The desire to know the causes of the thing they see is naturally present in all men … Therefore man naturally desires as his last end to know the first cause.

thomas aquinas1

James Boswell, in his fawning attempts to preserve the wisdom of Samuel Johnson for posterity, recorded comments that Johnson made sometime in 1775 on the limits of historical explanation. “We must consider how very little history there is; I mean real authentick history,” opined Johnson. “That certain Kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend upon as true,” he continued, “but all the colouring, all the philosophy of history is conjecture.” Did the imperious Dr. Johnson intend these remarks for anyone in particular? If he had given his worshipful biographer a subtle caution, a warning that Boswell might record his witticisms and profundities and yet still not capture his essence, Boswell apparently did not comprehend. Or did Johnson go after Edward Gibbon, a much bigger fish? Although Gibbon was there he did not take the bait that Johnson dangled before him. Boswell interpreted Gibbon’s silence as meaning “he probably did not like to trust himself with Johnson.”2 But Gibbon himself did not say; he kept his own counsel. If Johnson caused him to doubt, even momentarily, the worth of his soon to be completed history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, he gave no hint.

Many years later Thomas Jefferson expressed an opinion similar to Samuel Johnson’s. Not surprisingly, his old comrade and onetime rival John Adams elicited it from him. “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?” So asked a perturbed Adams in one of his letters to the Virginian. These questions were prompted by Adams’s reading of Carlo Botta’s history of the Revolution. Botta had included what was purportedly John Dickinson’s speech in the Continental Congress against declaring independence. Botta, an Italian, had not been present when Dickinson spoke whereas Adams had and the speech Botta inserted was not as Adams remembered it. Unfortunately, Adams sighed, he could produce no document to prove Botta wrong. Congressional debates “were all in secret, and are now lost forever.”3 Jefferson could do nothing to put Adams’s mind at ease. He too heard Dickinson but like Adams he had no detailed notes that he could consult, no authoritative record to which he could turn. In response to Adams’s questions he therefore wrote, “Nobody, except merely its external facts.” So much had happened, just in Congress, that went unrecorded; regrettably, “the life and soul of history must be for ever unknown.”4

By the time of this 1815 exchange Adams and Jefferson had put aside political differences that once strained their friendship. Still, they did not agree on everything. They differed, notably, in their recollections of how Jefferson had been chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. And even when they could agree they were not necessarily right. At the same moment that Adams had been piqued by Botta’s reconstruction of Dickinson’s speech he and Jefferson misremembered the events of July 4, 1776. Both thought that the delegates to Congress signed the Declaration during a ceremony that very day.5 They were wrong, of course, but neither man would gracefully concede the point. Their memories and the official record as then constituted failed them.

Confusion surrounding the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence illustrates the distinction between real events and those events as they are remembered and reported. Carl Becker warned us not to talk of cold hard facts, to understand that the historical past is a filtered remnant of the actual past.6 Although the historical past is by nature ambiguous “the historian is always trying to reduce, or remove, that ambiguity,” observed Daniel Boorstin. He thereby “sets himself a dangerous, even impossible task,” Boorstin added. Historians, logically enough, examine what survives from the past. But, Boorstin asks, is what survives what was most important? Perhaps yes, perhaps no; in any case “the very accidents of survival may skew our vision of the past, exaggerating certain kinds of human activity, or dissolving others.”7

The “accidents of survival” left a vast store of information about Adams and Jefferson. New, more exhaustive editions of their papers and correspondence have been underway for decades and are still years from completion. Josiah Quincy left a mere fragment by comparison. For the historian of ideas, however, that fragment may reveal more about Quincy’s intellectual world than the larger collections for Adams and Jefferson do about them. Although Adams compiled a legal commonplace book that probably helped him when he wrote his “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” and “Novanglus” essays, the tie is not as strong as it is between Quincy’s commonplace book and the Observations. So too with Jefferson. He actually did both a literary and a legal commonplace book, but neither one tells us much about the exact sources that Jefferson turned to for his Revolutionary era writings.8

Moreover, we can trace most of the books that Quincy owned because of a catalog listing them that was done just after he died. Reconstructing Adams’s personal library for the same years is more problematic. We know that Adams had a substantial collection of books, including some purchased at the estate auction for Jeremiah Gridley in 1768, but the Adams books that eventually went to the Boston Public Library do not always disclose when they were purchased or whether Adams read them closely. The task is equally daunting for Jefferson, who began his library with books that he inherited from his father. Not only did Jefferson share Quincy’s attachment to Shakespeare as well as to Gordon’s Tacitus, he, like Quincy, greatly admired Francis Bacon and preferred Catharine Macaulay as a historian to David Hume. By 1770, when a fire at Shadwell destroyed his first collection, he had probably gathered close to as many books as Quincy did before his death. Starting over immediately and assembling an even more impressive collection at Monticello, in 1775 Jefferson possessed well over a thousand books—twice or perhaps even three times the number owned by Quincy.9 And yet because of the 1770–1774 commonplace book we can better connect Quincy’s books and what Quincy read to what he wrote.

It seems somehow fitting that the first and last surviving letters that Quincy wrote or received dealt with books. The first, in 1764, was to his brother-in-law in London, asking him to send a biography of Sir John Holt. A chief justice of King’s Bench under William and Mary, Holt, Quincy explained, wrote opinions “touching the rights and liberties of the people.”10 Sick as Quincy might have been when leaving England in March 1775, he was still trying to add to his personal library. The last letters delivered to him on shipboard in part concerned the disposition of some texts. English well-wishers gave him over twenty books and pamphlets to peruse on the voyage home, including the works of his London friend, Richard Price.11

With those twenty titles Quincy neared five hundred volumes in his library. Aside from his beloved Shakespeare and anthologies by John Milton, Alexander Pope, James Thomson, and a few others, he put very little fiction or poetry on his shelves. Even so, given his use of Shakespearean epigraphs for some of his essays and the Shakespearean allusions sprinkled through his writings and discourse—from Portia’s lines on the “quality of mercy” in “The Merchant of Venice” during the 1770 soldiers’ trial to a reference to “The Tempest” in his 1773 southern voyage journal—he obviously looked to Shakespeare as moral philosopher as well as dramatist.12 In this, too, he was rather like Jefferson. “A lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectively imposed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear,” Jefferson told a correspondent in 1771, “than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written.” And for those wanting to contemplate the “horror” of murder, they need go no further than “Macbeth.”13

Quincy owned a smattering of religious tracts, notably two copies of Jonathan Mayhew’s published sermons and a couple of Jonathan Edwards’s lectures from the pulpit. Naturally he had several dozen legal texts that he needed as a practicing attorney. Beyond those law office essentials he also owned works by Hugo Grotius, Emmerich de Vattel, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, and Baron von Pufendorf, works that ranged through ethics, history, and international law. He also had Coke’s Institutes and Blackstone’s Commentaries, and others who expounded on the English constitution and the relationship of crown to parliament. Not limiting his reading of English history to Hume and Macaulay, he owned Frenchman Paul de Rapin-Thoyras’s earlier study and bought William Harris’s biographies of James I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. He had the collection of parliamentary debates from the 1640s edited by John Rushworth, various political essays by John Milton and a printed account of John Lilburne’s trial. For the eighteenth century he had Joseph Addison’s Free-Holder, Trenchard and Gordon’s Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters, parliamentary debates from the 1740s, and biographies of Viscount Bolingbroke to complement Bolingbroke’s essays. He even owned a full thirteen-volume set of the works of Jonathan Swift. For more recent developments he had John Wilkes’s North Briton, the letters of “Junius” and, for imperial affairs, essays by Edmund Burke and Arthur Young, and various editions of Thomas Pownall’s Administration of the American Colonies.14

There is nothing random about this book buying and reading; it was all of a piece. Whether immersed in the history of republican Rome or England under the Stuarts, or reviewing the careers of Caesar and Cromwell, Quincy read purposefully: to comprehend the present by connecting it to the past. If “Jefferson’s political philosophy was a rich constellation of theoretical qualities from several traditions,” so was Quincy’s.15 In his intellectual world the line separating ancient and modern blurred. Admittedly, he relied heavily on the commonwealth tradition examined by Caroline Robbins. But the commonwealthmen did not teach him new truths; rather, they reaffirmed old truths put into a new context. Thus when Quincy went through the Free-Holder he encountered, in Latin, epigraphs taken from Cicero, Tacitus, and Sallust as introductions to Addison’s essays on British affairs. Were those epigraphs mere literary window-dressing? In arguing for the primacy of the commonwealth tradition in shaping the American Revolutionary mind, Bernard Bailyn wrote that

The classics of the ancient world are everywhere in the literature of the Revolution, but they are everywhere illustrative, not determinative, of thought. They contributed a vivid vocabulary but not the logic and grammar of thought, a universally respected personification but not the sources of political and social beliefs. They heightened the colonists’ sensitivity to ideas and attitudes otherwise derived.16

Taking the last sentence first, perhaps the order should be changed: writers in the commonwealth tradition heightened a sensitivity born of an understanding of human nature and political science gleaned from the classics. The commonwealthmen stressed the dangers posed by corruption and faction, and they dreaded conspiracy, tendencies they inherited from the generation of Tacitus and Plutarch. This does not mean that the more recent past was unimportant to them or to future American Revolutionaries. Quincy copied a passage from the Free-Holder into the commonplace book that came after these lines:

the Times, which are full of Disorders and Tumults, are likewise the fullest of Instructions. History indeed furnishes us with very distinct Accounts of Factions, Conspiracies, Civil Wars and Rebellions, with the fatal Consequences that attend them: But they do not make such deep and lasting Impressions on our Minds as Events of the same Nature, to which we have our selves been Witnesses, and in which we or our Friends and Acquaintances have been Sufferers.17

Notice that Addison talked of “Events of the same Nature.” Past and present ran together. Addison and the other commonwealthmen made sense of contemporary Britain by testing the experiences of their own generation against those of antiquity. Would Thomas Gordon have taken the time to translate Tacitus and Sallust if he had not wanted to legitimate his views of the British present by tying them to the Roman past? Similar motives drove Josiah Quincy in his editorializing against Thomas Hutchinson as an American Caesar. Sharing Quincy’s proclivity for classical analogy, London associate Hugh Baillie complained to Quincy in early 1775 about the sad state of affairs and compared “that of Rome, and the Free States of Greece before they lost their liberty.” Philip of Macedon corrupted the Greeks as a prelude to conquering them and “Julius Caesar by the same methods, laid the foundation for the destruction of the liberties of Rome.”18 In that analogy the Briton and American found common ground. It was an analogy that Quincy himself had made when writing for the Boston Gazette; it was an analogy other patriots made as well. Carl Becker had it right over a half century ago when he wrote of the American Revolutionary generation leaders that “their image of the present and future and their image of the classical past were inseparable, bound together—were really one and the same thing.”19

Quincy is proof of Becker’s contention. Quincy seemed to have a special affinity for the anti-Walpoleans: he quoted Bolingbroke and Swift in the commonplace book; he enlisted lines from Alexander Pope as an epigraph for one of his essays. Some of the longest passages in the commonplace book are extracts from House of Commons debates in late 1743 and early 1744.20 By then Walpole had fallen from power but the issues raised by the Robinarchs persisted. Quincy did not copy debates in full; he only took down the words of those who attacked excessive crown prerogative and ministerial influence. Notable in some of those arguments were Roman analogies, especially when the question of a standing army came up. Again, who better than Caesar to act as exemplar of all that could go wrong in the state? In those excerpts—and in Quincy’s interlinear interjections—we can see how Quincy joined his own age to what had gone before. He examined politics in Hanoverian Britain so that he could find particular illustrations of general themes dating to antiquity. From there he went on to draw what he deemed to be the appropriate lessons for Massachusetts.

Bailyn also charged that the Revolutionaries’ understanding of the classical past was “at times superficial”—which is no test of their sincerity or reality as they knew it. Besides, how much better was their understanding of British history? As Bailyn himself noted, American Revolutionaries read through a Whig lens provided by the commonwealthmen and historians like Catharine Macaulay. Their understanding was probably no better than that of the sources they consulted, and their reading could have been as limited as it was in the classics.

Take, for example, Josiah Quincy’s choice of two pen names: Marchmont Nedham and Edward Sexby. To be sure, Quincy thought he chose well and yet had he known much about either man, would he have made such potentially embarrassing choices? Nedham and Sexby were political opportunists, men whose loyalty could apparently be bought. At one point in his career Nedham was a defender of parliament and a critic of Charles I. In the commonplace book Quincy quoted from a 1651 essay Nedham did as Mercurius Politicus in defense of the commonwealth. But by then Nedham had already switched sides twice, going over to the royalists and then back to their opponents. Arrested in 1645 for writing as parliament’s advocate, after his release he began writing for the King’s men. Again a republican in the 1650s, he criticized the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and fled to Holland. He was back in England not long after, forgiven by the new monarch and recruited to do essays for the crown and against parliament. Likewise, Nedham’s contemporary Edward Sexby seemed to blow with the political wind. Where Quincy first encountered Sexby is hard to say; he certainly did not stand out in either Hume or Macaulay’s works, or in John Rushworth’s Collections of parliamentary debates. In the late 1640s Sexby had been a prominent Leveller who also wrote in defense of tyrannicide. Once an army officer close to Cromwell, Sexby went over to the opposition in the 1650s and plotted with a quirky combination of disillusioned Levellers and royalists to bring Cromwell down. Failing in that enterprise he left for the continent, contacted exiled monarchists, and volunteered to return to England and assassinate Cromwell. Caught sneaking into the country, he died while imprisoned in the Tower of London. His was a less than heroic life.21

More troubling than Bailyn’s distinction between the classical and commonwealth traditions is his contention that the classics were “not determinative”—as if any ideational system, including the commonwealth tradition Bailyn favored, can be “determinative.” John Phillip Reid crawled out onto the same explanatory limb as Bailyn when he wrote that “ideas determined action” and that the fears expressed by the Revolutionary generation were “genuinely felt.”22 John Diggins has explored the difficulty of discerning whether ideas are truly “explanatory” or merely “expressive,” an extension of the problem of separating ideas from interests.23 To a large degree the answer depends on one’s view of human nature. There are those who believe in the possibility of virtuous, selfless political behavior and leadership by the disinterested for the public good. If not willing to accept statements at face value, those in this group nevertheless would not discount professions of disinterestedness or commitment to a higher cause as mere rhetoric. Others dismiss the whole notion of political virtue as delusive and are more likely to suspect statements of principle as rhetorical smokescreens masking baser motives. Still others have found an alternative approach, studying political rhetoric within a cultural context.

On those epistemological and ontological levels there is not much room for debate. On another, however, there is more possibility for discussion. We may not be able to explore ultimates—what drove others to do what they did or to think what they thought—but we can get some idea of what they professed to believe. With Quincy as our example we can see both the possibilities and impossibilities of reconstructing the Revolutionary generation’s intellectual world. The 1770–1774 commonplace book can tell us much about Quincy’s political thought but it cannot tell us everything. Quincy only copied into it excerpts from texts that were important to him at that moment, and for specific purposes. In his will he left Cato’s Letters to his son, the future mayor, with the hope that the “Spirit of Liberty” might “rest upon him.” He also specified that his son inherit Gordon’s discourses on Tacitus and Sallust, Macaulay’s history, and the works of Francis Bacon, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke for the same reason.24 The first four were quoted in the commonplace book; the latter two were not, nor were Cato’s Letters. Quincy devoted a separate commonplace book to Shakespeare, so there were no excerpts from the Bard in his commonplace book of 1770–1774. In his “Legis Miscellenea” of 1765 he quoted from Oceana by the “peerless Harrington” and yet he did not return to Harrington in 1770.25 What was his overall impression of Bacon? He did not refer as effusively to Bacon as he did to Harrington, but he apparently owed Bacon a tremendous intellectual debt. A fair portion of the 1770–1774 commonplace book emulates Bacon’s approach to debating issues as laid out in the Advancement of Learning.26

Gilbert Stuart’s portrait shows Quincy beside five books, with names visible on the spines of three: Bacon, Locke, and Sidney. Quincy respected those authors; he could even be said to have revered Sidney. It was not his decision, however, to include them in Stuart’s painting, because he had already been dead a half century. Stuart relied on family memory, impressions drawn from the John Singleton Copley portraits of Josiah’s father and brother Samuel, and the features of the living Quincys he saw around him. His portrait, then, was somewhat of a composite—not unlike the composite portraits drawn by intellectual historians when they attempt to reconstruct the life of a mind.

Clearly Quincy was influenced by more than what he read for the commonplace book of 1770–1774. Moreover, since Harrington’s Oceana does not appear on the posthumous library list, neither should that list be taken as inclusive. Had Quincy borrowed a copy or loaned it to someone who never returned it? How many other books, borrowed or lost, could there be that fall into the same categories? We simply do not know.

Nor can we know what Quincy retained from the sources that he consulted but chose not to include in the commonplace book. He devoted nearly thirty pages of the commonplace book—close to one-tenth of the total—to extracts from Arthur Young’s anonymously authored Political Essays on the state of the British empire. These 1772 “essays” were actually six different sections of a single work, where Young discussed agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and problems in the constitutional arrangement of empire. Quincy copied long portions and brief passages, as he had with other authors. “The essence of freedom is, every individual being governed by laws which he consented to frame” caught Quincy’s eye, as did “a Frenchman has as much to do with the edicts of a king of France, as the vast part of the British people with acts of the British parliament,” along with Young’s warning “that our happy Constitution may not long remain” on the “secure foundations, which have hitherto formed such a peculiar blessing to this country.” But Quincy did not include in his excerpts Young’s prediction that the American colonies would—and should—become independent if Britain did not change its ways.27

What Quincy omitted in his extracts from Matthew Robinson-Morris’s 1774 tract on imperial affairs is equally interesting. Quincy pulled out only two passages and they were hardly the most provocative. Onetime M.P. for Canterbury, Robinson-Morris had withdrawn from political life in the 1760s for health reasons. Seeing himself as a Whig in the tradition of Hampden and Sidney, an independent who favored parliamentary reform, he attacked the Coercive Acts as “harsh” and “unnatural.” Colonial rights, he contended, were derived from nature, the British constitution, and charters, with God presiding over all. Imperial problems “all undoubtedly proceed from our having taxed the colonies without their consent.” He predicted that the Americans were destined to be independent: “All the whole of our colonies must no doubt one day without force or violence fall off from the parent state like ripe fruit in the maturity of time.”28 That being the case, Britain behaved foolishly, insisting on policies that would knock the fruit off before it was ready to fall. In other words Britain was driving the colonists into rebellion, a rebellion that it would not be able to quell. On the contrary, France and Spain would intervene to make certain that the Americans got what they wanted. Two years before, a piece by “Foresight” in the Boston Evening-Post had advocated the very outcome that Robinson-Morris envisioned:

Let it be the study of all the colonies, to establish that union between them, which is the sure foundation for freedom; and prepare to act as joint members of the Grand American Commonwealth. That those colonies will in some future time be an independent state, is morally certain; the only question is, how long will it be before that event takes place; but by all the signs of the times and appearance of things, it is very near—’tis not probable that it is at the distance of fifteen years.29

Quincy almost certainly read Robinson-Morris’s predictions and Young’s recommendations. Given his own editorializing for the Boston Gazette it is just as likely that he had seen the brief piece by “Foresight.” Did any or all influence him? We do not know. One source in the commonplace book, David Hume’s Essays, was unsympathetic to republicanism but another, Jan De Witt’s Political Maxims, committed to Dutch republicanism, railed against monarchy: “God did not at first mercifully institute any other but a commonwealth government, and afterwards in his wrath appointed one sovereign over them.”30 Quincy read both texts, no doubt with his usual care. Which, if either, had the greater impact? Again, we cannot know: he did not say. Even if he had, should we then take his claim at face value? As with Quincy, so with the entire Revolutionary generation—indeed, so it is with virtually all who have gone before. The past, as one historian recently reminded us, is a foreign country where we too often wander as strangers.31

What, then, is there to be learned from Josiah Quincy and his commonplace book? One answer, the most obvious answer, is that Quincy saw men as driven by the same motives that would have been recognizable to Englishmen of an earlier generation or even citizens of imperial Rome. For Quincy as for Tacitus and Gordon—or Plutarch and Hume—men were a confusing blend of passion and reason because they could behave rationally but they were also easily deluded. Like those authors he read, Quincy contended that all government was susceptible to corruption; similarly, he seemed to fear that liberty and authority were almost impossible to balance, and that an excess of either endangered everyone.

But there is more. Quincy’s commonplace book reminds us that no single cause explanation can suffice for the Revolutionary generation: crown prerogative and parliamentary taxation, civil lists and standing armies, all were sources of imperial dispute and causes of agitation. To patriots like Josiah Quincy, one was not necessarily more important than another, since all were symptoms of a deeper malaise. With so many causes of complaint Quincy had no shortage from which to choose. The episodic quality to imperial agitation as it is depicted in some studies—from Stamp Act to Boston massacre to Tea Party and so on—can be misleading. Quincy’s editorializing did not ebb and flow in response to major events. If not the Townshend duties, then he had ministerial instructions; if not troops in Boston, then the relocation of the General Court from Boston to Cambridge. In that constant state of anxiety his tenuous hold on a dual identity could only be weakened.

Furthermore, with Quincy we can see that there was a revolutionary subconscious before there was a revolutionary consciousness, a way of understanding imperial affairs that was inherently at odds with the prevailing view at Whitehall and Westminster—and decidedly so when disputes over policy gave life to what had once lain dormant. Quincy thought of himself as a British-American and even when he died he may not have wanted to—or realized he had to—make a choice: British or American. He was willing to incite rebellion but he could not have known that that rebellion would mushroom into revolution, which makes him typical of the Patriots before April 1775.

Finally, I have avoided applying the labels used by other historians who have tried to explain Quincy’s politics. George Nash sought to chart Quincy’s transition from a “radical” to a “revolutionary.” Peter Shaw built on Nash and then moved beyond him to include Quincy in a group he called “Conscience Whigs.” Labels are problematic, radical and revolutionary especially so, and Nash’s difficulty in pinning down the supposed shift shows why. “Conscience Whig” is attractive insofar as it connects Quincy’s illness to his ideology but Shaw, I think, tries too hard to argue that Quincy suffered from “psychic stress.” Similarly, it stretches the point to say that “Quincy’s politics began and ended with Thomas Hutchinson.”32

My reluctance to jump into the morass of attempting first cause explanations notwithstanding, it still seems plausible to me that Quincy’s congenitally poor health and lifelong reading habits give us important clues about what drove him. His passionate impetuosity could well have been an extension of his obsession with death and a desire to live as much as he could in a short time. His reading might have molded him as he endeavored to embody ideals that were articulated by others. Therefore his frequent literary allusions should not be dismissed as mere affectations or pretensions. Quite possibly he saw people and understood politics in categories provided by Plutarch and Tacitus, by Shakespeare and Bacon. He himself might not have realized just how much he lived his life according to standards set by others. Quincy’s words—and the words of those that he found important enough to record—preserve for us something of the man. Just in doing this Quincy’s commonplace book offers us a glimpse of a world now gone and yet not quite lost.