Deeming it part of his presidential duties Washington determined to visit every state in the Union. Having visited New England in 1789, Washington undertook his “Southern Tour” in the spring of 1791. Besides meeting with many state and local officials, and being greeted by throngs of citizens, he also received Masonic welcomes along the way. Starting in Virginia his southern-most stop was Georgia.
President Washington arrived at the banks of the Savannah River on May 12. There, five important Georgia citizens met him: Noble Wimberly Jones (c. 1723–1805); Joseph Habersham (1751–1815); John Houstoun (c. 1744–1796); Gen. Lachlan McIntosh (1727–1806) and Joseph Clay (1741–1804). Jones was a former speaker of the Commons House of the Georgia Assembly. Habersham was a merchant who had served as a colonel in the Continental Army. In 1795, Washington would appoint him U.S. Postmaster General. Houstoun served briefly in the second Continental Congress and then as Georgia’s governor in 1778–79 and 1784–85. Gen. McIntosh was with Washington at Valley Forge and later fought at the sieges of Savannah and Charleston. Clay was a leader of the rebellion before the war, served as a paymaster general for the Continental Army and later as state treasurer.
Portrait of John Houstoun. Georgia Historical Society. A-1361-149.
Along the way to Savannah, the party was joined by General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796). He had fought in several battles throughout the war, including the taking of Fort Ticonderoga and the siege of Yorktown. In gratitude for his service, the state of Georgia gave him a plantation confiscated from a Loyalist. He would later lead a U.S. Army expedition into Ohio that culminated in the 1794 decisive victory of the Native American forces at the Battle of the Fallen Timbers.
Together, the men stopped to visit the widow of General Nathanael Greene, Catherine Littlefield. Like General Wayne, she and her husband had moved to Georgia to live on a plantation confiscated from a loyalist. One of Washington’s ableist generals, Greene (1742–1786) served in numerous battels and later commanded the southern theater of operations that culminated in the great victory at Yorktown. Unfortunately, he had only lived in Georgia for two years before falling ill and dying.
Of the six men, only Habersham, Houstoun and the deceased Greene, were known Freemasons. In fact, Houstoun was the presiding Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Georgia. There are stories reporting Wayne to be a Mason, but no strong evidence exists. There is no indication that Macintosh or Clay ever joined the Craft.
Rather than spending the night at the Greene’s plantation, as expected, Washington continued on to Savannah. His late afternoon arrival caught the town by surprise. Still, the citizens put on a grand welcome with cannon salutes, a reception committee, and an escort to Washington’s lodging in St. James Square. The small private dinner quickly became a larger gathering with many prominent gentlemen and ladies, clergy, military officers, and other officials. It lasted well into the night with music and numerous toasts. More than eight hundred houses were illuminated that night.
In the afternoon of Friday the thirteenth, after all concerned had recovered from the night before, a new round of receptions and addresses was presented to Washington. Included among those from the city officials, the citizens, and two church congregations. After the reception, Washington dined with his comrades of the Society of the Cincinnati before joining in the dancing at a grand ball for more than one hundred ladies and gentlemen. For the second night, the festivities lasted into the early morning hours.
On Saturday morning, Grand Master Houstoun and a few other brothers gathered at Brown’s Coffeehouse. There that formed a procession and marched to Washington’s lodging. At the reception, Houstoun read the Grand Lodge’s address and handed it to Washington. After Washington thanked Grand Master Houstoun and the assembled brethren, the Grand Lodge returned to the coffeehouse.
The address is similar in nature and tone to others Washington received on his Southern Tour. But there is one striking phrase: “...and pervading influence over the enlightened World, which having ranked a Frederick at its head, can now Boast of a Washington as a Brother.” It refers to Frederick II, king of Prussia (1712–1786) and elector of Brandenburg, also known as Frederick the Great. Frederick was a well-known Freemason, but he was also credited as the founder of a new continental form of Freemasonry. This expanded system, known as the Order of the Royal Secret, contained twenty-five initiation ceremonies, or degrees.
The other key word is “enlightened.” Frederick was considered by many intellectuals of the day, such as Voltaire, to be a modern day “enlightened despot.” As described in Plato’s Republic, such a despot would be a warrior and statesmen, but also a figure who governed toward the good of the people and strove for intellectual and spiritual peace and happiness. Before King Frederick, only the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was assumed to have achieved Plato’s virtue.
Lastly, in 1791, Washington was in the third year of his first term. Some Americans assumed he would remain in office for life, and in time become a monarch in all but name only.
The Grand Lodge’s address suggests that Washington was constitutionally, philosophically, and Masonically worthy to become America’s “philosopher king.”
After Attending church on Sunday morning, Washington sent out his short reply to the Grand Lodge, as well as all those who gave him addresses. He bid his farewells and left town. He spent the evening back at Mrs. Greene’s plantation, and the next day began his homeward journey.