He Made the Most of the Time He Had | Josiah Quincy, Jr.
By the winter of 1773, Josiah Quincy, Jr. knew he was dying. He was an intelligent man—a Harvard educated lawyer—so he harbored no illusions about what a diagnosis of consumption meant. Though just 29-years old, his body was beginning to fail him. His vitality was being burned away, little by little, by the illness germinating […]
By the winter of 1773, Josiah Quincy, Jr. knew he was dying. He was an intelligent man—a Harvard educated lawyer—so he harbored no illusions about what a diagnosis of consumption meant. Though just 29-years old, his body was beginning to fail him. His vitality was being burned away, little by little, by the illness germinating in his lungs. Someday soon he must succumb, but he had resolved to go down swinging.
On the night of the Boston Tea Party, he delivered an impromptu speech at a gathering at the Old South Meetinghouse. He gave voice to what was on the minds of many—that if things continued as they had, Massachusetts could soon find itself in a war with the mother country. A loyalist in the crowd rebuked him, saying he could be hung for treason for what he was suggesting. Quincy shrugged off the threat, told the man he despised him, and uttered a plain truth.
“Personally, perhaps, I have less concern than any one present in the crisis which is approaching,” he said. “The seeds of dissolution are thickly planted in my constitution. They must soon ripen. I feel how short is the day that is allotted to me.”
Though little known, Quincy is one of the most relatable of the Founding Fathers. While the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams have all taken on the air of legend, Quincy comes down to us through history purely as a man. His story is defined by his mortality.
Death is something we all struggle with. At some point, everyone is confronted by the bitter self-knowledge that our lives must end. We become aware that, somewhere in the ether, a clock is ticking for us.
Quincy took this knowledge in stride. He did not become paralyzed by fear. Rather, his illness seems to have imbued him with a pervading sense of urgency. He’d long been associated with the patriot cause, stoking the revolutionary fires through speeches and articles, but in the last few years of his life he redoubled his efforts.
Alongside Sam Adams and Joseph Warren, Quincy was one of the leading voices in Boston as England moved to punish the city for the Tea Party. When the British fleet began its blockade of the city’s harbor, he penned an 80-page screed denouncing the punitive actions in distinctly war-like language. He argued that once tyranny had taken root, there was no alternative than to destroy it, and he called on his countrymen to ready themselves for the trials ahead. “Dedicate yourselves at this day to the service of your Country; and henceforth live a life of Liberty and Glory.”
In 1774, he traveled to England to gather intelligence for the patriot cause. He observed meetings of parliament and met privately with American sympathizers. All the while, his health was worsening. In December, he began spitting up blood.
Benjamin Franklin, also in London at the time, marveled at Quincy’s tireless devotion. “It is a thousand pities his strength of body is not equal to his strength of mind. His zeal for the public, like that of David for God’s house, will, I fear, eat him up,” he wrote.
In March of 1775, Quincy boarded a ship headed home. The wet, icy air of the North Atlantic was the last thing a consumptive needed, but his contacts in England had charged him with delivering a secret message to the patriots in Boston, one they could not trust to a letter.
The passage took its toll. Accounts of the voyage say he spent the crossing in agony as his condition worsened. When in sight of land, Quincy pleaded for just one hour’s conversation with Warren or Adams, but his prayer was not answered. He died aboard the ship on April 26th 1775; his message went undelivered.
The contents of Quincy’s report remain a mystery, though it’s likely it would not have had much impact on how things played out. While Quincy was crossing the Atlantic, minutemen had engaged British troops at Lexington and Concord. The die was cast. The war Quincy had so long predicted had finally arrived. It would go on without him.
Though lacking a fairytale ending, there is much to admire about Quincy’s story. He did not go quietly into death. He saw what little life was left before him and made every moment count. Consumption may have robbed him of his health, but it also gave him a clarity of purpose that is astonishing and even enviable. He lived his final years pursuing a single dream with every ounce of strength he had left.
Quincy possessed the wisdom that eludes so many of us who are not similarly afflicted. He knew that we only get one life and one chance to leave our mark. The prudent and the reckless all face the same fate in the end, so why hold back? Why not find a cause and throw everything into it? He chose to shine brightly until his candle burned out. Imagine if we all did the same.