The Mystery of the Northeast Corner
Part II of a three-part series.
The Mystery of the Square and Compass
By Geoff Dobson
The east side of the Constitution Monument in the Plaza de la Constitucion bears a Square and Compass generally regarded as a symbol of Freemasonry. In 1813 at the time of the construction of the monument, Freemasonry was illegal in Spanish Florida. Masonry had been banned in Spanish possessions since 1738.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Joseph Bonaparte was placed on the Spanish throne by his brother the Emperor Napoleon. Joseph Bonaparte was a Mason. Thus, Ferdinand VII, upon his restoration to the throne, may have had good reason to distrust Freemasonry.
The question then exists, what was a symbol of Freemasonry doing on a monument in Spanish Florida?
During the British Period, Masonry had been established in Florida. In 1768, the British Governor of East Florida, James Grant was given a warrant to form a provincial Grand Lodge operating under Grand Lodge of Scotland.
Thus, lodges were formed in both St. Augustine and Pensacola. As noted by Charles A. Gauld, “A Scottish View of West Florida in 1769,” Vol. XXIX, Tequsta, the Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida (1969), in addition to Governor Grant, members of the East Florida Masonic Lodge in St. Augustine included the royal superintendent of Indian affairs, John Stuart; the Reverend John Forbes; Lt. Governor James Moultrie; and Dr. Andrew Turnbull. Members of St. Andrews Lodge in Pensacola included the Governor of West Florida, George Johnstone; William Panton; John Leslie; and Indian chief Alexander McGillivray.
Upon, assumption of Spanish control of West Florida, Freemasonry was once again made illegal. The Pensacola Lodge fled to Charleston carrying their records with them. The Lodge was re-chartered under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. The Lodge later helped form the Grand Lodge of South Carolina. See, Mackey and Haywood, Vol. 3 “Encyclopedia of Freemasonry” p 1363.
The lodge in St. Augustine also went dark. The only records of its existence are from the Grand Lodge of Scotland and correspondence held by the Pensacola Lodge. Over the years, repeated efforts were made to form new lodges in St. Augustine. There are some indications that a “St. Fernando Lodge” in St. Augustine, chartered by the Grand Lodge of Georgia, existed between 1806 and 1811. However, none of the lodges survived until the formation of Ashlar Lodge in 1888.
William Panton and John Leslie were partners in Panton, Leslie & Company. The company was one of the few British enterprises permitted to continue after Florida was transferred to Spain in 1783. Panton managed the company’s affairs in Pensacola and Leslie managed the company’s properties in St. Augustine. Indeed, the company continued its operations even after Florida was transferred to the United States.
British armies under the Duke of Wellington, a member of an Irish Masonic Lodge, fought to free Spain from the tyranny of the French. Exiled in Cadiz, the Cortes, on March 12, 1812, St. Joseph’s Day, proclaimed a new Constitution, nicknamed after the saint, La Pepa. Throughout the Spanish empire, there was rejoicing. The new constitution promised a new day of enlightenment and relief from the repressive old Spanish regimes.
Throughout the Spanish Americas, monuments were constructed in honor of the new constitution. In St. Augustine, Martin Hernandez, a “Minorcan” carpenter who had years before fled Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s plantation at New Smyrna, designed a suitable monument which the City Council under the leadership of the alcalde (the mayor), Geronimo Alverez, directed be placed in the Plaza. Alverez’s house is now the “Oldest House” museum, opposite the St. Francis Barracks. The first City Council under the new constitution met in his house. On the monument was placed a tablet inscribed in Spanish (English translation):
“Plaza of the Constitution, promulgated in the city of St. Augustine in East Florida on the 17th day of October in the year 1812; the Brigadier Don Sebastian Kindalem, Knight of the Order of Santiago, being Governor. For eternal remembrance, the Constitutional City Council erected this monument under the superintendence of Don Fernando de la Maza Arredondo, the young municipal officer, oldest member of the Corporation and Don Francisco Robira, Attorney and recorder. In the year 1813.”
In March 1814, the British restored Ferdinand VII to the Spanish throne on his promise that he would uphold the new constitution. Within weeks after assuming the throne, the Spanish king disavowed his promise to the British and annulled the constitution. The monuments were treated as insults to the king and, thus, the order went forth from Madrid that all of the monuments were to be razed. Reminders of the promised freedoms would not be tolerated.
Of course, the Royal Decree requiring the destruction of the monument could not be ignored. Reprisal might be slow, but it would be certain and could include a death sentence. Instead, the offending inscribed tablet on the monument was removed and hidden. In perfect bureaucratic fashion, the people of St. Augustine could then report to Havana that they had no monument in remembrance of the constitution.
Spanish control of Florida continued to deteriorate. At one time, along the Rio de San Juan, great plantations flourished. On those plantations, turpentine, cattle and citrus were produced. The plantations were abandoned, the plantation houses burned, and the fields overgrown. Soldiers housed in a former convent on the bayfront oft were not paid. The mighty fort of St. Marks began to fall into ruin. The Governor’s Palace which had housed Spanish and British governors for over 100 years suffered from decay. The governor moved out of the Palace and into rented quarters. The verdant gardens of fruit trees and flowers planted by Governor Enrique White but a few years before died.
It was obvious to all that Florida would soon fall like an overripe pomegranate from Governor White’s garden into the hands of the British or would soon be acquired by the brash Americans to the north. Thus in 1818, the last Spanish Governor of East Florida, José Coppinger, apparently failed to observe or report to Havana the tablet when it was removed from hiding by the citizenry and restored to the monument. The obelisk is believed to be the only surviving monument in the entire world in commemoration of the short-lived attempt at constitutional government in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.
It may be speculated that with the adoption of the liberal 1812 Constitution, the few Masons remaining in St. Augustine felt safe in openly displaying their affiliation and the Governor just ignored the situation. One member of the local lodge believes that there were Masons in St. Augustine during the Second Spanish Period who regularly traveled to Savannah for Lodge meetings. On the other hand, William W. Dewhurst in his 1881 “Saint Augustine, Florida, an Introductory Account of the Early Spanish and French Attempts at Exploration and Settlement in the Territory of Florida,” wrote that the engraving of the Compass and Square was a post-Civil War practical joke:
“Immediately under the date there is cut in the marble tablet the Masonic emblem of the square and compass. The reader can readily believe that the City Council of St. Augustine in 1813 was all too good Catholics to be responsible for this symbol of Masonry. The history of that piece of vandalism is said to be as follows: Soon after the close of the war of the Rebellion, the “young bloods” amused themselves by endeavoring to create an alarm in the mind of the United States commandant, and, by executing a series of cabalistic marks at different localities throughout the town, to convey the impression that a secret society was in existence, and about to do some act contrary to the peace and dignity of the United States. Besides other marks and notices posted upon private and public buildings about the town this square and compass was one night cut upon the tablet of the Spanish monument, where it will remain as long as the tablet exists, an anomaly, without this explanation.”
It may also be questioned as to whether the Square and Compass on the monument has any relationship to Masonry. It is missing the Masonic “G” denoting Geometry, the Great Architect of the Universe, and the third letter of the ancient Hebrew. The “G” is believed to have come into use on Masonic symbols between 1730 and 1783. The stone is also missing a date in accordance with the Masonic Calendar. Masonic dates are measured, depending upon the rite, from the Year of Light, the completion of Solomon’s Temple or the commencement of the Second Temple.
It should also be remembered that the use of the Square and Compass is not exclusive to Masonry. Thus, the mystery remains.
Next week: The Northeast Corner
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org