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 Worshipful Brother 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 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 this purpose by one 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.
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. To wit, President Washington’s closing prayer follows:
“Certainly my dear brethren, it must be as grateful to you as it is to me, to possess the great pleasure of laying this corner stone, which we hope, expect and sincerely pray to produce innumerable corner stones; and that on every one of them, may spring immense edifices. We fervently pray to the Great Grand Master of Heaven, earth and all things, of his infinite wisdom, strength, goodness and mercy, to grant. So may it be.”
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 the Worshipful Master of Lodge No. 9 of Maryland, Valentine Reintzel. It is likely that the Gavel was given to Lodge No. 9 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.
You can find information on requesting a gavel visit here.