Freemasonry, the American Revolution and Building the First Internet

In the American Revolution, and early republic, Freemasons and individuals in wider civil society were involved in a communication revolution. Literacy grew rapidly in America in late 18th and early 19th centuries. Reading and enhanced communication became a necessity of individual learning and associational life. New aesthetic forms of public ritual performance took shape in laying the cornerstone ceremonies inherited from Scotland through England, and Ireland, and multiple original printed texts of the Declaration of Independence were rhetorically performed across emerging states. The corridor of cities from Baltimore to Boston, with Charleston as an outlier, held the largest concentration of print resources in the world. Freemasons were a leading force in emerging forms of rhetoric, building educational institutions, the development of print culture and the fashioning of communication infrastructure in the nation-state. In fashioning so prominent a place for open communication, the Freemasons, a civil society, in effect were helping build the first public internet. The talk examines the interrelationship in early America between worlds of print, communication and Freemasonry.

There are implications for democratic civil society in the global 21st century. The lecture is planned as part of a much larger series of talks by a range of speakers from different disciplines examining the role, and history, of communication in different media and public discourse in civil society and in revolutionary change. Among other papers to be presented in the series will be those concerned with the role of the new social media in the Arab spring, China and the internet, the image and text in the French Revolution, the Glorious Revolution in England, and independence movements between 1810 and 1825 in Spanish American republics in South and Central America.

John Slifko

University of California Los Angeles
Department of Geography