"Among democratic nations, . . . all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another."

--Alexis de Tocqueville

 
 

An Introduction to Fraternal Orders

Reaching their zenith of popularity at the turn of the century, fraternal orders were associations based on the Masonic model of social brotherhood that, on a practical level, worked to insure the well-being of their brothers through organized systems of mutual aid. Brotherhood implied a class-transcendent inclusion of all men regardless of social rank in the world outside the lodge. On a more abstract level, fraternalism was a symbolically potent culture that created solidarity through grandiloquent titles, costumes, and secret handshakes. These rituals inculcated value systems while simultaneously offering escape from others.  If fraternalism offered practical benefits as well as an abstract, ritualistic experience, what caused 5 million American men in 1897 to want to join a fraternal order?
          Explaining an American fascination with associationalism, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840, "Among democratic nations, . . . all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another." [i] Writing a century later, Arthur Schlesinger, in his "Biography of a Nation of Joiners" noted that, ironically, "a country famed for being individualistic [provides] the world’s greatest example of joiners." [ii] These observations would have seemed obvious to men of the late nineteenth century who, for whatever reason, rushed to join such associations as the Masons, the Independent Order of Oddfellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Knights of Labor, and the Ancient Order of United Workmen.
             Recent scholarship has illuminated several reasons for the proliferation of fraternal orders in late nineteenth century America. The result, however, of these studies has been not a simplification of the matter, but rather a complication of it. Scholars cannot seem to agree on several points: whether fraternalism was an assimilation of or reaction against capitalist tendencies, whether it transcended or reinforced class/race/gender boundaries, and most elusively, whether the substance of fraternalism was its tangible role as a means to social stability through mutual aid or the intangible allure of symbolic ritual.
             Clearly, the difficulty in drawing a simplistic model of trends in Victorian fraternal orders is due to the overwhelming number of societies. Some of the more ritually expressive orders, such as the Freemasons and the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, offered primarily a venue for conviviality, regalia, and fraternal bonding; others societies, such as the Knights of Labor, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, and the Patrons of Husbandry, "were founded to serve highly instrumental purposes, such as lobbying for lower taxes, greater municipal appropriations, personally advantageous legislation, and so on." [iii] This difference between expressive and instrumental orders was never cut and dry. Since, fundamentally, the many faces of fraternalism were all variations on the Masonic model, many of the more instrumental orders still retained a degree of ritual. The intent of this project is to chart a course through a constellation of societies that occupy opposite ends of this fraternal spectrum, illustrating modulations of the Masonic paradigm over time.
            Late nineteenth century statistics illustrate the massive proliferation of membership in America fraternal orders. In 1897, W.S. Hardwood, writing at the peak of the "Golden Age of Fraternity," observed that "a total adult male population of 19 million provided five and half million members to fraternal groups such as the Oddfellows (810,000 members), Freemasons (750,000), Knights of Pythias (475,000) Improved Order of Red Men (165,000), and hundreds of smaller orders." [iv] Furthermore, due to the frequency of multiple memberships, "every fifth . . . man belonged to at least one of the nation’s 70,000 fraternal lodges."  To account for what drove Americans to join these societies, one must analyze the practical as well as symbolic opportunities they offered. As a study of the incorporation of fraternal orders, this project will, therefore, deal first with fraternal orders as a means to acquire social benefits in a rapidly expanding industrialized society--the topic of the first chapter. The second chapter will discuss the varying degree to which these societies attempted to transcend class distinctions and how the appropriation of the Masonic paradigm became a means to further the cause of more labor-oriented and politically minded groups. Notions of gender race and ethnicity will surface in the third chapter to explain the way exclusionary practices effected further re-interpretations of the Masonic paradigm into more culturally specific variations. Finally the fourth chapter will demonstrate how fraternal orders reacted to and assimilated nineteenth-century socio-cultural trends through the commodification of ritual.
            Before proceeding, I wish to offer a model for understanding the superfluity of fraternal orders. A distinction must be made between older groups that came into being before the Civil War such as the Masons, the Oddfellows, the Knights of Pythias, and the Improved Order of Red Men for whom ritual and secrecy remained central and the newer "benefit" societies such as the Moose, Elks, Patrons of Husbandry and Maccabees for whom providing life insurance and social charity was paramount. [v]   Lynn Dumenil, characterizes these general groups in terms of their modus operandi: the former are "expressive organizations . . . directed primarily toward meeting the social and personal needs of their members, while instrumental organizations have specific [political or social] goals to accomplish." [vi] Although societies were usually geared one way or the other, the majority of instrumental benefit societies derived whatever ritual they exercised from the Masonic model making the boundary between these groups quite fluid.
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[i] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America vol. 2 (New York: Random House, 1945) 107.

[ii] Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,” American Historical Review 50.1 (October 1944): 1.

[iii] Jason Kaufman, For the Common Good? American Civil Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 23.

[iv] Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 1.

[v] C. Putney, “Service over secrecy: How lodge style fraternalism yielded popularity to men’s service clubs,” Journal of Popular Culture 27.1 (1993): 179.

[vi] Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry in American Culture 1880-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) xii.

 
 


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