Part 2: The First Grand Chapter
By Chris Ruli, Grand Historian
In Part 1 of this series we examined the earliest history of Capitular Freemasonry in Washington. The first York Rite body, known as a Royal Arch encampment, formed in 1795 composed of companions from Federal Lodge 1. Capitular masonry became popular and two more chapters formed with members from Naval Lodge 4 and Potomac Lodge 5. In 1807, the chapters assembled along with three chapters from Baltimore to form the first brand body – the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Maryland and the District of Columbia (GCMDC). The organization was jointly managed by both groups of masons until 1822, when the District’s chapters considered dissolving the body to form their own body in Washington.
Formal discussions began on May 11, 1822. Representatives from Federal, Union, Potomac, and Brooke Chapters met in Brooke Chapter’s hall in Alexandria, Virginia. They agreed to publicly announce their intentions and meet in the Georgetown hall on June 15th to draft a Constitution and regulations.
The organization’s Constitution includes some notable points:
- The Grand Chapter’s annual communication was scheduled for the fourth Monday in November.
- Each chapter had a single vote. All Past High Priests, who served in the chair for at least six months, had a collective vote from each chapter. The Grand High Priest, Deputy Grand High Priest, Grand King, Grand Scribe, Grand Treasurer, and Secretary each had a vote. Past Grand Officers had one collective vote.
- Article 1, Section 11 forbade the Grand Chapter from issuing a charter for a Lodge of Most Excellent Masters, independent of a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons. This suggests that lodges existed merely to confer this “American” degree.
- Article 2, Section 1 defined Royal Arch Masons assemblies as a Chapter. While Mark Master and Most Excellent Master assemblies as a Lodge. There is no reference to the Past Master degree and it likely remained a blue lodge prerogative.
- The minimum degree fee for the Mark Master, Most Excellent Master, and Royal Arch was set at $15 or $380 when adjusted for inflation. The per capita assessment to the Grand Chapter was $.50 or $13 adjusted along with $1, or $25 adjusted, per candidate admitted or exalted during the year.
- A maximum of three candidates could be exalted during a Royal Arch degree conferral.
With their constitution and regulations set, representatives agreed to meet on November 25, 1822 to elect and install the organization’s officers. Curiously, the records jump two years to February 10, 1824. There is a small inscription at the bottom of the record that explains that the convention met “from time to time” but failed to secure a proper quorum until 1824. They secured a quorum on November 1824 and proceeded to elect Grand Chapter Officers. William Lambert, the sitting Grand Secretary of the D.C. Grand Lodge, was elected the first Grand High Priest. Lambert joined Freemasonry in Virginia and moved to Washington to lobby Congress to establish the American Prime Meridian. He secured President Monroe’s permission to perform astronomical observations and set up a temporary office at the Capitol to perform his evening observations. He served as Grand Secretary from 1823 to 1829.
The following day, February 11, 1824, Potomac Chapter 8 in Georgetown broke from the new Grand Chapter and announced that they planned to return to the GCMDC. Potomac’s members deemed it “inexpedient to separate” and would “not avail” itself of the permission and authority granted to join the new D.C. body. There is no additional reason provided as to why Potomac took this course of action but future communications suggest that Potomac’s representatives disagreed with the manner in which the new Grand Chapter conducted their proceedings. The chapter remained under the old grand body, which continued to call itself the Grand Chapter of Maryland and District of Columbia. This prompted the two grand bodies to exchange letters back and forth for the next several years to determine who had authority over the name and jurisdiction. The problem was eventually brought to the General Grand Chapter of the United States of America and a deal was struck so that Maryland would drop the “District of Columbia” in their name and acknowledge the District’s sovereignty in exchange for sole jurisdiction over Potomac Chapter. While the arrangement sounds peculiar, there is some precedent for Potomac’s decision. At the time, Alexandria-Washington 22 of Virginia declined to join the Grand Lodge of D.C., even though the city of Alexandria sat in the District of Columbia’s limits. The General Grand Chapter’s decision effectively capped this difficult moment between the District and Maryland Grand Chapters.
On January 26, 1826, Lambert installed his successor William W. Seaton as Grand High Priest. Seaton was a very prominent Washingtonian, publisher, and co-owner of the city’s largest newspaper the National Intelligencer. His print shop produced some of the District’s earliest masonic proceedings and notices. In 1828 Seaton led the Grand Chapter’s first major public procession in Washington city – a funeral procession and memorial service for New York Governor and General Grand High Priest DeWitt Clinton. He served as Grand High Priest for the next four years and improved relations with the Grand Chapter of Maryland. In December 1829, Seaton received word from the General Grand Chapter that Maryland and D.C. Grand Chapters were in charge of installing Edward R Livingston and Joel R. Poinsett as the new General Grand High Priest and Deputy General Grand High Priest, respectively. Both men were elected but had yet to be formally installed into their respective offices. With Livingston and Poinsett expected in Washington around January 1930, the General Grand Body asked Seaton and his counterpart from Maryland, J. K. Stapleton, to perform the duty. Due to conflict schedules and difficult travel, the installation did not occur until April 3, 1830. Seaton personally installed Livingston and Poinsett at the city’s Masonic Hall that day.
James Carson, of Brooke Chapter, succeeded Seaton as Grand High Priest in 1831. There is a noticeable decrease in activities during Carson’s administration and he is succeeded by John A. Cook in 1832. Again, few activities occurred between 1832 and 1833. Unfortunately, there are no records of the Grand Chapter’s activities from 1833 and 1842. On May 19, 1842, the District’s Royal Arch Chapters reunited with the Grand Chapter of Maryland to form the second iteration of the Grand Chapter of Maryland and District of Columbia.
This relatively brief period in Washington masonic history, which spanned only two decades, ends on a rather disappointing note. The District’s Royal Arch masons began this period with high hopes for a new masonic organization in Washington but their efforts ultimately failed to gain momentum. The District remained tethered to the Grand Chapter of Maryland and District of Columbia until March 26, 1867 when a new generation of masons, including prominent local figures like Benjamin B. French and Dr. Albert Mackey, the D.C. Grand Chapter that exists today.
Part 3 continued on next page.