George Washington was a supporter of several fire companies, starting at age 18. He served with the Friendship Fire Co. in Alexandria VA, founded in 1774. Washington also purchased Alexandria's first fire engine, and donated engines to other cities. Above, you see a painting by John Trumbull, an attendant to Washington during the War of Independence. Beside it is a repainting of the same scene, also by Trumbull, on a fire engine panel.
George Washington first learned about human nature and getting men to work together while in the fire service. Later when he was building his army, that knowledge and skill were useful. He saw firefighting as a good way to teach life skills and responsibilities to people in the new nation.
When choosing a title for the leader of the new country, George Washington refused to accept "King". A few other options were discussed by the Founders. At that time a "president" was the leader of a meeting, team or club. The title had never been used to describe the head of a nation. It referred to a leader chosen by a group to organize themselves, to reach a present goal. A president was a temporary leader among peers. The leaders of colonial fire companies were often called presidents. George Washington chose to lead the nation in the same way.
"Upon his retirement to Mount Vernon, after his second term as president, he continued to take an active interest in the municipal affairs of Alexandria. It is related that in the last year of his life (1799) he was one day riding down King Street, when a fire broke out near the market. He was accompanied by his servant, also on horseback, and noticed that the Friendship Company engine was poorly manned, though a crowd of well-dressed idlers stood about. Riding up to the crowd he employed very vigorous language in rebuking their indifference at such a time. He ended by calling out, "It is your business to lead in these matters," and throwing the bridle of his horse to his servant, he leaped off and seized the brakes, followed by a crowd that gave the engine such a "shaking up," as it never knew afterwards."
"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
Ben Franklin was a leader in the Enlightenment for both his scientific achievements and also his philosophical ideas. His studies in electricity led him to invent the lightning rod, which saved many buildings from fire. He also invented the cast iron "Franklin stove", which could be inserted into an old fire place. It was safer and more efficient than an open hearth.
Franklin started the first fire company in Philadelphia and helped organize several others. His Union Fire Co. was the first company to respond to the fire of any individual. Other fire companies required insurance, donations or membership to receive their service.
Franklin's Gazette and Almanac gave him vehicles to get his thoughts to the public. He was the only Founding Father that was a tradesman, a "Leather Apron" as he put it. He gathered ideas from people of all stations in life. Franklin studied the Five Nations system of laws of Native Americans living near the colonies. At age 21 he formed the Junto Club for self improvement, both within the group and for civic improvement. Philadelphia had 4,000 residents a that time. The Junto members were all tradesmen with little education; a cobbler, a clerk, a cabinetmaker, several printers and apprentices. At first they met in a tavern on Friday evenings. From this group came untried ideas for creating a new sort of fire company. In 1736 the Union Fire Co. was formed, with Ben Franklin as a member. Several other innovations came to the colonial fire service from this unique fire company.
"In the autumn of 1727 I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased."
In the Boston area in the early 1700s, a house struck by lightning was left to burn and the neighbor's house was protected by the citizens. Lightning was seen as God's will and the fire was a divine act. Ben Franklin's lightning rod brought the Age of Reason to the colonies. Franklin's science experiments showed that lightning was a natural act, not divine. Instead of patenting his invention, Ben allowed anyone to make and use lightning rods.
Volunteer firemen are "Brave men of Spirit and humanity. Good citizens, or neighbors, capable and worthy of civil Society and the enjoyment of a happy government."
Thomas Jefferson, our third U.S. president, was another famous American who served as a volunteer firefighter. Other Founders that were firefighters include:
Samuel Adams, John Hancock,
Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton,
John Jay, Benedict Arnold,
John Barry, James Buchanan,
Millard Fillmore & Aaron Burr.
early fire service capes.
The above engraved portrait of Samuel Adams is by Paul Revere. Both men were firefighters. Paul Revere was a fire warden and also an artisan.
Commodore John Barry
The Liberty Cap is seen on American coins, portraits, crests, flags and fire equipment. It is a symbol from the Roman Empire. Slaves that earned their freedom, were given a wool cap to mark them in public as free. Lady Liberty was a symbol developed from Columbia, the goddess of the New World. She holds a Liberty Pole with a liberty Cap on top in many images. Sometimes Liberty wears her Cap.
The legendary firefighter Mose wears the Liberty Cap as he fights other firefighters in the image below.
The liberty pole goes back to Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. When the tyrant had been assassinated, a pole in the Roman Forum was topped with a pileus or phygian cap (cap worn by freed slaves). America's Lady Liberty carries a portable pole with a cap on top, towering over her, announcing that Americans have been freed from tyranny. Liberty from oppressive goverment. Freedom to pursue Happiness.
Liberty Poles were erected in many cities and towns. Beneath the pole citizens heard the latest news and debated the issues. There were many Liberty Fire Companies, few named Freedom. A liberty was a pass given by an Emperor or King to an individual, allowing conduct not allowed before. This new American Liberty was from the Monarch and the Church all together. Every individual citizen was sovereign. The humble Cap had equal status with the Crown. This was a huge new idea, still being fought over today.
"America is much more than a geographical fact. It is a political and moral fact; the first community in which men set out in principle to institutionalize freedom, responsible government, and human equality."