The "Mutual Assurance Society, against Fire on Buildings, of the State of Virginia" was incorporated by the General Assembly on December 22, 1794. The plan of the society was suggested by William Frederick Ast, a Prussian then residing in Richmond, and is alleged to have been modeled after a system of mutual guarantee introduced by Frederick the Great.
As required by the act of incorporation, a subscription of three million dollars was necessary before the charter could be carried into effect. As a result, the organizational meeting of the society was not held until December 24, 1795. At that meeting, a constitution, rules, and regulations were adopted and officers selected. The general office of the society was to be in Richmond. Management was to be by the president and directors, while the principal agent and cashier-general were charged with administrative duties.
The following officers were selected: William Foushee, president; James Bradder, James Brown, Jacob J. Cohen, Andrew Dunscomb, William Duval, Robert Mitchell, George Pickett, and Bushrod Washington, directors for Richmond and vicinity; Robert Bolling, director for Petersburg; George French, director for Fredericksburg; Alexander St. Clair, director for Staunton; Jonah Thompson, director for Alexandria; John Peyton, director for Winchester, Thomas Newton, director for Norfolk; Jacquelin Ambler, cashier-general; William F. Ast, principal agent. The society eventually insured property in Virginia, West Virginia (until 1868), and the District of Columbia.
Insurance offered by the society was against "all losses and damages occasioned accidentally by fire." Rates of hazard were determined by the material composition of the buildings, by the uses to which the buildings were put, and by what may be kept in them. Mills, playhouses, liveries, and buildings containing machinery propelled by steam or in which combustible articles were stored could be insured only by special contract. Revaluations of insured property were required every seven years or whenever additions were made to a policy.
Until 1819, the society returned to policy holders the interest accumulated on its reserve fund in excess of the amount deemed necessary to pay annual claims for losses and damages. When costs exceeded income, the society was authorized to require members to pay "quotas," the amount depending on the sum insured and the rate of hazard. Insured property was considered security and could be sold to obtain the quotas. Annual quotas were not regularly required until 1809.
During its history the society made numerous revisions in its constitution. In 1805, the number of directors was reduced, and in 1809 the offices of president, cashier-general, and the directors were abolished. In their place a committee was to be appointed by the annual general meeting. While property located in towns and rural areas was initially insured alike, a constitutional change in 1805 established town and country branches. Funds were divided between the two branches and the premiums, quotas, and claims were kept separately. Because of heavy losses sustained by the country branch, no new insurance of rural property was issued after August 15, 1818. The country branch was eventually abolished in March 1822.
Up to the Civil War, the society was financially secure and prosperous. Although war risks were not taken by the society and any damage caused by the war were not covered by the assurance, the financial crisis caused by inflation, currency depreciation, and the loss of investments with the fall of the Confederacy left the society "without a dollar in money." However, the society's reserve fund, required by law, enabled it to recover rapidly from the effects of the war.
The following individuals served as principal agents of the society between 1795 and 1866: William F. Ast, 1795–1807; Samuel Greenhow, 1808–1815; James Rawlings, 1815–1837; Colonel John Rutherford, 1837–1866.