Brave Men at Fires
A letter from Franklin (using his pen name) to his own Gazette dated 1 December, 1773
To the Publisher of the GAZETTE
An experienc’d Writer has said, there was never a great Man that was not an industrious Man, and I believe that there never was a good Man that was a lazy Man. This may serve to introduce a few Thoughts I have had while meditating on the Circumstances of Buildings on Fire, and the Persons there gather’d. Accidental Fires in Houses are most frequent in the Winter and in the Night Time: But neither Cold nor Darkness will deter good People, who are able, from hastening to the dreadful Place, and giving their best Assistance to quench the Flames; nor wicked People from making as much Haste to pilfer; nor others to be idle Spectators. The two latter Sort are not to be easily instructed and made good; and as it is not in my Power to punish them otherwise than by despising them, as all good People do, I shall here neglect to characterize them further.
The brave Men who at Fires are active and speedy with their best Advice and Example, or the Labour of their Hands, are uppermost in my Thoughts. This kind of Industry seems to me a great Virtue. He that is afraid to leave a warm Bed, and to walk in the Dark, and to dawb or tear his Clothes or his Skin; He that makes no Difference between Virtue and Vice, and takes no Pleasure in Hospitality; and He that cares not who suffers, if he himself gains by it, or suffers not; will not any one of them, be industriously concern’d (if their own Dwellings are out of Danger) in preserving from devouring Flames either private or publick Buildings.
But how pleasing must it be to a thinking Man to observe, that not a Fire happens in this Town, but soon after it is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles; who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing Fire. Some of the chiefest in Authority, and numbers of good Housekeepers, are ever ready, not only to direct but to labor, and are not seen to shun Parts or Places the most hazardous; and Others who having scarce a Coat in the World besides that on their Backs, will venture that, and their Limbs, in saving of Goods surrounded with Fire, and in rending off flaming Shingles. They do it not for Sake of Reward of Money or Fame: There is no Provision of either made for them. But they have a Reward in themselves, and they love one another. If it were prudent to mention Names, and could Virtue be prais’d without Danger of Envy or Calumny rising against her, I should rejoyce to know a skilful Pen employ’d, to distinguish, in lively Expressions and significant Language, Men so deserving.
This poor Paper shall praise them altogether; and while neither its Author nor they are nam’d, Virtue will be its own Reward, and Envy and Calumny have no Body to point at. Ye Men of Courage, Industry, and Goodness, continue thus in well doing; and if you grow not ostentatious, it will be thought by every good Man who sees your Performances; here are brave Men, Men of Spirit and Humanity, good Citizens, or Neighbours, capable and worthy of civil Society, and the Enjoyment of a happy Government. We see where these Men are, and what they are busy about; they are not snoring in their Beds after a Debauch; they are not employ’d in any Crimes for Concealment whereof the Vicious chuse the Night Season, nor do they prefer their own East at Home to the Safety of other Peoples Fortunes or Lives. See there a gallant Man who has rescu’d Children from the Flames! – Another receives in his Arms a poor scorch’d Creature escaping out at a Window! – Another is loaded with Papers and the best Furniture, and secures them for the Owner. – What daring Souls are cutting away the flaming Roof to stop the Fires Progress to others! – How vigorously do these brave Fellows hand along the Water and work the Engines, and assist the Ladders; and with what Presence of Mind, Readiness and Clearness, do these fine Men observe, advise and direct. Here are Heroes and effective Men fit to compose the Prime of an Army, and to either lay or defend a Siege or Storm.
This little City, but esteem’d great of its Age, owes not more at this Day for its long Streets and fair Stories, to Architects of any kind, than to those worthy Inhabitants, who have always started at the first Warning, to oppose and vanquish the Rage of Fire.
Besides the Pains freely taken by a great many good People in putting out Fires, some are at the Expence of Buckets and Ladders; without which the Business could not be done. And if it be a Duty incumbent on all that can afford it, to provide such useful Implements, I am of Opinion that it is most so on those, who being decrepid or infirm, cannot assist in Person; or who wearing costly Clothes, would not risque their being spoil’d. But such as can neither advise nor labour, should not stand in the Way of others who can, and are willing.
It is true indeed, as well among Men as Bees, that some Drones are in every Hive or Swarm; but I hope there are few so void of Consideration, and Regard to private and publick Safety, as a vagabond Fellow at the late Fire, who, being smartly ask’d by an industrious young Man, why he did not lend a Hand to the Buckets, answer’d, He car’d not if all the Houses in Town were o’ Fire: For which he receiv’d a Bucket of Water on his impudent Face. This was a fit Reward, as it was near at hand and took up a little Time to give it, but I doubt not a large Majority of People think with me, that he deserves a Punishment much greater and more exemplary.
December I. 1733