Thursday, December 30, 2021

‘With the solemn and imposing rites of Masonry’

A 1908 photo of the monument,
which was completed in 1890.

Still curious about the time capsule opened Tuesday in Virginia (see post below), I peered into the Masonic history there to learn more. I shouldn’t be surprised, although I am, to find out this wasn’t merely Freemasonry donating items for inclusion in a time capsule, but the cornerstone ceremony was a Masonic rite. And requested by the governor at that.

As I mentioned yesterday, that time capsule dates to October 27, 1887. On December 12 of that year, the Grand Lodge of Virginia convened in St. Alban’s Hall in Richmond for its 110th Annual Communication at which time Grand Master William F. Drinkard recollected to the brethren how the Craft became involved. The following comes from the Book of Proceedings:

On the 27th of October I laid the corner-stone of a monument to be erected in this city to the memory of General Robert E. Lee. This was done at the request of the Lee Monument Association, whose Board of Managers is presided over by the Governor of Virginia, himself a Lee. Governor Lee wrote me a letter stating that it was the wish of the Board that the corner-stone of the Lee Monument should be laid, to use his own words, “with the solemn and imposing rites of Masonry.”

Fitzhugh Lee
Accordingly I convened the Grand Lodge in special communication, and on the day named proceeded to perform the usual ceremonies. The occasion was one never to be forgotten. Thousands and tens of thousands of people crowded the sidewalks of the streets and the doors and windows of the houses bordering on the line of the procession. Thousands made up the general procession. The immense crowd of course could not be accommodated with seats at the site of the proposed monument, but notwithstanding the extraordinary inclemency of the weather (it being both cold and rainy) a large number of persons remained upon the grounds during all the ceremonies. When the work was done it was accepted in a feeling and appropriate speech by Governor Fitzhugh Lee.

The occasion was one that no considerations of inclement weather, or of personal inconvenience or discomfort, could have caused the people of Virginia to neglect or overlook. As when the corner-stone of City Hall was laid, so when the corner-stone of the Lee Monument was laid, the Knights Templar most thoughtfully and generously tendered their services as an escort to the Grand Lodge, and entitled themselves to the credit of having done more than any other one organization to render the ceremonies what [Governor] Lee described them as being—namely, “solemn and imposing.” These are our brethren, and therefore I have deemed it proper for the Grand Master to mention their services. I leave it to others to name the many distinguished gentlemen from all parts of the Union who witnessed and participated in so much of this memorable work as was not under the control of the Masons.

The first Lincoln statue,
dedicated 1868.
For some reason, that wording “solemn and imposing” pinged something in my mind, and it turns out to be a well used adjectival phrasing in the nineteenth century. A cliche, really. I mention it because of its noteworthy appearances in written and spoken words concerning Abraham Lincoln. The occasion of the Gettysburg Address was, according to the New York Times, “solemn and imposing.” Later in the 1860s, the annual ceremony of mourning U.S. war dead, a new national rite conducted at Arlington on the land where Robert E. Lee had dwelled, was described the identical way. On April 15, 1868, the third anniversary of Lincoln’s death, another Masonic ceremony in the rain seen by tens of thousands accompanied the dedication in Washington of the first statue erected in his honor. Bro. Benjamin B. French, the Lincoln Administration’s Commissioner of Public Buildings (and namesake of the lodge in D.C.) recalled in his oration the national mood in the wake of the assassination, and described the funeral procession as “solemn and imposing.”

Anyway, the Grand Lodge of Virginia’s outlay stemming from the Lee Monument that dreary October day totaled $235.32. That’s fourteen dollars more than what it expended for the City Hall cornerstone ceremony. It was a lot of money. In contrast, the Grand Treasurer’s salary that year was $300. It is impossible to transubstantiate the $235 into today’s worthless currency, but in the gold coins of that time, the gold would weigh about eleven ounces, which this morning costs $19,811.

In review of MW Drinkard’s speech, the Grand Lodge’s Special Committee on the Address of the Grand Master reported, in part:

It has been always one of the most impressive teachings of Free Masonry to pay the full measure of honor to those to whom honor is justly due, and for ages they have exemplified this sentiment by laying the corner-stones of monuments erected to testify the admiration of mankind for those virtues which have merited such distinctions.

No occasion in the history of this Grand Lodge has afforded a more sincere and heartfelt satisfaction to the great body of the patriotic Masonic sons of our Ancient Commonwealth than that which afforded them the privilege of participating in the ceremonies of laying the corner-stone, on the 27th day of last October, of a monument designed to faintly express the unmeasured love and the profound admiration which fills every breast within the confines of Virginia for the illustrious man, General Robert E Lee, our State gave to stand, for time, before the world, the exemplar and the monument of every patriotic and heroic virtue.

We congratulate our brethren, that they lived to participate in the proceedings mentioned by the Grand Master.

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