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Firefighters were key in America’s founding

Firefighters were key in America’s founding

Courtesy of the New York City Fire Museum
A detail from a certificate, dated 1807, appointing Thomas Burtis a fireman in New York City, attests to the civic importance and rich iconography of firefighting in post-Revolutionary America. The scene depicts firemen working as a team to extinguish a burning building.

By Robert Brickhouse

Firefighters have often seemed to represent the best in the American spirit, never more so than with their bravery in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Their courageous sense of duty and civic obligation to help their neighbors also played a key role in the founding of America itself, a U.Va. doctoral student shows in newly published research.

Because fire was always a terrible threat, the American colonists invented the concept of volunteer companies to protect life and property, says Benjamin L. Carp, who has conducted extensive research on the origins of firefighting in America as he works toward his doctorate in history.

By the eve of the Revolution, these fire clubs and associations in cities throughout the colonies “had assumed a central place in urban society and politics,” Carp writes in the current issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, a journal of American history. “Well-organized and filled with voluntaristic public spirit,” firefighters were activists who formed the backbone of broad social networks, were dedicated to preserving safety, and “provided a model for orderly resistance that was crucial to the American Revolution,” he says.

Though some firefighters also sided with the British, fire societies in city after city played a critical role in urban revolutionary mobilization, Carp found. In cities from Albany and Boston south to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, firefighters were often involved with the Sons of Liberty groups in protests against the Stamp Act and other British policies. They were used to working together, drinking together in taverns and coffeehouses, and mingling with each other’s families at church, says Carp, who researched several archives, including the New York City Fire Museum.

At least eight signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were firefighters. The Declaration took King George III to task for having “burnt our towns.”

Franklin, who founded Philadelphia’s first fire company, described his volunteer colleagues: “Here are brave Men, Men of Spirit and Humanity, good Citizens, or Neighbors, capable and worthy of civil Society, and the Enjoyment of a happy Government.”

Firefighters, as civic leaders, were proud of what the colonists had achieved. These public-spirited voluntary groups proved the colonies were not created by Britain, “but by the Colonists themselves,” Franklin wrote. They, not the British, had built the colonies’ civic infrastructure. Franklin emphasized that the relationship with England was “voluntary” and for mutual interest — the very model of an 18th-century fire company, Carp notes. “Franklin, Adams, and many of their brother firemen applied these principles of equality, voluntarism, mutual endeavor, public safety and active self-government to their understanding of the American Revolution and consequently paved the way for a republican political system independent from Great Britain.”

Membership in a fire company established one’s place as a dutiful citizen and sharpened political thinking, Carp discovered. “The fire of liberty roused them, spurred them to action, and gave them the opportunity to exert themselves with their city’s needs at hand, their neighbors welfare in mind, and a courageous sense of duty at heart.”

Carp’s research was conducted well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was set to go to press then, but he was able to dedicate it to the firefighters and other rescue personnel who gave their lives that day.

He grew up on Long Island, where many New York firefighters make their home, and his best friend from high school is a volunteer firefighter there, as is a family cousin. He has had third-generation firefighters stand him for drinks when they learned of his research, which he began as an undergraduate as Yale.

His curiosity about colonial fire groups was sparked when he read a reference to a citizen who was described as not being a member. “I became interested in what it meant to be a firefighter during the Revolutionary era,” he says.

Firefighters have had important connections to most periods and themes in our past, he has discovered. “They are significant players in American history.”


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