Fire Of Liberty:
Civic Dedication Of Firefighters Was A Key Link In Americas
5, 2001-- 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.
courageous sense of duty and civic obligation to help their neighbors
also played a key role in the founding of America itself, a University
of Virginia history 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.
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 journal of American history. "Well organized
and filled with voluntaristic public spirit," firefighters were
activists who formed the backbone of broad social networks, 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, many of these 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 conducted
research at several archives including the New York City Fire Museum.
least eight of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, including
Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who signed his
name in famous large letters, were firefighters. The Declaration
took King George III to task for having "burnt our towns."
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."
companies provided a link between notions of civic obligation and
revolutionary ideas about popular participation in political life,
Carp found. The fire clubs and other social groups that had firemen
as members became "the instruments of the Revolution" and drew "their
legitimacy from the people and in some sense paved the way for the
popular American governments that emerged."
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
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
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 American
Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856