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The year 1721, like the others in the first quarter of the 18th century, was of major transitions. The United Kingdom, now a political reality, was settling a series of political and economic evolutions, as well as starting new and bold enterprises. The year’s topic was the “South Sea Company”, a financial enterprise that resulted in a financial scheme, which became known as the “South Sea Bubble”. Several people lost lump sums in the burst of the bubble, including Sir Isaac Newton, who lost £20,000 (something around £2.5 million in today’s purchase power). Yes, history does not repeat itself, but capitalism does. The year 1721 also saw the rise of its first and longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. As with many other things, that position, then named First Lord of Treasury (officially still is), evolved slowly, presenting itself in a rounder way under Walpole.
According to the Almanack for the year of our Lord God, 1721, the 24th of June would be a cloudy day, with small winds. The day was propitious for treatments related to bladder issues, and the night would be of a first-quarter moon. The almanacks, which could be found in the form of a book, booklet, or sheet, were the most common way of having essential information for daily chores and seasonal activities. Mixing aspects that nowadays present themselves separately, like the influence of the zodiac on parts of the body, and weather forecast, the almanacks give a sample of the values and beliefs of the 18th century. Not rarely, the “Zodiac Man” figure would be printed on the Almanak.
Like the other events narrated so far, few are the sources for that 24th of June in Freemasonry’s history. One is the already mentioned diary of William Stukeley, the other is the second edition of the Consitutions of the Freemasons, published in 1738, by James Anderson, the third is the newspapers, like The Post Boy, which noticed the event, the fourth is the so-called Book E. Book E is a minute book that belongs to the Lodge of Antiquity nº 2, and it registers the minute the meeting on the 24th of June. But before analysing these sources, what historical facts can be deduced from them?
On that Saturday night, at the Stationers’ Hall, a venue that is still there, the Masons had dinner and an assembly (a Grand Lodge), following the tradition agreed on in 1717 (according to Anderson), and probably dating from before that year (as far as meeting and banquet are concerned). In this Grand Lodge, John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu, was elected Grand Master of Masons, and John Beal, a physician, was elected his Deputy.
Around two and three hundred Masons (according to The Post Boy) or a hundred and fifty (according to James Anderson) were present.
From these sources, three are contemporaries of the events: Book E, Stukeley’s diary, and the newspapers. One of them, as already mentioned, was produced 21 years later. This source is the second edition of Anderson’s Constitutions, published in 1738. Not surprisingly, the narrative that is taken at face value, and the one that we tend to lean on, is the one by Anderson. One reason for that is that Anderson was hired to write the Constitutions and did so with the talent and commitment he had as a genealogist. Not rarely such works were embellished, so would be naïve to believe that the Constitutions of the Freemasons passed Anderson’s industry unscathed. After studies such as Prescott and Sommers, it would be something fringing being in denial.
The enticing characteristic of Anderson’s book is its language and structure. Written according to the historical taste of the eighteenth century, the Constitutions claim an antiquity that goes back to antediluvian times and draw a direct line to the then Grand Lodge. In its second edition, the history (or story) of the formation of the Grand Lodge is told. Confronted with the contemporary documents, several inconsistencies may be found. Here it is important to differentiate inconsistencies from fabrications.
The contemporary sources give us a good number of inconsistencies between Anderson’s report and what they present as being the events and agreements of that 24th June 1721. Other sources, give way to the understanding that some parts of the Constitutions are fabrications. Due to the overarching nature of the Constitutions, of 1723 and 1738, significant features of the other sources were eclipsed. Such details revealed by those sources will give us a better ground to understand why the General Assembly at the Stationer’s Hall started something different from what was before, and, therefore, why the practice that rises from it must be called by another name for research’s sake.