maxim: An axiom; general principle; a leading truth.

Samuel Johnson, Dictionary


I feel a pride in being an American. Neither my affection nor zeal in any degree abate in the cause of my injured country.

josiah quincy junior, 17741

Eliza Susan Quincy organized her “Memoir” of Josiah Quincy Junior as the second of two volumes. Volume one traced the family lineage to Normandy. Eliza Susan could not be too certain in her genealogical digging but, with the help of John Adams and a few musty volumes, she became convinced that a “de Quincy” from Normandy fought alongside William the Conqueror at Hastings and transplanted the family name to England. The real heroes of her history lived later, in the thirteenth century: Saer de Quincy and his son Roger, who eventually succeeded to his father’s title as Earl of Winchester. The father had been at Runnymede in 1215. As “one of the leaders of the barons in the memorable opposition to the tyranny of John,” Eliza Susan recorded enthusiastically, Saer de Quincy helped bring forth Magna Carta, “which is regarded as the foundation of English liberty.” The Earl perished as a crusader in the Holy Land; his heart was brought back to England and preserved in a Leicestershire abbey. In Eliza Susan’s account Roger de Quincy proved his father’s equal in knightly derring-do. Not only did he refuse to bow before pompous churchmen and an abusive Henry III, in 1258 he became one of the first twelve barons “appointed as representatives of the people in Parliament.”2

None of this colorful English background appears in the published Memoir, however. After all, in the Memoir England is cast as oppressor and ancestral legitimacy came from the Quincy family’s antiquity in New England, not the mother country. Edmund Quincy led the way across the Atlantic, arriving in the Bay Colony in 1633. He quickly established himself as a leading citizen and received a grant of land south of Boston in what would become the town of Braintree, now Quincy. With that as their base, the Quincys rose in prominence and power, accruing wealth and moving in the province’s highest political circles. Josiah, the future Patriot’s father and fourth generation Massachusetts Quincy, added to the family fortune as a successful Boston merchant and in the 1750s “retired” from business to his “paternal estate” in Braintree. The mansion that he lived in from 1770 until his death in 1784, a mansion inherited by his grandson, Josiah the Mayor, was built after fire destroyed two others. It is still standing. By 1770 “Colonel” Quincy was in his third marriage, his first two wives having died. He and his first wife, Hannah, were together over twenty years and had four children: Edmund, Samuel, Hannah, and Josiah. With his second wife, Elizabeth, he had a daughter of the same name; his third wife, Ann, bore two daughters, Nancy and Frances.

Born on 23 February 1744, Josiah Junior went off to Harvard College in 1759, following in the footsteps of his brothers, father, and grandfather before him. Ranked fifth, a measure of social standing, not academic promise, in a class of forty-one when he matriculated, his poor health had long been evident. “The delicacy of his constitution, during his infancy and childhood” worried those around him. The “extreme sensibility of his temperament” and the “ardour and industry by which, even in youth, he was distinguished” deepened their apprehensions.3 When he first showed symptoms of a tubercular condition, the “consumption” that would take his life—chronic fatigue, recurrent fever, poor appetite, and, periodically, coughing sputum and blood—is not clear. He may have had tendencies from infancy that manifested themselves gradually, or his frail body may have made him susceptible to infection by tubercle bacilli after he became a young man; the precise pathology must remain unknown. In any event, Quincy pressed ahead with his plans for an active life, despite—or perhaps even because of—his malady.

Josiah arrived in Cambridge well prepared. Tutored by Joseph Marsh, one of his father’s Harvard classmates and master of a private school in Braintree, Josiah was already an avid reader. He took a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and a master’s three years later. At the 1766 commencement he gave a “truly animated oration” in English, only the second to depart from the traditional Latin delivery, on the subject of patriotism.4 Fellow graduate Timothy Pickering commented many years later that he would never forget “the tone and manner in which he said ‘a Patriot,’ and then proceeded to give the character of one.”5 Given the cycle of passage and protest, repeal and relief seen with the Stamp Act, Quincy’s timing could not have been better.

In 1766 Josiah was also admitted to the bar and began to practice law. He had joined the office of prominent Boston lawyer Oxenbridge Thacher soon after earning his bachelor’s degree. When Thacher died in July 1765 Josiah inherited much of his business and made a comfortable living from legal fees. That, coupled with the Quincy family fortune, insured that Josiah would be able to indulge his passion for books and undertake a southern journey in 1773 and his voyage to England in 1774. Josiah began his serious book buying when he was working for Thacher; he had begun his habit of writing down favorite passages earlier, as an undergraduate. By 1762, in fact, he had compiled “seventy closely written quarto pages of extracts” from Shakespeare.6 Unfortunately, that forerunner to the commonplace book of 1770–1774 is presumably lost and a fire consumed most of his books a decade after his death. His son, who inherited this library of well over four hundred volumes, stated that Josiah’s “practice was to read with his pen in his hand, and to record in the margin or blank pages, by way of reference or remark, either his own thoughts, or the parallel thoughts of other writers, which reading recalled to his memory.”7 Josiah’s notes on arguments made before the Superior Court, which he began as an undergraduate and continued for a decade, survive, as do a legal commonplace book dating from 1763 and the very brief “Legis Miscellenea” he apparently started and stopped in 1765. Here, as he would in the 1770–1774 commonplace book, he copied passages from various texts in history, law, philosophy and politics.8

Although Quincy succeeded quickly as a lawyer, he did not become a “barrister.” Unlike his brother Samuel he was never “admitted to the Gown,” so he did not plead the government’s cases before the Superior Court. He could and did take the other side. Did Josiah’s oppositionist politics keep him from rising to barrister, or did his failure to obtain that status push him into opposition? His own explanation was that it was both; that is to say, he had no taste for “the Pomp and Magic of—the Long Robe” and he felt that Chief Justice (cum Lieutenant Governor) Thomas Hutchinson disliked him because of his politics.9 Samuel, on the other hand, took a more relaxed approach to his legal career and political affiliations. Ultimately he was content to stay with the government, even though he seemed rather pessimistic about his prospects and those of the empire by the late 1760s. Both he and Edmund, the eldest Quincy brother, were much less driven than Josiah, the youngest. As John Adams remembered it, Josiah’s ambition, energy, and eloquence actually nudged Samuel toward Hutchinson. Unable to compete with his brother for clients, Samuel succumbed to the “magic arts” of persuasion and became a government man.10 Edmund—“Ned”—sided with the Whigs but he did so without Josiah’s zeal and in 1768 he died while on a voyage to Barbados to recover his health.

It is hard to determine when, exactly, Josiah began his association with the rising Whig opposition, the “Liberty party” decried by Governor Francis Bernard. Although he condemned the Stamp Act as unconstitutional he could not endorse some of the violence unleashed during the protest against it. A mob’s sacking of Thomas Hutchinson’s house on 26 August 1765 appalled him. Hutchinson had had to flee in fear of his life and Josiah pitied the Chief Justice’s straitened circumstances even if he disagreed with his politics. Nonetheless, Josiah apparently found the destruction of Andrew Oliver’s property by a mob just two weeks before less objectionable, which could reflect his ties to—if not yet his membership in—the Sons of Liberty and his antipathy to mob excess, but not to mob action per se. For Quincy mob action should be a last resort but, if nothing else remained, then it was justifiable. In commenting on the fate of Sir George Jeffreys, who had helped secure the conviction and execution of Algernon Sidney, and who himself died in the Tower of London after being imprisoned during the Glorious Revolution, Quincy wrote “GOD grant that such may be the fate of all similar villains in every age; & if there is no other way, thro’ the Instrumentality of a mob.”11 Not comfortable with the use of force in the 1760s, Quincy urged moderation, though he did so from the perspective of someone opposed to imperial policy—and, therefore, from the perspective of those he criticized, as a radical.

Like his friend and personal physician, Joseph Warren, and so many others, Quincy performed a balancing act, prospering in his profession even as he gave more and more time to politics. He went from joining a small club in 1766 that debated such questions as Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies to writing his first newspaper essays the next year.12 He debuted as “Hyperion” in the Boston Gazette in September 1767. It was Quincy in that guise that Daniel Webster quoted in 1825, warning Britain that “threats” would not “intimidate” because he and his “countrymen” were determined, “howsoever we shall be called to make our exit,” to “die freemen.”13 Over the next several years he produced essays under at least ten other pen names as well. The details of his arguments I will leave for the next chapter. Suffice it to say for now that he showed an ambivalence, even a political schizophrenia, typical of his colleagues. He feared the worst; he hoped for the best. He predicted cataclysm and yet offered advice on how to avoid catastrophe. He looked for and found evidence of conspiracies to subvert American liberties, conspiracies hatched on both sides of the Atlantic, and yet he believed that those conspiracies could be countered by committed citizens who in combating conspiracy would not themselves become conspirators. If he talked of Americans as a free people with a righteous cause he had, as yet, no desire for independence much less any vision of a new national union.

By the time that Quincy took up the pen he had become a protégé of Samuel Adams. According to Quincy’s son, among the originals of his essays were some marked “Let Samuel Adams, Esq., correct the press.”14 Perhaps as a result of Adams’s backing as well as his editorializing, by 1768 Quincy was receiving plum committee assignments in the Boston town meeting. As a member of the committee to draft instructions for the town’s representatives to the General Court in May 1770 Quincy wrote an essay twice the length of his usual newspaper pieces. In advising the representatives—James Bowdoin, Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock—he adopted the same florid, passionate style he used for the Boston Gazette. Virtue and vigilance were required, he admonished, at a time of imperial crisis where conspiracies abounded and their constitutional and charter rights lay exposed.

We therefore enjoin you at all hazards to deport us (as we rely on your own hearts will stimulate) like the Faithful Representatives of a freeborn, awakened and determined people—who being impregnated with the spirit of liberty in conception, and nurtured in principles of freedom from their infancy are resolved to breathe the same celestial ether, till summoned to resign the heavenly flame by that omnipotent God who gave it.15

Thomas Hutchinson fumed that “nothing” could be “more infamous” than the instructions penned by “Young Quincy, who goes by the name of Wilkes Quincy. He bids fair,” Hutchinson warned Francis Bernard, to become “a Successor to Otis and it is much if he does not run mad also.”16 If Quincy really was likening himself to John Wilkes, it should not be surprising. Opposition leaders throughout the colonies followed Wilkes’s exploits with the North Briton and in the Middlesex election controversy closely, and Wilkes had encouraged them to make analogies to suit their own circumstances. That Quincy, who spoke and wrote with such intense feeling, should be linked to Wilkes by his political opponents is not surprising either. Five years later a British army officer ran down a list of what he mockingly called the “Boston Patriots.” He lampooned John Hancock as a “Dupe” and scorned Samuel Adams as a “Mobster by profession.” Quincy he dismissed as a “pettyfogging attorney,” a “tolerable orator” but a “firebrand in Politics” and “an inflammatory Writer.” Commenting on Quincy’s slightly crossed eye, he huffed that Quincy “squints abominably, and indeed very much resembles Jack Wilkes, both in looks and Principles, but of very inferior Abilities.”17

Quincy became as adept as anyone at manipulating symbols. Styling himself “Mentor,” he led the way in calling for an annual observance commemorating “the melancholy tragedy” of 5 March 1770—what in Patriot circles had instantly become the infamous Boston “massacre.”18 Within weeks the town meeting resolved to do just that. Quincy intended the observance to be a teaching device, educating concerned citizens about the danger of standing armies. That the remaining troops had been withdrawn from the town hardly mattered. “However we may differ in opinion concerning the real state of facts, as they existed between the agents on the unhappy evening,” he advised, “none would deny, that such consequences were easily deducible, for such effects naturally flowed from such causes.”19 In other words, even if the soldiers—the leading “agents”—involved in the incident had not been guilty of murder, they had been irresponsibly stationed among civilians. The soldiers might have been innocent as individuals in the strictly legal sense, but, collectively, they were an extension of those guilty of imposing a foolish, unconstitutional policy. Given Quincy’s role as a defense counsel for the accused soldiers just a few months before “Mentor’s” editorial, his oblique defense of his own actions is understandable.

Quincy had not sought involvement in the “massacre” trials; rather, the “agents” on the British side approached him. Immediately upon his arrest Captain Thomas Preston had asked Quincy to represent him and the eight accused soldiers. A despondent Preston feared that he would become the victim of radical retribution. Testimony against him, he was convinced, would be browbeaten from unreliable witnesses and he would be at “the mercy of a partial jury, whose prejudice is kept up by a set of designing villains, that only draw their subsistence from the disturbance they cause.” He had a clear conscience and believed that anywhere else the evidence would exonerate him. But in Boston he anticipated “a shameful end.”20 Desperation drove him to Quincy.

Preston was arraigned in September 1770 and tried the next month. Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine served as prosecutors; Josiah teamed with his friend (and cousin by marriage), John Adams, and vice-admiralty judge Robert Auchmuty for the defense. Quincy prepared the evidence, Adams questioned witnesses, and Auchmuty gave the closing argument. They succeeded: Preston walked out of court a free man.21

With Preston’s acquittal, Quincy and Adams then prepared for the enlisted men’s defense. They brought in Quincy’s old Harvard classmate Sampson Salter Blowers to assist. The same four Superior Court justices presided, and, as in Preston’s case, all of the jurors were non-Bostonians. Like Preston, none of the soldiers took the stand in their own defense nor were they examined by the prosecution; rather, the trial consisted of a succession of witnesses who offered sworn testimony, first for the prosecution, then for the defense—nothing out of the ordinary there. In what might have struck those in court as an interesting feature of the trial scene, Josiah Quincy’s opening statement for the defense followed the prosecution’s case as presented by acting solicitor general Samuel Quincy.

Six of the eight accused were found not guilty. The remaining two were convicted of manslaughter and each escaped with a branded hand. Quincy had been vigorous in his defense, so vigorous that Adams was taken aback. When, privately, Quincy urged that the whole town be figuratively put on trial to prove a “premeditated design” to drive the soldiers out, Adams threatened to withdraw. Only with difficulty did Adams persuade Quincy to relent and hold his “youthful ardour” in check—as in Preston’s trial.22 What Adams dismissed as impetuosity might in fact have been good legal strategy. Quincy may have wanted to introduce depositions taken from soldiers in the 29th and 14th regiments to prove that the troops had been harassed for months on end, thereby making it more plausible that the locals set upon Preston and his men because they had been looking for an excuse to confront the British.23

That Samuel Quincy, future Loyalist, acted as prosecutor while his brother the “Patriot” defended the perpetrators of a “massacre” at first glance might seem odd. Josiah’s father, for one, could not believe that Josiah had accepted either case. The “reproaches” against his son stung; that Josiah would, as some put it, “become an advocate for those criminals who are charged with the murder of their fellow-citizens” dismayed him.24 He worried that Josiah’s reputation would be ruined and his political career ended. Looking back on the trials a half century later, John Adams certainly lent credence to Colonel Quincy’s fears. He emphasized that he and Josiah had acted at great professional and personal risk. “At the present day it is impossible to realize the excitement of the populace, and the abuse heaped upon Mr. Quincy and myself by our defense of the British captain and his soldiers,” Adams confided to Eliza Susan Quincy. “We had our names execrated in the most opprobrious terms wherever we appeared in the streets of Boston.”25

Perhaps so, but two considerations ought to be kept in mind. First, neither man’s law practice suffered as a consequence, nor did Adams and Quincy live in mortal fear. Some Bostonians might have muttered in disapproval and given them sidelong glances, but among those who counted most they lost no favor. If anything, their stock among colleagues in the political opposition went up. This was not the first time they had taken an unpopular case. The preceding April they acted as defense counsel for Ebenezer Richardson, who, like the soldiers, stood accused of murder. Accosted by a mob that surrounded his house, Richardson fired into the crowd and killed one of the older boys in it. Echoing James Otis’s arguments before the Superior Court in the writs of assistance debates nine years before, although for markedly different purposes, Quincy contended that “a man’s house is his castle” and that he “is not obliged to fly from his own House” when beset by a mob. The jury found Richardson guilty anyway and yet the court avoided passing sentence. Richardson remained in protective custody for nearly a year, during which popular resentment smoldered. Whig essayists made political hay of the court’s highhanded behavior, but neither Adams nor Quincy suffered any sort of backlash. Under one of his noms de plume—“Callisthenes,” who had dared to insult Alexander the Great and died unjustly imprisoned—Quincy even joined in the chorus of protest. “What is law for a Richardson, is law for a SIDNEY” he chided, using the fate of his favorite martyr for emphasis.26 His job done, he too could condemn a seeming miscarriage of justice, even if it meant urging that the death sentence be carried out. He could guess that it would not be and he was undoubtedly relieved to see Richardson leave the colony. By then the hapless customs informer had served his symbolic purpose and was of no more use to the Patriot cause.

This leads to the second point: namely, that we need to remember the nature of the adversarial legal system. Quincy and Adams and their political allies understood that it was possible, even advantageous, to wear two hats simultaneously. Quincy could pursue his profession and his popular politics but not be pressured to reconcile his stands in court with his activity in the Sons of Liberty. As lawyers he and Adams were expected to act in the best interest of their clients, regardless of their personal feelings. They could in good conscience defend men whose actions they found reprehensible, relying on the legal system to mete out justice.

Whatever their personal feelings about there being troops in Boston, Quincy implored the jurors to look only at the facts of the case. The constitutionality of soldiers being stationed in town should be decided elsewhere. Given Quincy’s reaction to mob excesses leading to the destruction of Hutchinson’s property five years before, it was probably not difficult for Quincy to contend that the mob on King Street had acted against popular interests. He reminded jurors that the author of the Pennsylvania Farmer’s letters (his future friend John Dickinson) had cautioned that the “cause of Liberty” should not “be sullied by turbulence and tumult.” He agreed with the “Farmer” that “hot, rash, disorderly proceedings, injure the reputation of a people as to wisdom, valour, and virtue, without procuring the least benefit.”27 Perhaps what Quincy read to the jury he quoted to friends outside the courtroom, when he could speak candidly as citizen rather than advocate. Quincy did not deny that Bostonians had grievances; on the contrary, he made it quite clear that he thought they had been wronged. But he also felt sure that he could condemn the mob without impugning the people.

Besides, Quincy did not agree to represent Preston or the other soldiers until after he had consulted with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and a half dozen other opposition leaders.28 Instead of concluding, as the most detailed study of the massacre trials did, that “the radicals failed to consider the possibility of an acquittal,”29 we should see that acquittal served their purposes even better than conviction—and they probably knew it. The troops had been withdrawn from Boston because of the incident and Westminster took no retaliatory legislative action. Legal outcome notwithstanding, the slain would remain martyrs in the minds of most Bostonians and in the minds of many other colonists as well, which Quincy undoubtedly realized before he took on his role as “Mentor.” If Preston or the others had been convicted of murder then they, too, would have become martyrs, though for the government rather than the opposition. As it turned out, the “Liberty party” countered courtroom defeat with moral victory.

Quincy could have seen himself as serving justice and therefore the higher cause of his “country” even as he defended soldiers who had slain its citizens. When he received the note from his “anxious and distressed” father, Josiah responded that “the sting of reproach, when envenomed only by envy and falsehood, will never prove mortal.” More to the point, he reminded his father that every man is innocent until proved guilty. Preston and his men, “however criminal,” were entitled “by the laws of God and man” to “counsel and aid.” As Quincy explained it, his “duty as a man” had only been “strengthened” by his “obligation” as a lawyer.

I never harboured the expectation, nor any great desire that all men should speak well of me. To enquire my duty, and to do it, is my aim. Being mortal, I am subject to error; and, conscious of this, I wish to be diffident. Being a rational creature, I judge for myself, according to the light afforded me. When a plan of conduct is found with an honest deliberation, neither murmuring, slander, nor reproaches move. For my single self, I consider, judge, and with reason hope to be immutable.30

In his own mind, Josiah had taken the high road; he had put principle above politics. Paradoxically enough, his position in the massacre trials could have reinforced his Patriot tendencies, convinced as he was that he had acted justly. Long after the particulars of the case became irrelevant there remained his general sense of higher purpose in defending what he believed to be the just cause, whether in court, the town meeting, or on the printed page.

Quincy kept at his newspaper editorializing. He singled out examples of governmental abuse and ministerial perfidy wherever he found them, and sniped whenever he could at Thomas Hutchinson. He also continued his activity in the highly politicized Boston town meeting. In May 1772 he helped draft instructions for the town’s delegates to the provincial assembly, as he had two years before.31 In November he joined twenty others named to a newly formed committee of correspondence whose job it was to disseminate information to other towns in the province—or, as imperial officials saw it, to stir up seditious sentiments and lawless behavior. The committee assigned Quincy, Samuel Adams, and James Otis to compose a statement on colonial rights. “Among the natural Rights of all the Colonists are three,” asserted the troika: “First a Right to Life; Secondly to Liberty; thirdly to Property.”32 Unanimously approved by the full committee and the town meeting, this declaration of right soon circulated in pamphlet form, along with other resolutions passed by the town meeting. Quincy also had a hand in drafting similarly worded resolves issued by the town of Petersham.33

Just as Quincy reached these new heights he was brought low by failing health. He fought against slipping into lethargy as his body inexorably wasted away. Advised to go south if he were to have any hope of prolonging his life, he sailed for Charleston on 8 February 1773. From there he planned to travel overland into Virginia, through the middle colonies and thence home. This trip would be for more than his health, however; it would be his version of the young English gentleman’s continental tour, though more didactic in intent. If most of those aristocratic Englishmen toured to acquire a cosmopolitan veneer, Quincy traveled to learn what he could about fellow colonists—people he could not yet embrace as countrymen, though he could hardly see them as foreigners.

A stormy outward voyage made it difficult for him to escape a preoccupation with death. “Exhausted to the last degree, I was too weak to rise, and in too exquisite pain to lie in bed,” he entered in his journal. “I became pale, wan and spiritless,” he confessed, and “every person on ship-board gave me over and concluded I should never reach land.”34 He found himself pondering his brother Edmund’s burial at sea, not so far from where he lay stricken. Even after he was safely ashore, well on his way north and in better health, he was haunted by melancholy. He endeavored to ease the minds of loved ones he left behind and to reassure himself, neither of which could have been easy. To his father he wrote plaintively:

Should I tell you Sir that the more I see of mankind the greater is my desire of retirement; that the more I mix with the world, the less I am pleased with it; that the oftener I blend in public companies the more I long for solitude; I should only re-echo the trite tale of many who have advanced on the other side of the hill of life, and are verging swift down the declivity, but thus to moralize is seldom the part of one, in the hey day of his youth surrounded with pleasures and amusements.35

Talk of politics revived his spirits; his obsession with righting the wrongs of empire helped him to overcome what would have beaten lesser men. When tossed about on his sickbed at sea Quincy contemplated the service he had rendered the Patriot cause, and in that contemplation he reaffirmed his reasons for living.

I had often in past life expressed my creed that every man died a hater of tyrants, an abhorrer of oppression, a lover of his country, and a friend to mankind. I shall never forget how my conviction upon this head now received confirmation. No period of my life now gave such solid satisfaction, such heart-felt joy, as those few in which I had contributed a mite toward exhibiting certain men and measures in what now appeared a true light and in annoying those who at this test still appeared the enemies of [my] country. Perhaps I was now more an enthusiast than ever, for the review was delightful. I regretted nothing more than that in past times I had not been more of the true citizen of my country and the world; more assiduous, more persevering, more bitter, more implacable, more relentless against the scourges of my country, and the plagues of mankind. I shall never, I hope I shall never, forget the resolutions I now formed, the sentiments I now entertained; my determination to remember them in future and make this minute I am now writing of, as a memorial of the past and a memento for the future; and to aid me in engraving them on the tablet of my heart.36

Quincy did not dock at Charleston until February 28. He spent three weeks in the area and then leisurely made his way north on horseback. Although at one point he decided that Charleston was “a most delightful place indeed,” overall he found the men and women of South Carolina inferior to those of New England. While impressed with Edward Rutledge and a handful of others, he thought that Carolinians by and large lived in dissipated hedonism and intellectual torpor. “Slavery may truely be said to be the peculiar curse of this land,” he declaimed. “Strange infatuation,” he added, “it is generally thought and called by the people its blessing.”37 He found North Carolinians more to his liking even if they, too, fell short of his New England standards. He had very little to say about Virginia and Maryland, except to note Maryland’s good wheat, “vile” cockfighting and his three-hour visit with Daniel Dulany, “a Diamond of the first water, a gem that may grace the cap of a patriot or the turban of a Sultan.”38 Tiny Williamsburg could not be expected to compare as a capital with Boston, and William and Mary only suffered in his mental comparisons with Harvard. He pushed through the Chesapeake region quickly and rode into Philadelphia before the end of April.

Pennsylvania was a different story. The people there struck him as “well-dispositioned” and “pretty industrious,” he noted approvingly, although “I saw nothing to lead me to suppose they in any measure surpassed the New Englanders in either of these respects.”39 He spent two weeks in and around Philadelphia, the highlight of his socializing being dinner with “the celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer,” John Dickinson. Quincy enjoyed New York too and took time to see Shakespeare performed there—an opportunity denied him in theatre-less Boston.

If Quincy made the social rounds throughout his travels, he did so very purposively. He spent most of his time with likeminded men, politicians who viewed imperial affairs from a similar perspective. In Charleston he jotted notes from the committee of correspondence records there and copied Edward Rutledge’s reports on various legal cases. The bonds he formed in Pennsylvania remained strongest. Joseph Reed informed Josiah’s father with great pleasure that “in a few days he has taught us all to admire & esteem him—His Observations of the Provinces thro’ which he has past—his perfect knowledge of yours & the intelligent sensible Acct. he gives us of your publick Affairs has opened a sort of new Scene to us.”40 What most impressed Reed and Dickinson were his zeal for the cause and his certainty that the Patriots were right and the British wrong. As George Clymer wrote some months later, “your patriotism is the great Support of the common Cause, and I trust in Time diffuses itself so universally as to make all Attempts against American Liberty as vain as they are wicked.”41 Clymer wished that the spirit of liberty were as energetic in his colony as it seemed to be in Quincy’s. To which Quincy responded with the warning that “political artifice is used to divide, while ministerial manoeuvres destroy us.” Patriots in all of the colonies had to work as one, even if they did not “think alike.” With a union “truly formed, we are invincible.”42 Quincy’s provincialism, his New England pride and disdain for what he saw elsewhere notwithstanding, here is a development of great significance. Quincy had often talked of Massachusetts as his “country”; now he saw the possibility of something much bigger, more inclusive. He was still a Massachusetts man through and through, and if he thought of himself as an “American,” it was still as a “British-American.” Withal, a nationalistic seed had been planted.

May 1773 found Quincy back in Boston, resuming his law practice and immersing himself once again in provincial politics. Parliament’s passage of a Tea Act that same month renewed the sense of crisis. When the first shipments of East India tea covered by the act arrived in Boston at the end of November, royal officials and local Patriots quickly reached an impasse: unofficial town meetings resolved that no tea be unloaded and the consignees chose not to test local will, but Governor Hutchinson refused to allow the ships to leave without paying the requisite duties. Thrusting himself into the middle of all this, at a mass meeting on December 14 Quincy offered one shipowner £50 to help cover losses if he would defy Hutchinson and send his vessel out of port.43 That offer refused, Quincy could sense that the moment of peaceful resolution had slipped away. Two days later Quincy lambasted British policy. He refused to be silenced by one man’s accusation that he used intemperate language. Making the most of his oratorical moment he observed that “personally, perhaps, I have less concern than any one present in the crisis which is approaching.” As most of those gathered in the Old South meetinghouse knew, Quincy’s health had worsened again. “The seeds of dissolution are thickly placed in my constitution. They must soon ripen,” so, he stated dramatically, “I feel how short is the day that is alloted to me.” Waxing eloquent, he demonstrated why John Adams would call him the “Boston Cicero”:

It is not, Mr. Moderator, the spirit that vapors within these walls that must stand us in stead. The exertions of this day will call forth events which will make a very different spirit necessary for our salvation. Look to the end. Whoever supposes, that shouts & hosannas will terminate the trials of the day entertains a childish fancy; we must be grossly ignorant of the importance and value of the prize for which we contend; we must be equally ignorant of the powers of those who have combined against us; we must be blind to that malice, inveteracy & insatiable revenge which actuate our enemies, public & private, abroad & in our bosom, to hope we shall end this controversy without the sharpest conflicts; to flatter ourselves that popular resolves, popular harrangues, popular acclamations, & popular vapor will vanquish our foes. Let us consider the issues. Let us look to the end. Let us weigh & consider before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying & terrible struggle this country ever saw.44

While Quincy spoke, men thinly disguised as Indians and headed for the wharves to begin the “tea party” paused at the meetinghouse door. “I see the clouds which now rise thick and fast upon our horizon” closed Quincy with stirring imagery; “the thunders roll, and the lightnings play, and to God who rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm I commit my country.”45 No advocate of dumping the tea into Boston harbor, he soon after took up his pen in defense of those who did it.

The North ministry’s response to the Tea Party, a spate of legislation decried by Patriots throughout the colonies as “intolerable” because “coercive,”46 prompted Quincy’s longest literary effort: his Observations. Quincy set himself to the task even before the first component of the hated “Coercive Acts”—the Boston Port Bill—became law. Although he professed “veneration” for Britain he also chastised the mother country as an unworthy parent who “has laid temptations and given rewards and stipends to those who have slandered and betrayed her own children.”47 He condemned the Port Bill as arbitrary and pressed on to warn of the danger of standing armies. Woven into his argument were dangerous threads: that the colonists were united against the imposition of such injustices and that Massachusetts had a well-prepared militia perfectly capable of protecting the people.

An anonymous “well wisher” had attempted to dissuade Quincy from his “mad pursuits” before the Observations were published. He urged Quincy to desist from scribbling polemics that agitated a people who needed to be calmed. “Employ, for God’s sake, those rare talents with which he has blessed you,” he implored, “in convincing them that they have nothing to do but to submit, and make their peace with that Government which they have, under the influence of you and other factious Demagogues so long offended.”48 But the “well wisher” misread his man. His warning—veiled threat, really—that Quincy faced loss of his estate and even loss of his life because of his “treasonable and rebellious” behavior could hardly be expected to work as a scare tactic; just the opposite. Responding in public to this private epistle, Quincy scoffed that such threats excited “contempt rather than fear.” He dared the note writer to come forward; undeterred, he vowed to “proceed with new vigor and energy.”49

Mobilizing in response to the Coercive Acts, the town meeting formed a committee of safety in July 1774 with Quincy as one of its seven members. Quincy and two others drafted a message that went out to all of the towns in the province, advising them on how to respond to the crisis. Then, or not long after, Quincy shifted his attention from the province to across the Atlantic: he decided that he would go to London. In a fine essay on Quincy, George Nash suggested a variety of explanations for Quincy’s choice: that he went at the request and behest of Joseph Warren and other Boston associates who wanted him to make their case to the ministry and rally support among leaders of the parliamentary opposition; that there were those—notably Samuel Adams—who distrusted Benjamin Franklin and wanted a better spokesman for their interests to lobby sympathetic Britons; and that former Governor Hutchinson had already left for England and someone would need to counter his reports to authorities.50 These are all plausible reasons, reasons that Quincy stated himself or hinted at in letters written in the summer and fall of 1774. To these reasons I propose adding another: Quincy’s need to stay politically active. Quincy could most likely sense that the scene of action was shifting and that he was about to be left behind by events. He had not been chosen as one of the Massachusetts delegates to the upcoming Continental Congress. Having been in Philadelphia the year before and still a correspondent of John Dickinson, Quincy would have jumped at the chance to participate in such high-stakes politics. As surrogate, the London trip would keep him involved. If that need to stay active can be said to have helped end his life, it might as fairly be claimed that it had also kept him alive this long.

Quincy slipped secretly out of Salem on September 28, eager to embark on his cloak and dagger mission, excited to hone his skills for a new audience. Even so he must have been reluctant to leave family and friends for a second time and on a much longer voyage than his 1773 excursion. Most difficult of all was leaving his beloved wife, Abigail. According to granddaughter Eliza Susan theirs was “a long and ardent attachment, which remained unchanged, unabated by time or circumstance and which the stroke of death itself seemed unable to terminate.” Abigail was the daughter of Patriot and prominent merchant William Phillips; she and Josiah had married in October 1769. Abigail gave birth to their son Josiah in February 1772 and a daughter, named for her, not long before her husband sailed for England.51

Making a landfall at Falmouth on November 8, Quincy set out on a nine-day journey to London. He left the ship almost euphoric, sure that with his improved appetite on the voyage he had gained weight and enjoyed better color. “My Country, my friends & family occupy my whole thoughts” he scribbled in a note to Abigail before going ashore, “& while I see myself blessed with a promising prospect of doing some service to the one, & of returning in safety to the other, it inspires one with sensations I must leave you to realize.”52 He took time for sightseeing along the way—Plymouth, Exeter, Salisbury, Stonehenge. The “north walk” of Exeter, he marveled, was “beyond expression beautiful”; Stonehenge he described as “a wonderful piece of workmanship and antiquity”; and Salisbury Cathedral, “one of the grandest in the kingdom,” dwarfed any church he had ever seen. He also admired Exeter’s “surprisingly grand” cathedral—although, as a New England congregationalist, it also struck him as an “amazing work of superstition.”53 If enthralled by much of what he encountered he was also distressed by the evident poverty of the working classes, the “lower orders of the people” who were “servile in their obesiance and despondent in their appearance.”54 Within forty-eight hours he rendered a summary judgment, asking rhetorically “what is there in this great nation but imposture, knavery and vice, in all shapes and degrees of extravagance, rolling a torrent of mischief and destruction?”55

London took him by surprise, its “opulence” surpassing “all I had imagined.” Glibly dismissing the city as “our modern Babylon” when he was still in Boston, he admitted that, experiencing it firsthand, “my ideas are upon the wreck, my astonishment amazing.”56 His opinions about English society and British politics shifted again and again as he moved about London. He did find what he had hoped to: men who thought well of the American cause and who assured him that he had not come in vain. On his first day in the city he met Charles and Edward Dilly, prominent booksellers who had reprinted his Observations—“with approbation, as I hear,” noted Quincy with great satisfaction.57 That same day he finally met the famous Dr. Franklin, his father’s old friend and correspondent. Quincy took to him immediately and put aside whatever doubts he may have carried with him about Franklin’s loyalties. “Franklin,” concluded Quincy, “is an American in heart and soul,” a “truely great & good man,” in short, a patriot to be trusted.58 Quincy would spend more time socializing and talking politics with Franklin than he would with anyone else during his months in London.

Settling into London life, Quincy wrote optimistically in his journal that “I find every day more reason to think that multitudes of fervent friends to America reside in this Island.” By the end of the first week he was “sanguine my country will prevail.”59 Armed with letters of introduction from a cluster of American Patriots and drawn into Franklin’s social circle, Quincy never wanted for company. He dined with Franklin’s old friend and M.P. for Hull, David Hartley. He conversed with Dr. Richard Price, who in turn gained him an audience with the Earl of Shelburne. A lover of Shakespeare, Quincy attended the Drury Lane Theatre to see David Garrick as Hamlet. Having himself performed on a different sort of stage in Boston, Quincy watched Garrick with a critical eye. “He is certainly the Prince of Players,” Quincy decided, “but most certainly is not without his faults as an Orator.”60

Accompanied by two American friends, Arthur Lee and Jonathan Williams, Franklin’s grandnephew, Quincy rode to Bath for a brief year-end holiday. He paused for another meeting with Shelburne, this time at the Earl’s “superb seat at Bow-wood,” as he would on his return trip to London, and eagerly toured Bath itself—a “splendid city.”61 The highlight of his stay may well have been his several visits with Catharine Macaulay. Quincy thought her “a most extraordinary woman.” He had long admired her history of England, filling pages in his commonplace book with excerpts from it. Quincy had taken to signing his letters to Abigail as “Henry Ireton”; can it be a coincidence that Ireton was one of the few heroes in Macaulay’s history?62

In London Quincy had visited Westminster and stood before the King’s throne, “literally within reach of his royal sceptre & the sword of justice.” Neither one, he assured Abigail in one of his many letters to her, “dazzled or terrified me.” The “splendor of the royal robes, the pomp of State-attendants, or the glitter of a Diadem” did not awe him; on the contrary. He recollected a “solemn & eternal truth” expressed by John Milton: “The trappings of a monarchy will set up a Commonwealth.”63 Picking up where he had left off, Quincy again sat in the galleries to watch debates in Commons after he returned from Bath; he also observed proceedings in the House of Lords. Giving free rein to his romantic notions and tendencies to draw analogies between his own age and that of earlier civilizations, he studied William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in rapt attention. Here he sat, a young man from the colonies, listening to one of the great figures of the empire—to Quincy an “illustrious sage,” a Roman Senator, a Demosthenes, and a biblical Paul combined. What he heard must have pleased him even more than what he saw: that the Americans were a freedom-loving and deserving people, wronged by Britain and united in righteous indignation, and that the North ministry should reconsider its policies and seek reconciliation—or face disaster. We can imagine what passed through Quincy’s mind when Chatham proclaimed:

I would not by any thing I have said[,] my Lords[,] be thought to encourage America to proceed beyond the right line. I reprobate all acts of violence by her mobility, but when her inherent, constitutional rights are invaded, those rights that she has are equitable claims to the full enjoyment of by the fundamental laws of the English Constitution, and engrafted thereon by the unalterable laws of nature; then I own myself an American; and feeling myself such[,] shall, to the verge of my life, vindicate those rights against all men, who strive to trample upon or oppose them.64

Much of what Chatham said buoyed Quincy’s spirits. Chatham’s longtime ally Shelburne had expressed similar sentiments. And yet Chatham’s and Shelburne’s loyalties were not the same as Quincy’s, evocative speeches and amiable conversations notwithstanding. Chatham had qualified his attachment to the American cause; he sided with the Patriots, the men of Quincy’s stamp, provided they did not go too far in their protests. Some already had. They had consistently denied Parliament’s right to tax them; so had Chatham. But Chatham would not join them in denying Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies in any form whatsoever. “I say I shall oppose America whenever I see her aiming at throwing off the Navigation Act” and other regulatory trade laws “wisely framed and calculated for reciprocity of Interest and the general wellfare and security of the whole empire.”65 Pittites and Rocking-hamites had banded together on occasion to obstruct the North ministry, just as a decade earlier they had combined against George Grenville. But there were limits to their opposition, as Quincy had already been shown in Bath.

There Quincy had spent much of New Year’s day and the day after with Isaac Barré, a politician that Americans like Quincy respected. Barré had protested vehemently against the Stamp Act; it was Barré who called Americans opposed to that act “sons of liberty.” Naturally Quincy thought that he and Barré had much in common. Barré reminisced about his military service in the colonies during the French and Indian War, commenting that when he returned to England “more than two-thirds of this Island at that time thought the Americans were all negroes.” Speaking quickly and no doubt, he thought, wittily, Quincy responded that if he were “to judge by the late Acts of Parliament,” then he supposed most Britons still thought they were because “their representatives still treated them as such.” What Quincy then entered in his journal is very telling: “He smiled and the discourse stopped. Col. Barré was among those who voted for the Boston Port Bill.”66 The author of the Observations must have found himself in a very awkward silence.

It took weeks for the significance of what transpired with Barré to register. Quincy had sailed to England with high hopes; he saw what he wanted to see and heard what he wanted to hear, until time slowly revealed that he had been caught up in wishful thinking. Even then the reality was hard to accept. Preparing to sail home in March 1775, he felt betrayed by men on both sides of the Atlantic who had encouraged him to make a futile gesture. Thomas Pownall, a former Massachusetts governor, told him again and again that it was Hutchinson who stood in his way, poisoning members of the ministry with malicious falsehoods. If Pownall really did say that “all the measures against America were planned and pushed by Bernard and Hutchinson,” he was deluded or too little concerned about what he passed along to the impressionable Quincy.67 As an essayist Quincy had become obsessed with Hutchinson. He attacked him as an arch-conspirator and enemy of the people; now his accusations were seemingly being substantiated. He and his colleagues had beaten Hutchinson in America—why not in England too? Or so Quincy may have asked himself as he grasped at straws. But Hutchinson was in his own way as much a cipher as Quincy. They were bit players in a production whose leading characters strode the stage almost oblivious to their presence.

For the first couple of months in England Quincy explained away evidence that his hopes were groundless. “The ministry have carried their men at the late election” he observed back in November, “but the people”—presumably not the servile “lower orders” he criticized a few days earlier—“seem to be rousing.” He was wrong. The people he had roused in Massachusetts had no English counterpart. Neither could Quincy “rouse” their leaders. He might have misread politeness for empathy and confused the evasiveness of a skilled politician with a receptivity to his views. Quincy had been ushered into the presence of both Lord North and the Earl of Dartmouth during his first week in London. He thought that the interviews went very well, Dartmouth even making a wry comment about the Observations, a copy of which the Earl displayed in plain sight. Quincy left his two-hour meeting with North feeling especially satisfied. North had been the essense of cordiality. He “several times smiled and once seemed touched,” appeared reluctant for Quincy to leave, wished him better health, and thanked him for calling.68 But what had North really thought of his American guest? According to Thomas Hutchinson, North “pronounced him a bad, insidious man, designing to be artful without abilities to conceal his design.”69 Of course, that is what Hutchinson wanted to hear, as it was for the men who passed that account of the interview to him. North’s real feelings, whatever they might have been, are less important than the impression he left with others, as he well knew. No second meeting followed and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield declined Quincy’s request to visit him.

By late January Quincy was near collapse, confined to bed, his health precarious. He rarely ventured out in February; at times he was not even well enough to receive visitors. “His Zeal for the Public,” Franklin noted anxiously, “will I fear eat him up.”70 Although he coughed blood back in early December he did not let that stop him. Knowing that Abigail would be apprehensive he sought to comfort her by post. “All things are heightened by my uncommon health & spirit,” he wrote from Falmouth.71 Nearly every letter, from November into January, included some such line to reassure Abigail that he was well. On January 22 he could write his father that he was still “in health and spirits,” never suffering “an ill-day since my arrival.” But the very next night he became “ill with a fever and spasms.”72 Dr. John Fothergill did what he could and advised him to try and recover in Bristol. However, his American friends urged him to sail home and recover there, where he could also pass along information that could only be communicated in person. Even Fothergill thought that sailing for America ran fewer risks than remaining as he was in London. “It is a good deal against my own private opinion and inclination that I now sail for America,” he sighed on February 26.73

Quincy finally left on March 16, a full week after he boarded ship—the same packet that he had crossed over on nearly six months before. Feeling “ill used & deceived,” he considered getting off at Plymouth and going from there to Bristol, as Fothergill advised.74 Instead, he stayed on as a passenger, returning to what, he could not know. His plan was to go to Philadelphia and tell what he knew to the members of Congress scheduled to reconvene there in May. He had all along thought of himself as an unofficial agent for Congress—which is why Samuel Adams’s failure to keep him abreast of affairs back home so upset him. Would he be sailing into a rebellion? Shelburne and Pownall had predicted as much; so had his father and other correspondents—Joseph Warren, James Lovell—whose letters had not reached him until he had been in England some time. “If the late acts of Parliament are not to be repealed the wisest Step for both Countries is fairly to separate,” Warren had written to Quincy, “and not spend their blood and treasures in destroying each other.”75 Even before hearing from Warren, Quincy had warned his “dear,” his “best friend” Abigail to prepare “for the worst” at a moment when he was also doing his best to prevent the worst from happening. Just a week later, on December 14, he advised her that they would have to “seal their cause with their blood,” sentiments he also penned in a letter to Joseph Reed, sentiments he had expressed both in public and private long before leaving for England.76 Nevertheless, Quincy vacillated to the end, predicting an inevitable clash one moment and seemingly believing that efforts short of war would work the next. Given his receptivity to Franklin’s ideas and Franklin’s attachment to economic coercion, Quincy probably departed London with a very confused sense of what the future held.77 That at least one American expatriate in London favored the use of force, with Patriots striking Gage’s troops in Boston before they could move out to the countryside, must have deepened his sense of urgency.78

Quincy did not live to deliver his messages or see his direst prophecies fulfilled. Critically ill before the voyage began, he had no reserves to draw upon for the crossing. This time willpower alone would not be enough. So weak that he could not write, on April 21 he dictated a final message to one of the sailors on board the packet. Resigned to his fate he was nonetheless disappointed that he had not done—and could not do—more. “Had Providence been pleased that I should have reached America six days ago, I should have been able to converse with my friends,” he lamented, but, also, “I am persuaded that this voyage and passage are instruments to put an end to my being.”79 He lingered another five days, dying only as the packet anchored at Gloucester. And his last thoughts? Probably of Abigail and his children, of his father and his cause, his attempt to, as he so often put it, do “his duty” to his “country.” Friends were told afterward that “he longed to hear there had been a Battle”—a battle that would free his country, as death released him from his toils.80

Learning that her husband was homeward bound, Abigail Quincy had rushed to Gloucester—too late. She left her son in Norwich, Connecticut, with her father’s family, where they had gone to escape the turmoil in Boston. Her daughter, Abigail, not yet a year old, had died less than two weeks before. Now she had to face a double loss. Five months passed and still she was in the depths of despair. “I have been often told,” she sighed, “that time would wear out the greatest sorrow” but “mine I find is still increasing. When it will have reached its summit I know not.”81 She busied herself by becoming the personification of republican motherhood, raising her son, Josiah, to carry on the tradition of civic virtue and selfless public service. “Love and reverence for the memory of his father,” recalled Josiah when he was quite old, had been “impressed” on him “and worn into his heart by her sadness and tears.”82 She had him read what his father read, hoping that Josiah Junior’s books and writings could help mold the son in the shape of the father. Her father-in-law added his voice to hers. “Truth should be the invariable Object of your Pursuit and your End the public Good,” he admonished in one of his many “Maxims of Wisdom.”83

Abigail survived her husband by twenty-three years. When she died in March 1798 her son fulfilled her last wishes, the last wishes of his father. After the funeral he went to the tomb where his father had been interred. “It was midnight with the moon at full” when Josiah arrived at the sepulchre, built as his father requested. “Descending into it, he laid his mother by the side of the husband of her youth, and then closed its door forever.”84 Separated prematurely in life, they were finally reunited in death.

Josiah Junior’s death had struck all of the family members a staggering blow. Writing to her older brother Samuel soon after the event, Josiah’s sister Hannah lamented that Josiah “did not sufficiently consider the tenderness of his frame and it may truly be said he fell a Martyr in the cause of Liberty.”85 If she had hoped to thereby shame Samuel into renouncing his Loyalism, she was disappointed. But even Samuel, who would leave for England in May 1775 rather than embrace the Patriot cause, respected what his brother had tried to do. Josiah’s 1774 Observations had expressed ideas inimical to the royal government that Samuel chose to serve; nevertheless, neither man would let political difference destroy brotherly affection. Thanking Josiah for sending him a copy of the pamphlet, Samuel asked that “God preserve you in health and longevity, the Friend & Patron, and at length the Father of your Country.” The “prayer nearest” Samuel’s “heart” was that Josiah would continue to be his “Friend & Companion.”86 Although they never saw each other again after Josiah sailed for London, there is no reason to believe that their fraternal ties were ever broken. After going into exile Samuel spent most of his life in the West Indies. He died in 1789 on a voyage to England, sadly if poetically, the third and last Quincy brother to perish at sea.

Colonel Josiah Quincy, the family patriarch, suffered the gnawing pain of a parent who survives his children. That he loved all of his sons and daughters there is no doubt; that he also held a special place in his heart for Josiah Junior seems equally true. Although he had anticipated his youngest son’s death years before it finally came, that coming proved no less agonizing. As the War of Independence drew to a close he struggled to express in an epitaph both his grief and his pride, his satisfaction in a son’s life honorably lived and his longing for the man who had so much to offer a nation he would never know. Benjamin Franklin thought that epitaph a fine tribute to a devoted patriot; let Josiah the father have the last word for Josiah the son:

Here rests in humble Hope, his mortal Part,

Who, when alive, possess’d a patriot Heart.

A Statesman’s Head, with Wisdom’s Maxims fraught,

By which, the Old might learn, the Learn’d be taught.

Few better skill’d, the Ship of State to steer,

Had Wisdom infinite, preserv’d him here.

But this, and more than this, his Labors prove;

They prove, his Country had engross’d, his Love;

Extinguished only, by the Hand of Death,

He wish’d its Safety, with his latest Breath!

Go then, dear Shade! Eternity is thine,

Go, and participate, of Joys divine!

Ye Angels! guard him, to the Realm above!

Ye Saints! present him, to the GOD of Love!

These Tears shall prove, Mortalities Relief,

And Hope to meet thee, mitigate my Grief!

This Monument, with Verse inscrib’d, receive;

Tis All, a tender Parent, now, can give!87