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Benjamin Brown French, Grand Master, 1847-53 and 1868

This distinguished Brother may properly be called the Father of Latter-Day Masonry in the District of Columbia, and it involves no invidious comparison to say that in the century now closed no man has more permanently left the impress of his individuality and genius upon our local institution, nor was more widely or favorably known throughout the Masonic world.

In the words of one of his contemporary biographers: "The history of our departed Brother is the story of a good man's path through the world; a life of labor and love; a stream of usefulness welling up from the fountain of his infancy, and increasing, broadening, and deepening until the close of his well-spent existence; a bright, cheerful river gladdening the hearts of thousands on its either side, and distributing with a generous hand countless blessings all along its course." Brother French was born at Chester, New Hampshire, on the 4th day of September, 1800.

He was the son of Hon. Daniel French, an eminent lawyer of that State, and for many years it's Attorney-General, and his ancestors on both sides of the family were among the oldest and most respected of the early settlers of New England.

He received a good common-school and academic education, which was completed at North Yarmouth Academy, Maine, when he was about seventeen years of age. His family were anxious that he should enjoy the advantages of a collegiate course to fit him for a professional career, but his inclinations did not run in this direction and in 1819 he went to Boston with the intention of going to sea. Disappointed, however, in obtaining such a position as he desired in the merchant service he enlisted as a private in the United States Army and was stationed at Fort. Warren, Boston Harbor, with a detachment of the 8th regiment of infantry. He was soon promoted to the rank of sergeant and served for four months, when, at the earnest solicitation of friends, who furnished a substitute, he was discharged September 12, 1819.

Returning to his native town he took up the study of law, and after five years was admitted to practice as a member of the Rockingham bar.

In March, 1825, he removed to Hookset, New Hampshire, and entered at once upon a promising practice. Immediately after actively engaging in his profession he was married to Miss Elizabeth Smith Richardson, daughter of Hon. W. W. Richardson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, and this union proved to be a most happy one, Mrs. French continuing until her death, in 1861, to be a true and loving helpmate of her distinguished husband In September, 1862, Brother French was united in marriage to Miss Mary Ellen Brady, of Washington, a lady of estimable qualities.

His profession was not a congenial one to him and was destined not to be his life work. Shortly after his marriage he removed to Sutton, and, in 1827, to Newport, New Hampshire. About this time he was elected assistant clerk of the New Hampshire Senate. He was also, while a resident of Newport, one of the editors and proprietors of the New Hampshire Spectator, and represented that town in the State Legislature in the years 1831, '32, and '33.

In December, 1833, he received the appointment of assistant clerk of the House of Representatives and removed to Washington, where he remained the balance of his life.

For some years he held the position of chief clerk of the House, which office he held until 1847, when he was defeated by one vote.

During his term as assistant clerk of the House he was instrumental in having the bill passed which marked the inauguration of the first magnetic company, of which he subsequently became president, and devoted himself to its interests, and to his energy, enterprise and business tact, the telegraph of today, then looked upon as chimerical nonsense, became a commercial possibility.

When his intimate friend, Gen. Pierce, was elected President of the United States, he was appointed Commissioner of Public Buildings and Grounds, but resigned this position in 1855, and returned to the practice of his profession.

Again appointed to the same position in 1861 he faithfully and acceptably discharged the duties of the office until 1867, when it was abolished by Congress.

During this latter term the bronze "Goddess of Freedom" was placed upon the dome of the Capitol building in this city, and, besides the name of Abraham Lincoln, has graven upon the head, "B. B. French, Commissioner of Public Buildings and Grounds."

He was chief marshal of the inaugural procession for President Lincoln in 1861, and one of the marshals at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863, besides being the author of the hymn sung as part of the ceremonies immediately after the oration of Edward Everett, and just before President Lincoln delivered his famous address. In connection with this historical event the author of this work deems it, under the circumstances, perhaps worthy of note that while in Gettysburg on that occasion and at other times Brother French was the guest of his father, the Hon. Robert Goodloe Harper, and a great chum, so the author has been told, of himself, and the interest in this fact lies in the fantastic destiny that should bring that toddler at his knee in the far-off years to write his biography.

During his entire life in this city he took an active interest in municipal affairs and served for many years as President of the local Boards of Alderman and Common Council, and in every position in which he stood forth as the servant of the people his duties were discharged conscientiously, energetically, intelligently, and acceptably.

In religion Brother French was Unitarian, but, in the language of one writer "what he called the 'religion of Masonry' was his guiding star." As a scholar he was noted for his ripe culture and high attainments, and was probably excelled by few in a thorough knowledge of the classics of his own tongue.

He was an easy and extensive writer, his style being marked by a terse, plain, and vigorous use of the Saxon, and had the happy faculty of saying just what he wanted to say at the right right time and in the right manner.

As a poet his style was graceful, flowing, and simple, addressing itself to the better feelings of our nature, and marked by the true fire of genius.

Such, briefly, was the man and citizen, "but," quoting again from an early biographer, "there was another phase of his life concealed by the veils of our sanctuaries from the vulgar gaze of the profane; an inner history of usefulness, energy, and honor; a course in which he deserved and received the highest laurels, the priceless tributes of the regard and esteem of his brethren, more to be valued than the withering crowns of the political arena, which fade away with a breath; ever enduring memorials to true merit, and the rewards of a lifetime well spent in the service of that which is just, noble, and true; the recognition by the Fraternity of initiates of a burning zeal in the cause of universal brotherhood and common humanity."

Brother French, in a short autobiographic resume of his life, prepared a few years before his death, informs us that his first impression of the benefits and true grandeur of Freemasonry was occasioned by his attendance upon a Masonic funeral at the early age of fifteen years, and the determination was there made to knock at its portals for admission as soon as he should have reached the constitutional age.

There being no lodge in his native town he was unable to carry out his intention until after his removal to Sutton, when, in 1825, he made application to King Solomon's Lodge, No. 14, located at New London, about four miles from Brother French's residence, and during the following winter he received the several symbolic degrees in that lodge. Applying himself with his habitual energy and enthusiasm to the work and lectures he soon acquired a thorough knowledge of their sublime principles and tenets.

In 1827 he removed to Newport and there affiliated with Corinthian Lodge, No. 28, in which lodge he served as Senior Warden and Master, filling the latter station in 1830-33.

In the same year he was appointed District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire, and in 1832, it's Grand Marshal, both of which positions, as well as the East of Corinthian Lodge, he held at the time of his removal to Washington in 1833. Brother French, arriving in this city in the midst of the period of persecution, found Masonry nearly dormant, and altho he frequented the meetings of our lodges and Grand Lodge he did not affiliate until the organization of National Lodge, No. 12, in 1846.

On November 3 of the same year he was elected Grand Master of Masons for the District of Columbia and served as such with fidelity and marked ability until 1853, when he declined re-election. Subsequently, however, in 1867, he was again called to the Grand East and served during the Masonic year of 1868.

He received the Capitular degrees in Columbia Chapter, No. 15 (now No. 1), of the City of Washington, in November, 1846, and in 1847 was elected its "Most" Excellent High Priest. During the same year he was elected Grand King of the Grand Chapter of Maryland and the District of Columbia, and after serving as Deputy was elected Grand High Priest in 1850, and was re-elected thereto annually until 1855, when he positively declined the honor.

April 8, 1847, Brother French received the Order of the Temple at the hands of DeWitt Clinton Encampment, Brooklyn, New York. There being at that time no encampment of Knights Templar in this vicinity, he visited the above-mentioned city for the express purpose of receiving the Commandery degrees with a view of resuscitating the Order of the Temple in Washington.

On the 25th of the same month he succeeded in reviving the organization of Washington Commandery, No. 1, of this city, dormant for some years, and was elected its Eminent Commander, in which position he continued, with the exception of a single term, for twelve years. His Commandery always continued a favorite organization with him and was remembered by him in the distribution of his Masonic effects.

In 1850 he was elected Grand Recorder of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States, and also General Grand Secretary of the General Grand Chapter of the United States, both of which offices he held until 1859, when he was elected Grand Master of Knights Templar of the United States and positively declined re-election as Secretary of the General Grand Chapter. As Grand Master of Knights Templar he served six consecutive years.

During his administration as Grand Master of Masons of the District, he laid the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Extension, and many other public buildings and churches in this city.

In the year 1851 Brother French received at the hands of illustrious Brother Giles Ford Yates the degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite up to the thirty-second degree, and in 1859 was elected to the thirty-third and last degree, and became an active member of the Supreme Council for the District of Columbia. He was subsequently elected Grand Chancellor of the Supreme Council, and in May, 1870, a few months before his death, became Lieut. Grand Commander.

He departed this life August 13, 1870, after an illness of several days, of heart disease, in the seventieth year of his age.

Funeral services were held at his residence on East Capitol Street, and the Templar service at the Presbyterian Church on Four-and-a-half Street (John Marshall Place), after which the remains were conveyed to the Congressional Cemetery, where, at 8:30 P. M., August 14, 1870, by the aid of the three lesser lights, the solemn and imposing ceremonies of the Grand Lodge were performed.

Thus passed this good man and Mason.

His devotion to the Order is shown by the following extract from his will: "Eighth. To the Grand Lodge of F. A. A. M., of the District of Columbia, in testimony of my undying love for the Craft and my firm belief in the truth of the declaration of the great and good Washington, that Freemasonry is a society whose liberal principles are founded on the immutable laws of truth and justice, and my deep conviction of the usefulness of the Order, all my books on the subject of Freemasonry. And I here express my regret that it is not in my power to make that body a more valuable bequest"

 

AHGP District of Columbia

Source: History of the Grand Lodge and Freemasonry in the District of Columbia, compiled by W. Brother Kenton N. Harper, 1911.

 
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