Masons of Morris County, Part I

by Erich Morgan Huhn, PhD Candidate, Drew University
January 23, 2024

Freemasonry has a long and rich history in Morris County, from before the Revolution to the present day. This fraternal organization, based on symbols from medieval stonemason guilds, served an important role throughout American history as a way to socialize, educate, and strengthen civil society.

Emerging in early eighteenth-century London, Freemasonry became an important space to cultivate cosmopolitanism and gentility in the colonial period. Because of this, Masonic lodges on this side of the pond tended to be centered around cities with political or economic power; Newark, Elizabeth, Princeton, and Burlington all claimed active Masonic lodges. Brethren from the countryside would travel into the city and hold Masonic meetings, confer degrees of membership, and discuss enlightenment philosophy, all over a convivial meal and drinks.

The Petition by John Ward Dinsmore from the Collection of New York Historical Society
Laying of the cornerstone for the new building on Maple Avenue of Cincinnati Lodge 3 in Morristown, October 25, 1930. From the Collections of The Caroline Rose Foster, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, Morristown and Morris Township Library

During the Revolution, Freemasonry balanced the line between Patriots and Loyalists: Masonic lodges and their brethren pledged to be accountable to both the civil authorities and the Grand Lodge based in London. However, as those serving in the ranks of the Continental Army overwintered in Morristown in 1779-80, ideas circulated about declaring independence from the Grand Lodge in London. Following a Masonic service and feast celebrating St John’s Day, Masonic brethren gathered at Arnold’s Tavern for a meeting to discuss the future of the fraternity. Although the discussions led to no action, legend holds that George Washington was offered the position of Grand Master of all Freemasons in America. He declined, and nearly 150 years after the meeting, The Petition was painted by John Ward Dunsmore commemorating the event and Washington’s humility.

Although largely forgotten, the meeting held at Morristown went on to shape Freemasonry in the new nation, forgoing a federal-level Grand Lodge system in favor of a more localized network of Grand Lodges in each new state – a format unique to the United States. While the first Masonic lodge based in Morris County lasted only a few years and its records were lost, brethren from Morris County established Cincinnati Lodge in 1803, which was named in honor of the famed Roman senator and general, Cincinnatus, to whom Washington was often equated. One of the oldest lodges in the state, Cincinnati Lodge remains active and involved in both the general and Masonic community.