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When the Capitol Burned

We may never know what caused the fire that destroyed Virginia’s Capitol in 1747. It might have just been habit. The buildings housing Virginia’s government in Jamestown, the previous capital city, had burned down in 1655, 1657, 1676, and 1698.1

When Virginia’s government built a new Capitol building in Williamsburg, they meant for it to last. For nearly two decades after it was completed, there were no fireplaces or chimneys in the Capitol. In the interest of fire safety, the Burgesses endured the occasional cold day. Only when they realized that the colony’s precious records were becoming damp did they decide to build chimneys and fireplaces.2

Visitors in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area enjoy the flaming cressets outside the Capitol during the Christmas season (this is as close as Colonial Williamsburg gets to interpreting the Capitol burning).

William & Mary mathematics Professor Hugh Jones noted in his account of colonial Virginia that the government was vigilant about the threat of fire. He wrote, “Because the State House, James Town, and the College have been burnt down, therefore is prohibited in the Capitol the Use of Fire, Candles, and Tobacco.”3 This may be an exaggeration. The House of Burgesses’ journals indicate that candles were regularly used. 4

Sometime after seven o’clock in the evening of January 30, 1747, someone noticed a cloud of smoke trailing out of the Capitol roof. The people of Williamsburg gathered quickly. According to a newspaper report, “some of the Shingles began to kindle on Fire from within, and immediately a Blaze burst out.” The cupola erupted in flames. Its bells melted. The clock fell down. Eventually, only the “naked Brick Walls” were standing. 5

Luckily for us, there was enough time to rescue “all the Records deposited in the Capitol, except a few loose, useless Papers.” They also saved the portraits of the royal family.6 As the fire consumed the Capitol, the wind shifted fortuitously, saving the surrounding buildings from the flames.

Reprint of the Virginia Gazette as it appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette in 1747. The original Virginia Gazette is not extant. Pennsylvania Gazette, April 2, 1747.

Lieutenant Governor William Gooch was immediately convinced that arsonists had set the fire. As he explained, the “upper retired Room” where the fire started had lacked a fireplace or wood paneling on the walls. And when people rushed up to the room, they found the room in a “Blaze, impossible to be extinguished.” He concluded that “a Fire kindled by Accident could not have made so rapid a Progress.” It could only have been set by “desperate Villains, instigated by infernal Madness.”7 He offered a one-hundred-pound reward for information about the fire. If any enslaved people knew anything, he promised them freedom in exchange for information.8

In an address responding to Gooch, the colony’s Council turned the Capitol’s destruction into a moral lesson. The “raging Fire,” they wrote, called for “a general Reformation of manners” to avert the “wrathful Indignation of an incensed God.” They committed themselves to “restrain Ungodliness and Vice,” and “cherish true Religion.” They were concerned that the people were moving in the opposite direction, led into a “Spirit of Enthusiasm” by a dangerous, dissenting group of traveling ministers. 9

Virginia’s religious establishment was under threat as the First Great Awakening was underway in the 1740s. While Anglicanism remained the colony’s official faith, preachers from dissenting “New Light” denominations were winning many converts. The conservative, Anglican Council interpreted the Capitol fire as a symbol of God’s displeasure with religious nonconformity. The Council suggested that the government should crack down on this stream of religious dissent.10 Indeed, at their next meeting, they passed a proclamation requiring magistrates to prevent “all Itinerant Preachers whether New Light men Morravians or Methodists from Teaching Preaching or holding any Meeting in this Colony.”11

Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1746, painted by Robert Feke. Courtesy of Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Dr. John Collins Warren, 1856.

The exchange between Gooch and the Council amused Benjamin Franklin when he read it in the newspapers.12 Using the pseudonym “Ned Type,” Franklin turned Gooch’s speech, the Council’s answer, and Gooch’s reply into a comic poem. He mocked Gooch’s certainty that the fire resulted from arson. In Franklin’s verse, Gooch noted that the “first Emission of Smoke was not from below,” and “Fires kindled by Accident always burn slow.”

Franklin also satirized the Council’s pious response. In his rendering, the fire leads them to resolve “to abate a little of our Drinking, Gaming, Cursing and Swearing, / And make up for the rest, by persecuting some itinerant Presbyterian.” Franklin’s Gooch concludes the rhyme by hoping that “if from our Sins, we also refrain, / Perhaps we may have our CAPITOL! our dear CAPITOL! our glorious ROYAL CAPITOL again.”13

After much discussion, the Virginia government built a new Capitol atop the old one. It was finished in 1753. The next year, the Council decided to send to London “for a Fire Engine and Four Dozen of Leathern Buckets for the Use of the Capitol.”14 In 1761, the colony authorized the city of Williamsburg to create a system of pumps and wells to “supply the fire engine with water, in case of fires.”15 Williamsburg was late to fire protection (Franklin had helped to found a fire brigade in Philadelphia decades earlier), but the second Capitol building survived longer than any of its predecessors. It burned down in 1832.

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  1. Virginia B. Price, “Constructing to Command: Rivalries between Green Spring and the Governor's Palace, 1677-1722,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 113 (no. 1, 2005): 40n20.
  2. H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of burgesses of Virginia, 1712-1714, 1715, 1718, 1720-1722, 1723-1726 (Richmond: Colonial Press, 1912), 390.
  3. Hugh Jones, The present state of Virginia (New York: Joseph Sabin, 1865), 30.
  4. Howard Dearstyne, “Capitol Architectural Report, Block 8 Building 11,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, p. 676–680; H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of burgesses of Virginia, 1702/3–1705, 1705–1706, 1710–1712 1702–1712 (Richmond: Colonial Press, 1912), 107.
  5. “Williamsburg, Feb. 5,” Pennsylvania Gazette, April 2, 1747.
  6. “Williamsburg, Feb. 5,” Pennsylvania Gazette, April 2, 1747.
  7. H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses, 1742–1747, 1748–1749 (Richmond: Colonial Press, 1909), 235.
  8. Wilmer L. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, vol. 5: Nov. 1, 1749–May 7, 1754 (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1945), 488.
  9. H. R. McIlwaine, Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (Richmond: Colonial Press, 1918), 2:995–96.
  10. McIlwaine, Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 995–96.
  11. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 227–28.
  12. Franklin reprinted these documents in the Pennsylvania Gazette, May 14, 1747.
  13. “Verses on the Virginia Capitol Fire, 1 June 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0060.
  14. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 469.
  15. William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619 (Richmond: Franklin Press, 1820), 7:469. John B. Clark, “The Fire Problem in Colonial Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 57 (Jul. 1949): 246.