One of the most visible aspects of the Masonic fraternity is its long tradition of ceremonially laying the cornerstones of many public and private buildings. This tradition contains great meaning for Masons, and ties the fraternity closely to many cities around the country, including Washington, DC.
The historic George Washington Gavel was among the Masonic implements used by President George Washington when he performed the ceremonial cornerstone laying for the United States Capitol building on September 18, 1793 as Worshipful Master of Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 of Virginia. Also participating in the ceremony were Lodge No. 9 of Maryland (now Potomac Lodge No. 5) and Lodge No. 15 of Maryland (now Federal Lodge No. 1, F.A.A.M., of DC).
The ceremonies of the day were carried out with great care and solemnity, and were well attended both by Masonic and civic leaders. Newspaper accounts of the event recall a grand procession from the north shore of the Potomac River in what is now Georgetown to the site of the Capitol, with spectators cheering every step of the way. Although the Capitol was at the time a simple hole in the ground in the middle of a forest, the dignity afforded to its cornerstone spoke volumes about the hope that it represented. At the conclusion of the ceremony, President Washington gave the silver trowel he used to his own Lodge, Alexandria-Washington No. 22 of Virginia, and presented the Gavel to Valentine Reintzel, the Master of Potomac. It is likely that the Gavel was given to Potomac because it was the older of the two Maryland Lodges participating in the ceremony.
Most Worshipful Brother Reintzel, who in 1811 became the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free And Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia, retained personal possession of the Gavel until his death in 1817. At that time his family returned the Gavel to Lodge No. 9, then and now known as Potomac Lodge No. 5, F.A.A.M. of the District of Columbia, and it was kept locked with the other possessions of the Lodge at its regular meeting place until 1922. On 18 December 1922, it was moved to Riggs National Bank (now PNC Bank), where it has remained since.
The head of the Washington Gavel is made of the same Maryland marble originally used in the interior of the Capitol, and its handle is crafted of a dark, native American cherry of unique grain. It was made specially for the purpose of laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol by John Duffy, who also made the other Masonic tools used that day. John Duffy was a silversmith by trade, and was married to a daughter of President Washington’s gardener; he is also reputed to be a member of the President’s mother Lodge, Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 of Virginia.
To permanently identify this historic gavel, the Lodge in 1856 affixed a gold plate to the top of the marble head and engraved with a brief citation of its history. The cost to affix the cap was $60 in 1856. (2017 cost: ~$1,600)
The inscription reads: “This Gavel was prepared for Bro. George Washington for the purpose of laying the Corner Stone of the U.S. Capitol and was so used by him September 18, 1793. He then presented it to Potomac Lodge No. 9 of Maryland, afterward Potomac Lodge No. 43 and now Potomac Lodge No. 5 of the Grand Lodge of the D.C., by whose Order of 1840 this Inscription is placed upon it. 1856”
Notable Uses of the Gavel
As part of Potomac Lodge No. 5’s stewardship of this important historical artifact, the Lodge responds to several requests each year for presentations or ceremonies which include the George Washington Gavel. It has been used to lay the cornerstone of many public buildings throughout the United States and for other public and Masonic ceremonies of a historical nature. Among some of the most noteworthy events are the laying of the cornerstones of:
- First Use After the Capitol: City Hall of the District of Columbia on August 22, 1824
- The American University on October 21, 1896
- The State Capitol of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg on August 10, 1898
- The Washington Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul at Mount Saint Albans in Washington on September 29, 1907
- The Scottish Rite House of the Temple on October 18, 1911
- The Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall on October 30, 1928
- The Smithsonian Institution on May 1, 1847
- The Washington Monument on July 1, 1848
- The Soldier’s Monument at Antietam Battlefield on November 10, 1867
- The Grand Lodge of D.C. on May 20, 1868
- The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania on June 24, 1868
The following Presidents of the United States, all Master Masons but two, have either used or been present at the using of the Gavel on the occasions cited below:
- James K. Polk in the laying of the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Building, May 1, 1847.
- Millard Fillmore in the laying of the cornerstone of the extension of the U. S. Capitol, July 4, 1851.
- James Buchanan at the dedication of the Equestrian Statue of George Washington, February 22, 1860.
- William McKinley at the George Washington Centennial Observance at Mt. Vernon, December 14, 1899.
- Theodore Roosevelt at the celebration of the sesquicentennial date on which General Washington received the Master Mason’s degree, November 2, 1902; in laying the cornerstone of the House Office Building, April 14, 1906; and again, in laying the cornerstone of the Masonic Temple, 801 13th Street, NW, June 8, 1907.
- William H. Taft in laying the cornerstone of the All Souls Unitarian Church, February 13, 1913.
- Warren G. Harding in laying the cornerstone of the Washington Victory Memorial, November 14, 1921.
- Herbert Hoover in laying the cornerstone of the Department of Commerce, June 10, 1929 and the Department of Labor, December 15, 1932.
- Harry S. Truman in the Centennial Observance of the cornerstone laying of the Washington Monument, July 1, 1948, this being a repeat engagement for the Gavel as it was used to lay the original cornerstone of the Monument, Jul 1, 1848.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower in laying the cornerstone of the new extension of the U. S. Capitol building, July 4, 1959.
A most special honor to Potomac Lodge occurred when the Gavel was personally used by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in laying the foundation stone of the new British Embassy building on October 19, 1957.
Other Notable Dedications and Reenactments:
- Reenactment of the place of the original boundary marker of the District of Columbia at Jones Point, October 9, 1976.
- 250th Anniversary of the brith of Illustrious Brother George Washington, held at Potomac Lodge No.5, Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4, and Alexandria-Washington No.22., 1982.
- Statue of Liberty centennial celebration, August 5, 1984.
- White House bicentennial cornerstone reenactment, 1992.
- United States Capitol bicentennial cornerstone reenactment, 1993.
The Gavel’s Travels: An Interactive Timeline
You can find information on requesting a gavel visit here.