A huge common-place book, wherein all the remarkable sayings and facts that we find in history are to be registered, may enable a man to talk or write like BODIN, but will never make him a better man, nor enable him to promote, like an useful citizen, the security, the peace, the welfare, or the grandeur of the community to which he belongs.
henry st. john, viscount bolingbroke1
Josiah Quincy would not have disagreed with Bolingbroke, nor with Francis Bacon who had felt the same. He compiled his commonplace book for a very practical purpose, as a man of political action, a participant in public affairs—like Bolingbroke himself.2 For those with a mere antiquarian interest in the past, readers who filled their heads with “learned lumber,” Boling-broke had had nothing but disdain. History, he believed, should be studied for what it could teach about “private and public virtue.” In short, “I think, that history is philosophy teaching by examples.” To Bolingbroke, on a most basic level the human past and present were joined by a seamless web.
There are certain general principles, and rules of life and conduct, which always must be true, because they are conformable to the invariable nature of things. He who studies history as he would study philosophy will soon distinguish and collect them, and by doing so will soon form to himself a general system of ethics and politics on the surest foundations on the trial of those principles and rules in all ages, and on the confirmation of them by universal experience.3
Quincy did not include this particular passage in his commonplace book. He quoted another that said much the same thing, a passage that Bolingbroke borrowed from Polybius.4 Bolingbroke can be found about halfway through the commonplace book, in just three of more than three hundred entries drawn from over sixty sources. Quincy began the commonplace book in June 1770; he made the Bolingbroke entries in 1771 or 1772, and did not finally put the commonplace book aside until he sailed for England in 1774.
Quincy also immersed himself in the writings of Bolingbroke’s contemporary, the Scotsman Thomas Gordon. Teaming with an older and more widely read John Trenchard, Gordon co-authored Cato’s Letters between 1720–1723. These essays, first serialized in a London newspaper, had been brought together in four volumes after Trenchard’s death. Quincy owned a set. In preparing his February 1774 will he wanted to be sure that Cato’s Letters would be passed on to his son when he turned fifteen so that “the Spirit of Liberty” might “rest upon him.”5 Gordon shared Bolingbroke’s belief in the relevance of the past to the present. “The same Principles of Nature and Reason that supported liberty at Rome, must support it here and every where,” he counseled, “however the Circumstances of adjusting them may vary in different Places; as the Foundations of Tyranny are in all Countries, and at all Times, essentially the same.”6
Gordon and Trenchard took on the persona of “Cato” to attack the South Sea Bubble and expose the corruption of party rule. If Britons were to maintain their political stability, then they had to preserve their unwritten constitution that, through checks and balances, guaranteed liberty. As Cato, Trenchard and Gordon dealt in analogies and archetypes to defend their idea of good government. Joseph Addison had already made Cato a hero to English theatregoers in his immensely popular play named for that defender of the Roman republic, first staged seven years before Trenchard and Gordon put the noble Roman to their uses. Cato’s popularity among the American Revolutionary generation has long been noted. Addison’s play was George Washington’s favorite; lines spoken by Cato in that political morality tale—“Do thou, great liberty, inspire our souls, /And make our lives in thy possession happy, /Or our deaths glorious in thy just defense”—turned up in Quincy’s reports on the Massachusetts superior court; pro-Patriot Boston newspaper publisher Isaiah Thomas took those lines as the motto for his Massachusetts Spy.7
His well-known efforts as Cato aside, perhaps Gordon was more important to the Revolutionary generation for his discourses on the Roman historians Tacitus and Sallust. Gordon edited and translated Tacitus’s Annals and History, and Sallust’s Works. He included twenty-two essays in his four-volume Tacitus; his nine discourses on Sallust took up nearly half of that volume. Both treatises were designed for the same purpose: namely, to show the dangers besetting his own generation by teaching the lessons of the past. Often conflating his views and those of the two Romans, Gordon concentrated on the abuse of power, with Julius Caesar as the personification of a great leader tragically corrupted by avarice and ambition. He depicted Caesar as the ultimate party man who brought down an already weakened republic. In his second discourse preceding Sallust’s Works, “Of Patriots and Parricides,” he cast Cato, Caesar’s nemesis, as patriot and Caesar as parricide. Similarly, the third discourse leading into the Annals was “Upon Caesar the Dictator.” In these essays Gordon made it clear that the tyranny of an Oliver Cromwell paled in comparison with that of Caesar, his model, a model that Josiah Quincy accepted.8 “Ye men of Massachusetts,” Quincy inserted between excerpts from Gordon’s Tacitus in his commonplace book, “have you no Little Caesar [Thomas Hutchinson]—a miniature tyrant?” Even more provocatively, in his 1774 Observations he wrote that “Caesar soon became Senate, magistracy and law,” which caused him to ask “Is not Britain to America, what Caesar was to Rome?”9
Gordon’s types came from Rome in the first century B.C., not eighteenth-century Britain. Ultimately, Gordon cautioned, leaders who violate the rule of law risk everything because if they become too abusive they will be overthrown—and rightly so. The opening to his essay on Caesar shows Gordon’s didactic style and his conviction that the character of a ruler is more important to the rise and fall of civilizations than the excellence of institutions.
Nothing has been hitherto found a sufficient check and barrier to the exorbitant passions of men; neither kindness nor severity; nor mulcts nor pain; nor honour; nor infamy; nor the terrors of death. A proof how far human malice or ambition is an over-match for human wisdom; since Laws and Constitutions framed by the best and wisest men, have, first or last, become the sport and conquest of the worst, sometimes of the most foolish. Could wise Establishments have ensured the stability of a State, that of Rome had been immortal. Besides adopting all the best Institutions of the free States of Greece, her principal struggle and employment for some Centuries, was the subduing of foreign enemies by Arms, and the securing of domestic Liberty by wholsome Laws; and for Laws and Arms she was the wonder and the glory of the earth. But she, whose forces and policy no power could withstand, not that of Greece nor of Carthage, nor of the World, fell by corruption, and perfidiousness, and violence of her own Citizens. The only sword that could hurt her, was her own; with that she trusted CAESAR, and that he turned unnaturally upon his own mother, and by it enslaved her.10
Even if Gordon took liberties in translating Tacitus’s texts he did not alter the general tone. Tacitus reviewed the reigns of the Julio-Claudians as a way of instructing Romans in the art of government and the nature of tyranny. Writing was “a continuation of his political life”; he envisioned himself as both “teacher” and “judge.”11 Gordon also wrote to instruct, and he did so by Tacitus’s standards. They shared the same basic views of men in society: Tacitus’s heroes were Gordon’s heroes, Tacitus’s villains, Gordon’s villains. They portrayed the struggle between liberty and authority as endemic; they linked increasing villainy with decreasing morality; they feared popular licentiousness almost as much as they dreaded tyrannical autocrats. If there was one thing that separated them it was Gordon’s greater optimism, his hope that he had helped to define the traits of statesmen who would protect the public interest. Tacitus could not allow himself to be that hopeful.
Still, Gordon applauded Tacitus as an author “singular for Wisdom and Energy.”12 Most members of the Revolutionary generation who became acquainted with Tacitus probably did so through Gordon’s translation rather than in the original Latin. Quincy read both and was proficient enough in Latin to contemplate doing his own translation of Virgil’s Eclogues. Whether they read in English or Latin, many of Quincy’s fellow patriots turned to the Romans. In a 1764 speech in the Pennsylvania assembly John Dickinson alluded to “that excellent historian and statesman” Tacitus to make a point about colonial affairs.13 The printed version—excerpts from which Quincy entered in his commonplace book—carried a quote in Latin from Sallust on the title page. Thomas Jefferson, who would later in life refer to Tacitus as “the first writer in the world without a single exception,” had copies of Gordon’s Tacitus and Sallust in his pre-revolutionary library, as did Josiah Quincy.14 For two men who never met they had remarkably similar reading tastes.
Jefferson owned the six-volume set of Plutarch’s Lives translated and edited by John and William Langhorne; so did Quincy. Quincy pulled over forty passages from the Langhornes’ Plutarch for his commonplace book, more than he did from any other single source. Gordon’s Tacitus ran a distant second, with just over thirty. Plutarch wrote individual biographies and parallel lives that coupled Greeks and Romans. He was an avowed ethicist who made history secondary to biography, and biography the vehicle for his moralizing. He compared himself to a portrait painter, emphasizing some attributes to the exclusion of others. “So we must be permitted to strike off the features of the soul,” he explained, “in order to give a real likeness of these great men, and leave to others the circumstantial detail of their labours and achievement.”15 A Greek living as a citizen of Rome, he had even less chance of influencing policy than Tacitus; no matter. “When I first applied myself to the writing of these lives, it was for the sake of others,” he told his readers. But then his motives changed: “I pursue that study for my own sake, availing myself of history as of a mirrour, from which I learn to adjust and regulate my own conduct.”16 In effect, his Lives became his commonplace book; he recorded deeds fair and foul, and compared statesmen with tyrants to set his personal moral course.
Over fifteen centuries later a young Massachusetts lawyer would do the same. Quincy did not skim through the Lives; he scrutinized all six volumes. Rarely were the passages he selected found in obvious places. Instead, they could be buried in long paragraphs or involved discussions. As Quincy read he made mental analogies, fastening on what was most pertinent to his own age. “Alas America—Remind GEORGE, whom the world call thy king,” he wrote, “that future Plutarchs will record his reign.”17
Like Tacitus, Plutarch cared more about character than he did about governmental forms. His heroes were the men virtuous enough not to be corrupted by power and wealth. He cared little for democracy even though he looked favorably on Periclean Athens and the Achaean league. No enemy of monarchy, he nonetheless disliked tyrants who trampled popular rights. He admired those like Solon and Lycurgus who championed what later generations would celebrate as the rule of law. Caesar and Cato served much the same purpose for him as for Tacitus. Addison’s Cato in essence is but a dramatized version of Plutarch’s heroic depiction. In a passage about Caesar that Quincy dutifully copied into his commonplace book, Plutarch warned that when “the popularity of Caesar was grown to such a height that it was scarce possible to demolish it, and had a plain tendency to the ruin of the constitution, people found out when it was too late.” And what was the lesson to be learned from that experience? “No beginning of things, however small, are to be neglected.”18 Every chapter in the Lives is filled with such platitudes. “Gravity and mildness are the chief political virtues, and the fruits of reason and education,” preached Plutarch in a secular sermon on civics. “It is an observation no less just than common, that nothing makes so thorough a trial of man’s disposition, as power and authority,” he counseled in his comparison of Demosthenes and Cicero, “for they awake every passion, and discover every latent vice.”19 These aphoristic lines also ended up in Quincy’s commonplace book, along with dozens of others. By doing this Quincy placed himself in good company. The aphorism as teaching tool had been passed on through the ages, in Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, even in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. Franklin’s “Father Abraham” speech is but a continuation of an aphoristic technique borrowed from the Biblical and classical traditions and read by men like Quincy from their youth.
Quincy’s exposure to the Greek and Roman past was not limited to his reading of Tacitus and Plutarch. Quincy also familiarized himself with histories written in his own age. He owned and quoted from Edward Wortley Montagu’s Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Antient Republicks. Montagu was a bit peculiar, though that did not stop people from reading his book. Educated at Oxford and Leyden, he was elected to Commons and the Royal Society. Not much of a politician and a mere dabbler in science, he died at Padua in the midst of a “loose and roving life.”20 Odd behavior—such as wearing a wig of iron wire styled to look like hair—notwithstanding, his Reflections sold well. First published in 1759, a new edition appeared the very next year. Chapters reviewed Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Carthage, and Rome. Montagu opened with Plutarch on Solon. He claimed to have weighed the evidence “cooly and impartially” and yet his intentions were no less didactic than those of Plutarch and Tacitus. In discussing Lycurgus he echoed Bolingbroke and Gordon in concluding that “human nature is at all times and places the same.”21
Montagu’s brief final chapter argued that although the British constitution was superior to those of the ancient republics, Britain was not thereby exempt from the problems caused by faction and vice, and the obsession with luxury and growth of standing armies that brought down republican Rome. Interestingly enough for American readers, Montagu called for a revival of England’s militia system to stimulate patriotism and guard against the rise of tyranny. Placing himself firmly within the didactic tradition of Tacitus and Plutarch, and convinced, as were Bolingbroke and Gordon, of the timelessness of certain political truths, he lectured:
As the British state and the ancient free Republicks were founded upon the same principles, and their policy and constitution nearly similar, so, as like causes will ever produce like effects, it is impossible not to perceive an equal resemblance between their and our manners, as they and we equally deviated from those first principles. Unhappily, the resemblance between the manners of our own times, and the manners of those republicks in their most degenerate periods, is, in many respects, so striking, that unless the words in the original were produced as vouchers, any well-meaning reader, unacquainted with those historians, would be apt to treat the descriptions of those periods, which he may frequently meet with, as licentious, undistinguishing satire upon the present age.22
Even when Quincy immersed himself in English history he kept returning to the classical tradition and to analogies from antiquity, whether he was reading titles as disparate as Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government or Daines Barrington’s Observations on English statutes.23 He did not include anything from Algernon Sidney’s Discourses in his commonplace book but he admired Sidney immensely and did refer to him in his public writings. Sidney’s posthumously published Discourses were intended to show the absurdity of Robert Filmer’s (also posthumous) Patriarcha. Filmer had written to justify the divine right pronouncements of the Stuarts; Sidney took on what he thought were those erroneous assumptions, as perpetuated by Charles II. But he spent more time in the Old Testament than he did in English history. God, he argued, left men to choose their own governments, even if they did so foolishly, and he offered those Israelites who ignored their prophet Samuel and replaced the rule of judges with the reign of kings as an illustration of that foolishness. To refute Filmer’s contention that all political rights derived from the ruler and to promote his view of popular sovereignty, Sidney went back to Plato and Aristotle, to Polybius and Plutarch, and to Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. Caesar and Cato performed the same symbolic function for him as they had for Tacitus and Plutarch; likewise the Julio-Claudians. Although Barrington relied more on jurists like Sir Edward Coke, mingled with his text and notes are references to Plutarch.
David Hume, the Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others that Quincy read and quoted in the commonplace book knew their Plutarch and, like Bolingbroke and Gordon, believed in the relevance of the past. Some of the longer passages entered in Quincy’s commonplace book came from Hume’s Essays. In those essays Hume ranged from Plutarch to Machiavelli to Milton, consistent with his view that fundamental human tendencies had remained constant over time. He did not always agree with those ancient authors he cited; still, he felt that they posed the right questions even when he found their answers wanting. In “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science” Hume cited republican Rome’s devolution to tyranny to show what happens when government becomes unbalanced. In “Of the Original Contract” he reminded readers that actual participants in the “contract” providing government had historically seldom been a true majority—whether in “democratic” Athens or imperial Rome, where the people had almost no voice at all. Even if the consent of people to government cannot be found in the historical record “we trace it plainly in the nature of man.” People came together under government for their protection. “Nothing but their own consent, and their sense of the advantages of peace and order” could have caused them to form a community, giving up some liberties to enjoy others.24 They could lose all their liberties, however, if they trusted their leaders too much. “Tis therefore a just political maxim, That every man must be supposed a knave” even though not all men are in fact knaves. True, “honor is a great check upon mankind”; nevertheless, “where a considerable body of men act together, this check is, in a great measure, removed,” since they will pursue their group interest as if it were the same as the larger public interest. When that was not really the case “we ought to look for nothing but faction, disorder, and tyranny from such a government.”25 Tacitus could not have put it any better. Often considered a modern for his skepticism, that did not stop Hume from using the ancients to counter the assertions of other modern writers with whom he disagreed—notably John Locke on certain questions of logic and the human condition. And Hume’s penchant for aphoristic expressions—such as men, “by the violence of their factions,” could “change a good constitution into a bad one”—no doubt appealed to Quincy in the same manner as had passages in Plutarch.26
Hume carried his moralizing into his History of England.27 Indeed, all of the historians that Quincy drew from for his commonplace book shared that trait: they each sought to teach lessons about human nature and political culture. William Robertson’s history of Scotland and chronicle of the reign of Charles V, like Sir William Temple’s earlier Observations on the rise and impending decline of Dutch power, were not really all that different from Plutarch in didactic intent, authorial claims to scholarly detachment notwithstanding.28 Robertson in particular “regarded history not as a record of fact as much as a corpus of instructions, a teacher of wisdom, for the benefit of the statesman and philosopher.” Excerpts from Robertson—that “prince of historians,” as Quincy called him—in the commonplace book kept company with passages from other likeminded authors.29 Woe to the leader who forgets the revelatory power of history, advised Baron Bielfield in his Elements of Universal Erudition, a handbook of Enlightenment thought. That leader might be able to fool his contemporaries but future generations would see him for what he was. Efforts to conceal his crimes would be vain because “the time will come when his iniquity will be unveiled, and the secret folds of his heart laid open.” Ultimately “posterity will be his judge” Bielfield warned—and Quincy underlined for emphasis. “The only method of obtaining a favorable sentence is by performing worthy actions”; let all remember “that true glory is never to be found but in real merit: that history flatters not.”30
Quincy’s favorite historian, Catharine Macaulay, did not scatter classical allusions through the pages of her History, but that does not place her in a different category. Her interest in the past had been piqued by the “Liberty in its most exalted state” that she found recorded “in the annals of the Roman and Greek republics.”31 Concerned that her countrymen did not appreciate their freedom and the need for virtue in a political system that promoted neither consistently, she celebrated above all “men who with hazard and even loss of their lives attacked the formidable pretensions of the Stuart family, and set up the banners of liberty against a tyranny which had been established for a series of more than one hundred and fifty years.”32 As much as Quincy respected Hume as an essayist he undoubtedly preferred Macaulay’s whiggish version of English history to Hume’s Tory approach. In reliving the epic battles between crown and parliament in the seventeenth century Macaulay came down on the side of parliament, a defender of true Whig principles. Under her pen the tyranny of the Stuarts, from James I through his grandson, was only surpassed by that of the “usurper” Oliver Cromwell who betrayed the republican principles he professed to revere. “Labor to attain truth” and “integrity to set it in its full light” were, she declared, “indispensable duties in an historian.”33 That did not preclude her passing moral judgments; if anything, it made such judgments that much more imperative.
This is not to say that distinctions between the classical and modern traditions, the philosophy of history included, do not exist; they do. Quincy read about those differences when he paged through Bacon and Hume, Montesquieu and Chesterfield. But how important were they to him or to other American Revolutionaries?34 True, an Algernon Sidney was much more enthusiastic about republicanism than the Greek and Roman writers he cited. Neither would any Roman that Quincy read go so far as Catharine Macaulay to claim that “individuals may err, but the public judgment is infallible.”35 Nonetheless, on bigger issues of liberty and authority or power and corruption there were more points in common than in dispute. Whether he was quoting Plutarch or Bolingbroke, Tacitus or Hume, Quincy saw a continuous thread running through Western political culture. Other Revolutionary Americans might have reconsidered the relevance of the classical past to their circumstances once they became independent, but all of that occurred after Quincy’s death. Perhaps the past in general, that of Cromwell’s England as well as Caesar’s Rome, appeared less and less relevant to citizens of a “new” nation who were convinced that they had escaped the past in pushing into their future. But in Quincy’s day classical analogies seemed both pertinent and instructive.
We should not assume that Quincy read Plutarch and the rest in the order that they appear in the commonplace book. I suspect that Quincy had already perused the books and essays that were in print by June 1770, when he started making entries, and simply went back through his personal library, copying what caught his eye. That would not have been a difficult task if, as his son reported, he frequently jotted marginalia in his books as he read them. In places he entered cross-references in the commonplace book some time after he made the original entry, so plainly he read texts more than once. Apart from the June 1770 opening and the last entry before he left for England, few dates turn up in the nearly two hundred and fifty notebook pages. Remember, he had had three predecessors to his 1770–1774 compilation: the excerpts from Shakespeare in 1762, his 1763 legal commonplace book, and his “Legis Miscellenea” in 1765. What prompted him to begin another, longer set of notes in 1770? It might have been nothing more than the logical outcome of his essay writing in the Patriot cause, a ready-reference for his editorializing. It could also have sprung from his preparation for the “massacre” trials or even from his involvement in Boston town meetings. Publication of the Langhornes’ Plutarch and the appearance of Macaulay’s history may have had an influence on both timing and tone as well.
Just as we cannot chart the course of Quincy’s tuberculosis, neither can we retrace the steps Quincy took in creating his last and largest commonplace book. Nevertheless, it is clear that his intellectual interests and political tendencies were well-defined before he began to practice law. Therefore his commonplace book of 1770–1774 was more a resource for than a source of his preferences. Still, this does not mean that the commonplace book played no part in Quincy’s “self-fashioning,” his creation of an identity for himself as a public man.36 The commonplace book probably helped him to reaffirm his personal ethos, his role in politics, and his place in society. Perhaps his 1766 commencement address rather than his first newspaper essay the next year should be considered his political coming out. And even then he had already expressed privately concerns only made public later.
On 27 August 1765 Quincy seized the occasion of a new session of the Superior Court, opened and closed that same day by Thomas Hutchinson, to reflect on imperial affairs. Quincy sat, as was his practice, ready to take notes, when Hutchinson appeared on the bench “Destitute of Everything,” having escaped his mansion with only the clothes on his back. Quincy lamented Hutchinson’s loss; he also foresaw that the Stamp Act crisis would be a turning point. The people had rallied in a way that “will always distinguish them as the warmest Lovers of Liberty.” But, alas, in “a Pitch of Infatuation” some had gone too far “in the Fury of Revenge,” committing “Acts totally unjustifiable”—witness the plight of poor Hutchinson. With court adjourned at an obviously critical juncture, Quincy added this long postscript to his report:
Learn WISDOM from the present Times! Oh, ye Sons of Ambition! beware lest a Thirst of Power prompt you to inslave your Country. Oh ye Sons of Avarice! beware lest the Thirst of GOLD excite you to inslave your native Country. Oh ye Sons of Popularity! beware lest a Thirst of Applause move you groundlessly to inflame the Minds of the People.—For the End of Slavery is Misery to the World, your Country, Fellow-Citizens and Children,—the End of popular Rage, Destruction, Desolation and Ruin.
Who, that sees the Fury and Instability of the Populace, but would seek Protection under the ARM OF POWER? Who that beholds the Tyranny and Oppression of arbitrary POWER, but would lose his Life in Defence of his LIBERTY? Who, that marks the riotous Tumult, Confusion and Uproar of a democratic, the Slavery and Distress of a despotic State, the infinite Miseries attendant on both, but would fly for Refuge from the mad Rage of the one, and oppressive Power of the other, to that best Asylum, the Glorious Medium, the BRITISH CONSTITUTION? Happy People! who enjoy the blessed Constitution. Happy! thrice happy People! if ye presevre it inviolate. May ye never lose it through a licentious Abuse of your invaluable Rights and Blood-purchased LIBERTIES! May ye never forfeit it by a tame and infamous Submission to the Yoke of Slavery and lawless DESPOTISM.37
Quincy’s fears of tyranny at the top and licentiousness at the bottom are obvious. “Monarchy sometimes produces Tyranny; Tyranny often produces the destruction of the Tyrant,” preached Gordon in his discourses on Sallust.38 By the same token, “Popular Government is apt to beget Licentiousness; Licentiousness destroys popular Government.” That Quincy copied these lines into his commonplace book six or seven years after his 1765 comments is proof of the persistence of his concern. Evident, too, is his respect for the British constitution as an abstract ideal. He died before an attachment to that form of constitutionalism would have put him out of step with the Revolutionaries who eventually embraced Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and, with the Declaration of Independence, escalated the struggle for rights within the British empire to a war for freedom from that empire. In a narrow sense, then, it is somewhat misleading to think of Quincy as an American Revolutionary because there was no “revolution,” with independence the goal, when he died in April 1775. In another sense, however, we can see that he had already made choices based on certain assumptions that demonstrate he was a Revolutionary without knowing it. Given his suspicions about British motives and those of royal officials in the colonies, given his belief in the reality of conspiracies against American liberties and the right of Americans to unite in resistance, and given his propensity to call Massachusetts his “country” while Britain disturbed him as a corrupt nation in decline, for him to have become anything other than a fervent Revolutionary in 1776 is almost inconceivable.
In 1765 he was as upset by mob excess as he was by imperial policy. Even in 1770, during the “massacre” trials, his antipathy to mob violence is palpable. But in 1773 he did not denounce the participants in the Boston Tea Party; rather, he afterward wrote in their defense. Of course there were differences that distinguish those incidents and in those differences there can be a partial explanation for Quincy’s apparently new position in 1773. In 1765 a rampaging mob had destroyed personal property. In 1770 another mob had incited soldiers to fire on civilians. But the Tea Party was handled very carefully: there had been virtually no violence, the destruction of private property had been selective, and the participants were being led—from beginning to end—in what, by the standards of 1765 and 1770, hardly qualified as mob activity. Equally as important, in 1773 Quincy, by his own pen, showed that he was convinced the cause of imperial crisis was policymaking in London and local implementation by royal officials, and not anything that the colonists had done. The danger at the top far exceeded that at the bottom. Indeed, “it is much easier to restrict liberty from running into licentiousness, than power from swelling into tyranny and oppression” protested the House of Lords in 1735—yet another passage that found its way into the commonplace book.39
From 1765–1773, as Quincy’s anxiety about London’s motives heightened, his worries about crowd behavior diminished. With that said, it is also evident that Quincy did not go through a smooth ideological metamorphosis, where he questioned Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies, then Parliament’s authority to legislate for them at all, and only then moved on to question crown authority. Longtime interest in fundamental law and charter rights notwithstanding, Quincy was not given to detailed constitutional disquisition. He made his most succinct statement in the May 1770 instructions he wrote for Boston’s delegates to the General Court. In those instructions he alluded to grievances that he had previously discussed in newspaper pieces, grievances to which he would return in later essays. Charging that there existed a “Deep laid & desperate plan of Imperial despotism” aimed at “the extinction of all civil liberty,” he instructed the delegates to vigilantly and virtuously exercise the “important trust” lodged in them by the people. A crisis was at hand: “the BRITISH CONSTITUTION seems fast tottering into fatal & inevitable ruin.” The delegates should remember that “as we always expect to defend our own rights & libertyes so we are unalterably fixed to Judge for ourselves of their real existence, agreeable to law.” Moreover,
let it be recorded that we enter upon this task, protesting against the pretended right or power of any Crown Lawyer, or any exterior authority upon Earth to determine limit or assertain all or any of our constitutional or charteral, natural or civil political or sacred Rights liberties and privileges or immunities.40
Quincy did not elaborate, here or in succeeding essays. Even in his 1774 Observations, a pamphlet nearly as long as all his newspaper essays combined, he decided to leave such discussions to “abler heads.”41 What little he did write in these 1770 instructions is nonetheless illuminating. Most obvious is that he composed “instructions” rather than recommendations, and to representatives who were reminded that they were delegates elected to serve the people of Boston. They were expected to walk that fine line between voting their consciences and voting only as they were told. Of course the expectation was that there would be no crisis of conscience, no thwarted directives, with delegates and electors acting as one. In reality there could be and were problems; grappling with the so-called doctrine of instruction would be one of the Revolutionary generation’s more daunting tasks. Quincy himself can hardly be considered a democrat. If in the 1770 instructions he seemed willing to bind delegates, in his newspaper essays he made a distinction between men who led and the mass of people who should allow them to lead.
In the short run Quincy’s attitudes about popular sovereignty in an imperial context are even more important. To Quincy, Massachusetts was a self-contained political entity. He revered the British constitution and claimed rights under it, but those rights had a broader base—under the charter, through nature, and from God. Quincy conflated what modern historians have made distinct. For him there was no sharp distinction between the divine and what was inherent in nature, nor were charter rights discrete from more elusive constitutional rights; what is more, a violation of one could threaten all of the others. In this I am convinced that Quincy was typical of his generation, at least before 1776 and the unavoidable alterations in American constitutionalism brought by the Declaration of Independence. Even if some of Quincy’s views of the empire must be surmised, no great inferential leap is required. Albeit Quincy did not expound on the compact between colonist and crown discussed by Thomas Jefferson in his 1774 Summary View, all the components for that view are here and would turn up piecemeal in Quincy’s newspaper essays. Unlike Jefferson, Quincy did not close Parliament out altogether, retaining the crown alone as imperial tie. Like John Dickinson and John Adams before Lexington and Concord, Quincy allowed Parliament a superintending authority over commerce in the empire, but the colonists—not Parliament—had the right to decide what could be taxed, at what rates, and to what end, within their borders.
With the writers that Quincy cited in the commonplace book and his editorial pieces in the Boston Gazette as our guide, we can safely conclude that Quincy believed in the reality of an ancient English constitution where all legitimate authority was derived from the people, and that no government could rightly govern without popular consent. But Britons were on the verge of losing the liberties guaranteed under that ancient constitution. Britain’s vaunted system of mixed and balanced government had become precariously unbalanced. Crown prerogative was in the ascendant; parliament had ceased to be the people’s protector. Americans likewise stood in jeopardy so that they were linked to Britons in a transatlantic constitutional crisis. Freedom was being displaced by slavery; colonial charter rights that should have been inviolable as fundamental law were being cast aside. Ministers who ran the empire, abetted by officials stationed in the colonies, pursued their own interests at the expense of popular liberties, like those men who had brought ruin to Rome so many centuries before. Instead of protecting the people, Parliament had become part of the oppression; if that oppression continued the people had the right—even the duty—to resist. Tying everything together is Quincy’s certainty that his positions were constitutionally correct; furthermore, they were just by a higher moral standard.
When making these arguments Quincy opted for the polemic over reasoned discourse in his public writings. He reacted viscerally, from his first newspaper essays through his grand effort in the Observations. He made no apologies for his passion. His study of the past convinced him that it had taken passionate men to bring about great events like the Glorious Revolution. “It should be remembered that to such ardour, to such enthusiasm we owe liberty and independence,” he observed.42 More marked than any change is his basic consistency in what he thought to be the source of imperial friction and his habit of drawing on disparate literary and legal sources to carry his point.
This is not to say that Quincy was incapable of crafting his polemics skillfully. Becoming “Pro Lege” in 1768, he addressed the question of impeachment. He wrote as if the issue were hypothetical—as if he had no political agenda, which of course he did. Taking as his foundation the British constitution and the assumption that no one was above the law, he emphasized that the House of Commons must have the right to impeach members of Parliament, peers of the realm included. “While the first Principles of our Constitution, the Fundamentals of all our Liberties are adher’d to,” he lectured, “no Subject, however great and powerful, is beyond the Reach of a strict Examination into his Conduct, or out of Danger of a Scourge for his Crimes.” Quincy alluded to “an upstart minister”—the Earl of Hillsborough—and the danger of “Great Prerogative.”43 He did not name names, though his intended readers probably made the link through his analogy and innuendo. He warned of monarchy devolving into tyranny without mentioning George III; likewise his veiled reference to corrupt ministers without mentioning Hillsborough, and his condemnation of power concentrated in one man’s hands without referring directly to his real target, Thomas Hutchinson. If pro-Patriot readers understood, so must have Hutchinson: be careful, Quincy was telling the Lieutenant Governor, unless he wanted to run the risk of impeachment by the Massachusetts House.
As “Hyperion” in 1767 Quincy adopted a style for his first newspaper essays that he never abandoned. He wrote with vitriolic vigor, combining expository flair with age-old jeremiad technique. “Tis a political maxim, that all government tends to despotism,” he opened emphatically, a truth “founded in nature” which “the approaching fate of the Mother Country” would confirm.44 He wove Biblical, classical, English, and colonial allusions into his rhetorical cloth. Using his own form of typology, he talked of Massachusetts’s founding generation, courageous settlers in the wilderness acting under God’s direction. “Did he not plant us with his own hand?” asked Quincy—knowing full well that most readers would give their silent assent. More ominously, he also asked “And if our GOD be for us—who shall stand against us?”45 Who indeed.
Taking the pen name Hyperion—one of the Titans of Greek mythology, whose name was linked to the sun and light, to watching and observing—is intriguing but ultimately only one of Quincy’s many classical allusions. Emphasizing, in the manner of Bolingbroke and Gordon, that “human nature is every where the same, and similar effects will always flow from the same cause,” he warned that Britain could suffer the same fate as Rome. “The boundless power of Rome was her mortal disease”; success brought wealth, wealth brought vice, and vice brought political corruption. “The British flag and Roman standard flourish’d in the days of public virtue.” Ancient Britain, distinguished by its “GENIUS of Liberty,” was gone; what replaced it was bringing all to naught. Royal officials were too often “venal hirelings” and “mercenary tools of power” who threatened the colonies’ accustomed freedoms.
Having identified the villains, Quincy roused his readers by celebrating their provincial heritage. “Our fathers sacrificed their blood—they died freemen,” he reminded every true patriot, and “they left the legacy of freedom to their offspring.” If his generation did not remain true to that legacy “we and our children must become the ignominious slaves of haughty and oppressive masters!” In a bold challenge to those unnamed oppressors he boasted that if there were a war, his side would be right, and it would win:
in defence of our civil and religious rights, we dare to oppose the world; that with the GOD of ARMIES on our side, even the GOD who fought our Father’s battles, we fear not the hour of trial; tho’ the host of our enemies should cover the field like locusts, and set their Armies in dreadful array against us, yet the sword of the Lord and of Gideon shall prevail.46
The people had to be prepared to resist, and they could not do so in ignorance. They needed to listen to those who spoke and read those who wrote in defense of their cause—patriotic orators and editorialists like himself, Quincy no doubt believed. “It is the indispensable duty of every good citizen, when he thinks his country in jeopardy of bondage, to offer his sentiments on the state of publick affairs” contended Quincy in a 1769 piece, “with that zeal and resolution, which the exigency of the times demand.”47
In addition to addressing specific government policies, Quincy found it necessary to defend the idea of a free press and to engage men of opposing views in debate, his pseudonymous column against theirs. Moving his law office to Queen Street, in space below the shop of Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston Gazette, Quincy could not have been better located. His second appearance as “Hyperion” for Edes and Gill had been to rebut “A true Patriot” in the Massachusetts Gazette, thus setting a pattern: Quincy, as government critic, used the Boston Gazette as his outlet while pro-government writers in the Boston Chronicle or Massachusetts Gazette responded to him—or provoked his retort. As “An Independant” in 1770 Quincy countered “A Bostonian”; as “Marchmont Nedham” in 1772 he debated “Lelius,” and that same year as “Edward Sexby” he took on “Common Sense,” who had condemned the opposition press for its “extravagant licentiousness.” Nonsense, chided Quincy; such attacks were the “hackneyed theme of knaves who feel and fear the lash of truth.”48
Thomas Hutchinson’s halfhearted attempt in 1771 to silence the opposition press by threatening a pro-Patriot newspaper editor with prosecution for seditious libel failed, so Quincy and his colleagues could continue their war of words without much fear of legal reprisal. Taken individually, there is nothing unique or even especially noteworthy about Quincy’s newspaper essays. The pages of the Boston Gazette and (beginning in 1770) the Massachusetts Spy were filled with anonymous squibs attacking the government. Quincy’s contributions to that debate are more memorable for their representativeness and inclusiveness than their originality: Quincy addressed the same issues addressed by others, and like others he read great meaning into small acts.
Quincy built his arguments on a populist foundation: the people’s right to know how they were governed and their ability to recognize when they were being deceived and ill-used. “I thank the great giver of every good gift, that I am addressing a people, of as much natural capacity and acquired knowledge, as any in recorded time,” wrote Quincy ingratiatingly. What those people needed was judicious guidance from wise men. Quoting a passage from Andrew Marvell’s The Rehearsal Transpros’d that he would copy into his commonplace book two years later, Quincy stipulated that the people can “divine the errors of government”; however, it remained for Patriots like him with the people’s best interests at heart to lead because the people, “tho’ they know the diseases, they understand not the remedies; and tho’ good patients, they are ill physicians.”49
This all-important theme recurs in his essays. Again and again he admonished the people to overcome their complacency and see that they were in danger of being enslaved in a conspiracy to subvert their liberties. “The greatest ornaments of the world have foretold the mischief of discord, and the annals of all countries confirm those interesting truths,” he counseled as “An Old Man” in 1770, “yet the ingenuous unwary are still frequently off their guard.”50 Even worse, he lamented as “Marchmont Nedham” in 1772, “the bulk of mankind, being engaged in the eager pursuit after temporary gratification, are supine and careless about their future well being, and afford but little for the weightier matters of consideration and thought.”51
But the people of Massachusetts, he felt sure, would rise to the occasion. They would see the precarious state of their liberties; they would realize that conniving men on both sides of the Atlantic conspired against them. Quincy did not simply criticize imperial administrators for pursuing mistaken policies: he accused them of malice aforethought. Plots “truly diabolical” unleashed by those “who had whispered the blackest falsehoods” were afoot. “Where is the boasted Liberty of Englishmen if property may be disposed, charters suspended, assemblies dissolved, and every valued right annihilated?” he cried.52 From his earliest efforts as Hyperion in September 1767 to his final essays as Marchmont Nedham in February 1774 he ticked off a litany of abuses: placemen and pensioners were undermining government; prerogative power had expanded at the expense of the people’s elected representatives; the General Court had had its meeting place arbitrarily moved; the specious doctrine of ministerial instructions was being propounded by royal officials; imperial appointees were about to be put on a civil list to free them from local control; Parliament had presumptuously asserted its authority to tax the colonies; troops had been stationed unconstitutionally in Boston; the rightful sentence of a jury (in the Richardson trial) had been brazenly ignored; and so on—this list is hardly exhaustive.
Until his 1774 Observations Quincy avoided attacking George III directly; likewise he did not single out individual members of the North ministry, in power from March 1770 on. Instead, Thomas Hutchinson became the lightning rod for Quincy’s fury. Pitied in 1765, Hutchinson became a target of Quincy’s obloquy even before he succeeded Francis Bernard as governor. Quincy turned more strident, more personal in his attacks, when Hutchinson tried to silence the opposition press. Addressing one of his Hyperion essays “To the Man whom Conscience forbids to stile my Governor,” Quincy lambasted Hutchinson. “How terrible” it is “for a little tyrant” to deviate “from the beaten path of his duty.” Already he had “the reputation of having the principal hand in subverting the constitution” of his “country.”53 Quincy was just warming up here. In his Marchmont Nedham series, the first six in the summer of 1772, the next seven from December 1773 into February 1774, he pummeled Hutchinson relentlessly, lashing out at “the degenerate offspring of an ancestor who expired with the first honors, and in the best service—of her country!”54 Quincy combined irony with invective, sarcasm with condescension. Aided by a “band of conspirators,” Hutchinson, he alleged, had become an “enemy to the Common-wealth,” the “great CAPITAL OFFENDER” against the people’s liberties, “the master of puppets” that he made dance on “a political wire.”55 Quincy saved his most impassioned outburst for the last.
Convinced, as I am, that governor Hutchinson, in defiance of every principal of right, every sentiment of honor and gratitude; convinced I say, that He is the first, the most malignant and insatiable enemy of my country;—that he is the chief author and supporter of the severest calamities under which this people labor;—convinced that he has done more general mischiefs, and committed greater public crimes, than his life can repair or his death satisfy;—and that he is the man, against whom the blood of my slaughtered brethren cries from the ground:—I have, and shall, as strength is given me, pursue him.56
Pursue him he did, all the way across the Atlantic. But before setting sail he wrote his Observations, discussing at length what he had only touched on in his anti-Hutchinson campaign: the danger of standing armies. Publication of Hutchinson’s 1768 letters to Thomas Whately had given Quincy ammunition as Marchmont Nedham a few months before the Observations appeared, with Quincy blaming Hutchinson for the dispatch of troops to Boston.
The introduction and establishment of British land-forces in this province are replete with the worst consequences: if not driven out from among us, they must in the end destroy not only public liberty and security, but all private morality and piety. They, therefore, who were the prime movers and instruments of this measure, are stained with a crime, that this people ought not—they cannot—they will not forget or forgive.57
Quincy had first decried the stationing of troops in Boston while writing as “Hyperion” in September 1768, before those troops arrived. Their continued presence in the province, even after they were removed from town following the “massacre,” remained an important theme in subsequent essays. British troops as unconstitutional standing army became the most tangible evidence of Quincy’s accusations that the people’s liberties were imperiled. Disturbing as all of this was to Quincy, it was fortuitous for the 1774 Observations because so much of the commonplace book had been devoted to the very subject of standing armies and tyrannical government. “The art of princes is to make conquests, not to enlarge the empire of a free people,” cautioned Catharine Macaulay, and “a standing army is a never-failing instrument of domestic triumph.”58 Caesar and Cromwell had both shown the danger that an army posed to the people, even when that army was composed of fellow countrymen, Gordon advised in a discourse on Tacitus. “Great Britain has preserved its liberties so long, because it has preserved itself from great standing armies,” wrote Gordon—“An important truth!—Worthy the consideration of every Englishman,” concurred Quincy.59
A quick glance at the eighty-two-page Observations reveals its connection to the commonplace book. There are a score of passages lifted directly from the commonplace book; in some places entire paragraphs from the one were copied into the other. Quincy’s footnotes reveal the same tie. Nearly a third of the authors and texts Quincy drew from for the commonplace book are cited in the notes, including Plutarch, Tacitus and Sallust as well as Montagu’s Ancient Republicks. It is almost as if Quincy had envisioned the Observations four years before he actually wrote them.
“The virtue, strength and fortitude of a state generally reside in the FREEHOLDERS of the Nation,” opened Quincy in the Observations. He spent the first part of his tract on the Boston Port Bill and the bulk of the remainder on standing armies—which, according to Quincy’s definition, in Massachusetts took the form of customs inspectors as well as troops. Quincy reminded his readers that “the reigns of past and present great monarchs when compared, often present a striking similitude.” Having established the continuity of past and present, he then urged “Attend Americans! reflect on the situation of your mother country, and consider the late Conduct of your Brethren in Britain towards this Continent.” He did not have in mind just the pending legislation or even events going back a decade to the Grenville ministry. No, he wanted readers to see the entire history of Massachusetts as one long struggle between freedom-seeking colonists and a power-crazed Britain. “With what ferocity have Americans been pursued from the earliest times?” he asked rhetorically, followed by his own answer: “That Daemon of malevolence, which went forth at the beginning, still spirits up our adversaries and persecutes the country with unabated malice.” He could drop the names of (Sir Ferdinando) Gorges and (Edward) Randolph to trigger his hoped for response, since these men had so often been cast as villains in Massachusetts history. But the “insidious arts” and “detestable practices” of latter-day equivalents threatened all the “people of this Continent,” not just Bay colonists.60
Even if British politicians of the current generation had not created the basic problem of empire, they compounded it by their policies. Citing the 1766 Declaratory Act, Quincy complained of the corruption stalking Westminster—of government by interest group where bad policy jeopardized the existence of his “common wealth.” The Boston Tea Party was justified; the Tea Act precipitating it was not. “Commotions” had occurred in Boston, but then Parliament should have expected them. George III, too, must share the blame for those commotions: “that they were such as statesmen must have foreseen and A FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY, who foresaw, would prevent, rather than punish, is equally true.” Instead, all the people of Massachusetts were about to be punished indiscriminately. “A whole people are accused, prosecuted they know not by whom,” he protested, “proved guilty they know not how; and sentenced in a mode, which for number of calamities, extent and duration and severity, exceeds the annals of past ages and,” Quincy concluded in a gush of hyperbole, “we presume, in pity to mankind, will not mark any future Era in the story of the world.” Demonstrating a nationalistic fervor that showed how close he was, at least in word, to renouncing empire in favor of independence, he proclaimed:
AMERICANS have one COMMON INTEREST to unite them; that interest must cement them. Natural allies, they have published to the world professions of reciprocal esteem and confidence, aid and assistance; they have pledged their faith of mutual friendship and alliance. Not only common danger, bondage, and disgrace; but national truth and honour conspire to make THE COLONISTS resolve—TO STAND OR FALL TOGETHER.61
Quincy directed his heaviest fire at standing armies, with ammunition provided by the commonplace book. Troops were being moved back into Boston; all of the old grievances were given renewed urgency. “The armies among us must be removed, or they will in the end overturn and trample on all that we ought to hold valuable and sacred,” he pled.62 Paraphrasing a passage from Plutarch’s life of Caesar that he had copied into the commonplace book, he alluded to Caesar’s undermining of the Roman republic. “The smiles of his benignity deceived” potential critics “till the increase of his power bid defiance to opposition.”63 That his army was composed of Roman citizens mattered not a whit. “Infatuated Britons have been told—and as often deceived, that an army of natives would not oppress their own countrymen”—a delusion, sighed Quincy, because “Caesar and Cromwell, and a hundred others have enslaved their country with such kind of forces.”64 What happened in Rome had happened again in England: past as praxis. “Whoever wants information of the spirit, cruelty and rapine of soldiers quartered in popular cities,” Quincy advised, “let them peruse the first book of the elegant and instructive history, written by the masterly hand of Tacitus.”65 If Tacitus identified the problem, he also pointed to at least part of the solution: a militia system, as developed by “our Saxon ancestors.” Indeed, “Britain would not now be groaning under oppression—nor her distant children struggling for their freedom,” had it remained true to that tradition. Unlike their English cousins the people of Massachusetts were prepared. “Where are the people who compose a militia of better men, more expert in the use of arms, and conduct on the field, than we can now call forth into action?”66
This 1774 call to arms was not Quincy’s first. As “Hyperion” in October 1767, in the piece quoted by Daniel Webster at the Bunker Hill monument dedication, Quincy affirmed that “we are deteremin’d, wheresoever, whensoever or howsoever he shall be call’d to make our exit, we will die free-men.”67 Quincy had spent the next seven years rousing people to their duty. As he saw it Parliamentary enactments from the Stamp Act on were a type of political warfare, so he urged readers to retaliate with non-importation and support of home manufactures—a form of economic warfare. Furthermore, they needed to be ready to fight on the battlefield, in a shooting war. Quincy condemned as untenable the “abhorred doctrine of passive obedience.”68 If forced to choose between freedom and slavery, then he and his colleagues must “act like men” and resist. They could not expect God to save them; He would help, but only if they fought to save themselves in the cause that He sanctioned, a cause justified by the law of nature and their rights under the British constitution, restated in their charters.
Quincy wrote the Observations in a state of mind in some ways not all that different from what it had been before he began his career as Patriot essayist and Son of Liberty. Even then he qualified his attachment to empire and demonstrated that his first loyalty was to his “country”—Massachusetts, not Great Britain. By 1774, however, he had broadened his notion of that country to include Americans around the colonies, people who shared his view of the future as well as his understanding of the past. If in 1767 his respect for the British constitution remained strong, by 1774 it had been shaken by his disillusionment with crown and Parliament. He teetered on the edge of a whole new system of loyalties, both because of alterations in imperial policy brought since 1763 and the unending contest between liberty and authority. For Quincy the big issues of past and present were the same. What had torn down the Roman republic could undo Massachusetts; what might have saved Rome might still save him and his people. Turning once again to Plutarch, he honored Brutus and Cassius for their stand against Caesar, and closed his Observations with a patriot’s expression of hope:
SPIRITS and GENII, like these, rose in Rome—and have since adorned Britain: such also will one day make glorious this more Western world. AMERICA hath in store her BRUTI and CASSII—her Hampdens and Sydneys—Patriots and Heroes, who will form a BAND OF BROTHERS:—men who will have memories and feelings—courage and swords:—courage, that shall inflame their ardent bosoms, till their hands cleave to their swords—and their SWORDS to their Enemies hearts.69
Quincy joined Rome, England, and America in one great causational chain of being. Or so it appears if we take him at his word and accept his rhetoric as truly indicative of his beliefs. Were consistency the only test of sincerity there would be no question. From his first public writings to his last, in his personal notes and private correspondence, he never changed. By that standard he remained true to his principles. Nonetheless there is a conundrum intrinsic to intellectual history that should be examined before going on to the commonplace book. It is to that I now turn, lest I be accused of pretending to know more than anyone could about Josiah Quincy Junior. There are, after all, limits to what the commonplace book can tell us about him.