23.5 Degrees: The Secrets of Masonic Washington by James Wasserman (Mania.com)

By:Stella Maris
Review Date: Saturday, August 22, 2009


The literary theme for 23.5 Degrees this summer has been based around books that tie in with the subject of Dan Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol, due to be released on September 15th by Random House. Consequently, I've been happily immersing myself in books on Freemasonry and Washington DC where, conveniently, I was born and later attended university.
This week's review is of The Secrets of Masonic Washington: A Guidebook to Signs, Symbols, and Ceremonies at the Origin of America's Capital by James Wasserman (Destiny Books). Intriguingly, this is the first book I've ever read that ties in the early development of Freemasonry in the American colonies with the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
Most histories of Freemasonry focus on how the new ways of thinking triggered by the Enlightenment were manifested in the taverns and coffeehouses in Europe along the lines of the ancient guild system. Therefore I found Wasserman's theory of how this pre-established concept was transplanted to the fertile soil of the colonies, consequently influencing the emerging American political philosophy, to be fascinating.
According to Wasserman, organized Masonic activity in the New World was officially established at St John's Lodge in Philadelphia in 1730. By 1765, all thirteen colonies had established Masonic lodges.
In 1764, St Andrew's Lodge in Boston purchased the Green Dragon Tavern and rented out the meeting space to pre-Revolutionary groups attended by Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Dr Joseph Warren, the Master of St Andrew's Lodge who later became a Revolutionary general and died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was also organized at the Green Dragon and included members of the Lodge.
Wasserman calculates that "four of the fourteen presidents of the of the Continental Congress were Freemasons, as were nine of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, thirteen of the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution, and thirty-three of the seventy-four generals of the Continental army".
Furthermore, to date, fourteen American presidents have been initiated Freemasons, including George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James K Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford.
Therefore, it's no surprize that Wasserman proposes that Washington DC was conceived as a physical embodiment of Masonic ideals, "envisaged as a newly planned virgin edifice, that could stand up to the world as the showpiece of the American experiment".
Named after George Washington, the Masonic first president of the newly independent United States of America, and dedicated to Columbia, the personification of the goddess of Liberty (who some regard as the female correspondence of Sol Invictus, the Roman god of the Sun), the District of Columbia had an advantage that the European capitals didn't have.
Instead of having to impose order upon the convoluted architectural chaos which marked the development over the centuries in Paris and London, the District of Columbia was a swampy clean slate - a tabula rasa--where a Masonic masterplan could be designed and executed without compromise.
To this end, the District of Columbia was marked out as a perfect ten-mile square, rendered as a diamond, with the points marking the four compass directions, which in turn correspond to the four elements of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. There are forty markers placed at one-mile intervals, which took the surveying team nearly two years to lay. The first marker--the cornerstone--was laid on April 15, 1791, by Alexandria Lodge No. 22, of which George Washington was a member (and which becomes significant in other ways later on in another story).
The layout of the main building scheme is based on a cruciform geometry within the diamond, with the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial marking the east/west axis and the White House and the Jefferson Memorial marking the north/south axis... with the Washington Monument marking the crosspoint in the center.
Wasserman comments that some people have noted that the Masonic Square and Compass emblem can be overlaid onto this construct, with the Washington Monument corresponding to the mystical "G" in the middle of the glyph, whereas others might note that the Washington Monument could also represent the Rose in the center of the Rosy Cross.
In fact, the Washington Monument marks a fascinating secret celestial correspondence, which I’ll be curious to see if it surfaces in Brown's book…
After outlining the above basics, James Wasserman then goes into a great deal of detail about how Masonic principles are embroidered into the political spirit of Liberty which manifests through the construction of the nation's capital.
The second half of the book is presented as a walking tour of Washington, DC, with an abundance of color photos and explanations, providing a useful guide for anyone who would be interested in making an actual walking tour of the city.
There are only two drawbacks that bugged me about the book, albeit in a minor way.
Firstly, I was disappointed that Wasserman didn't go into the history of how the government tried to get the worldwide Zero Meridian line moved to Washington DC before it was officially moved from Paris to Greenwich. It also didn't go very deeply into the celestial correspondences of the scheme, but this aspect is covered at length by The Secret Zodiacs of Washington DC, by David Ovason, which I am reading at the moment.
And, secondly, I found the red border across the top of each page to be distracting, which made reading the text a struggle at times. This small annoyance became a source of amusement when I discovered that Wasserman's own company coordinates the design and printing of Inner Traditions' books, of which Destiny Books is a subsidiary. Sorry, James, but the red thing just didn't work for me...
But I would definitely recommend this book, both as a companion guide to Brown's The Lost Symbol and as a tour guide for those either living in or planning to visit Washington, DC.
For anyone who might be interested in Wasserman's other works, you can visit his website here or read the text of his lecture to the Grand Lodge of New York here.

Mania Grade: B+
Book: The Secret of Masonic Washington
Author: James Wasserman
Pages: 192
Publisher: Destiny Books