Initially a secret fraternity that developed a system of allegory and symbolism based on the temple of King Solomon and medieval stonemasonry, Freemasonry experienced its most tumultuous episodes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its lodges and their most prominent members were directly involved in the social-political transformations of those times.
   The speculations on the origins of Freemasonry are numerous, but the most circulated hypothesis is that it started in 1356, with the formation of the London Masons Company, a guild of stonemasons and builders, cementarii in Latin. The earliest known mention of the term Freemason dates from 1376, and it is considered to be derived from “freestone,” a soft limestone commonly used then by builders in the South of England. In 1425, King Henry VI of England banned the yearly congregation of the Masons. The first Masonic Grand Lodge of England was publicly formed in London in 1717. Thereafter, Freemasonry spread rapidly throughout Europe and beyond. The first lodge on the American continent, in what was to become the United States, was opened in 1733.
   The theories on the purpose and objectives of Freemasonry are also multiple. In general it is believed that it was created as a haven for medieval religious dissidence. In time the need for secrecy has gradually subsided; however, its practices and rituals, as well as its spiritual content have expanded. Freemasonry is known to have experienced two schisms. The first one took place in 1753, when a newer faction, of a lower class standing and more religious, known as the Antients, broke away from the Grand Lodge of England and their acolytes, a more aristocratic and unorthodox - mostly Deist or Pantheist - group, which would come to be known as the Moderns. The second schism started in 1877, when the French branch, the Grand Orient de France, started accepting atheists and women and also tolerating religious and political discussions in the Lodge. Atheism and revolution had increasingly become popular with the continental European and Latin American lodges, so that governments often regarded them as fronts for subversive activity. Despite all the metaphysical and ethereal constitutional claims of Free Masonry, its ultimately concrete social objectives and interests have become apparent through its recruiting choices and strategies, generally directed towards the upper echelons of the social and religious hierarchy.
   Some of the most well-known members of the nineteenth-century lodges included British Kings George IV (1762–1830), William IV (1765–1837), and Edward VII (1841–1910); Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) of the Italian Orient, a leader in the Risorgimento that led to the unification of Italy; Giacomo Casanova (1725–98); American Presidents George Washington (1732–99), James Monroe (1758–1831), Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), James Knox Polk (1795–1849), James Buchanan (1791–1868), Andrew Johnson (1808–75), William McKinley (1843–1901), and Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919); American abolitionist John Brown (1800–59); French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi (1834–1904), the creator of the Statue of Liberty; the Portuguese “Dom Pedro” (1798–1834), briefly King Pedro IV of Portugal and then Pedro I, first Emperor of Brazil when Brazil declared its independence in 1822; Mexican Presidents Benito Juárez (1806–72), the first and only Native American Mexican president, and Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915), the dictator; Argentinean general José de San Martín (1778–1850), a leader in South America’s fight for independence from the Spanish Empire; Venezuelan general and statesman Antonio José de Sucre (1795–1830), one of Simón Bolívar ’s closest friends; Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842), the first head of state of independent Chile; and the Cuban poet José Martí (1853–95), a leader of Cuba’s fight for independence.
    Naudon, Paul. The Secret History of Freemasonry: Its Origins and Connection to the Knights Templar . Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005;
    Ridley, Jasper. The Freemasons: A History of the World’s Most Powerful Secret Society . New York: Arcade, 2002.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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