Josiah Quincy, Jr.

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

June 4, 2019
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s name is rarely mentioned in history books. This is because his name never appeared at the top of any leaderboard, that is, he was not a member of the Continental Congress, a military hero, a leader of a movement or group, or an author of an influential work, and because he died at the age of thirty-one. In 1763, after graduating from Harvard, he started his study of the law under Oxenbridge Thacher, a distinguished Boston lawyer. When he began his public career, he was known for his oratory skills, keen legal mind, and belief in the colonies’ right to self-government.

On August 27, 1765, in response to the Stamp Act, the citizens of Boston ransacked the home of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. In a memorandum the next day Quincy called the citizens, “the warmest Lovers of Liberty” and denounced the Stamp Act as “unconstitutional.”

In September and October 1767, under the pseudonym Hyperion, he wrote two articles to the Boston Gazettein response to the recently-passed Townshend Acts. The first appeared on September 28, and included the passage, “Oh Britain! Hold thy cruel hand, suspend the bloody sword an instant, and while with an out-stretched arm, thou art forcing from thy injured Colonies one Right after another;”[1]and the second on October 5, which said in part, “When some particular persons in this Metropolis . . . endeavour to make us “Perceive our inability to oppose our mother country,” let us boldly answer: In defence of our civil and religious rights, we dare oppose the world.”[2]

On January 18, 1770, he tried to convince a large crowd of non-importation supporters that the intimidation of local merchants was illegal and unwise. He told them that if they marched on Governor Hutchinson’s home seeking his sons who were tea merchants, it could be construed as a direct attempt to apply force to a king’s representative and thus an act of treason. His appeal fell on deaf ears.

On February 12, 1770, he wrote an article, entitled “An Independent,” to the Boston Gazette in support of non-importation.

America is now the slave of Britain . . . every day we are more and more in danger of an increase of our burdens, and a fastening of our shackles . . . my countrymen break off all social intercourse with those whose commerce contaminates, whose luxuries poison, Whose avarice is insatiable, and whose unnatural oppressions are not to be borne.[3]

Between March and December 1770, John Adams with Josiah Quincy serving as co-counsel successfully defended British soldiers accused of murder in what became known as the Boston Massacre. When questioned by his father why he accepted the position, Quincy responded, “these criminals, charged with murder, are not yet proved legally guilty, and therefore, however criminal, are entitled, by the laws of God and man, to all legal counsel and aid; that my duty as a man obliged me to undertake ; that my duty as a lawyer strengthened the obligation.”[4]

On November 2, 1772, he was elected to the Boston Committee of Correspondence. On December 16, 1773, Quincy spoke at the town meeting in the Old South Meetinghouse where the destruction of the tea was all but ordered: “The exertions of this day will call forth the events which will make a very different spirit necessary for our salvation . . . Let us weigh and consider before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrific struggle this country ever saw.”[5] Quincy did not object to the dumping of the tea, but rather to the apparent disregard of the ensuing consequences.

In May 1774, he published a pamphlet entitled Observations on the Boston Port Bill, with Thoughts on Civil Society and Standing Armies. It was a response to the recently-passed Coercive Acts. In the pamphlet he declared, “America hath in store her . . . 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.”[6]

On July 26, 1774, Quincy was elected to the Boston Committee of Safety. By that time, most of his friends were either Sons of Liberty, members of the Provincial Assembly, members of the Long Room Club, or members of one of the committees that he belonged to. On August 6, copies of the last two Coercive Acts, the Massachusetts Government Act and the Administration of Justice Act, arrived in Boston. Tensions rose even higher in the colonies when it became clear that Gen. Thomas Gage, who had recently replaced Hutchinson, was appointed to enforce the Coercive Acts.

On August 20, Quincy wrote a letter to John Dickinson, a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress and author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania:

At the urgent solicitation of a great number of warm friends to my country and myself, I have agreed to relinquish business, and embark for London . . . I am flattered, by those who perhaps place too much confidence in me, that I may do some good the ensuing winter at the court of Great Britain . . . My design is to be kept as long a secret as possible, I hope till I get to Europe.[7]

Two weeks later, Joseph Warren wrote to Samuel Adams:

I wish much to be in England at this time; but the sacrifice of my particular interest at this time [medicine?]j, by such a step, would be greater than I can afford to make. I fear Messrs. Oliver, Lieutenant-Governor, and Colonel Leonard are both going there immediately; and I hope they will not be suffered to tell their tale uncontradicted.[8]

On September 19, Samuel Adams wrote to Dr. Charles Chauncy, “Our friend, Mr. Quincy, informed me before I left Boston, of his intention to take passage for England.”[9]What makes this significant is that Adams left Boston for the First Continental Congress on August 10. Dr. Chauncy, in a letter of introduction to Dr. Amory in London on behalf of Quincy, wrote,

He goes to England strongly disposed to serve his country . . . The favour I would ask is only this, that you would take so much notice of him as to introduce him, either yourself or by one or another of your friends, into the company of those who may have it in their power to be serviceable to the colonies in general, and this Province in particular.[10]

These letters tell us four things:

  1. that Quincy had made up his mind to go to England by August 10;
  2. that his trip was to be a secret;
  3. that Dr. Joseph Warren was the original choice to go on the trip;
  4. that there were at least two purposes for the trip: first, to correct any misconceptions or misrepresentations about the situation in Massachusetts that Hutchinson or Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver may report to the Crown, and second, to meet with those “outside of the administration” who might be able to use their influence on behalf of the colonies, in general and Massachusetts, in particular.

Quincy, as he prepared to depart, believed that he had to be both a diplomat and an advocate. He secretly set sail from Salem, Massachusetts on September 28, landed at Falmouth, Cornwall, on November 8, and reached London midday on November 17. He spent the remainder of the day with Benjamin Franklin at the New York Coffee Shop. There he met Edward and Charles Dilly, the proprietors, Thomas Bromfield, a Boston merchant who had been in London for some time on business, and “many friends to Liberty and America.” Little did he know, General Gage was aware of the trip before he even set sail. In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, dated September 25, Gage wrote, “I understand that a Person whose Name is kept secret, goes on the same Vessell, and that there is something misterious concerning the Object of his Voyage.”[11]

On November 18, Quincy met with Jonathan Williams, an Inspector of the Customs in Massachusetts. In the course of their conversation, Williams said, “Governor Hutchinson had repeatedly assured the Ministry that a union of the Colonies was utterly impracticable: that the people were greatly divided among themselves on every colony, and that there could be no doubt, that all America would submit.”[12] That night he dined with Franklin who “confirmed the account given . . . that several of the Nobility and Ministry had assured him of the facts.”[13]

On November 19, Lord North, the Prime Minister of England, requested to speak with Quincy.

His Lordship enquired into the state in which I left American affairs. I gave him my sentiments upon them together with what I took to be the cause of most of our political evils—Gross misrepresentation and falsehood. His Lordship replied he did not doubt there had been much, but added that very honest [men] frequently gave a wrong state of matters through mistake, prejudice, prepossessions and bypasses of one kind or other . . . We spoke considerably upon the sentiments of Americans, of the rights claimed by Parliament to tax, and of the destruction of the tea, and the justice of payment for it . . . He said [the Ministers] were obliged to do what they did; that it was the most lenient measure that was proposed . . . He said repeatedly ‘We must try what we can to support the Authority we claimed over America, if we are defective in power we must set down contented and make the best terms we can . . . but till we have tryed what we can do, we can never be justified in acceding.[14]

That night Quincy dined with Bromfield and four “friends to Liberty and America” from the Coffee House. One of them, Mr. Welsh, advised him to “be upon my guard against the temptations and bribery of [the] Administration . . . If you are corruptible Sir, the Ministry will corrupt you.” On November 22, Quincy met with Corbin Morris, one of England’s Commissioners of the Custom:

You have seen some of the ministry and have heard more of the disposition of [the] Administration . . . they have no inclination to injure, much less to oppress the Colonies . . . You must be sensible of the right of Parliament to legislate for the Colonies, and of the power of the nation to enforce their laws. No power in Europe ever provoked the resentment or bid defiance to the Powers of this Island, but they were made to repent of it[15]

On November 24, Quincy met with Lord Dartmouth, secretary-of-state for the colonies. Unfortunately, there is no record of their conversation. He spent the afternoon with Franklin and Dr. Jonathan Price at the Royal Society and the evening at the Coffee House where he was introduced “to eight or nine Dissenting Clergymen.”[16]Before retiring for the evening he wrote to his wife, Abigail—not “as my bosom friend . . . [but] as my political confidant.”

Great is the anxiety here, lest the Congress should petition or remonstrate . . . If that mode of proceeding is adopted by Congress, many, very many friends will sink; they will desert your cause from despondency . . . For your country’s sake . . . depend not upon commercial plans alone for your safety . . . I do not say renounce it, I say continue it; but look towards it in vast subordination to those . . . exertions which alone can save you.[17]

Before mailing it, a couple of days later he added, “You may communicate a sight of [this letter] to all candid friends.” This was his way of saying, “Please show it to those individuals that I cannot write directly to under the present circumstances, but that should be aware of its contents.”

On November 25, he met with Thomas Pownall, the former governor of Massachusetts, who “confirmed [for] me that the people of Boston are not mistaken in the man whom they have most reason to curse of all others.”[18] On November 28, he went to Westminster Hall and heard Lord Chief Justice Mansfield deliver an opinion; on the 29th and 30th, he attended the House of Commons; and on December 4, dined with William and Arthur Lee, the brothers of Richard Henry Lee. They had travelled to England in 1766; the former became a merchant and the latter studied law at the Temple. By 1774, William was a Sheriff of London and Arthur was lawyer and as well as the Massachusetts Agent in London in the absence of Franklin.

On December 5, Quincy dined with Sir George Saville and David Hartley, a member of Parliament and supporter of the colonies. The following day, Hartley declared in Parliament, “If things could be put upon the footing they were in the year 1764, the Colonies could be content.” Interestingly, that same day Corbin Morris again met with Quincy. “His conversation was much upon the propriety of my laying down some ‘line’ to which the Colonies would accede and by which the present controversy might be amicably adjusted. He urged much my waiting again upon Lord North and Lord Dartmouth.”[19]It is notable that Hartley, not Quincy, seems to have provided Corbin with his answer.

On December 7, Josiah Quincy again wrote to his “political confidant,” Abigail:

Prepare, prepare , I say for the worst . . . I am most sure that your forbearance, your delays, your indecision . . . hath brought or will bring upon you many more and greater evils . . . You must know that many of your friends here in both Houses will not take a decisive part till they see how you act in America . . . when once there is a conviction that the Americans are in earnest . . . then, and not till then, will you have many firm, active, persevering, and powerful friends, in both Houses of Parliament.[20]

On December 12, Josiah visited Lord Shelburne, a former secretary-of-state, and now “a very warm friend to the Americans.” In the course of their conversation, Shelburne said “the Ministry would not be able to carry on a Civil war against America.”[21]On December 13, Quincy dined with Brand Hollis, the brother of the late Thomas Hollis, the unofficial leader of the New York Coffee Shop, “friends to Liberty and America.” Two days later, Quincy again wrote to his “political confidant,” but for the first time his words were not those of a diplomat.

Your countrymen must seal their cause with their blood . . . 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 . . . which actuates our enemies to hope we shall end this controversy without the sharpest conflicts . . . [They] must now stand the issue; they must preserve a consistency of character; they must not delay; they must or be trodden into the vilest vassalage . . .[22]

On December 17, Quincy wrote to Joseph Reed, a member of the Philadelphia Committee of Correspondence:

By no means entertain an idea that commercial plans founded on commercial principles are to be engines of your freedom… whether the weapons of our warfare be commercial or martial, methinks we should not suddenly lay them down . . . Let our countrymen . . . be on their guard at every point . . . Hath not blood and treasure in all ages been the price of civil liberty? Can Americans hope a reversal of the laws of our nature, and that the best of blessings will be obtained and secured without the sharpest trials?[23]

On December 19, Quincy received a letter from John Dickinson:

A civil war is unavoidable, unless there be a quick change of British measures . . . The present cause is that of . . . Mansfield, North, Bernard , Hutchinson, etc. . . not of Great Britain. Let her renounce their detestable projects . . . and reconcile herself to her children while their minds are capable of reconciliation . . . ‘Oh, for a warning voice,’ to rouse them to conviction of this important truth, that their reconciliation depends upon the passing moment, and that the opportunity will in a short time be irrevocably past.[24]

By mid-December, Quincy came to realize that his diplomacy had failed. On his meetings with members of the Ministry, his meetings with members of Parliament, he wrote: “I have just supped and spent the evening with a circle of about a dozen influential members of the House of Commons. But whether I see them in the House or out of it, they appear—not fit to represent the inhabitants of North America.”[25]And of his meetings with pro-American citizens, “The people are ‘cowed’ by oppression . . . and are sunk in abject submission.” All proved frustrating and offered little hope. He also did not know that the day beforehe met with Lord North (November 18), the king had informed North, “I am not sorry that the line of conduct seems now chalked out . . . the New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent”[26]

The Christmas holidays were spent with Samuel Vaughan, a merchant banker and close friend of John Wilkes, Dr. Priestley, Franklin, and members of the Club of Honest Whigs at his home in Wanstead. On December 29, Quincy set off for the town of Bath in Somerset. He was accompanied by Arthur Lee and Jonathan Williams. On the 30th, he visited Dr. Priestley at his home in Calne, Wiltshire, and Lord Shelburne at his home halfway between Calne and Chippenham. He arrived in Bath on December 31 and immediately “visited the celebrated Mrs. Macaulay. . . and was favoured with a conversation of about an hour and a half, in which I was much pleased with her good sense and liberal turn of mind. She is indeed an extraordinary woman.”[27]

On January 2, Quincy again “spent the afternoon in very improving conversation with Mrs. Macaulay.”[28]In the evening he attended a ball where he had a two hour conversation with Col. Isaac Barre, a colleague of Lord Shelburne in Parliament and strong advocate for the colonies. On January 7, Quincy backed off his position of December 14:

Did Americans realize their commercial power, spirit and obstinacy would characterize their future measures . . . The manufacturing towns are now in motion; and petitions to Parliament to repeal the late acts, on commercial principles, will flow from all quarters . . . The people of this country must be made to feel the importance of their American brethren.[29]

Four days later, he wrote:

The cause of the colonies every day grows more popular; that of the ministry, more desperate. The merchants are alarmed, the manufacturers are in motion, the artificers and handicraftsmen are in amaze, and the lower ranks of the community are suffering . . . If my countrymen, after deliberating, are convinced that they can sacredly keep the pure faith of economy . . . and, what is more, can compel and keep to the ordinances of self-denial . . . I will venture to assure them that they shall obtain a bloodless victory . . . I know not . . . [and] care not what part [the Ministry] take[s]. If my own countrymen deserve to be free, they will be free.[30]

On January 10, Quincy arrived back in London. On January 12, he had a three hour meeting with Thomas Pownall during which he was told that Parliament was not going to repeal any of the Coercive Acts. Quincy responded,

I wished I could be satisfied that what he now said would be true. It will ease my mind and would determine my conduct to sail to America in four and twenty hours. I should then be in no doubt that the colonies ought to do and I am sure I should not hesitate what part to take myself . . . I am sure this country will be convulsed, I am sure there will be very astonishing commotions, if those acts are not repealed and that very speedily too.[31]

January 20 was Quincy’s day of reckoning. He sat in the balcony of the House of Lords. On this day Lord Chatham (William Pitt) delivered his motion for reconciliation with the colonies:

. . . in order to open the Way towards a happy Settlement of the dangerous Troubles in America, by beginning to allay Ferments and soften Animosities there; and above all, for preventing . . . any sudden and fatal catastrophe at Boston, now suffering under the daily irritation of an Army before their Eyes, posted in their Town, it may graciously please his Majesty that immediate Orders may be dispatched to General Gage for removing his Majesty’s Forces from the Town of Boston, as soon as the Rigour of the Season and other Circumstances indispensable to the Safety and Accommodation of the said Troops may render the same principle.”[32]

 It was followed by Lord Camden, the former Chancellor of England,

My Lords, some noble lords talk much of resistance to acts of Parliament . . . but my Lords acts of Parliament have been resisted in all ages. Kings, Lords and Commons may become tyrants as well as others; tyranny in one or more is the same . . . Whenever the trust is wrested to the injury of the people, whenever oppression begins, all is unlawful and unjust and resistance [then] becomes lawful and right[33]

then by Lord Shelburne,

My Lords, we know, we all know, that justice and injustice, right and wrong, are not at all considered in the course of our parliamentary proceedings. We all know that nothing is debated in parliament for information or conviction, but for mere form. Everything is considered in the cabinet and brought into Parliament not for consideration, but for the sanction of the Legislature.[34]

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the motion was defeated by a vote of seventy-seven (including proxies) to eighteen.

On the evening of January 23, Josiah Quincy became “ill with a fever and spasms.” The next day Dr. John Fothergill, the physician to both Lord Dartmouth and Benjamin Franklin and a close friend of David Hartley, paid a house call and “prescribed for my disorder.” His diagnosis was more than likely advanced tuberculosis. Dr. Fothergill would stop by again on the 26th and the 27th. Quincy spent his recovery at the home of Thomas Bromfield in London, until February 9. During this time, the House of Commons was busy refusing to consider one commercial petition after another from the merchants in many of the large cities in England.

On February 2, Lord North introduced a motion in the House of Commons that an address be sent to the king requesting him “to take the most effectual measures to enforce obedience to the laws and authority of the Supreme legislature;”[35]on February 6, the House of Commons approved the proclamation and on the 7, the House of Lords did the same.

Quincy’s friends visited him daily during his recovery, but now they were beginning to encourage him to return America.

It is a good deal against my own private opinion and inclination that I now [prepare to] sail for America . . . Dr. Fothergill thinks Bristol’s air and water would give me perfect health. On the other hand, my most intimate friends insist upon my going directly to Boston. They say no letters can go with safety, and that I can deliver more information and advice vive vocethan could or ought to be written.[36]

On March 1, Quincy and Benjamin Franklin discussed the present situation of American affairs and what course the colonies ought to take in the near future. Franklin was taken aback to learn that many of Quincy’s “friends to liberty and America” believed that the shedding of blood would in the end be necessary to achieve independence. On March 2, Quincy met with William Lee for three hours and again discussed American affairs. Later that evening Brand Hollis wrote a letter to Quincy that he had “no doubts but that the magnanimity and good sense of [your] countrymen will fix their Liberties on a solid basis, and knowing the errors of England will avoid them, and hopes they will show to the world a perfect form of Government where Liberty and Justice shall act in Union.”[37]

On March 3, Quincy and Franklin met again. At this meeting Franklin presented a very convincing argument as to why the commercial struggle that was occurring within the Empire would beget the colonies’ independence. In parting Franklin stated, “Let your adherence be to the non-importation and non-exportation agreement and a year from next September, or to the next session of Parliament, and the day is won.”[38]

On March 16, the same day that Quincy set sail for Boston, he wrote to Thomas Bromfield, “My cough is far from better.”[39]On April 21, five weeks into the voyage, his health had deteriorated so badly that he thought he might die before reaching Boston. Sadly, he was correct. On April 26, in sight of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Josiah Quincy, Jr. died. To this day, no one knows what he would have related or recommended to Samuel Adams or Joseph Warren, or the impact his information and opinions may have had.

On February 26, 1775, Franklin wrote to his old friend, Josiah Quincy (Sr.). In the letter he expressed unknowingly what could have been the opening paragraph of Josiah Quincy’s eulogy: “I thank you for introducing me to the acquaintance of a person so deserving of esteem for his public and private virtues. I hope for your sake, and that of his friends and country, that his present indisposition may wear off, and his health be established. His coming over has been of great service to our cause.”[40]


[1]Daniel R. Coquillete and Neil Longley York, eds., Portrait of a Patriot (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2014), 3.

[2]Joseph Tinker Buckingham, Specimens of Newspaper Literature(Boston: 1850), 1: 178-80; William Fields, ed., The Scrap-Book: Consisting of Tales and Anecdotes, Biographical, Historical, Patriotic, Moral, Religious, and Sentimental Pieces (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860), 249.

[3]Frank Moore, American Eloquences: A Collection of Speeches and Addresses, By the Most Eminent Orators of America (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1858), 1: 332.

[4]Eliza Susan Quincy, ed., Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, Junior, of Massachusetts: 1744-1775, 2nd edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1874), 26-8.

[5]Francis Drake , ed., Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents (Boston: A. O. Crane, 1884), lix-lx.

[6]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 137.

[7]Ibid., 149-51.

[8]Joseph Warren to Samuel Adams, September 4, 1774, in Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren(Boston: Little, Brown, 1865), 358.

[9]William Vincent Wells, The Life and Public Service of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1865), 206-207.

[10]Quincy,Memoirs of Josiah Quincy,159.

[11]Clarence Edwin Carter, ed., The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage (London: H. Milford, 1931), 1: 375.

[12]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 197.

[13]Neil Longeley York and Daniel R. Coquillette, eds., Portrait of a Patriot: The Major Political and Legal Papers of Josiah Quincy, Jr., The London Journal 1774-1775 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2005), 229-30.

[14]Ibid., 230-1.

[15]Ibid., 234.

[16]Ibid., 235.

[17]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 209-10.

[18]Ibid., 211.

[19]Peter Orlando Hutchinson, The Diaries and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1886), 317.

[20]Quincy,Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 218-20.

[21]The London Journal 1774-1775, 241.

[22]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 224-26.

[23]Ibid., 235-37.

[24]Ibid., 168-9.

[25]Ibid., 230.

[26]“King to North, 18 November 1774,” in Correspondence of George III in Sir John Fortescue, ed., Correspondence of King George the Third, 1760-1783(London: McMillan, 1928), 3: 153.

[27]Ibid., 243.


[29]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 347.

[30]Ibid., 251-2.

[31]Ibid., 258.

[32]Ibid., 265-6.

[33]Ibid., 273-4.

[34]The London Journal 1774-1775, 260.

[35]William Cobbett, ed., The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (London: T.C. Hansard, 1813), 28: 223-24.

[36]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 281.

[37]“Brand Hollis to Josiah Quincy, Jr., March 2, 1775,” (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 2nd ser., L,1916-17), 489.

[38]Quincy, Memoirs of Josiah Quincy, 283.

[39]Ibid., 284.

[40]Ibid., 410-11.

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