John Francis Mercer, a former congressman who eventually became governor of Maryland, wrote a letter to James Madison on February 11, 1795. In it, he asked Madison to encourage John Fenton Mercer, his nephew, to pursue a military career. In closing the letter, Mercer congratulated Madison on becoming a Freemason.
In addition to this letter, there has been some other evidence to support Madison’s membership in the Fraternity. John Dove, an early Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Virginia said Madison was one of the original founders of Hiram Lodge 59 in 1800, and became a charter member. All records of Hiram Lodge, unfortunately, have been lost. On Sept 20, 1817, Madison marched in procession with Charlottesville Lodge 90 and Widow's Son Lodge 60 to lay the cornerstone of Central College at Charlottesville (later the University of Virginia). Perhaps most telling, however, were the attacks made on Madison during the anti-Masonic period.
Mercer's letter is vague in places and his handwriting is sloppy. He clearly invites Madison to attend Lodge while his wife Sophia entertains Madison's wife Dolley. James and Dolley had wed just months before, prompting Mercer to wax not-so-eloquently on the institution of marriage, and to congratulate Madison on his marrying her. The paragraph in question reads as follows:
"I have had no opportunity of congratulating you before on your becoming a free mason a very ancient and honorable fraternity — I am sure you are now much wiser & I do not doubt you are much happier altho you were very wise & happy before, at least in my opinion — I hold a lodge on your road perhaps let me take you sometime by the hand in it & let Mrs. Mercer welcome the fair prophetess [Dolley] who but cements you to the true faith — a man who has got his head somewhat clear of a large load of lead in politics [Mercer had recently resigned from Congress] — feels of course a little light headed to that you must attribute my levity of this style which is only intended to apprise you of my respect of friendship for you."
So Mercer, definitely a Freemason, applauded Madison on becoming a member and invited him to go to a Lodge meeting. This letter, along with Madison’s other Masonic ties could confirm he was a Freemason; end of story.
Mercer himself notes the letter is written in the spirit of levity. The question is, where was he joking and where was he serious? He was clearly serious about asking Madison to intervene with his nephew, but in the next paragraph was he serious in his delight Madison has become a Mason? It's too bad Mercer didn't use emojis.
Some scholars believe Mercer was lightheartedly comparing marriage to the act of joining the fraternity – a stretch, to be sure. Such scholars must not be Freemasons, who don't consider joining the fraternity a joking matter. Still, "I hold a Lodge on your road" might refer to Mercer's home, and he might have been inviting Madison and the fair prophetess Dolley, clearly meant to be humorous, to visit. As a result, one might conclude Mercer is joking about Freemasonry. One might also conclude Mercer had one strange sense of humor.
The overthinking that has gone into this letter negates the Occam's razor principle which would quickly lead to the conclusion Mercer thought Madison was a Freemason – and he was.
There is yet another possibility. Mercer thought Madison was a Freemason but he was not.
To further confuse the matter, another letter exists which contradicts Mercer's letter. In 1831, Madison wrote Stephen Bates in response to Bates' inquiry about Madison's involvement in Freemasonry. A little context regarding this letter is helpful. First, it is in no way related to Mercer's letter, written 36 years prior; second, Madison was in ill-health at its writing and actually dictated the letter to his secretary J.C. Payne; finally, the letter was written at the peak of the anti-Masonic fervor sweeping the United States at the time. Madison begins the letter by apologizing for a slow response, citing his health as the reason. He then addresses Freemasonry:
"...ignorant as I was of the true character of Masonry and little informed as I was of the grounds on which its extermination was contended for, and incapable as I was and am, in my situation of investigating the controversy. I never was a mason, and no one perhaps could be more a stranger to the principles, rites and fruits of the institution I had never regarded it as dangerous or notorious (noxious?); nor on the other hand as deriving importance from any thing publicly known of it. From the number and character of those who now support the charges against Masonry I cannot doubt that it is at least susceptible of abuse outweighing any advantage promised by its patrons."
So, to paraphrase this cornucopia of run-on sentences, Madison says he is in no position to investigate the anti-Masonic movement. He claims never to have been a Freemason, and says he really doesn't know anything about it. He says he never regarded it as dangerous. He concludes, given the character of those who are against it, its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.
So, that does it. Madison was not a Freemason and even appeared to be jumping on the anti-Masonic bandwagon; end of story.
Not so fast.
At the writing of this letter anti-Masonic sentiment was oozing out of every crevice in the country. According to William R. Denslow, in his iconic series 10,000 Famous Freemasons, Madison was under pressure, being taunted by the anti-Masonic movement. In that context, this might be interpreted as a politician's answer. Politicians lie today and no doubt politicians lied then:
"I am not a crook…"
"I never had sex with that woman…"
"I never was a Freemason…"
It may also be significant that Madison did not write this letter himself. J.C.Payne, his secretary, was the author. He may have transcribed it word-for-word or he may have advised or persuaded Madison, 80 and in ill-health at the time, to deny membership for political purposes.
This is not a settled matter. Those claiming definitively either that James Madison was or was not a Freemason are off base. Denslow and others have documented the fact Madison over time had been involved in activities with Freemasons. It is just not certain what the extent of those activities was.
One final thing… no one likes unanswered questions, but for now, there are no good answers. Suppose, however, membership documents from Hiram Lodge or some other proof comes to light showing Madison to be a Mason. Here is a man who not only publicly denied his membership but said the bad outweighs the good in Freemasonry and sided with the anti-Masonic movement. If Madison is a Brother, that's disappointing.
Still, if the aforementioned Occam's razor principle comes into play one could conclude that Madison said he was never a Freemason, so he was not a Freemason. Period. Pending other documentation proving otherwise, perhaps it is best to leave it at that.
Full transcripts and copies of the letters in question are available at:
Bro. Steve Harrison, 33° , is Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is also a Fellow and Past Master of the Missouri Lodge of Research. Among his other Masonic memberships are the St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite bodies, and Moila Shrine. He is also a member and Past Dean of the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Brother Harrison is a regular contributor to the Midnight Freemasons blog as well as several other Masonic publications. Brother Steve was Editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine for a decade and is a regular contributor to the Whence Came You podcast. Born in Indiana, he has a Master's Degree from Indiana University and is retired from a 35 year career in information technology. Steve and his wife Carolyn reside in northwest Missouri. He is the author of dozens of magazine articles and three books: Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, Freemasons — Tales From the Craft and Freemasons at Oak Island.