NEW YORK MASONIC HISTORY
The Annual Daniel D. Tompkins Graveside Dedication
Commemorating the Tragic Life of an Exceptional Brother
On Friday, June 18th, 2021, the Brothers of Tompkins Lodge No. 471 of the Richmond District in the NY Masonic Jurisdiction (or Staten Island, NY) visited St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery—in the East Village of New York City—to pay homage to the namesake of their Lodge, Daniel D. Tompkins. The annual Tompkins’ Graveside Dedication has become a cherished tradition among the Masons of this Lodge, who take this opportunity to reflect upon the celebrated, yet tragic, life of a very special Most Worshipful Brother. So, who was Daniel D. Tompkins and why do these Masons commemorate his life each year?
St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, New York City.
Despite the accusations against him, he was elected Vice President to President James Monroe. In 1817, before he departed New York for the U.S. Capitol, he recommended a plan for the abolition of slavery in New York, which the state assembly adopted. Slavery was abolished in New York State within the next 10 years largely due to Tompkins’ plan. In 1820, while serving as Vice President, Tompkins simultaneously served two years as Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York.
As Vice President, he was mostly absentee, as he regularly traveled back home to handle his debt issues. The stress from his financial troubles caused him to fall heavily into alcoholism, to the point that rumors were even circulating about him passing out drunk when presiding over the Senate. However, this did not stop him from chairing the New York State Constitutional Convention while Congress was in recess.
Tompkins’ name lives on in a great many ways. Public School 69 in Staten Island — which I personally attended in my younger years — is named the Daniel D. Tompkins School. Additionally, the town of Tompkinsville, Tompkins Avenue, and Tompkinsville Park also immortalize his name in Staten Island, where he established himself in 1814. In 1911, the Grand Lodge of New York dedicated the Daniel D. Tompkins Memorial Chapel, located at the Masonic Home Campus in Utica, NY. The Scottish Rite awards the Daniel Tompkins medal to honor distinguished contributions to the Craft. Before all that, however, Tompkins Lodge No. 471 in the Richmond District of the New York Jurisdiction held their first fficial regular meeting on June 21st, 1859—Daniel D. Tompkins’ birthday. This brings us back to the graveside dedication at St. Mark’s Church, the history of which has only recently been uncovered.
On June 11, 1825, only three months after retiring as Vice President, he laid down the working tools of life and was interred at the Minthorne vault in the west yard of St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, New York City. Years later, his heirs were awarded an additional $40,000, but no amount of money could bring back a man who died broken by the very government he went into debt to support in time of war.
Tompkins became involved in Freemasonry around the same time he began his political career. He was initiated into Hiram Lodge No. 72 in Mt. Pleasant and served as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of New York from 1801 to 1805. In 1809, at the age of thirty-five, he received his 32nd degree in Scottish Rite Masonry. On August 5, 1813, at the age of thirty-nine, he was awarded his 33rd degree.
In 1807, he was inaugurated governor of New York and served until 1817. While in office, he also became the first Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite’s newly established Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, holding that position until the day he laid down his working tools. During the War of 1812, if the state legislature was not in session — or refused to approve the appropriate funding — he paid for military supplies from his own pocket and even used his own property as collateral to borrow money and assist in financing the war. Although a completely selfless act, this left him open to accusations of mishandling public money. As a wartime governor, he had a strong hand in reorganizing the state militia and strongly supported a standing state military. In 1814, his efforts earned him a nomination from President James Madison for United States Secretary of State, which he declined to instead become commander of a federal military district.
To say that the Masonic commemoration of Daniel D. Tompkins started in 2009, however, would be doing a great disservice to the past Brothers of Tompkins Lodge. His birthday has always meant something to every member who passes through the inner door, a sentiment exemplified by R∴W∴George Cromwell. Cromwell was the 1st Borough President of Staten Island, a member of the New York State Senate, Past District Deputy Grand Master of the Richmond District, and Past Master of Tompkins Lodge. While he was Master, the Lodge was celebrating its 50-year anniversary, which fell on Tompkins’ birthday. On Tompkins, Cromwell said:
Now, on this anniversary of his birth, we, as Masons and as Brothers, should take to heart the lessons of his life. As a man, he was upright, brave, and sincere. As a citizen, he was a true American, public-spirited, and active. As a public official, he was clear-headed, firm in resolve even when his best efforts to serve the people were misconstrued and thwarted, and indomitable in his perseverance.
As a Mason, through all his strenuous and overtaxed life, he was indefatigable in advancing the interests of the Fraternity, and always found time to give his best thought and energies to his brethren of the Craft.
This is the man whose name we bear, and whose example as a Mason is a beacon light to Tompkins Lodge and to our noble brotherhood throughout the land.>
The contemporary Brothers of Tompkins Lodge undoubtedly take great pride in this 13-year-old tradition, as we should. Yet, we should take greater pride in knowing that we are part of a tradition of honoring the Most Worshipful Brother Tompkins, that is far older than we may think. It goes back to, at the very least, Cromwell’s year as Master and quite possibly even longer in some manifestation. How far back does it really go? Unless further information is uncovered, there truly is no way to know the answer to that question.
Is this not the very same question, however, we ask about Freemasonry in general?
As Masons, we take great pride in learning about the history of our time-honored traditions, forms, and ceremonies regardless of how shrouded in mystery they may appear at first glance. To the Brothers of Tompkins Lodge, the history of the commemoration of Daniel D. Tompkins—a great man, a great Mason, a great patriot, our great namesake—is more than just another tradition that we are attempting to unravel the true origins of, it is a mystery just as important as any other that Masons attempt to unveil.
Alas, my Brother!
WB:. John P. Lentine
Secretary, Tompkins Lodge No. 471