Appendix Supplement to Part Three: The Provincial Congress and the Firemen
Henry B. Dawson was a nineteenth century writer, editor, and historian who wrote several works on the Revolution as well as the volunteer fire department of New York. In this manuscript, he takes exception to the New York Provincial Congress of 1775/6 for its enactments that modified the historic exemptions from military service that members of the fire department had enjoyed since their first appointments in 1738. He viewed these modifications as an Elite ruling class' insensitivity to and disregard of the ordinary working class. As shown below, he was no admirer of John Jay, a leading member of the Provincial Congress, an advocate of the Constitution, Secretary of State in Washington's administration, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, in the 1860s he had a public dispute with John Jay's grandson, also named John Jay, over the merits of Jay's contributions to the Revolution and the Constitution.:
The transcriptions below supplement our narrative and provides some context for the fire department in the period just before the Revolution came to New York. They are from the original handwritten manuscript in the collection of the New-York Historical Society entitled: "Incidents in the history of the Volunteer Fire Department in the City of New York. 1648-1783." By Henry B. Dawson.
To begin, in order to establish the status of firemen in 1775, Dawson quotes the Common Council ordinance of 1738 that established the duties and rights of the firemen.
Pages 39-40: "Fifthly That in consideration of the good services of the said Firemen to be by them done and performed (pursuant to the Act of the General Assembly aforesaid) such Firemen so Elected, Nominated, Appointed, and Registered as Aforesaid, Shall be freed, Exempted, and Privileged from Serving in the several Offices of A Constable, Surveyor of Highways, Juries or Inquests, or serving in the Militia or any of the Independent Companies within this City Except in Cases of Invasion or Other imminent danger."
Dawson then criticized the Provincial Congress for the change to the fundamental terms of the firemen’s appointment. The Congressional resolution stated that the firemen would be exempt from military duty "out of the city", which, as interpreted by many including many firemen, implicitly made them available for militia duty in the city (see Chapter 11). Dawson interprets this alteration as issuing from the "want of sympathy" of the elite governing classes for the working classes.
Pages 43-45: As the duties of a Militia-man within the city, at that time, were exceedingly burdensome, especially to those Tradesmen and Mechanics and Workingmen who continued to reside there, the resident Firemen were evidently alarmed by the seeming intention to violate those rights and exemptions which had been given them, for a "recompense and reward for their services" as Firemen, and to subject them, in violation of the well-settled Law of the Colony, to military service, of some kind, within the City; and, therein, the careful reader will see one of the numerous evidences which have come down to us, of that entire want of sympathy, at the time of which we write, between the wealthy and well-born Merchants and Traders and Professional Men and Office-holders and Gentlemen of the City, on the one hand, and the Tradesmen and Mechanics and Workingmen of the City, of whom the Firemen were mainly composed, on the other; of the consequent indifference, if nothing else, of the last-named classes to those clearly revolutionary projects and practices in which many of the first-name classes were then engaged, less for the good of the great body of Colonists than for the promotion of their own individual and selfish and aristocratic purposes; and of that stern fact, so well-known to every intelligent student of the history of that period, that the well-born, notwithstanding their high-sounding intentions, knew no rights whatever, either of person or property, in the working classes of the Colony, in town or in the country, which they were under the slightest obligation to either respect or to recognize.
After the creation of the 1776 List of Firemen with its quasi-military organization (see Appendix #19, Dawson also transcribed the 1776 List in this manuscript), the Provincial Congress again changed the terms of the firemen’s exemption, probably to remove any ambiguity as to what would happen to that "company" in case of invasion. On June 15, 1776 Congress exempted firemen who formed a separate militia-type company, which the firemen had already begun, with the proviso that the company would be subsumed into Washington’s Continental army in case of invasion. Dawson took exception to this directive also.
Pages 50-52: On the motion of John Jay, after it had absolutely and unqualifiedly exempted the Clergy and the Licensed Physicians, the Congress…by repudiating the obligations of the State, to the less high-toned, but not less useful and necessary, Firemen, by resolving, formally, "That such of the Firemen be exempted…as will agree to form a separate company…to be under the command of the General." The author of this resolution knew, full well, that by the terms of it he was circumventing the plebian Firemen, who were less skillful than himself, in the use of deceptive words and in the construction of legal fictions, the latter appearing to be what, in fact, they were not…he has no hesitation...to appear to accede to their expressed willingness, as volunteers, to defend the City against an invader, while he artfully and deceptively repudiated those vested rights which were theirs both by moral right and by legislative enactment…to be legally exempted from all military services; and, most of all, treacherously and illegally, to turn them over…to General Washington…to be marched …to the extreme verge of the most distant colony, if that, by him, should have been considered expedient, as much the victims of a local tyranny as any of those German troops who were then approaching New York, had been, in their own monarchial Fatherland…the same character (John Jay)…while a member of the Provincial Congress…in this instance…was especially careful that only those undistinguished plebeians of the State should be brought within the provisions of his revolutionary license for kidnapping...