Quincy, Josiah

Josiah Quincy
Josiah Quincy

Josiah Quincy (February 4, 1772-July 1, 1864) was a Congressman, judge of the Massachusetts municipal court, state representative, mayor of Boston and president of Harvard College. As Mayor he played a central role in making Boston a modern city.

Quincy’s parents were Abigail Phillips and patriot leader Josiah Quincy, who died in 1775 returning from a diplomatic visit to Britain. He was a descendant of generations of judges, elected representatives and militia officers—leaders who since the 1630s had dominated Braintree township, south of Boston. Nephew too of loyalist Samuel Quincy, solicitor-general of the colony’s last imperial government, Josiah was born into New England’s untitled aristocracy, entering the world, as John Adams remarked, “with every advantage of family, fortune and education.”

Educated as a boarder from the age of six at Phillips Academy, Andover, under the tutelage of an uncle, the Rev. Samuel Phillips, Josiah followed in the footsteps of many members of the Quincy and Phillips families when he graduated from Harvard College with the class of 1790. Apprenticed to William Tudor’s law practice, he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1793. He married Eliza Susan Morton of New York in 1797 with whom he had seven children, among them the abolitionist Edmund Quincy (1808-1877), vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
A practising lawyer until 1804, Quincy’s income was supplemented by the inheritance of his paternal grandfather’s estate and successful speculations in Boston’s rising real estate market. He died one of New England’s wealthiest men with a fortune of $750,000.

A well-born man of commercial instincts, Quincy joined and rose rapidly in the ranks of the Federal Party. After a term in the Massachusetts Senate, he was elected in 1805 to the United States House of Representatives. His congressional career was, however, disappointing and occasionally humiliating. In 1809 when he called for the impeachment of the outgoing President Thomas Jefferson, his motion was defeated by a vote of 117-1. In the run up to the War of 1812 Quincy encouraged the War Hawk faction in Congress, expecting the rising strength of war sentiment to scare the administration into making concessions to the British. Instead, his tactics strengthened the resolve of his Republican opponents to go to war. With a reputation as “a ranting Federal spouter”, Quincy left Washington, at age forty-one, and returned to his estate in Braintree with little to show for ten years of public service.

Quincy’s career and historical reputation were saved by this failure on the national scene. For Quincy’s background and convictions made him much better suited to the political landscape of a region which, in rapidly changing times, was highly responsive to such leadership as he was trained from birth to offer. His Federalist assumptions were genuinely republican. He did not trust the “democratic” majority to know or to want what was best for the common good. Rather, he feared that economically dependent industrial workers would become the voting fodder of the new industrialists. Like others of his class and heritage, Quincy believed social progress would come only if the public-spirited and able few took as their goal the moral and intellectual improvement of the many. At times authoritarian, Quincy came to represent a new generation of New England’s conservative political elite who sought to raise the people’s aspirations and who, paradoxically, provided populist leadership—all the while opposing the egalitarian insurgency of Jacksonian radicals.

Back at home in Massachusetts Quincy served in the State Senate, 1813-20, in the House, 1821-22, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, 1820, and, most importantly, as Mayor of Boston, 1823-28.

In the increasingly complex urban culture of the times, Quincy became a vigorous champion of an expanded role of government. As Mayor of Boston, he professionalized and modernized employment practices of the newly incorporated city and centralized authority in the mayoral office. He was an energetic and at times imperious mayor, rising at dawn to inspect his domain on horseback and, on occasion, leading a posse of volunteers in raids on the town’s criminal quarters. His administration widened, straightened and cleaned the streets and upgraded the fire service. He developed a Department for the Correction and Reformation for Juvenile Offenders which undertook to instruct the wayward poor in appropriate manners tailored to their circumstances. With the completion of Faneuil Market, later called Quincy Market, the Mayor oversaw an expensive and successful urban renewal project, one of the first of its kind. To contemporaries, Quincy became known as ‘the Great Mayor.’

The results of such active leadership were twofold. Boston was known as the healthiest city, and one of the most indebted, in the United States. A coalition of political enemies, provoked largely by his dictatorial style, denied re-election in 1828 to Quincy.

In the same year, however, Quincy was chosen President of Harvard College, a position he held until 1845. Again approaching reform systematically, President Quincy expanded and modernized the Harvard curriculum, stabilized the College’s finances, resolved long standing problems of student disorder and greatly enhanced the school’s academic reputation. His aim in all he did, according to his filial biographer, was to establish Harvard as a nursery of “well-conducted, well-bred gentlemen, fit to take their share, gracefully and honourably, in public and private life.”

The churches of his family and the theology of Harvard College had long been Unitarian. Quincy had joined a congregation at the time of his Harvard graduation. From 1794 to 1810 he worshipped at Unitarian New South Church under the Rev. James Thornton Kirkland, a friend from his days at the Phillips Academy. When Kirkland was made president of Harvard College, he joined the Federal Street church of the Rev. William Ellery Channing. He worshipped there until his own election to the Harvard presidency. Josiah Quincy seldom spoke of his religious beliefs. Like many early Unitarians he deplored the division in the Standing Order caused by the Unitarian controversy. He told the Board of Overseers of the College in 1845, “I never did, and never will, call myself a Unitarian; because the name has the aspect, and is loaded by the world with imputation, of sectarianism.”

His statement reflects the wish among Unitarians of his time simply to teach and to live “pure Christianity,” strictly avoiding even the appearance of being just another “sect” pointlessly arguing for its doctrinal superiority. The Unitarian ethos called for broad participation in all endeavors for the up building of the community. Quincy played significant roles in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Boston Athenaeum, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture. He was a trustee of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Provident Institution for Savings. Quincy worked with other Unitarian laymen and ministers—notably Rev. Joseph Buckminster—to improve the human condition through public, but exclusive, institutions by which they attempted to demonstrate to an occasionally skeptical public the virtues that would legitimate the continuation of elite rule within a republican society.

Having earlier written History of Harvard University, 1836, in retirement Quincy wrote a number of well-received books, including A Municipal History of Boston, 1852, A History of the Boston Athenaeum, 1851, and works on scientific agriculture. He died in Braintree, renamed Quincy to honour his family. He is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston.

Quincy is best viewed as a conservative New England republican who embodied the contradictions of his class. Instinctively opposed to slavery and an opponent of the Compromise of 1850, he disciplined faculty members who brought the controversial subject into the Harvard yard; one of Boston’s wealthiest men, he refused to invest in highly profitable textile manufacturing, fearing the dangers of a propertyless proletariat in a republican society. Once criticized by historians of American government for his paternalism, Quincy has recently been portrayed by Matthew Crocker as a force for radical change, whose emphasis on personal responsibility and institutional efficiency served to undermine deference to the old Federalist hegemony.


Quincy’s extensive papers, predominantly correspondence, journals and public speeches, are in the Quincy, Wendell, Holmes, Upham Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to works mentioned above, the published writings of Josiah Quincy include Essay on the soiling of cattle (1852) and Memoir of the Life of John Quincy Adams (1858). Mayoral addresses can be found in The Inaugural Addresses of the Mayors of Boston (1894).

Edmund Quincy’s biography, Life of Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts (1868), is a substantial work, drawing extensively from his father’s correspondence and journals. Aiming to redeem his father’s national reputation, more than half the work concerns Josiah Quincy’s actions between 1808 and 1815. Written twenty years after his death, James Russell Lowell’s essay ‘A Great Public Character’ in My Study Windows (1886) is a nostalgic paean to the “exact and disinterested performance of duty” of a “conservative with an open mind.” For an insight into Quincy’s private world, see M. A. deWolfe Howe, The Articulate Sisters—Passages from the Journals and Letters of the Daughters of President Josiah Quincy of Harvard University (1946).

Scholars have often pictured Quincy as a paternalist, and antidemocratic, social reformer whose reform programme was motivated by a desire to manage the destabilising effects of urban growth. See Richard G Hewlett “Josiah Quincy: Reform Mayor of Boston” New England Quarterly (June 1951); Robert A McCaughey “From town to city: Boston in the 1820s” Political Science Quarterly (June 1973); and McCaughey, Josiah Quincy, 1772-1864 The Last Federalist (1974). For a more recent understanding, focusing on the radical impact of Quincy’s political life, see Matthew H Crocker, The Magic of the Many-Josiah Quincy and the Rise of Mass Politics in Boston, 1800-1830 (1999).

The social environment of early New England Unitarianism in which Quincy played a full role is described in Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience—Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 (1970) and Anthony Mann, “Unitarian Voluntary Societies and the Redefinition of Elite Authority in Boston, 1780-1820” in Secular and Religious Reform Movements in America—Ideas, Beliefs and Social Change, D. K. Adams and C. A. van Minnen, editors (1999). The most comprehensive account of Quincy’s presidency of Harvard College remains Ronald Story, The Forging of an Aristocracy—Harvard & the Boston upper class, 1800-1870 (1980).

Article by Anthony Mann
Posted April 23, 2002