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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Sunday, May 6, 1787

May 06, 2020 - 4 minute read

George Washington

Benjamin Franklin is the quintessential example of the American entrepreneur and self-made man.  By his own design, the key to success is constant improvement, both professionally and personally.  When he was just twenty years old, he created a club for young men designed for their mutual improvement.  Called the Junto (also known as the Leather Apron Club), its purposes were to debate issues of morality, politics, and philosophy and to create a business network.  It was then that he “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” a plan by which (after much study) he made a list of thirteen virtues and a chart to track them daily. 

Several years later, Franklin was initiated into Freemasonry at St. John’s Masonic Lodge here in Philadelphia.  When his mother expressed her concerns about its reputation for secrecy, he assured her in a letter that “they are in general a very harmless sort of people and have no principles or practices that are inconsistent with religion and good manners.”

Freemasonry arrived in America from England in the early 1700’s and attracted many young men for its devotion to faith, brotherly love, charity and service to others.  By the time Franklin joined in 1730, Philadelphia, the major cultural and commercial center in America, was home to several Lodges.  In fact, of the fifty-five men who will attend the convention, more than twenty-five are Masons, including George Washington, James Madison, Edmund Randolph, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Elbridge Gerry.

We just learned that today a unique Masonic celebration is taking place in Boston – the first African American Masonic Lodge, No. 459, is now official.  Its leader, Prince Hall, is a free black man who most likely had been an indentured servant to William Hall, from whom he learned to work leather, received his manumission papers, and adopted his surname.  Hall is a businessman, operating both a catering business and his own leather goods store, the Golden Fleece, located not far from the Boston Common.  As for Hall’s culinary skills, a Harvard Professor recently commented, “As for a turtle feast, there was one outstanding expert: Prince Hall. A tall, lean Negro of great dignity, he always carried himself with the air of one who ruled many.  Indeed, he did, for whenever a well-to-do person wished the best catering job in Eastern Massachusetts, he sent word to Prince Hall in Boston…he appeared with a dozen of his black men, or two dozen,” if necessary.

When Hall and fourteen other free black men had been refused membership in St. John’s Masonic Lodge in Boston, they turned to the Grand Lodge of Ireland (No. 441), attached to the 38th British Foot Infantry stationed in Boston. They were accepted. A little more than a month later, the “shot heard round the world” was fired in Lexington, Massachusetts.  It was the opening salvo of the revolt against Great Britain. When the British regiment withdrew from  Boston to New York, the Lodge went with it.  However, upon its departure, the sergeant leading the group gave Hall and his brethren limited authority to meet as a Lodge.  

Without a charter, they could meet as a Lodge, participate in Masonic processions on St. John’s Day, and bury their dead with Masonic rites, but were not permitted to confirm Masonic degrees or perform other functions essential to a fully functioning Lodge.  Rejected again, unable to obtain a charter in the United States, Hall appealed to the Grand Lodge of England. In 1784 the Lodge was finally granted a charter with all the rights and privileges of any Masonic Lodge anywhere in the world. Today, after a series of appeals and delays, the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge (No. 459) was formally constituted in Boston.

Future historians will record that several years later, Hall organized an African American Lodge here in Philadelphia, with Absalom Jones as Worshipful Master and Richard Allen as treasurer.  Both Jones and Allen had been born into slavery but were able to purchase their freedom.  Each would become a licensed Methodist minister and eventually meet at a conference on American Methodism.  Here in Philadelphia, just a month before the convention, they formed the Free African Society, the first African American mutual aid society in history. Our city has been home to many freed blacks and the Society’s main goal is to provide aid to newly freed slaves, helping them transition to freedom by providing financial support, education, and fellowship.

Slavery most assuredly will become a major subject of discussion and dispute at the convention. Many delegates own slaves and some of them will forcefully defend it. Others will claim to abhor slavery but continue to tolerate it for one of any number of reasons. Others, particularly from the north, will rail against it. The issue is explosive and could prohibit any meaningful compromise among the States.

History will also record that later this year, in November 1787, Jones and Allen were worshipping at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia.  The Church prided itself on blacks and whites worshipping together.  However, the sexton (a church official) tried to pull Allen to his feet during opening prayer, insisting that blacks sit in the balcony, where some white parishioners believed they belonged.  Appalled, both Jones and Allen walked out.  Eventually, Allen formed a new Methodist congregation that would become the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.  For some, Christian loved also extended only so far. 

Free blacks are beginning to make a difference.  The condition of black Americans, free or slave, cannot be ignored.  But how long will it take to end slavery and achieve equality?

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