What is the significance of the gavel in a courtroom, and how did it originate?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
This is an oddly tricky one you’ve stumbled upon. We’re not too sure where the word gavel comes from, much less the path by which the implement became a symbol of the American judiciary. Among the few things we can safely say here is that, like so many of our foundational mysteries, it probably involves the Masons.
It’s not just in courtrooms but at various other formal gatherings where the gavel turns up, including auctions, board meetings, and legislative sessions — notably those of the U.S. Senate, where a gavel opens and closes the proceedings. All the more striking, then, that the academic literature on the subject is so thin: in recent memory, it’s chiefly two articles. The more important for us is a 2001 piece in Massachusetts Legal History entitled “Of Gavels and Maces in the Modern Courts,” by Stephen C. O’Neill, then the curator at the Social Law Library in Boston.
An immediate question one might ask on scanning this title: maces? Sure. Maces are ceremonial staffs that stand as symbols of authority in certain of your more solemn official locales, including some American courtrooms. O’Neill plausibly calls maces and gavels “two of the least considered components of the American legal profession.” To those few who care, though, they’re apparently inseparable, as evidenced by our other source, “The Mace and the Gavel: Symbols of Government in America,” published in 1997 by the Smithsonian historian Silvio Bedini. Of the two, it’s only O’Neill who explores where the gavel (maybe) came from.
Short answer: he figures it’s the Freemasons. George Washington, Ben Franklin, and many of the country’s other founders were members of this group, a fraternal organization that had taken off in Europe circa 1700, then made the jump across the pond — a way for professional types to pass the time before golf took over. The Masons were big on symbolism and ritual (the tinfoil-hat crowd will be happy to elaborate on this), and, as part of claiming their ancestry in stoneworkers’ guilds of the Middle Ages, they worked various appurtenances of the lowercase-M mason’s trade into their shtick. The gavel began its career, O’Neill tells us, as a setting-maul, a mallet used to knock stones into place; in European Masonic lodges, the working tool became a token of authority granted to the presiding officer.
As O’Neill writes, early Americans’ “familiarity with Masonic ritual and forms provided procedures for pre-Revolutionary committee meetings, and [these] were continued during the early republic in both legislative bodies, public ceremonies, and courtrooms.” The most high-profile of such institutions was, again, the Senate, which adopted a symbolic gavel of its own; the House of Representatives went with a mace.
You’ll notice we still haven’t made it to court. Here the best O’Neill can do is that judges’ gavels “probably came into use because of the Senate’s and other early examples.” In other words, our country was set up by guys who generally liked to dress up their affairs with a little Masonic-style pomp, and next thing you know, judges have gavels.
O’Neill calls this the “most plausible explanation,” but you can see the material’s a bit thin. As we said up top, even the etymology’s foggy. The use of gavel to refer to the hammer can’t be traced beyond the early-19th-century U.S.; in medieval England the word was used for certain kinds of rent or fee, but lexicographers have never managed to conclusively connect the dots.
Our other historian, Bedini, remains silent about Masonic influence on the Senate gavel, and on gavelry in general — they must’ve gotten to him. The gavel’s role in the Senate isn’t hugely different than in those old lodge meetings: it’s kept locked in a drawer until the body convenes, when the sergeant-at-arms uncases it and sets it on the rostrum for the presiding officer’s use. What the Senate calls its gavel is actually a handleless ivory block, or “knocker”; at auction houses, O’Neill notes, you’ll find both handled and handleless gavels, so such a thing’s not unheard of. Auctioneering is an example of a profession that really relies on the gavel to get business done, in contrast to the mostly ceremonial function it performs in the legislature. Certainly it’s not the only useless tool ever spotted on Capitol Hill.
And even in the courtroom, the gavel mainly just gathers dust — according to a 2011 article in the New York Daily News plenty of judges don’t even bother bringing it out of chambers. Our legal system has court officers to keep things ruly, and the image of the judge banging a gavel and shouting “Order!” is largely a cinematic convention. It’s a dogged one, though: to the periodic annoyance of UK judicial experts, gavels will pop up in British-made movies and TV shows portraying domestic legal proceedings. What’s the gripe? They don’t use the gavel in British courts; they never have.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.