The house is a distinguished example of New England Georgian architecture. Symmetrical in plan and overall design, Quincy House preserves virtually all of its original carefully crafted features, most of which were derived from architectural pattern books. The corners of the building and the monitor are defined by rusticated quoins. The cornice below the shallow hip roof is decorated with modillions and a dentil course. Molded window caps dress sash windows on the first level throughout the main block of the house. Window trim above the second-story windows is integrated into the cornice, so that the lower moldings, including the dentil course, are set forward over the windows to suggest a cap. A Chinese fretwork balustrade extends around the perimeter of the roof. A balustrade of plain “x” design ornaments the roof of the monitor.
The most distinctive decorative feature of the building and the architectural focus of the main façade is a classical entrance portico. The portico features a pediment and cornice decorated with modillions, a dentil molding and an entablature with pulvinated frieze, supported by fluted Doric columns set on high plinths. Doric pilasters and two-pane-wide, half-length sidelights flank the doorway. Benches with Chinese fretwork backs are placed opposite each other at the sides of the portico.
The construction of this fine home for Colonel Quincy, and ultimately his grandchildren and later generations of his family, coincided with a tumultuous period in America’s and Boston’s history.
By the time Colonel Quincy moved into this third residence, he was about sixty years old and had already lived a long and distinguished life. He was born around 1710, graduated from Harvard College in 1728, and started working as a merchant in Boston. Josiah married Hannah Sturgis in 1733. Not long after they married they had their first son, Edmund, followed by Samuel, Hannah, and Josiah. In 1748 a ship named the Bethel owned by Quincy’s firm was successful in fooling a Spanish ship with a valuable cargo to surrender. The owners of the Bethel divided the $300,000 prize. With this fortune, Colonel Quincy was able to live a comfortable life and purchased many luxurious items for his estate.
Colonel Quincy retired to his country property in Braintree in the 1750s, but continued to be actively engaged in business, which included a glass factory and one that produced spermaceti candles, and in military affairs. Quincy was also a justice of the peace; a young John Adams, also a resident of Braintree, tried cases before him. After Quincy’s first wife died in 1755, Josiah married Elizabeth Waldron, with whom he had a daughter, Elizabeth. In 1759 his second wife died and that same year, his first house burned to the ground. He married Ann Marsh in 1762, and they had two daughters, Nancy and Frances.
Josiah’s first son Edmund, born in 1733, became a merchant after graduating from Harvard. “Ned,” a political writer, was a zealous Whig. Declining health sent him toward the West Indies in 1768 at his doctor’s request, but he died at sea.
Samuel was born in 1735 and as a young man followed his father and brother to Harvard. Samuel graduated in 1754, one year before his friend John Adams, with whom he was admitted to the bar on the same day. He was admitted to practice before the Superior Court in 1761, the same year he married Hannah Hill. In terms of personality, Samuel was perhaps more “fun-loving” than his younger brother Josiah. Samuel was known to enjoy playing cards and writing verse.
Josiah Jr. was born in 1744. He graduated from Harvard in 1763 and began studying law with Oxenbridge Thatcher, a prominent Boston lawyer. Thatcher died in 1765; Quincy inherited much of his practice, and was admitted to the bar the following year. Josiah Jr. began his professional legal career just as revolutionary fervor began in Boston, and it wasn’t long before he became an outspoken patriot publishing regularly (although anonymously) in the Boston Gazette, an important mouthpiece for the Whigs. Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, the same year Quincy took over Thatcher’s practice.
In 1767 Quincy published the first of his anonymous essays supporting the patriot cause. In his first works he warned readers about the dangers of the extension of empire and legal authority. An excerpt from the October 3, 1768, piece demonstrates his passion and eloquence:
“Oh my countrymen! what will our children say, when they read the history of these times, should they find we tamely gave away the most invaluable earthly blessings? As they drag the galling chain, will they not execrate us? If we have any respect for things faced, any regard to the dearest treasure on earth, if we have one tender sentiment for posterity, if we would not be despised by the whole world, let us in the most open, solemn manner, and with the determined fortitude of a Corsican, sware [sic], We will die, if we cannot live Freemen.”
In the midst of his active work as a lawyer and published patriot and the growing tension in the city, Josiah Jr. married Abigail Phillips, the daughter of a prominent merchant. She shared her husband’s political sympathies, and later became a confidant while he was abroad in London.
In 1770 Josiah Jr. and John Adams made the unpopular decision to defend the British soldiers who had taken part in the skirmish that became known as the Boston Massacre. Samuel Quincy prosecuted the case, an action that forced the Quincy brothers to defend positions they actually opposed. The soldiers were ultimately acquitted, an action that proved the justice of the Massachusetts laws and fairness of the courts.
In 1774 Josiah Quincy secretly boarded a ship in Salem Harbor bound for England. One reason regularly given for his departure was to improve his failing health, but his primary goal was to encourage a peaceful settlement to the dispute with England. Quincy kept a diary and wrote regularly to his wife during this mission. These documents provide his insights on the potential for a peaceful settlement. After arriving in London, Quincy began meeting with Americans in London, like Benjamin Franklin, and members of the British government, including the Prime Minister, Lord North.
After falling ill, Quincy prepared to return to Boston, despite the fact that his poor health made the passage dangerous. Quincy left London by March 16, 1775. One month later, as his ship was within three days of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Josiah Quincy Jr. died. He was only thirty-one years old. His repeated wish that he live long enough to meet with Samuel Adams or Joseph Warren and his final statement, recorded by a seaman, indicates his belief that he was delivering critical intelligence. The information entrusted to Quincy died with him. Even if he had lived, it may have come too late; American and British blood had been shed a week earlier in the battles at Lexington and Concord.
Quincy’s wife Abigail and their three-year-old son Josiah III were staying with her brother when they received the news of her husband’s death. Josiah Jr. was mourned deeply by his family and fellow patriots. John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams, “I am wounded to the Heart, with the News this Moment of J. Quincy’s Death.”
Shortly after Colonel Quincy received the news that his youngest son had died serving the patriot cause, his last remaining son, Samuel, left Boston, never to return. Samuel sailed for England from Marblehead in 1775. Samuel was the lone loyalist in the Quincy family. Some of Samuel’s contemporaries sought to explain his reasons for supporting the Tories, including John Adams, who suggested that Samuel was jealous of his brother Josiah’s success; later biographers have dismissed such suggestions. The best explanation for Samuel’s actions probably comes from his own words, “my political character with you may be suspicious; but be assured, if I cannot serve my country, which I shall endeavor to the utmost of my power, I will never betray it.” His wife supported the side of the patriots and his sister Hannah implored him to reconsider his decision to leave America in light of the death of their brother Josiah.
Samuel Quincy felt much distress after leaving his family in America. In 1778 Quincy learned that he was among many loyalists who had been banished from Massachusetts and his real estate was soon sold at auction, making it difficult for him to return to his family. Samuel spent almost the rest of his life in Antigua. In 1789 he and his second wife decided to return to England in hopes of improving Samuel’s health. Unfortunately, like his two brothers, he also died at sea, and like Josiah Jr., due to illness and within sight of his destination.
By the end of April 1775, Colonel Quincy had lost his two remaining sons, one a martyr to the patriot cause, the other still alive, but living as a loyalist an ocean away. He was sixty-five years old by the time hostilities broke out in Boston, and there was little more he could do than observe the upheaval. The monitor (pictured) at the top of the house afforded a clear view of shipping lanes in and out of Boston Harbor, and the Colonel apparently spent hours watching troop movements. On October 10, 1775, he scratched “Governor Gage sail’d for England with a fair wind” into one of the windows of the monitor roof. That pane of glass was carefully preserved by the family, and is on display in Quincy House today.
Although General Gage had departed, the war was not over and Quincy’s observations continued. Colonel Quincy shared what he saw in the harbor in letters to John Adams and General George Washington. One letter to Adams described a plan for building forts strategically on several of the Boston Harbor Islands, which was passed on to James Warren. Adams felt the plan was too “bold and enterprising.” Washington also declined the plan, which would require more powder and cannons than could be spared. Colonel Quincy wrote with other suggestions, such as the use of row gallies and whaleboats in the harbor.
His watch over the harbor and letters to Washington continued until shortly after the British evacuated Boston. Some of the British fleet remained in the harbor for some time after the troops left the city. Washington was concerned about their presence, and asked Colonel Quincy to hire a dozen or more honest men to patrol and potentially question suspicious characters in shipping areas. Quincy was happy to oblige, and in the same letter in which he accepted this duty, provided Washington with an hourly log of his observations of the harbor.