Dawn brought a clear sky and cool air, perfect weather for an outdoor celebration. Thousands came to commemorate the Battle of Bunker Hill, which had been fought on 17 June 1775—fifty years to the day before this 1825 gathering. A procession left the State House, wound through north Boston and paraded over the bridge to Charlestown and up gentle slopes to the summit of Breed’s Hill, a procession so long that those leading it arrived at their destination while others near the end were still crossing the bridge. Embraced as a countryman, the Marquis de Lafayette joined the throng. Some two hundred other Revolutionary War veterans, including forty survivors of the famous battle, participated, “venerable men, the relics of a past generation” who “with their blood” purchased the freedom now being enjoyed by a younger generation.1 Spectators pressed close as the grand master of Masonic lodges in Massachusetts laid the cornerstone for a monument that would mark what had become sacred ground.

Daniel Webster, president of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, offered a ponderous tribute to the Revolutionary generation. Reviewing Britain’s oppression of the colonies, and of Massachusetts in particular, he saluted those who had chosen liberty over tyranny. Naturally he dwelt on Joseph Warren, the physician-politician who was slain while standing fast against the rush of British steel. Warren and his compatriots, Webster observed, willingly risked their all, in word and deed. “Death might come in honor, on the field; it might come in disgrace, on the scaffold. For either or both they were prepared.” Briefly but dramatically he mentioned one other patriot, a young man who had preceded Warren in death. “The sentiment of Quincy”—Josiah Quincy Junior—“was full in their hearts,” intoned Webster. “‘Blandishments,’ said the distinguished son of genius and patriotism, ‘will not fascinate us, nor will threats of a halter intimidate; for, under God, we are determined that, wheresoever, whensoever, or howsoever we shall be called to make our exit, we will be free men.’”2

Those words must have lingered with at least one listener: Quincy’s son and namesake. This Josiah Quincy had become a great man in his own right, once a state senator, then a member of Congress, now mayor of Boston and soon to become president of Harvard College. Quincy had in fact just completed his own tribute to his father, published as a Memoir of the Life of Josiah Quincy Jun. of Massachusetts. A copy had been placed under the cornerstone of the monument Webster dedicated, “among the memorials of the revolution.”3 Quincy was barely three when his father died in April 1775. What he knew of him he had learned from family and friends, or from reading his father’s small sheaf of writings. He could have no memory of his father’s sailing for England in September 1774 in a futile attempt to influence British policy. Nor could he know much of his father’s final hours before he died aboard ship on the return journey, within sight of what he lovingly called his “country.” The younger Quincy had probably read and reread the brief notice of his father’s passing:

Last Tuesday arrived here the Ship Boston Packet, Capt. Lyde, in whom came Passenger our good friend and worthy Patriot, JOSIAH QUINCY, jun. Esq; far gone with a Consumption, who was immediately visited by one of the Physicians of this Place, and other respectable Persons—but as he appeared to be actually expiring, no Assistance could be afforded him, & a few Hours put an End to a valuable Life.4

After the ceremonies at the cornerstone laying, Mayor Quincy thanked Webster for honoring his father and helping to keep the memory of him alive. “There is no need of my help in that cause,” responded the Congressman, as he referred approvingly to the Memoir. “It is one of the most interesting books I ever read, and brings me nearer than any other to the spirit that caused the American Revolution.” No doubt to Quincy’s pleasure, Webster added that the Mayor’s father had been “a noble character.”5 What Webster said so publicly, others had long before expressed privately. Upon learning of his friend’s death James Lovell wrote to another Quincy admirer, “Tis glorious to dye for one’s Country. Our Friend Quincy died by thinking for it, as much as any one has lately died by fighting for it.”6 Lamenting the loss of his two “intimate friends,” Quincy and Warren, John Adams told Quincy’s father that “I was animated by them, in the painful course of opposition to the oppression brought upon our Country; and the loss of them has wounded me too deeply to be easily healed.”7 In letters reminiscing about the Revolution, Adams later called Quincy the “Boston Cicero.”8 Mayor Quincy had been in Adams’s home when another old Revolutionary proclaimed that:

I never heard any voice equal to that of Josiah Quincy, Junior. James Otis was all fire and animation; our venerable friend here, John Adams, was very sound in argument; but Josiah Quincy, Junior, surpassed them all in eloquence. His voice was like the music of the spheres; soft and melodious, yet powerful, clear and distinct. He had a tenor voice like Whitefield; and, like him, could be heard to the farthest verge of the most crowded assembly, and often beyond the walls of the old South.9

When Josiah Quincy, son of the Patriot, died, his son Edmund wrote a biography to celebrate his father—another notable Quincy eulogized. Josiah Quincy Junior had his place in this account also, as the grandson continued the familial hagiography. Edmund’s older sister, Eliza Susan, had actually started the family down the biographical path. She was the one who painstakingly collected documents associated with her grandfather’s life. It was Eliza Susan, not her father, who produced the basic text that eventually became the Memoir. Her father penned comments here and there to connect the story’s parts, but she was the real author, in spirit if not always in prose. She became a genealogist in tracing the Quincy ancestry in both old and New England; she became a historian to place her grandfather firmly within that distinguished tradition.

Though only in her twenties, Eliza Susan obviously saw herself as guardian of the family name. Depicting her grandfather as an archetype to be emulated, she made her unabashedly didactic tale at once glorious and tragic: tragic, because her grandfather had been cut down before his time; glorious, because he perished in a righteous cause. “Gifted with brilliant genius, powerful eloquence, and indefatigable industry,” she wrote proudly, he “would have held the first rank among the statesmen” of the Revolutionary generation had he lived.10 She preferred to let him speak in his own words whenever possible, and about his public service, not his private life—except as illness and family separation taxed his health and illustrated her theme of selfless patriotism. She completed her labor in 1824, two years after she started, and presented a manuscript to her father “for his perusal.” It met “his entire approbation.”11 He wanted to publish it immediately; she demurred and he agreed to keep her from the public eye by editing and polishing it, and putting his name, not hers, on the title page.

Just as Eliza Susan envisioned it, the final Memoir is essentially a compilation gleaned from Josiah Quincy Junior’s letters and published writings, more a loosely edited anthology than a true biography. Still vigorous at age seventy-six, Eliza Susan pushed through publication of a new edition in 1874. It appeared in time to mark the one hundredth anniversary of her grandfather’s death, but only because she, not the reading public, saw a need. “The publishers told me there was no demand for works relative to the Revolution since the Secession war,” she admitted, “but, as my object was a memorial of my grandfather, I was not deterred.”12 Despite her efforts and those of her father and brother, Josiah Quincy Junior had already faded from popular memory. The Memoir remains the only full “biography” and a mere handful of essays have been written about Quincy in the intervening years.13 Quincy turns up in studies of Revolutionary Massachusetts, though as a minor character in a cast dominated by the Adamses and Otises, the Hancocks and Hutchinsons.

All in all, that is probably as it should be. Quincy died before he could leave a mark in the new nation that he most likely would have devoted himself to serving. True enough, he had gained fame for his defense of the British soldiers in the 1770 “massacre” trials and he had been a founding member of the Boston committee of correspondence. Between 1767 and 1774 he wrote—anonymously, as was the fashion—numerous essays for the Boston Gazette.14 He capped his polemics for the patriot cause with Observations on the Boston port act and the constitutionality of stationing troops among civilians.15 But just as his many newspaper essays were virtually indistinguishable from dozens of others trying to make the same arguments, his 1774 pamphlet did not garner as much attention as Thomas Jefferson’s Summary View nor did it rival the sophistication of James Wilson’s Considerations.16

Even so, Quincy left behind something that his more famous and longer-lived contemporaries did not: a commonplace book, compiled from 1770 to 1774, that establishes a direct link between what he read and what he said and wrote. Quincy drew on this collection of excerpts for his political essays and even for his courtroom arguments; indeed, it provided the foundation for his 1774 Observations. He did not create it because he was a literary dilettante; rather, he assembled it as his ideological arsenal, his weapon for rhetorical battle. Quincy’s commonplace book, then, is a guide to the formation of one man’s revolutionary mentality. It does more than offer us a glimpse of Quincy’s mind, however. If Quincy was not unique in his reading tastes or political views—and it is quite evident that he was not—perhaps we need to reconsider what we have thought about the Revolutionary generation’s intellectual world. And if we do, Eliza Susan Quincy’s sacrifices on behalf of the “Boston Cicero” will not have been in vain.