Understanding the fire service oath you are promising to uphold
By Frank Ricci and David Shestokas
As firefighters, we all take an oath of office as a solemn promise to defend the Constitution of the United States. While each jurisdiction’s oath may vary, they all contain the same substantive language that each individual shall uphold the Constitution and that he will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of his office and obey the laws of his state and city. Many fire departments expand on the oath to include a willingness to place others above themselves and to follow the regulations of the department.
Placing the public above ourselves is how we are trained; it is our duty to the public that we are sworn to protect. This part of the oath is easy to reconcile—it is a part of who we are. We know that injury or death is always a card in our hand. However, this is not blind dedication; we endeavor every day to make our profession safer through training and procedures. We know the key to positive outcomes is predicated on a balance of training, knowledge, and experience.
Shouldn’t this dedication encompass understanding our oath? Being a firefighter and serving your community is one of the most civic minded undertakings that can be done outside of serving in our great military. Why are we taking a solemn oath to defend the Constitution? If you are going to swear a solemn oath, shouldn’t you know what is in it, beyond the limited education received in high school civics?
It is noteworthy that a review of the curriculum of numerous college-level degree programs for public fire administration and fire science reveals they are lacking any classes that provide knowledge about the Constitution or any of the founding documents. Even lawyers, required as members of the bar and the judicial branch to take a constitutional oath, are not taught the meaning of that oath.
Authority for Our Oath
As firefighters, we fall under the Constitution’s Article VI as members of the Executive Branch of government sworn to uphold the public trust. This practice has been ingrained in our history. The constant threat of fire was at the forefront of protecting our communities in the New World. No fire could be fought alone so, for their general welfare, the colonists organized early fire companies. In 1773, Ben Franklin, the father of the American Fire Service, wrote under a pen name: “Soon after it [a fire] 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.”
Benjamin Franklin understood that goodwill alone would not carry the day and saw the need to organize fire companies to protect the community and provide for the general welfare of the citizens.
In Peace Firemen, if Invaded Soldiers
The fire hall was not just a place to endeavor to protect the city from fire. It became one of the centers of civic life, second only to the tavern and the church that also served as meeting places. Any able-bodied man and child would answer the call. It was the fire bell that tolled for fire and for invaders. The members would bring buckets or arms. Many of our founders including George Washington, John Jay, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Barry, Aaron Burr, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Samuel Adams, and Benedict Arnold were firefighters. At least eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were firefighters. Volunteer fire companies were in place long before the Revolution, and their structure helped shape our government. Concerning America’s volunteer fire halls, Professor Benjamin Carp from Tufts University wrote, “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.”
Understanding our Constitution and Oaths
Discussions of the United States Constitution tend to focus on the actions of the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Often overlooked is the impact of the Constitution on the actions of local government and the requirement of an oath to uphold the Constitution imposed on every government official in the country, whether federal, state, or local.
A Specific Oath for the President
Most Americans are aware of the required presidential oath of office required of a president before he begins his service, found in Article II, Section I, clause 8: “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: — ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”
This is the only specific oath defined in the Constitution and serves a specific purpose: to remind the president that, as he assumes office, he is to be a president—not a king. However, it is not the Constitution’s only oath requirement.
Constitutional Oath Requirement for All Government Officials
A lesser known constitutional oath requirement is found in Article VI, clause 3, stating: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation,1 to support this Constitution ….”
This constitutional requirement is binding on every government official in the United States from members of Congress to governors and judges to members of city councils, police officers, firefighters, and board members of mosquito abatement districts and library boards.
The First Priority of Congress Under the Constitution
The founders of this country considered oaths to be a matter of extreme importance. Beyond the provisions for the president and all government officials in the country, oaths are required specifically for senators when acting as jurors in impeachment trials and in the Fourth Amendment for supporting probable cause to issue warrants for searches and arrests.
One way to judge the importance of a subject is the timing of its disposition relative to other subjects. The priority of an oath as a contributor to the proper conduct of government officials was clearly demonstrated. The first law passed under the Constitution by the Congress and signed by President Washington was, “An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths.” Statute I of the United States of America went into effect on June 1, 1789.
Oaths to the Founders were Matters of Honor and Eternity
The import of an oath is clear. That brings up the question of why? Part of the answer calls to mind the final phrase of the Declaration of Independence: “… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The founding was a time when honor and a man’s reputation were “sacred,” valued, and important. It was time when an attack on one’s honor could result in a challenge to a duel that might result in death.2 An oath was not something done lightly or considered pro forma or part of an archaic ceremony. A crucial component of an oath was that it placed one’s honor on the line. That was the earthly component, but not the only one, and for some not the most important.
The final phrase of the Declaration also invokes “reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” This demonstrates that the mutual pledge was more than to each other and what an oath was understood to be when it was written into the Constitution. An oath was not just a promise to the community; it was a promise to the Almighty. Oath taking traditions that employ the Bible and the phrase “so help me God” reflect this understanding.
Noah Webster, a contemporary and friend of George Washington and James Madison,3 understood that words evolve and future generations may come to understand words differently. In writing the first American dictionary, Webster would record the 18th century understanding of the terms in our founding documents. Webster’s dictionary, published in 1828, defined “oath” as follows:
“A solemn affirmation or declaration, made with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed. The appeal to God in an oath, implies that the person imprecates His vengeance and renounces His favor if the declaration is false, or if the declaration is a promise, the person invokes the vengeance of God if he should fail to fulfill it. A false oath is called perjury.”
When written into the Constitution, it was understood that an oath risked not only the loss of honor in the earthly community but eternal damnation as well.
The Constitution does not work well without good and faithful public servants. The oath requirements are in place as a method to have government filled with such people. While the effectiveness of an oath relies in the first instance on the virtue of the oath taker, the founders recognized the frailty of human beings. They understood there must be more than the good character of the oath taker for the act to achieve the desired result. The combined temporal loss of honor and punishment and the threat of the Lord’s disfavor that are part of the founding understanding of the term “oath” were to be protections beyond a person’s good character in having the quality of individual the new government would need.
A Final Purpose: To Create a Nation
In the early days of the country, loyalty among most people was to their states. They were citizens of Virginia, New York, Maryland, etc. While they had come together to revolt against the British, they were not yet a country. The universal oath requirement would serve an additional purpose. By having a single act universally required that each government official at every level take an oath in support of the Constitution, a major step was taken in building a country.
What does “support” the Constitution mean? The Article VI oath requires support of the Constitution. Clearly the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve and protect our nation and communities do not primarily do so to enable a president to serve four years, require senators to be 30 years of age, have tax bills begin in the House of Representatives, or protect any other technical aspects of the document. “Support” must mean something more.
The meaning of “support” that motivates those who serve derives from something deeper. When one considers the country’s founding, there’s a 15-year period from 1776 through 1791 that spawned the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Independence announced the American Creed with the following: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed .…”
The Constitution provided the technical details for a structure to put the Declaration’s principles into action. The Bill of Rights was the final act of this three-act play to create a nation unlike any that had existed before.
“Support” of the Constitution inherently involves “support” of the Declaration’s self-evident truths. Those are the principles that ultimately motivate a person to national and community service and the glue meant to bind Americans together. This is the deeper meaning of the oath.
The Firefighter’s Oath
Beyond the Declaration of Independence, the firefighter’s oath derives additional meaning from the Constitution’s Preamble. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The operative phrases state to “insure domestic tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.” Fire departments are critical to ensure peace at home and in our communities. Our founders recognized that no household could properly defend against invaders or fire alone. The only way to endeavor to protect the general welfare was to be able to raise the alarm. This dedication, duty, and faith must be taught and handed down today.
Not long ago, I (Ricci) had the distinct honor to bestow an award to a 90-year-old man who, in the course of human events, took an oath when he enlisted in the Navy serving on a Destroyer in World War II. Later, he swore an oath to serve the New Haven Fire Department and established one of the only closed American Legion posts in the nation made up of veterans serving in the fire department. I started the presentation with a quote from Ben Franklin, “It is your republic, if you can keep it.” Both oaths that Deputy Chief McCarthy took reaffirmed his commitment to his country and his community. He has always placed others above himself and has served as an example of dedication to duty and fidelity to God and country.
You have sworn an oath, not for pomp and circumstance but for a solemn commitment under God to your country and community. Our republic will endure as long as good men and women stand and honor their oath.
1. Many founders were Quakers. A Quaker tenet holds that there is a Biblical prohibition against oaths and there is a duty to be truthful at all times. The alternative of an “affirmation” recognized this Quaker belief. An affirmation differs from an oath in two ways: The term “I swear” is replaced with “I affirm,” and an affirmation does not conclude with “So help me God.”
2. Which, of course, did happen to one of the most well-known founders, Alexander Hamilton, killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804.
3. In 1785, Webster met with both Washington and Madison to promote the idea of a federation that would replace the Articles of Confederation. These meetings were part of the impetus to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Frank Ricci is president of the New Haven Fire Fighters and a battalion chief. He was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court Case Ricci v. DeStefano and has lectured at the Reagan Library on Civil Rights. In 2013, Ricci appeared in the PBS four-part series on the United States Constitution. He is an Advisory Board Members for the PennWell Fire Group.
David J. Shestokas is an attorney, former state prosecutor, and author of Constitutional Sound Bites, a 21st century explanation of our founding documents, and Creating the Declaration of Independence, a view into the mind of Thomas Jefferson leading to creation of that sacred document. Follow him on Twitter @shestokas. On admission to practice law, as a state prosecutor and elected official, Shestokas has taken an oath to support the Constitution eight times.