Firefighters were key in Americas
of the New York City Fire Museum
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.
have often seemed to represent the best in the American spirit,
never more so than with their bravery in the Sept. 11 terrorist
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.
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.
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.
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 others families at church, says Carp, who researched
several archives, including the New York City Fire Museum.
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
who founded Philadelphias 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.
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.
in a fire company established ones 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 citys needs
at hand, their neighbors welfare in mind, and a courageous sense
of duty at heart.
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.
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.
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.
have had important connections to most periods and themes in our
past, he has discovered. They are significant players in