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Jim Tresner, 33, Grand Cross
Guthrie, Oklahoma

The amazing scope of Albert Pike’s life and genius is demonstrated by the fact that he had, minimally, 23 careers.


Albert Pike has become something of an obsession with me. I am fascinated that one man could have done so much—could have been so much—in one lifetime. One result of this fixation was my book Albert Pike, The Man Beyond the Monument, an anecdotal biography.*

A second result is a work in pro-gress, an annotated chronology of Pike’s life. When I started this project, I gave it the working title of “The Eight Lives of Albert Pike” because I thought Pike had eight distinctly different and impressive careers. The working title is now “The 23 Lives of Albert Pike,” and the number is still rising as I continue my research. Let me quickly sketch those careers for you.

Teacher—Pike started as a teacher and would return to teaching several times in his life. When he no longer taught in a classroom, he used the pages of newspapers and the Scottish Rite to inform and educate people.

Poet—He started writing poems at a very early age. Edgar Allan Poe praised him as America’s greatest classic poet, and Pike’s poems were printed in the major literary magazines of the day.

Essayist—Pike’s essays covered an immense amount of ground. Some, such as the essays on the transcontinental railroad, the economic future of the South, and the importance of infrastructure improvements in Arkansas, were essentially economic. Many were political, satiric, or biographical. Others were philosophic, such as the essays which comprise Morals and Dogma.

Trapper/Explorer—His trek through what is now Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico was the source of several short stories and poems.

Historian—Pike’s records give us the earliest description we have of several areas of New Mexico. Also, he contributed to histories written by others, most notably John Hallum’s Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas and Ben LaBree’s The Confederate Soldier in the Civil War, 1861–1865.

Revolutionary—As a young man, Pike was a revolutionary, and he never lost that fire. Support for revolutions occurs in his poems “The Struggle for Freedom,” “France,” “The Fall of Poland,” “When Shall the Nations All Be Free?” and “Yes, Call Us Rebels!” Again and again, he wrote into the ritual of the Scottish Rite the absolute right of men to self-determination, the wrongness of tyranny in any form, and the right of an oppressed people to retake their liberty by any means necessary, including violence.

Short Story Writer—He wrote short stories which appeared in The Pearl, The Literary Gazette, The American Monthly Magazine, and in his book titled Prose Sketches and Poems, Written in the Western Country.

Newspaper Editor—He edited The Arkansas Advocate, The Memphis Appeal, and The Patriot.

Bon Vivant—Typically today, we simply order the entree we want and take whatever comes with it. But a meal in the 19th Century was a very different thing. One selected the first course from many alternatives, prepared in many different ways, and a wine to accompany it. One specified what vegetables were to accompany that course, how the salad was to be prepared, etc. The same was true for each course of the meal. Five courses were considered minimal, and seven were not uncommon. Pike was so knowledgeable in the area that many people in restaurants would simply tell their waiters to duplicate whatever Pike was ordering.

Lawyer—Pike became one of the best-known lawyers in the South. He had a very large practice and was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

Legal Scholar—In addition to practicing law, Pike developed a reputation as a legal scholar. He recodified the laws of Arkansas and created an index for them; he wrote and published The Arkansas Form Book, which contained not only digests of the law but a complete set of legal forms (wills, mortgages, etc.); he was the reporter for the Arkansas Supreme Court; and he became a recognized authority in the field of comparative law.

Educational Reformer—Pike’s interest in education and its reform never weakened. He advocated a system of free, publicly supported education in Arkansas. His theories about the learning patterns of children and the importance of self-learning anticipated Montessori.

Political Activist—Until the outbreak of the Civil War, Pike was deeply involved in the political life of Arkansas and the South. He served as chairman of numerous political parties and committees, wrote extensively in the area, and worked tirelessly in campaigns.

Humorist—Pike’s humorous writing takes several forms. In prose, we have his mock essays such as those on the “philosophy” of walking, bowling, and smoking a cigar. We also have his amusing “Anecdotes of the Arkansas Bar” and, in poetry, comic or satiric works such as “A Fine Arkansas Gentleman,” “O Jamie Brewed a Bowl o’ Punch,” “A Dollar, or Two,” “Spree at Johnnie Coyle’s,” and “To a Friend He Could Never Say No.”

Publisher—In addition to working as editor, Pike was owner or part owner of several newspapers and one-short-lived literary magazine.

Apologist—The term “apologist,” meaning one who writes or speaks in defense of some person, cause or action, has largely vanished from contemporary English. Yet in his eloquence, passion and zeal, Pike deserves to rank with the great American apologists Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps his best-known apologia is his defense of both the Masonic Fraternity and the American value system against the attack by Pope Leo XIII in the Papal Bull Humanum Genus. But his powerful portrayals of the lot of women in the 19th Century, his defense of the poor and his support of the Bill of Rights, show that his concerns for justice and toleration were universal.

Military Commander—Pike served as Captain of the Little Rock Artillery, as a Captain in the War with Mexico, and as a General in the Civil War. Controversy still swirls around Pike as soldier, but scholars, like his principal biographer, Professor Walter Lee Brown in the new, definitive biography A Life of Albert Pike published by the University of Arkansas Press, point out his strategic decisions and general martial competence.

Orator—He was the best-known orator in Arkansas and one of the best-known in the South. He was in constant demand at debate societies, for political conventions, and for patriotic events.

Chief Justice—Pike served as a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Arkansas under the Confederacy.

Social Reformer—He became convinced that social reform was essential and advocated reforms which were highly radical for his time, including the rights and equality of women, the legal protection of children, economic reform to keep too much wealth from concentrating in too few hands, improved working conditions for laborers and economic actions to insulate them against the cycles of business, and the reform of both jails and the treatment of criminals.

Indian Advocate—Pike was deeply concerned about the treatment of American Indians by the government and white society. He had several good friends among the tribes and used to spend a great deal of time hunting and camping with them. He became their advocate in Congress, pressing for the payment of the claims due to them from the federal government.

Philosopher—Philosophy was, perhaps, Pike’s truest love. He read it constantly and wrote widely on the topic. In Morals and Dogma, he attempted one of the first general courses in philosophy and comparative religion ever written.

Mason—He was, in many ways, the quintessential Mason of the 1800s. He held offices in virtually every Masonic Body, but his work and tenure as Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, including his revision of the Rite’s Ritual, laid the foundation for the organization as it exists today.

Clearly, as this brief review of his many careers underlines, Pike had a busy life of multiple accomplishments. Today, our image of Pike comes from the photographs and busts made of him in his later years. We have wrapped him with so much plaster, marble, and bronze that we have lost sight of the vital man himself. Read Pike and discover him as he really was. You won’t be disappointed!

Note: This essay is an abbreviated version of a paper given by Ill. Tresner to the Minnesota Masonic Education Seminar meeting at the Masonic Exposition held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 4–5, 1996.

*Albert Pike, The Man Beyond the Monument is available for $12.00 (S/H included). Make checks payable to The Supreme Council and send orders to 1733 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20009–3103.