the principles of masonic law
Albert Gallatin Mackey
In presenting to the fraternity a work on the Principles of Masonic
Law, it is due to those for whom it is intended, that something should be
said of the design with which it has been written, and of the plan on
which it has been composed. It is not pretended to present to the craft an
encyclopedia of jurisprudence, in which every question that can possibly
arise, in the transactions of a Lodge, is decided with an especial
reference to its particular circumstances. Were the accomplishment of such
an herculean task possible, except after years of intense and unremitting
labor, the unwieldy size of the book produced, and the heterogeneous
nature of its contents, so far from inviting, would rather tend to
distract attention, and the object of communicating a knowledge of the
Principles of Masonic Law, would be lost in the tedious collation of
precedents, arranged without scientific system, and enunciated without
When I first contemplated the composition of a work on this subject, a
distinguished friend and Brother, whose opinion I much respect, and with
whose advice I am always anxious to comply, unless for the most
satisfactory reasons, suggested the expediency of collecting the decisions
of all Grand Masters, Grand Lodges, and other masonic authorities upon
every subject of Masonic Law, and of presenting them, without commentary,
to the fraternity.
But a brief examination of this method, led me to perceive that I would
be thus constructing simply a digest of decrees, many of which would
probably be the results of inexperience, of prejudice, or of erroneous
views of the masonic system, and from which the authors themselves have,
in repeated instances, subsequently receded—for Grand Masters and Grand
Lodges, although entitled to great respect, are not infallible—and I could
not, conscientiously, have consented to assist, without any qualifying
remark, in the extension and perpetuation of edicts and opinions, which,
however high the authority from which they emanated, I did not believe to
be in accordance with the principles of Masonic jurisprudence.
Another inconvenience which would have attended the adoption of such a
method is, that the decisions of different Grand Lodges and Grand Masters
are sometimes entirely contradictory on the same points of Masonic Law.
The decree of one jurisdiction, on any particular question, will often be
found at variance with that of another, while a third will differ from
both. The consultor of a work, embracing within its pages such distracting
judgments, unexplained by commentary, would be in doubt as to which
decision he should adopt, so that coming to the inspection with the desire
of solving a legal question, he would be constrained to close the volume,
in utter despair of extracting truth or information from so confused a
mass of contradictions.
This plan I therefore at once abandoned. But knowing that the
jurisprudence of Masonry is founded, like all legal science, on abstract
principles, which govern and control its entire system, I deemed it to be
a better course to present these principles to my readers in an elementary
and methodical treatise, and to develop from them those necessary
deductions which reason and common sense would justify.
Hence it is that I have presumed to call this work "The Principles of
Masonic Law." It is not a code of enactments, nor a collection of
statutes, nor yet a digest of opinions; but simply an elementary treatise,
intended to enable every one who consults it, with competent judgment, and
ordinary intelligence, to trace for himself the bearings of the law upon
any question which he seeks to investigate, and to form, for himself, a
correct opinion upon the merits of any particular case.
Blackstone, whose method of teaching I have endeavored, although I
confess "ab longo inter-vallo," to pursue, in speaking of what an
academical expounder of the law should do, says:
"He should consider his course as a general map of the law, marking out
the shape of the country, its connections, and boundaries, its greater
divisions, and principal cities; it is not his business to describe
minutely the subordinate limits, or to fix the longitude and latitude of
every inconsiderable hamlet."
Such has been the rule that has governed me in the compilation of this
work. But in delineating this "general map" of the Masonic Law, I have
sought, if I may continue the metaphor, so to define boundaries, and to
describe countries, as to give the inspector no difficulty in "locating"
(to use an Americanism) any subordinate point. I have treated, it is true,
of principles, but I have not altogether lost sight of cases.
There are certain fundamental laws of the Institution, concerning which
there never has been any dispute, and which have come down to us with all
the sanctions of antiquity, and universal acceptation. In announcing
these, I have not always thought it necessary to defend their justice, or
to assign a reason for their enactment.
The weight of unanimous authority has, in these instances, been deemed
sufficient to entitle them to respect, and to obedience.
But on all other questions, where authority is divided, or where doubts
of the correctness of my decision might arise, I have endeavored, by a
course of argument as satisfactory as I could command, to assign a reason
for my opinions, and to defend and enforce my views, by a reference to the
general principles of jurisprudence, and the peculiar character of the
masonic system. I ask, and should receive no deference to my own
unsupported theories—as a man, I am, of course, fallible—and may often
have decided erroneously. But I do claim for my arguments all the weight
and influence of which they may be deemed worthy, after an attentive and
unprejudiced examination. To those who may at first be ready—because I do
not agree with all their preconceived opinions—to doubt or deny my
conclusions, I would say, in the language of Themistocles, "Strike, but
Whatever may be the verdict passed upon my labors by my Brethren, I
trust that some clemency will be extended to the errors into which I may
have fallen, for the sake of the object which I have had in view: that,
namely, of presenting to the Craft an elementary work, that might enable
every Mason to know his rights, and to learn his duties.
The intention was, undoubtedly, a good one. How it has been executed,
it is not for me, but for the masonic public to determine.
Albert G. Mackey.
Charleston, S.C., January 1st., 1856.
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