Secret Societies: Powerhouses to Instigate Revolutions

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Secret societies played a crucial role in transforming the world. Several disruptions in different parts of the world were a beginning toward a revolution in America and France. What impacted the decision of members to join such societies and how did the secret societies act as shadow governments?

A painting depicting disguised men as Mohawk Indians on board a cargo ship throwing several chests of tea in the water.
In 1773, a crowd threw tons of tea from cargo ships. This incident came to be known as Boston Tea Party, which was a major step toward the American Revolution. (Image: Cornischong at lb.wikipedia/Public domain)

Boston Tea Party

On December 16, 1773, a crowd gathered at Boston’s Griffin’s Wharf to protest the presence of three East India Company ships, carrying cargoes of tea. Almost 200 men boarded the vessels, disguised as Mohawk Indians who broke open and threw overboard 342 chests, equal to about 45 tons of tea and even tidied up before leaving which was later dubbed, the Boston Tea Party. As an act of overt resistance to British rule, it was a critical step toward the American Revolution.

Learn more about the role of secret societies in the Boston Tea Party and Bastille Day.

First Shadow of the French Revolution

Sixteen years later, on July 14, 1789, another crowd gathered outside Paris’ Bastille. The thousand-strong mob demanded the surrender of the old fortress, used as an armory and a prison. The Bastille’s commander refused to surrender, though he had only 100 men. The mob attacked and at around 5:30 p.m., the Bastille’s defenders gave up. In the ensuing violence, seven prisoners including two lunatics were set free, while the commander and several of his men were murdered. The French Revolution had drawn its first blood.

The Sons of Liberty

The two events of 1773 and 1789 were the opening acts in upheavals that transformed America, France, and the world and were largely the handiwork of secret societies. In American colonies, the group most responsible was the Sons of Liberty, first appearing in Boston around 1765, in response to new British taxes on the colonies. The Sons became a kind of franchise, spreading throughout the colonies, organizing resistance, even physical attacks against royal authorities. After 1776, the organization acted as a shadow government in British-controlled areas. The sons were the spin-off of an older, more important, and familiar secret order, the Freemasons.

Learn more about the rich history of governmental secret societies.

Role of Freemasons

Great Britain’s East India Company had reduced the cost of tea in the colonies. So much so that American smugglers who made a fortune, evading royal duties were put out of business. Two future revolutionary luminaries effected were Samuel Adams and John Hancock who were Sons of Liberty members, and Freemasons. But not all Masonic brothers approved their actions. Two other American Masons and future revolutionaries, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were appalled by what they regarded as vandalism. Franklin thought the East India Company should have been reimbursed for its loss.

An engraving of Masonic initiation in Paris in 1745.
The freemasons played a significant part in the revolutions in America and France. Washington was assisted by the French Freemason Marquis de Lafayette. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Despite all the boilerplate rhetoric about brotherhood and loyalty, Freemasons ended up on opposing sides as the same ones. For instance, at the Revolutionary War Battle of Yorktown, Freemason Washington was assisted by French Freemason Marquis de Lafayette and Prussian Freemason Baron von Steuben. But opposing them was English Freemason Lord Cornwallis. Washington, the greatest hero of the revolution, was a Mason, so was its traitor, Benedict Arnold. Freemasons played prominent roles in the American Revolution. There remain questions about whether they instigated, controlled, or infused it with a Masonic agenda? Or if the new United States was a Masonic republic and if there was something else hidden among the Freemasons?

Learn more about the history of the smaller secret societies.

Instigating Revolution

The American and French Revolutions started over the same issues of taxation and representation but both took different courses. In May 1789, when France faced national bankruptcy, the crisis was partly caused by King Louis XVI’s financing of the American Revolution. That forced Louis to summon France’s long-disused consultative assembly, the Estates-General. Two of the estates; the clergy and nobility, represented only 2 percent of the French population but held more than half of the assembly’s seats. The third estate basically everybody else, thought that grossly unfair. Instead of finding a solution, the Estates-General ignited a revolution.

As the revolution progressed, radical groups took more control. The most important radicals, the Jacobins, first appeared in late 1789 as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution who in later years abolished traditional religion, and initiated a reign of terror. The storming of the Bastille was portrayed as a spontaneous attack on a hated symbol of royal tyranny.

The Palais

Three days before the assault on the Bastille, King Louis dismissed his liberal finance minister, Jacques Necker. While that was a plot by Louis to restore royal authority, it was spun by agitators in the Palais- Royal in Paris a popular area of stalls, shops, and coffee houses considered a ‘hotbed of Masonic activity’.

Painting of the duc d'Orléans' council sitting at the Palais-Royal
To restore royal authority, King Louis dismissed his liberal finance minister Jacques Necker, a plot spun by agitators in the Palais- Royal in Paris. (Image: Ecole française/Public domain)

The Palais owned by Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was the most powerful Freemason in France. He was master of the powerful Grand Orient Lodge, and brother of the influential Neufs Soeurs, or Nine Sisters Lodge. Founded in 1776, the Nine Sisters Lodge was an important link between the French and American Revolutions whose motto was ‘Truth, Union, and Force’, which had a slightly prophetic, and ominous ring. Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, dreamt of sitting on the throne himself, as an enlightened monarch, was also the king’s cousin but not his friend. He’d even changed his name to Philippe Égalité—Philip the Equal.

Camille Desmoulins

At the Bastille, the mob carried the duke’s bust around like an idol and the radical orator whipping up the crowds was the duke’s Masonic brother in the Nine Sisters, Camille Desmoulins. Firebrand Desmoulins was the protégé of another prominent Freemason, Count Mirabeau. All three ended up joining the Jacobins. Student of alternative history, Graham Hancock, speculated that the Duke of Orleans and his friends had organized a ‘shadow government-in-waiting’ at the Palais Royal. The notion was not wholly far-fetched as they did plenty of plotting.

Members of the Nine Sisters Lodge

Two American revolutionists, Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones were initiated as members of the Nine Sisters Lodge in 1778 where Franklin introduced three other Americans into its circle; Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The great French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, was yet another Nine Sisters brother.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Notion About Freemasons

The notion that Freemasons played a pivotal role in the American Revolution had a long history. It was not a question whether there was a Masonic influence on the revolution, but a question of how much. A 33rd degree Scottish Rite Mason publicly proclaimed, ‘Freemasons founded this country’, at a commissioning ceremony for US Navy officers. Attending that ceremony was a 3rd-degree Master Mason who felt his Scottish Rite brethren’s statement was perhaps ‘an exaggeration’, though not wholly inaccurate.

Masonic Membership

The population of the American colonies in 1776 was over two and a half million people. About half a million were eligible for Masonic membership. As per the lodge records, the number of colonial Freemasons was no more than a few thousand as many started the initiation without finishing, others dropping out, and some moving from one lodge to another, or held multiple memberships. Regardless, Freemasons was a tiny minority in the colonial population. But a small number wasn’t insignificant as the capital of the revolution, Philadelphia, was home to at least 2,000 masonic brethren, meaning, one out of five eligible males was a member.

Common Questions about Secret Societies

Q: What happened at the Boston Tea Party?

On December 16, 1773, a crowd gathered at Boston’s Griffin’s Wharf, protesting the presence of three East India Company ships, carrying cargoes of tea. They boarded the vessels, disguised as Mohawk Indians, and threw overboard 342 chests, equal to about 45 tons, of tea, and the fake Mohawks even tidied up before leaving which was known as the Boston Tea Party.

Q: Why was the Boston Tea Party Important?

The Boston Tea Party which took place at the Boston’s Griffin’s Wharf was important as an act of overt resistance to British rule, a critical step toward the American Revolution.

Q: What happened in the storming of the Bastille?

On July 14, 1789, crowd gathered outside Paris’ Bastille, the thousand-strong mob demanding the surrender of the old fortress, an armory, and a prison. The mob attacked and finally, the Bastille’s defenders surrendered. The commander and several of his men were murdered and the French Revolution had drawn its first blood.

Q: Who were the Jacobins and what was their contribution to the French Revolution?

The Jacobins were the most important radical group, appearing first in late 1789 as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution. The Jacobins in later years abolished traditional religion and initiated a reign of terror.

Keep Reading
The Boston Tea Party and the Beginning of the American Revolution
Islam in America — The American Revolution
Was Southern Secession a Political Revolution?