J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Josiah Quincy’s “clouds which now rise thick and fast”

Eliza Susan Quincy concluded her 1874 account of her grandfather’s speech in Old South Meeting-House just before the Boston Tea Party with this passage:
While Mr. [Josiah] Quincy was speaking, the men dressed as Indians, who were going to the wharves to destroy the tea, came in, and he closed with the following sentence: “I see the clouds which now rise thick and fast upon our horizon, the thunders roll, and the lightnings play, and to that God who rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm I commit my country.”
As her source, Quincy offered this note:
Two contemporaries of Mr. Quincy repeated his words on this occasion. The name of one was not distinctly remembered by his son [Eliza Quincy’s father]; but, on the 18th of June, 1852, the venerable Daniel Greenleaf, of Quincy, Massachusetts, at the age of ninety years, gave the same account, and repeated the closing sentences. He said that he was a boy in the Latin School, in Boston. The master, John Lovell, was a Tory, but James Lovell, his son and assistant, was a Whig; and, whenever the school was adjourned in consequence of public excitement, he always told the boys to go to the upper gallery in the Old South. In 1852, Mr. Greenleaf was probably the only person living who distinctly remembered the 16th of December, 1773.
Daniel Greenleaf (1762-1853) was admitted into the Lovells’ South Latin School in 1770. He became known for telling such stories in old age, according to a family history: “His memory was very retentive; he could relate almost every transaction of his long life; was full of anecdotes of revolutionary events; being then a young and active lad in immediate contact with some of the prominent actors of those times.”

In 1826 Greenleaf was one of the appraisers of John Adams’s estate, and Eliza Quincy’s father was an executor along with John Quincy Adams. Clearly Greenleaf was part of the Quincy family’s circle on the South Shore. That might have tinged his memories over more than seventy-five years.

Our contemporaneous source, the person reporting on the meeting for the royal government, didn’t mention Quincy speaking that afternoon at all, nor “men dressed as Indians” who “came in” to the meetinghouse. He heard noises outside the building and saw men leaving.

So did Josiah Quincy, Jr., say those seemingly prescient words about “clouds which now rise thick and fast upon our horizon” in December 1773? All we can say for sure is that he did think a lot about clouds, particularly as a metaphor for political turmoil.

From his 15 Sept 1768 letter to the Rev. John Eagleson:
The present aspect of the day is gloomy indeed, yet we are far from despair. Though the clouds, full charged, rise thick and fast, the thunders roll, and lightnings play, nay, it is said, are just within striking distance, there are not wanting those among us, who believe that proper conductors will safely carry off all the political fluid, the clouds disperse, and the sky soon become calm and serene.
From an essay signed “Hyperion” in the 3 Oct 1768 Boston Gazette:
British taxations, suspensions of legislatures, and standing armies, are but some of the clouds, which overshadow the northern world. Heaven grant that a grand constellation of virtues may shine forth with redoubled lustre, and enlighten this gloomy hemisphere!
From the journal of his mid-1773 sea voyage to the southern colonies:
What a transition have I made and am still making! was the exclamation of my heart. Instead of stable earth, the fleeting waters: the little hall of right and wrong is changed for the wide-expanding immeasurable ocean: instead of petty jars and waspish disputations; waves contend with waves, and billows war with billows: seas rise in wrath and mountains combat heaven; clouds engage with clouds and lightenings dart their vengefull corruscations; thunders roll and oceans roar: all other flames and distant shores, sea, air and heaven reverberate the mighty war and echo awfull sounds. . . .

Vast field for contemplation! Riches for mind and fancy! Astonishing monuments of wisdom; magnificent productions of power!
One possibility is that people assigned something Quincy often said about clouds on the political horizon to that dramatic moment on 16 Dec 1773. Another is that he really did say it (and his friends all thought, “Oh, Josiah’s going on about clouds again.”).

1 comment:

RBK said...

.......and his friends all thought, “Oh, Josiah’s going on about clouds again.” hahahahahahah. Best line of the whole post. While a great metaphor for the coming storms, I can see how it could get a bit tiresome.