Do like us, and you will do better.” It would be, first, very arrogant — but also inaccurate because every society has its own rules resulting from history and culture.
But you raise a good question. Would it make sense to try to experiment with other practices? This is what some American Grand Lodges have already have begun to implement with some impressive success. It is the case in California, for example. No one has a miraculous recipe to offer. But “building the bridges,” a principle I was several times referring to in the run of this interview, may be part of the solution. It is my conviction that everyone has something to learn from encounters in a global world or a “world village” as someone once said. It is part of cross culture, a reality of modern times.
GS: Are there, or do you know of any examples of this implementation?
AdK: Of course yes. I know that specifically at least one Grand Lodge has recently engaged in this policy. It is the Grand Lodge of California.
GS: What do you hope American’s take away from reading American Freemasonry? What do you hope European (or non-American) Masons to take away from it?
AdK: In writing American Freemasonry, first in French, I had mainly in mind to explain to my fellow European Masons what I have learned from my American Masonic experience because they too often have a poor knowledge of America in general and quite often misunderstand it. I had claimed, in a previous answer, to build bridges, and my book is part of that. As an American Publisher, Inner Traditions (American Freemasonry’s publisher) accepted the idea to have my book also translated into English and edited in the USA. I was of course delighted to contribute this way to entertain a dialog with my American Fellow Brethren which is also part of building bridges and reciprocal confidence. At a period of time where the flow of information obeys the law of instantaneity and of superficiality, within the so called social networks with their “like” and “friends” who never encounter beside on the networks, I do hope that my writings may help to develop a better understanding founded on knowledge and not on prejudice.
Maybe, American Masons eventually could also be interested to discover how a French freemason sees them? But I may be mistaken and possibly nobody cares? Let us try!
I remain modest in my ambition.
You can find Alain de Keghel’s new book American Freemasonry: Its Revolutionary History and Challenging Future, published by Inner Traditions – Bear & Company, on its website American Freemasonry, and at American Freemasonry on Amazon.