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Semiotics and symbolism at the founding of Washington DC and the USA

Pierre L'Enfant plan for Washington DC. (Source: Library of Congress)
Pierre L'Enfant plan for Washington DC. (Source: Library of Congress)
Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant; Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792

“For those who have eyes to see…”

This was recently stated by Scott Wolter, host of H2’s archaeo-investigatory reality show, America Unearthed. Wolter was talking about hidden symbols and messages embedded within the designs and architecture of Washington D.C. This particular episode, “Secret Blueprint of America,” reprises a familiar theme for students of conspiracy theory, namely, that the Founders and Framers of the American Republic, as members of various secret societies and groups (read: Freemasons, Illuminati, et al), incorporated mystical symbols into the city’s design. Many alternative history authors and documentaries have explored variations on this topic including Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, Dan Brown, Alan Butler, Christopher Knight, Graham Hancock, David Ovason, Robert Bauval, Mark Dice, Alex Jones, Manley P. Hall, among others.

Theoretically, as America Unearthed explains, what emerged after the foundation of our nation’s capitol was an esoteric latticework that communicates a very specific hidden message—"goddess worship." That the Founders engaged in secret goddess worship and left behind symbols that expressly demonstrate their reverence for the “sacred feminine.” It’s a very fanciful and entertaining narrative, not unlike reading Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol or Da Vinci Code; and, as prime-time TV, America Unearthed is most certainly produced to attract a wide-and-varied audience without being too tethered to the rigors (and less sensational delivery) of peer-reviewed academic research. There are gradient steps between fiction and science, and, in the spirit of storytelling, America Unearthed occupies a position somewhere in-between. But because it’s presented as the product of a “forensic geologist” (Scott Wolter), it has attracted quite a few critics claiming, 1. the show is tantamount to selling snake-oil and, 2. A&E Networks (History and H2) is being unethical and irresponsible by broadcasting one thing while advertising another.

One author, Jason Colavito, has amassed an impressive opus of critical reviews on several of the network’s more adventurous outings including Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed. Colavito, who early in his career wrote for uber-skeptic Michael Shermer’s magazine, Skeptic, tracks the theories offered by fringe historians and ancient astronaut theorists to their origins, which, in many cases, are drawn from the Victorian era, and, commensurate to the times, laced with racist notions. Some of the motifs explored in America Unearthed describe ancient European pre-Colombian voyagers who came to the Americas and left behind artifacts, rune stones, effigy mounds, etc. The academic community dismisses many of these devices as hoaxes from the 1800s, etc. But according to the show's critics claiming these artifacts were made or inspired by European visitors, by omission, diminishes real Native American accomplishments.

Colavito states, “As I've said many times, Scott Wolter isn't a racist. The problem is that his recklessness with history has the effect of promoting a view of history that systematically disparages Native American culture and civilization in pursuit of what I'm sure he and his show fail to recognize as a fairly clear Eurocentric agenda.”

Colavito’s website and blog have attracted a number of observers that express dismay at Wolter’s show thinking it reflects poorly on professional geologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and researchers by despoiling the rigors of science and trade craft by replacing it with a kind of carnie-barker, pseudo-science. Evidently, according to their academic lens, there can be no limbo between fiction and science; either it qualifies for peer-review or it’s something else. —a “best practices” approach that has curtailed the negative effects of hoaxers, frauds and quacks in the past. In a phrase, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

For the academy, there always must be supporting evidence or the claims are considered unsound and most likely invented. Recent studies have shown that people in pursuit of any particular thing will literally morph their perception of time and space to reach emotionally satisfying conclusions, often times finding “exactly” what they are “looking for.” Over the centuries, the scientific method was developed in part to elevate empiricism—not story-telling, intuition or revelation that may titillate and entertain but be about as true as a cow jumping over the moon. Religion, in many instances, is marketed by these kinds of unverifiable claims and stories which agitate and entertain the mind.

In defense of America Unearthed, some argue that its storytelling inspires people to delve more deeply into subject matter even joining the ranks of professionals. Where to draw the line between what should be considered fiction and/or science is worthy of debate and it’s easy to understand why there’s conflict between "storytellers" and "academicians" both competing for air time. The academicians profess that you don’t need snake-oil and sensationalism to sell the product—that real history and science, if presented properly—is just as fascinating, and, of course, more worthy.

Certainly, because it’s so easy to cross-reference and check sources these days, there seems to be a real time wake of criticism and commentary any mainstream media product generates immediately upon publication and broadcast. —the rapidity of this dynamic is a new development of the last few decades and allows for the show's audience to organically segment itself into fans and critics continuing the discussion in their respective corners. Fans are entertained by the storytelling and supernatural possibilities and real geologists get their rocks off by “being right” in the face of sloppy science. Presumably, A&E and her History channels appreciate both. This reminds me of a story I heard about Elvis manager Col. Tom Parker who simultaneously sold two different buttons at Elvis performances. One said, “I love Elvis!” and the other said something to the effect of “Rock and Roll is devil’s music! I hate Elvis!” This only reinforces the well-known meme, “any publicity is good publicity,”—which may please the television network, but most likely not those fixated on accuracy and/or professional integrity.

It is possible to appreciate both America Unearthed for its storytelling and Jason Colavito’s reviews which always provide more depth on the subjects covered. Wolter makes for a passionate on-air host who at times disagrees point blank with the show’s guests. In Secret Blueprint for America, Wolter gives an inspired soliloquy for his belief in the presence of symbols in the design of Washington D.C. after his theory was rejected out-of-hand by a guest historian.

Were Masons and related symbols associated with the design of Washington?

The fact is many of our Founders were Freemasons and there could have been specific intent with regard to the incorporation of symbols and allegory woven through the fabric of Washington D.C.; Freemasons—as builders in a metaphorical sense—saw themselves ushering in a new age and a new republic, and along with other proponents of Enlightenment principles, may have imbued their collective creation, as it were, with these symbols. Speaking from my own experience as a Mason, there is a concrete perception that these symbols and allegory have a very real impact on the world around us. There are varying interpretations of the degree and level of influence (viz. psychological, spiritual, psychosomatic, etc.).

George Washington was a well-known Freemason and spoke in glowing and even spiritual terms about the fraternity, what is also referred to as "the Craft." Washington selected French immigrant and veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Pierre L’Enfant, to design the “Federal City” as it was then known. Washington and L’Enfant worked closely together on what would become the nation’s capitol. As I recently commented on Colavito’s blog, Pierre L’Enfant was initiated into Freemasonry on April 17, 1789 at Holland Lodge No. 8 in New York and although we don’t have documentary evidence of his further degree work to become a “Master Mason,” it thoroughly debunks Christopher Hodapp’s Freemasons for Dummies assertion that, “out of the men primarily involved in the design [of Washington D.C.]—George Washington, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, and Andrew Ellicott—only Washington was Freemason.” Hodapp authored Freemasons for Dummies prior to the publication of evidence of L’Enfant being inducted into the Craft, and, to his credit, later made the correction.

The lack of primary source records for this period is notorious and to fully understand history we must flesh-out surrounding circumstances to determine probabilities. Firstly, orthography was clearly not standardized and we have seen reference to Pierre L’Enfant as “Major Longfont” and “Monsr. Lanfang” among others, so as these discrepancies filter out more compelling records may emerge.

If we examine L’Enfant’s most influential mentors and individuals responsible for recruiting him toward the cause of America, we see well-known Masonic actors. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais—undoubtedly a polymath, as wiki reports, “a French playwright, watchmaker, inventor, musician, diplomat, fugitive, spy, publisher, horticulturalist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary (both French and American)”—was a staunch advocate for the cause of America and rallied L’Enfant to support the revolutionary enterprise. Beaumarchais, a Freemason, is probably most well-known for composing the enlightenment play The Marriage of Figaro, which, of course, was set to music by another member of the craft, Wolfgang Mozart. When L’ Enfant arrived in America he served under another well-known French Freemason, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was also recruited by Freemason Benjamin Franklin—the most famous American in the world at that time—and American agent Silas Deane, most likely a member of the craft, although no primary source records indicating as such survive. Lafayette and L’Enfant were very close to Washington, whom the former considered to be a mentor and father figure. During the war, Lafayette commissioned L’Enfant to paint a portrait of Washington, who later had L’Enfant design the seal of the Society of the Cincinnati—devices sensitive to the needs of political semiotics. Point being, L’Enfant was being charged with significant symbolic and artistic designs at our nation’s birth in addition to the frank functionality demanded by an effective layout for Washington D.C. Col. Tobias Lear V, Washington’s secretary from 1784 until Washington’s death in 1799 was also a Freemason as I recently discovered in primary source record research into the first documentary evidence of the phrase “United States of America.” Lear handled many of Washington’s business dealings both private and presidential; he dealt with L’Enfant regularly as Washington’s representative. L’Enfant carried Lear’s letters with him until his death. Many of the important icons and edifices built during the foundation of America were conducted by well-known Freemasons such as Irish immigrant James Hoban who designed the White House. The city planning commissioners, also appointed by Washington, make explicit instructions that members of "the craft...join the work." Numerous elaborate Masonic ceremonies and rituals were performed as the city was designed and built. During extensive renovations on the White House ordered by President Harry Truman, himself a Freemason and Grand Master of Missouri, Masonic symbols and "Masons' marks" were discovered on several bricks and foundation stones. As Robert Klara writes in The Hidden White House, "Masons had used this practice since the medieval period, largely on cathedrals, as a way of both 'signing' their work and claiming wages for the stones they'd cut." These stones were eventually gifted to Grand Lodges around the country and I have seen one first hand at Tuscan Lodge #360 in St. Louis, MO., one of only three "Blue Lodges" to receive these treasured artifacts. This establishes prima facie probability for the significance of Freemasonry concerning the design, construction and commemoration of Washington D.C.

Is it possible that Masonic designers "signed" their work by embedding other symbols into the layout of Washington D.C.? It is certainly plausible and wouldn't be out of character for an artist like L'Enfant, who was known, as it were, to be concerned with "leaving his mark."

As a historian and student of history I think it’s important to separate myth from reality, but efforts at debunking fringe authors can also sometimes overreach. The symbols, patterns and designs within Masonry are used as educational devices representative of belief systems and a drive toward perfection. In laying the foundation stones of the new republic—both literal and metaphorical—individuals sensitive to the communicative power of semiotics and symbolism assuredly incorporated their knowledge into their designs. Many of these designs have roots in the Craft as many of the designers were in the Craft. Sensational reports about satanic symbols, Satanism etc. are laughable and meant only to stir neurons in people’s heads to sell copy, etc. Whether or not these symbols, patterns and designs conceal some specifically intended message or meaning is more difficult to discern. I suppose for the storyteller, it becomes a sort of Rorschach test where the meaning can be synthesized into whatever the storyteller is selling or utilizing to propel his or her narrative. To those strictly concerned with what's provable, without explicit evidence stating 'the Washington monument is a phallus penetrating the grounds of the national mall laid out like a vulva,' it’s just the cockamamie ravings of a lunatic.

It is clear that past belief systems considered unorthodox were banned and their practitioners often persecuted, put to the sword, burned at the stake. This is why secrecy was so important—it was a life or death issue for those not carrying the water of the ruling class. In many cases, we are left only to guess what these secret societies were up to. I think there's great value in discussing the possibilities and theories and although much of what is discussed in Ancient Aliens or America Unearthed may be far out, there is a lot of interesting and accurate information relayed as well. A mash-up of facts, fiction and mythology. A hybrid that at the very least stimulates lots of discussion.

As we move forward, more and more primary sources will surface revealing additional clarifying detail on some of these alternative theories. Some of them will turn out to be true; most not. Until then, the empiricists will continue to clash with the romantically-inclined with any combination of the two either being orphaned or granted another season on TV.