Born February 4, 1772
Died July 1, 1864
Washington, District of Columbia
When the War of 1812 began, Massachusetts native Josiah Quincy was serving in the House of Representatives. A strong Federalist—the party that was against the war and often criticized the Republican administration of President James Madison (1751-1836)—Quincy's was the loudest of the voices of opposition as Congress debated the prospect of war. He resigned from the House soon after the declaration of war was signed, but continued to express his disapproval after he was later elected to the Massachusetts state legislature. Quincy later became mayor of Boston and president of Harvard University.
A well-established, respected family
Josiah Quincy was born in Boston on February 4, 1772, to a well-respected Massachusetts family. His ancestor Edmund Quincy had arrived from England in 1633, settling in the town of Mount Wollaston (which became Braintree, then Quincy) and gradually acquired great influence in the community. Quincy's father (also name Josiah), a prominent lawyer and ardent supporter of the American Revolution(1775-83), died of tuberculosis (a disease of the lungs) when Quincy was three. Quincy's mother, Abigail Phillips Quincy, was the daughter of a Boston merchant and the sister of Massachusetts lieutenant-governor William Phillips. After his father's death, Quincy's family became dependent on Abigail's father, a stern, religious man who decided to send his six-year-old grandson to boarding school.
Quincy entered Phillips Academy, which his mother's cousin had recently established at Andover, Massachusetts, becoming its youngest student. As discussed in a biography of Quincy titled Josiah Quincy, 1772-1864: The Last Federalist by Robert A. McCaughey, the school's goal was to "promote True Piety [religious obedience] and Virtue" through strict discipline and unrelenting academic work. Quincy was later to recall his days at Phillips with little fondness, and he never developed the strict, rigid attitudes toward religion that the school (and his grandfather) tried to teach him.
Attending Harvard College
Although he was not the best student, Quincy graduated Phillips Academy and was encouraged to further his education. As a wealthy young man of New England, he was expected to attend Harvard College, located close to Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Besides being one of the most prominent colleges in the United States, twenty-one of Quincy's relatives on both sides of his family had gone to Harvard, so Harvard it was.
At this period in its history, Harvard featured a loose academic structure and a fairly liberal approach to religion, which suited Quincy well. There was little emphasis on competition; grades and examinations were not considered very important. Nevertheless, Quincy worked hard at his studies and benefited from them, taking courses in such subjects as Greek, Latin, Mathematics, and Metaphysics (philosophy). He also was given many opportunities to learn and practice public speaking, and developed skill in this area that would serve him well in later life, when he would come to be considered a great orator (speechmaker). Quincy graduated first in the class of 1790.
A young lawyer
Now eighteen years old, Quincy felt that becoming a lawyer was his most likely career option, even though the idea did not excite him much. At this time the path to becoming an attorney involved not academic study but an apprenticeship (when a young person would work for an established professional for little or no money, and thereby learn and acquire a trade). Thus Quincy spent three years working in the Boston office of attorney William Tudor. He passed the bar (the examination attorneys must pass to qualify to practice) in 1793 but never took many cases, for his family's wealth meant that he did not have to make much money.
Though he lacked enthusiasm for being a lawyer, Quincy wanted very much to serve the public by getting involved in politics. While waiting for a good opportunity to do so, he kept busy by participating in many organizations, including the Massachusetts Historical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also started investing in real estate, which helped to increase his wealth.
Tall, handsome, and sociable, Quincy also was known for his impetuous (doing things suddenly, without much thought) nature. Thus it must have hardly surprised his friends when they learned that, during the summer of 1795, he had become secretly engaged to Eliza Susan Morton—the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a New York merchant—a week after meeting her. Wedded on June 6, 1797 in New York City, the Quincys had a happy marriage of fifty-three years and raised seven children.
A taste for politics
Quincy entered politics in 1796, when he began to participate in Boston's city government. His speeches were widely admired, and he was appointed Town Orator in 1798. As part of Boston's wealthy elite, it was natural for Quincy to identify himself as a Federalist. This conservative political party tended to appeal to those who believed in a strong federal (national) government and whose interests lay in business and city life, while the Democratic Republicans (who later became known simply as Republicans), many of whom were farmers and plantation owners, did not want the federal government to violate the rights of the individual states.
The twenty-eight-year-old Quincy hoped to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1800 but lost to William Eustis (1753-1825), a Revolutionary War veteran who was twice his age and who would, at the beginning of the War of 1812, serve as secretary of war. Two years later, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848; a future president of the United States) won the Federalist nomination over Quincy, but Adams subsequently lost to Eustis. Although he served briefly in the Massachusetts state legislature, Quincy had to wait until 1804 for another chance to run for the U.S. Congress. This time, he beat Eustis. For the next forty-five years, Quincy would hold some kind of public or semipublic (e.g., college presidency) office.
A committed Federalist
Quincy was a committed Federalist at a time when the Federalist Party was beginning a rapid decline. As the nineteenth century began, the Democratic Republican Party was gaining strength as more and more Americans stressed the values of individualism, democracy, and expansion (the movement of people into the western reaches of the North American continent). They agreed with prominent statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) that the United States was essentially an agrarian (rural, farming) nation. Federalists, by contrast, tended to focus on urban concerns and viewed the United States as comprising the east coast and the original thirteen states. They believed in a strong central government that was run by well-educated people from the top rungs of society, and they preferred to maintain the status quo (things as they are) in all things, including the issue of expansion.
In 1800 Thomas Jefferson had been elected president, and he was re-elected in 1804, when Quincy came to Washington, D.C. for the first time. The U.S. Congress also was dominated by Republicans, but Quincy did not despair. Like other Federalists, he assumed that the Republicans would soon demonstrate their inability to govern the nation and the Federalist Party would regain its earlier dominance. Meanwhile, he intended to raise his voice on issues that he—and the citizens of Massachusetts who had elected him—cared about.
One such issue involved the Louisiana Purchase, the 1803 deal by which the United States bought from France a huge parcel of western land for a very low price. The Federalists opposed the purchase because they feared the federal government could not control an area of such size, and because they did not want the southern and western states to become more powerful than those in the northeast (where most Federalists were concentrated). But there would prove to be no way for the Federalist to stem the tide of westward expansion that they so disliked and feared.
An unhappy member of Congress
Quincy moved his family south from Boston to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1805. At that time, the capital was a small town located in a swampy area that many people found downright unhealthy. Its population increased when Congress was in session, but most of these temporary residents from all parts of the country were strangers to each other, and there were few cultural events to divert them. Quincy did not enjoy his time in Washington, particularly after the first two winters, when his wife and growing family no longer came with him. He did, however, make one solid if unlikely friendship. John Randolph (1773-1833), a Republican member of Congress from Virginia, was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who, like Quincy, came from a wealthy, cultured background. The two also shared a distaste for Thomas Jefferson's egalitarian (belief in human equality) style of politics.
Quincy was re-elected to Congress in 1806 and 1808; he would have preferred not to run in 1810 but Federalist Party leaders pressured him to do so, and he was again elected. Quincy was depressed and exasperated during his first two terms, due to the Republican dominance of national politics. In addition, he had been told to follow the Federalist strategy of keeping quiet and making no waves until it was time for the party to come again to the foreground. But Quincy finally decided, on his own, that he wanted to take a more active role in Congress and register the Federalist viewpoint, even if few people wanted to listen.
A leading voice of opposition
Beginning with the Tenth Congress in 1807, Quincy began to make very dramatic speeches of opposition to Republican measures. Instead of trying to find some middle ground with those with whom he disagreed, he intentionally took the most extreme positions possible. His speeches were very provocative and forceful, and sometimes contained personal attacks on people whose ideas he opposed. Other members of Congress frequently rose to interrupt and object to his statements. Quincy was soon considered the leading minority voice in Congress, even though other Federalists were often alarmed by his extremism.
An example of this extremism occurred when Congress was debating whether the territory of Louisiana (originally part of the Louisiana Purchase, which Quincy had opposed) should be admitted as a state. Quincy declared that if Louisiana was allowed to join the Union without the consent of the original thirteen states, those states would be justified in seceding (separating) from the United States. At this early stage in the nation's development, talk of secession stirred up fears of war and disorder, and Quincy was criticized for suggesting such a thing, even if he had done it mostly as a symbolic gesture.
Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15; a long conflict between France and Great Britain and its allies) were raging in Europe. Both France and Great Britain had tried to inflict damage on each other by forbidding trade between their enemy and neutral countries. These restrictions had harmed the United States, as many ships were seized on the high seas. In addition, the British navy was attempting to bolster its numbers by impressment, which meant that sailors Great Britain considered British citizens were taken from American ships and forced to serve in the British navy. This practice caused much outrage in the United States, particularly because many of the sailors forced into the British navy were American citizens.
The prospect of war
Anxious to avoid war, Jefferson responded in December 1807 with the Embargo Act, which ended U.S. trade with other countries. But this act did not punish Great Britain and France, as intended, as much as it did the merchants, ship owners, and sailors of the northeastern United States. Southern planters who had previously sold vast quantities of tobacco, rice and cotton to Great Britain also were hurt.
Being a Federalist, Quincy had loudly opposed the Embargo Act in Congress. In fact, the law proved so unpopular that the Federalists enjoyed a brief surge in popularity: twice as many of them were elected to the Eleventh Congress as had been elected to the Tenth. For his part, Quincy maintained that the embargo was actually part of a Jefferson administration conspiracy to bankrupt the northeastern states and destroy the Federalist Party. He refused to believe that the act was part of a strategy to avoid war through the use of economic measures; in fact, Quincy steadfastly declared that war was not a possibility.
Subsequent measures (including the Non-Intercourse Act and Macon's Bill Number 2) also failed to improve matters, and the United States seemed to be moving steadily toward war. Helping to push things along in this direction was a group of young congressmen, most of them from the western and southern states, who felt that a war with Great Britain was necessary to regain the honor of the United States and also, perhaps, gain some new territory. The War Hawks, as they were called, pressured reluctant President James Madison (1751-1836), who had been elected in 1808, to make a declaration of war.
War becomes a reality
When the Twelfth Congress convened in November 1811, the looming war was the main topic of debate, with the War Hawks pushing for measures to help prepare the United States for a conflict. Quincy chose the unusual strategy of joining the War Hawks in calling for military preparedness. He declared that he was tired of hearing talk of war and thought that the best way to silence it was to call Madison's bluff (to make him either declare war or stop discussing it).
Quincy still did not really believe that the United States would go to war with Great Britain. Like other Federalists, he thought that the issues of neutral countries' trading rights and impressment could be easily resolved by other means, and that such a conflict would cause far more economic hardship than any benefit that might be gained. In addition, he found the idea of invading Canada—as promoted by War Hawks like Kentucky's Henry Clay (1777-1852; see biographical entry)—ridiculous and unnecessary. Quincy also noted the irony of protecting maritime (seagoing) rights with a war that would be fought on land.
At the same time as the nation was moving toward war, the Federalist Party was losing more and more ground. In fact, in Quincy's state of Massachusetts—formerly a Federalist stronghold—voters had elected a Republican governor in 1811. In addition, the majority of representatives in the state's legislature were Republicans.
For the moment, though, Quincy was still the leading Federalist in Congress, and in the early months of 1812, when it had become obvious even to him that war was a distinct possibility, he tried to work against it. But in June 1812, Madison delivered a war message to Congress, and the House and Senate both voted in favor of war. However, the vote revealed a sizable opposition, of which Quincy's voice was the loudest. Quincy had joined forty-eight other members of Congress—including some Republicans—in voting against the war, and it was he who wrote the statement of dissention (disagreement), which was signed by thirty-four Federalists. As quoted in Donald R. Hickey's The War of 1812, the statement warned that the United States was "rushing into difficulties, with little calculation about the means, and little concern about the consequences."
Leaving the U.S. Congress
The Twelfth Congress met for the last time in the fall of 1812, after the war had gotten off to an unpromising start. Although Quincy's career as a national legislator ended when he resigned at the end of the congressional session, he continued to make speeches about the folly of the conflict. In January 1813 Quincy suggested that the war was being used a way to make sure that Secretary of State James Monroe (1758-1831)—Madison's fellow Virginian, fellow Republican, and close friend—would become the next president.
Returning to Boston, Quincy focused on his ties with the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Phillips Academy. He also went to work to make his estate in Braintree a model farm, introducing new and experimental farming methods as well as lecturing and publishing articles on farming-related topics (such as the various uses for manure). Quincy was active in the Washington Benevolent Society, a charitable organization sponsored by the Federalist Party, and in the Boston Hussars, a militia unit made up of wealthy Federalists who conducted showy exercises and parades but never actually fought in the war.
Before 1813 was over, Quincy was elected to the Massachusetts state senate, and in that position he continued to speak out against the war. But Quincy's fellow Federalists were increasingly embarrassed by his outspokenness, and he was not chosen as a delegate to the Hartford Convention (a meeting at which representatives from several New England states expressed their grievances against the Madison administration). Quincy's influence continued to decline, and in 1820 the Federalists dropped him as a senatorial candidate.
Quincy was, however, able to run for the legislature's lower house (the state equivalent of the House of Representatives), and he was elected. In 1821 his fellow legislators chose him to serve as Speaker (a top leadership post), but he soon resigned his office to become a judge in Boston's Municipal Court. In this role he spoke out against jail conditions and the city's treatment of its poor residents.
The Mayor of Boston, and the President of Harvard College
That same year Quincy ran for mayor of Boston but was not elected; he was, however, elected in 1823. He immediately began a series of rigorous reforms: the city's streets were thoroughly cleaned for the first time in its two-hundred-year history; municipal (city) water and sewer systems were introduced; as a public health measure, burials were prevented in certain crowded areas; and a professional fire department was established. Quincy also cracked down on gambling and prostitution, added six new, wide streets, and oversaw the building of the Faneuil Hall Market (also called Quincy Market), a large building with space for markets that is still in use today. Quincy was re-elected five times, but was finally voted out of office in December 1828.
It did not take Quincy long to find another job, however. In January 1829, he became president of Harvard College. When Quincy took over this position, the college was dominated by a very disorderly atmosphere, both academically and socially, and he set about reforming it. Theorizing that if students were treated like gentlemen, their behavior would improve, Quincy improved the food and service provided by the school and made a rule that students be addressed as "Mister." He also instituted a standardized grading system to replace the haphazard grading methods that had previously existed, and helped to build up the college's law school.
Quincy's sixteen years at Harvard included a short period of student rebellion—during which he was burned in effigy (a model presenting him was burned)—that eventually died down. When Quincy resigned in 1845, the college had grown considerably. After his retirement, Quincy commented that he had gotten so accustomed to the noisy college campus that the quiet of the city streets actually kept him awake at night!
Quincy lived for almost twenty more years, keeping busy with literary works (including a history of Boston and a memoir about John Quincy Adams) but generally avoiding politics. When the Civil War began in 1861, Quincy supported President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) in the struggle to preserve the Union. In his last public address, given when he was ninety two, he urged the public to stand behind their president. Quincy died on July 1, 1864, after the Union victory had been assured.
For More Information
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
McCaughey, Robert A. Josiah Quincy, 1772-1864: The Last Federalist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
War of 1812. [Online] http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/index.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).