Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,355
This is the grave of Josiah Quincy.
Born in 1772 in Boston, Quincy was wealthy. His family went back to old Massachusetts. The name “Quincy” itself speaks to old money and that was his family. His father was an active supporter of the Patriot cause and died in 1775 in a shipwreck returned from London to meet with friends of the cause over there. But Quincy still had that family money, so he was fatherless but financially secure. He was in the first class of Phillips Academy when it opened in 1778 and then of course went to Harvard. He graduated in 1790 and studied for the bar. He passed that in 1793, though he never really practiced that much.
Quincy was a lot more interested in politics than he was the law. He was a very strong Federalist and became one of the state’s major leaders of the party. He originally ran for Congress in 1800, but lost that race and he went back to more insider work for awhile, before getting elected to the statehouse in 1804. He only stayed there very briefly, finally reaching Congress in 1805. He would serve four terms in Washington, but by this time, the Federalist Party was already declining rapidly. The terrible political decisions of party elites and the tendency of Federalists to represent the needs of the rich had alienated a lot of the nation and it was only New England that the party really had any play. He hated Thomas Jefferson with the heat of a thousand suns and argued that the president should be impeached for his Embargo. In truth, that foreign policy move, one of the very worst in American history if not the actual worse, probably could lead one to reasonably to consider impeachment. Representing his core constituency of the fishing industry, he argued that the fishing industry should be exempt from the embargo, which was of course ridiculous. On the other hand, when he forced a vote to impeach Jefferson, it was defeated 117-1, the one being Quincy of course. So this is not a particularly serious man here.
Quincy also went ballistic when, in 1811, the U.S. started debating whether to bring Louisiana in as a state. Now, I know a little bit about the difficulties about integrating Louisiana into the nation early on; in fact, it’s super interesting to read Jefferson’s letters on this since he was such a Francophile and basically said that the people of Louisiana were Cajun trash who had no ability to govern themselves. But enough Americans had moved there to make most of the nation feel comfortable with the place becoming a state, especially after the German Coast slave rebellion, where white Americans were happy that the French could also be cruel toward slaves and thus we could all get together around the lovely commonality of violent, murderous racism.
But I was not familiar with wild eyed opposition to Louisiana’s acceptance into the union as a state. Quincy may have been the first American politician to articulate the idea of secession here, when he said on this issue, “if this bill passes, the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved; that the States that compose it are free from their moral obligations; and that, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, to prepare definitely for a separation, amicably if they can, violently if they must.” It seems that Quincy’s objection fundamentally that Louisiana was not American. It was French and thus would support France in European wars. In other words, it was a proxy for the larger political wars of the nation at that time.
This whole scene in Congress around Quincy’s opposition here was crazy. When he opposed Louisiana statehood, a Mississippi congressman accused him of treason and there was a vote on it, which Quincy won by a sizable but far from unanimous margin. He then went on with radically lunatic language about the evils of Louisiana. Some of the choice words include “You have no authority to throw the rights and liberties and property of this people into hotch-potch with the wild men on the Missouri or with the mixed, though more respectable, race of Anglo-Hispanic-Gallo-Americans who bask on the sands at the mouth of the Mississippi.”
Wild men on the Missouri!!!
Quincy left Congress in 1813 and that’s probably good because he would have been really crazy during the War of 1812 in throwing his lot with the British. He went into the Massachusetts state senate and then became mayor of Boston in 1823. These were one year terms and he won for the next six years, so he served until 1829. As such, he helped organize the fire and police departments and had the Chelsea Market built. He also shut down the Boston High School for Girls. This is an interesting story. The school was experimental in that it existed. Elite education for boys, sure, but for girls? But there was a huge demand for it and the city didn’t want to pay for all the students. So Quincy just said it was a failure and closed the thing down.
In 1829, Quincy left the mayoralty to become president of Harvard, where he remained for the next sixteen years. While I don’t really care about anything that happens at Harvard, then or now, it should be noted that Quincy reorganized the place to make rank in the class mean something other than wealth and to have real disciplinary processes for students. As he aged, Quincy became more and more bitter toward the slave states, though he was not active in electoral politics at that time. He seems to have taken his initial hate of Louisiana, which at least as articulated was not about slavery, and allowed it to shift for a more general abolitionist politics that were based o the idea of the slave states turning the free states into slaves themselves.
In 1845, Quincy left Harvard and mostly lived in retirement on his farm in the town of Quincy (named for his family). He started writing histories, including a history of Boston from 1630 to 1830 that he published in 1852. That same year, he published a book or pamphlet with the exciting title of Essay on the Soiling of Cattle. Try not to read that title too quickly. He also gave speeches, such as Address Illustrative of the Nature and Power of the Slave States and the Duties of the Free States, which was from 1856 and which was popular enough to publish. He died in Quincy in 1864. He was 92 years old.
Josiah Quincy is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
If you would like this series to visit other leading Federalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I can’t guarantee that they will have this strong of feelings about Louisiana however. John Jay is in Rye, New York and Rufus King is in Queens, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.