An acquaintance of twelve consecutive presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant; public servant and administrator; and Grand Master of the Grand Encampment dur- ing the years of the Civil War, Ben jamin Brown French was born in Chester, New Hampshire to Daniel (1769-1840) and Mercy (Brown) French (1778-1802) on September 4, 1800. His father was a lawyer of high standing and was for several years Attorney General of the State of New Hampshire. After Mercy's death, Daniel married twice more. Benjamin received a good common school and academic education, and it was the earnest desire of his father and friends that he should enter college, which however, he did not do.
In 1819 he went to Boston hoping to go to sea. Failing to obtain a berth on a ship, he enlisted as a soldier in the United States Army and was stationed at Fort Warren on Governor's Island in the harbor of Boston. He was appointed a Sergeant soon after enlisting and faithfully performed his duty for about four months when, at the request of his friends who provided a substitute, he left the army on September 12, 1819. He then returned to his father's, and although conflicting to his own leanings, he began the study of law, which he pursued with diligence for five years, that being the time fixed by the bar rules of New Hampshire. At the February 1825 term of the Court of Common Pleas for the County of Rockingham, held at Portsmouth, he was admitted an attorney at law.
He was thus a lawyer by profession, and following his marriage in 1825 to Elizabeth Smith Richardson (1805-1861), daughter of Chief Justice of New Hampshire William Merchant Richardson, he became active in politics, serving as Assistant Clerk of the State Senate of New Hampshire (1828-1830). He was later elected to the New Hampshire State Legislature (1831-1833). While in the Legislature, he was the proprietor and editor of the New Hampshire Spectator.
French's chief contribution to an understanding of the 19th century is his eleven-volume journal of almost four thousand pages, which was begun in August of 1828 and was faithfully kept up until shortly before his death in the nation's capital in 1870. Roughly one third of the journal was published in one volume in 1989 under the title Witness to the Young Republic, A Yankee's Journal, 1828-1870, edited by Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough. The remaining unpublished material, compris ing two-thirds of the journal, is housed in the Library of Congress which is now situated on the very site where French's mansion, built in 1842, was located. The unique aspect of French's journal is the keen insight provided into political life in Washington, D.C. The workings and the key players of every administration from that of John Quincy Adams to Ulysses S. Grant are faithfully recorded.
He moved to Washington, D.C. in December of 1833 to pursue government employment when friends in the state secured him an appointment in the Clerk's Department of the United States House of Representatives. He was appointed the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives in 1845. He left that position in 1847 when, encouraged by Samuel F. B. Morse, he became president of the Magnetic Telegraph Company. Serving in that position until 1850, French oversaw the expansion of telegraph communications throughout the United States. In 1853, French was named the Commissioner of Public Buildings under President Franklin Pierce and was the chief marshal of the March 1861 inaugural parade of Abraham Lincoln, who reappointed French Commissioner of Public Buildings. French had rejoiced in Abraham Lincoln's election in November and at the same time recoiled at the South's threat of secession. He had learned that his beloved wife Elizabeth had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had consented to a mastectomy (which was not successful). Elizabeth's death in May of 1861 was a profound loss for French. His family gathered round him to ease his grief. Mary Ellen Brady (1831- 1905), a sister of his brother Edmund's wife, moved in to manage his household. With time, a romantic attachment developed between Mary Ellen who was thirty years younger than French, and within a year and a half they were wed on September 9, 1862.
As the Commissioner of Public Buildings, French was responsible for the care of all federal buildings in Washington, D.C., including the United States Capitol.
After his appointment, French wrote in his diary on September 8, 1861:
"I was at the President's and saw Mrs. Lincoln and the President. Mrs. L. expressed her satisfaction at my appointment, and I hope and trust she and I shall get along quietly. I certainly shall do all in my power to oblige her and make her comfortable. She is evidently a smart, intelligent woman and likes to have her own way pretty much. I was delighted with her independence and her lady-like reception of me. Afterward I saw the President, and he received me very cordially."
His opinion of Mrs. Lincoln was to change significantly over the next four years. As with many presidential ap- pointees, his relations with Mrs. Lincoln suffered with time. His more routine duties as commissioner placed him in frequent contact with Mary Lincoln, whom French found to be difficult, calling the first lady a "bundle of vanity and folly." Since his appointment, he had ample opportunity to become acquainted with Mrs. Lincoln's love of money and her spendthrift ways with it. Thus, he kept a sharp eye on Mrs. Lincoln and winced suspiciously when she flattered him, but he was very patient with the "Republcan Queen." French wrote his brother that the "Republican Queen plagues me half to death with wants with which it is impossible to comply."
During his tenure, French also over saw the funeral arrangements for both Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) and President Lincoln (1809-1865). A few days after President Lincoln's assassination, French claimed to have prevented an earlier assault on Lincoln at the President's Inauguration on March 4. His journal relates the circumstances:
As the procession was passing through the Rotunda toward the Eastern portico, a man jumped from the crowd into it behind the President. I saw him, and told Westfall, one of my Policemen, to order him out. He took him by the arm and stopped him, when he began to wrangle and show fight.
I went up to him face to face, and told him he must go back. He said he had a right there, and looked very fierce and angry that we would not let him go on, and asserted his right so strenuously that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know and said to Westfall 'let him go.' While were thus engaged endeavoring to get this person back in the crowd, the President passed on and I presume had reached the stand before we left the man. Neither of us thought any more of the matter until since the assassination when a gentleman told Westfall that Booth was in the crowd that day and broke into the line and he saw a policeman hold of him keeping him back. W[estfall] then came to me and asked me if I remembered the circumstance. I told him I did and should know the man again were I to see him. A day or two afterward he brought me a photograph of Booth, and I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back that I took particular notice of him and fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken. My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President and assassinate him and in the confusion escape into the crowd again and get away, but by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest and had some errand or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward....'"
French later wrote in his diary, two days after Mrs. Lincoln had finally left the White House on May 22, 1865: "It is not proper that I should write down, even here, all I know! May God have her in his keeping and make her a better woman." By the beginning of 1866, French was comparing Mrs. Lincoln unfavorably with the daughters of President Andrew Johnson: "Oh how different it is to the introductions to Mrs. Lincoln! She (Mrs. L.) sought to put on the airs of an Empress - these ladies are plain, ladylike, republican ladies, their dresses rich but modest and unassuming..."
I will now digress temporarily from French's political career in order to pres ent his Masonic record. He was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason on January 18, 1826. He was elected and served as Master in 1831, 1832, and 1833 of Corinthian Lodge New Hampshire. He also served as the Grand Marshal of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire. On May 7, 1846, Brother French was affiliated with National Lodge No.12 of the District of Columbia. On November 3, 1846, he was elected Grand Master of the District of Columbia and served for seven consecutive years. While Grand Master, he laid the cornerstones of the east extension of the United States Capitol Building, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Washington Monument. Companion French was exalted in Columbia Chapter No. 1 Royal Arch Masons on November 5, 1846, and later served as Excellent High Priest of that chapter. He also served as the Most Excellent Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of the District of Co lumbia. Sir Knight French was knighted in DeWitt Clinton En- campment, Brooklyn, New York on April 5, 1847, and became Eminent Commander of Washington Commandery No. 1 (D.C.) on its revival in 1847, serving for eleven years. He was elected Grand Master of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar, U.S.A. in 1859 and served until 1865. Brother French became a Scottish Rite Mason, and on September 15, 1859, he became the first 33rd Degree Mason from the Dis- trict of Columbia. At the time of his death, he was Lieutenant Grand Commander of the Supreme Council, AASR (SJ).
Brother French had the distinction of having a Lodge named in his honor while he was a sitting Grand Master. Benjamin Brown French Lodge No. 15 held its first communication in 1853. The Lodge has met continuously since in the Georgetown section of the District of Columbia. Most Worshipful Brother French reluctantly signed the charter establishing his namesake lodge in late 1852.
The Civil War naturally called a halt in the steady forward march of Templary. This was noticeable in only one Triennial Conclave, however, and that was the one which fell in 1862, in the time of the war. It had been previously decided to hold this Conclave in Memphis, Tennessee. This was not feasible in September of 1862, and a special meeting, before the regular Conclave, changed the place of assembly of the Triennial Conclave for that year to New York City. It was then twenty years since the last Conclave had been held in New York City.
The meeting was a small one. The best authorities state that only eight Grand Commanderies and subordinate Commanderies from two states and from the District of Columbia were pres- ent, and these were all northern. It is not clear that all the southern bodies had completely and finally seceded from the Grand Encampment as had their states from the United States government. Indeed, there is evidence that some friendly and fraternal relations were maintained. This Conclave again took up the matter of Templar uniform, giving still further and more detailed regulations in the famous "Edict of 1862." In the matter of the ritual, it was decided to have a devotional service prepared for the opening of the next Conclave, the place and time for which were fixed at Columbus, Ohio, on September 5, 1865, and the week following.
Even before the actual close of the war, the coming peace and harmony was indicated by the admission into the ranks of the constituent Grand Commanderies of two states, one of the south, Louisiana, on February 12, 1864, and one of the north, Iowa, on June 6, 1864. Subordinate Commanderies joined from three new states, Kansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska.
There was in the entire 1865 Conclave no real note of war, and the Grand Mas- ter at the 1862 and 1865 Conclaves, "the War Grand Master," Benjamin Brown French, proved himself one of the most caring and peaceable of men. In having him at the helm throughout those troubled times, Masonic Templary was very fortunate. Calm, unruffled, broad-minded, and open eyed, he proved to be the right man to guide American Templary safely through the Civil War years.
On March 4, 1867, Radical Republicans in Congress succeeded in abolishing the office of commissioner as a way to punish French for his loyalty to Democratic President Andrew Johnson (who was also a Knight Templar). On March 14, 1867, French surrendered books, ledgers, and accounts to the Secretary of the Interior. On March 30, 1867, Congress placed the care of the United States Capitol and grounds under Edward Clark and the newly created office of the Architect of the Capitol.
French spent his final years in a minor clerk position in the United States Treasury Department, and though he found the work humiliating, he held the post until forced by politics to resign two months before his death. He died at home on August 12, 1870, from heart failure and lung congestion. French was placed in a coffin in the front parlor beneath his portrait and in front of two little lamps. His Masonic hat, badge, and sword were on the lid of the coffin, and the room was strewn with flowers. The funeral services lasted into the early evening. His body was then taken to the Congressional Cemetery where he was laid to rest amid throngs of mourners and with the solemn funeral service of Freemasonry.
The full account of Benjamin B. French's life is not defined by his government service alone. A sociable and open man, he was likewise occupied in numerous community and business activities, including serving as treasurer of the United States Agricultural Society and as president of the Republican Association of the City of Washington, as well as Grand Master of the Knights Templar of the United States. He invested smartly, and his business judgment provided him a better lifestyle than would otherwise have been possible on a government salary alone.
He was also interested in cultural and literary matters, constantly composing poetry, speaking at public occasions, and discussing current authors and their works in his correspondence. His journal is filled with descriptions of parties and other social occasions, and it was not uncommon to find him at home playing euchre well into the night with a group of friends that included congress- men and other prominent public officials. Sadly, Benjamin Brown French would likely be little remembered today were it not for his journal and letters already mentioned. They provide a wide window into the early years of the republic and more particularly on the Lincoln White House and are his legacy to the nation.
Right Eminent Sir Knight Marshall, KYGCH(3), KCT, 33°, is a Past Grand Commander of the Grand Commandery of Knights Templar of Alabama. He is a member of the Editorial Review Board of the Knight Templar magazine and has published several articles in that magazine as well as in the Royal Arch Mason magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Spangler, Michael, Benjamin Brown French in the Lincoln Period, PDF file, online at http://www.whitehousehistory.org/history/documents/White-House-History-08-Span- gler-French-Lincoln.pdf
4. Benjamin B. French Family Papers; Span Dates: 1778-1940; Bulk Dates: (bulk 1813- 1893); ID No.: MSS21550; Creator: French, Benjamin B. (Benjamin Brown), 1800-1870; Extent: 6,500 items ; 38 containers plus 6 oversize ; 17.2 linear feet ; 16 microfilm reels; Language: Collection material in English; Repository: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
5. Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee's Journal, 1828-1870 Paperback by Benjamin Brown French (Author), Donald B. Cole (Editor), John J. McDonough (Editor), Publisher--UPNE; 1st edition (June 15, 1989); ISBN-13: 978-1584652656
7. Barry, Norman: THE ROAD TO BALTIMORE IN THE LIVES OF JAMES FENIMORE COOPER AND BENJAMIN BROWN FRENCH: AN INVESTIGATION OF THE PLACE OF PUBLICATION OF A LAKE ERIE SKETCH AND BALLAD. Online at http://johnmaynard.net/Baltimore.pdf
9. Denslow, William R., 10,000 Famous Freemasons, online at http://www.phoenixmasonry. org/10,000_famous_freemasons/Volume_2_E_to_J.htm 10. Redmond, Andrew J., Complete History of the Epoch Making XXXI Triennial Conclave of the Grand Encampment Knights Templar of the United States, 1910. Online at https:// archive.org/details/cu31924030348621
11. Benjamin Brown French Lodge #15, Web site at http://www.bbflodge.org/.
12. Kingman Daily Miner newspaper, April 24, 2001, online at http://news.google.com/ newspapers?nid=932&dat=20010424&id=6dJPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=71IDAAAAIBAJ& pg=2915,2012977