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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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Quincy’s Speech in Quincy’s Words

Our next source for what lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., said in Old South Meeting-House during the tea meetings of December 1773 comes from Quincy himself.

In a letter to his wife Abigail, written in London on 14 Dec 1774, Quincy described the impending confrontation between Massachusetts and the imperial government:
Your countrymen must seal their cause with their blood. You know how often and how long ago I said this. I see every day more and more reason to confirm my opinion. Surely, my countrymen will recollect the words I held to them this time twelvemonth.
It is not, Mr. Moderator, the spirit that vapors within these walls that must stand us in stead. The exertions of this day will call forth events which will make a very different spirit necessary for our salvation. Look to the end. Whoever supposes that shouts and hosannas will terminate the trials of the day, entertains a childish fancy. We must be grossly ignorant of the importance and value of the prize for which we contend;—we must be equally ignorant of the powers of those who have combined against us;—we must be blind to that malice, inveteracy, and insatiable revenge, which actuate our enemies, public and private, abroad and in our bosom, to hope we shall end this controversy without the sharpest, the sharpest conflicts; to flatter ourselves that popular resolves, popular harangues, popular acclamations, and popular vapor, will vanquish our foes. Let us consider the issue. Let us look to the end. Let us weigh and consider, before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrible struggle, this country ever saw.
Quincy said that he had made those remarks twelve months before, and he includes the phrase “Mr. Moderator,” strongly suggesting he meant during the tea meetings of December 1773. If he was being exact, that would be 14 December, but he might have meant the day the crisis came to a head, 16 December.

While Quincy presents his words as a direct quote, there’s no way he could have spoken spontaneously and taken notes at the same time. So either he had written out his remarks in advance in 1773 and then brought that document to London, or he was recreating his speech for his wife—which brings up the possibility of a little improvement or 20-20 hindsight.

There’s some interesting disagreement about how to interpret these remarks. Some historians read Quincy as advocating moderation, warning the gathering not to push too hard against the law. But he didn’t suggest a compromise. Quincy clearly saw himself as trying to steel the crowd’s resolve, to ensure that people were ready for a much bigger, harder struggle against the malicious and inveterate royal power.


Anonymous said...

Is it possible that the date of the letter to the wife is given incorrectly? It's described as December 1773, twelve months after December 1773. I am bewildered easily in the early mornings, but I know you will check this.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that was my error, now fixed. Thanks!

RBK said...

I wonder if this part of the same speech dealing with the Dartmouth. If this part came after, maybe Quincy felt like he offered a comprise already and saw no need to offer one again. Maybe these were his "closing remarks"

J. L. Bell said...

It's possible that Quincy spoke all the words attributed to him at these meetings, either in one speech or at different times. In this case, it's a little odd that the Crown informant, who was there to take note of anti-Crown advocacy, didn't note down Quincy saying something of this sort. Maybe it didn't stand out.