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Josiah Quincy and His School for 'Gentlemen'

Riot, Mass Dismissal Mark Reign Of Harvard's Fifteenth President

By Claude E. Welch jr.

Some presidents of Harvard have striven for academic freedom, some for expansion, most for money. Yet in the annals of 324 years of College history one president stands out for another interest. Josiah Quincy strove for academic freedom, wrestled with financial problems and helped the College expand--but throughout the 16 years of his reign, his primary concern was inculcating an outmoded Puritan ethic of moral conformity and behavioral excellence.

The stormy story of Josiah Quincy and his relation to Harvard is one of a man who staunchly believed in an outworn heritage and tried to impose it upon unwilling students. Two antagonistic forces provided the drama of his regime: the carefree attitude of students and the rigid demeanor of a president who sought to mold his undergraduates according to his strict canons of respectability.

Quincy's "heart's desire," his son recorded, "was to make the College a nursery of high-minded, high-principled, well-taught, well-conducted, well-bred gentlemen, fit to take their share, gracefully and honorably, in public and private life." In his attempt to reach this goal, Harvard's fifteenth President failed miserably. His policies incurred the wrath of the undergraduates and culminated in the great riot of 1834 and the subsequent dismissal of the entire sophomore class.

In the 1830's and 1840's, Harvard was a considerably less genteel spot than the College rules would lead one to expect. For amusement, almost every undergraduate joined a club, and these existed often only for bacchanalian orgies. The best remembered organization of the period was the "Med. Fac.," which Quincy unsuccessfully tried to suppress in 1834. Secret meetings of the Med. Fac. were highlighted by libations from a silver chamber-pot or by hazing of unknowing freshmen; the administration railed against the breeches of discipline this body created, but did not suppress it until this century.

Another attraction leading student minds from Quincy's strait-laced code of ethics were the Boston pubs and easyhouses. The Charles River toll bridge provided easy access to the city, and the hope that students could be confined to College grounds rapidly evaporated. Why be a gentleman all the time, students in the 1830's must have asked themselves, with Boston merriment only a bridge away.

Some of the College's practices directly encouraged what President Quincy considered sinful. Commencement exercises were little more than excuses for feasting and drinking, and since they were open to the public, crowds streamed from all parts of New England to enjoy Harvard's liquid hospitality. Class Day also bore a resemblance to a Dionysian revel.

Such proceedings naturally grated against Quincy's rigid ethics. He felt that the only cure would be suitable discipline for the offending undergraduates--but his clamping down produced even greater disorder. Quincy became a martinet, the "Tiberius" of the College. "His policy toward the students, an alternate cuffing and caressing, ended in making him the most unpopular President in Harvard history since Hoar," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison. Quincy knew what was right--the Puritan code of upright moral behavior--and attempted to impose this upon the naturally unwilling student body.

Throughout the 92 years of his life, Quincy always held to his definition of correct behavior. And this almost always brought him success, with the singular exception of his sojourn at Harvard. As a Congressman, reform mayor, historian, and Federalist leader he had few peers; when the Corporation selected Quincy as the fifteenth president of the College it was on the basis of a distinguished record of public service.

Josiah's Puritanical training started right at the cradle. His widowed mother, fearful of "hurtful indulgence," would rouse him from slumber and dip him three times in a tub of frigid water. At the tender age of six, he entered Phillips Academy in Andover, probably since his grandfather had founded it. His academic training consisted of memorizing hymns, Greek and Latin grammar, and attending sermons. Although Quincy described the Puritan restrictions as "wearisome and irksome," he learned them well; he remained a teetotaler and habitually rose at 4 a.m.

Entering Harvard at 14, he followed the regular curriculum: "a little Latin and less Greek, and not much mathematics, with a sprinkling of rhetoric, logic, metaphysics, and ethics." At his graduation in 1790, he delivered the English Oration, highest academic honor in the class. His moral character, according to testimony of his classmates, stayed at the same high level.

Quincy decided to enter law and apprenticed himself to Mr. William Tudor for training, not only in legal niceties but also in political maneuvers. Josiah was born and remained a Federalist, although the party collapsed 40 years before his death, and despite his relatively late start in politics, he advanced rapidly.

There was one chink in Quincy's Puritanical armor, however--a woman. Within a week after he heard Eliza Morton sing songs of Burns, he became secretly engaged to her--an engagement which lasted over two years. Although he took the usual precautions, such as checking upon her family connections and her property, Quincy apparently over-threw all the precepts his mother had instilled in him for love of Miss Morton. He never revealed his engagement to his mother until a few months before the wedding; the ceremony itself took place in New York, far from his Boston home.

The Federalist Party first took note of Quincy after his flaming July 4th oration in 1798, which lambasted the French Directory and its attitude toward the fledgling United States. Edmund Quincy, Josiah's son and very partial biographer, enthused over the speech: "The effect which his oration produced upon the audience in the Old South Church was long remembered by those who heard it, for the fiery enthusiasm it aroused, and the passionate tears it drew forth." Quincy stood for Congress in the election of 1800, and, like the rest of the Federalists, went down to defeat. Democratic newspapers pointed out that Quincy was only 28 years old and called for a cradle in which to rock him.

For the next three years, Quincy devoted himself to his practice, his wife, and his studies. The Puritan Ethic did not permit idle time; Quincy's dairy is replete wtih statements such as, "I resolve, therefore, in future to be more circumspect--to hoard my moments with a more thrifty spirit--to listen less to the suggestions of indolence, and so quicken that spirit of intellectual improvement to which I devote my life." In addition to copious readings in the classics, he spent a great deal of time learning French, studying botany, keeping an extensive diary, and attending to affairs legal and political.

In the spring of 1804, Quincy was elected to the state senate and that fall to the national House of Representatives, the year when the Democratic Republicans "received the unexpected compliment of the vote of Massachusetts."

As an independently-minded member of a virtually extinct party, Quincy became a unique figure on Capitol Hill. The Federalist demise began in 1800 with John Adams' defeat; in 1804, only seven Senators and 25 out of 140 Representatives belonged to the party. Quincy soon became the leader of this ineffectual minority, which sought reconciliation with Great Britain against the menace of Napoleon.

In most of his political speeches, Quincy showed himself to be an arch-conservative. He protested vigorously against the formation of new states in the Louisiana Purchase territory, deeming it unconstitutional. "By this act Jefferson unsettled and spread the whole foundations of the Union, as established by the original Constitution of the United States, introduced a population alien to it in every element of character, previous education, and political tendency." His independence of thought showed through again in a later speech on foreign relations: "But, acting in a public capacity, with the high responsibilities resulting from the great interests dependent upon my decision, I cannot yield to the wishes of love-sick patriots, or the visions of teeming enthusiasts." Poor Josiah! He had no power in the House, but never weighed decisions for political expediency. His personal standards determined his vote.

The most characteristic and striking manifestation of his political independence came in a motion suggesting impeachment of President Jefferson. His unexpected attack upon the President evidently created a great sensation in Washington. Representatives bobbed up, violently censuring Quincy for his resolution, and when the vote came, only the name of Josiah Quincy favored the affirmative. Nearly 50 years later, Quincy looked back on this episode: "No public exertion of mine has been more fully justified by the reflections of a long life," he wrote. His defiance of the President, of Congress, and of public opinion fitted in well with his independent moral code.

Finally, Quincy discovered his conception of right and that of his constituents did not coincide, and so he declined to run again in 1812. "I found that a Representative in Congress from Boston, to be supported, must follow the opinion of his constituents concerning their real or imagined interests, and that in an independent course he was sure to be suspected or denounced. It was a state of subserviency which suited neither my pride nor my principles." He did get in a few final licks at the Republican Administration, speaking against a proposed draft law for 18-year-olds ("Our children are to be seduced from their parents"), and almost coming to arms with Henry Clay over a speech against the invasion of Canada. ("As it respects the Southern and Western men, they shall learn from me, if from no one else, that they are not to set up standards of duty and decorum for my part of the country. While I have tongue or pen, the ignorant part of the nation shall not assume to itself with impunity to lord over the intelligent, nor the vicious over the virtuous.")

For the next ten years, Quincy became a gentleman-farmer, managing his own farm to the delight of local entrepreneurs. "He was an enthusiast in whatever he undertook," his son wrote, "and he entered into farming with all the zeal of his ardent temperament. His agricultural experience, like that of most gentleman-farmers, was rather profitable to others than to himself."

By 1822, the town of Boston had reached 40,000 in population, and the town fathers felt the need to establish a city form of government. Again Quincy's personal tenets conflicted with those of the majority; he felt the "pure democracy of the town meeting more suited to the character of the people of New England." However, he presided at the final Boston town meeting and would have been elected first mayor save for factional politics. Mayor Phillips retired at the end of a single year, and Quincy assumed the position.

His crusading spirit manifested itself in many ways. The first House of Correction, reform school, and fire cisterns appeared during his five years in office. The red light district retreated before his reforms, and Quincy even took the revolutionary step of establishing a high school for girls. Quincy's pride kept him from remaining in office longer than five years. In the election of 1828 he failed to obtain an absolute majority on either of the first two ballots, and withdrew in a huff from the race.

At this point another important leader in the Boston area likewise retired from office. The Reverend John Thornton Kirkland closed out 18 years as President of Harvard, amidst great financial embarrassment, and the Corporation looked for a new President with a mind for business. In the recently-retired Mayor they found a likely candidate. Although some Overseers opposed the nomination--Quincy was only the second non-clerical President in the College's 200-year history--he was elected January 29, 1829.

Quincy immediately set to work to "improve" the students. One of his first "reforms" was the establishment of a new marking system, the Scale of Merit. This system sought to place students in their proper academic positions with mathematical certainty: 8 points for attending class, a loss of 16 points for missing Sunday chapel, etc. Quincy himself took Puritanic glee in toting up the figures weekly. The Scale of Merit, however, proved a dismal failure, for it placed a premium upon attendance and not upon learning. Perhaps the system fitted well with Quincy's preconceptions of the ideal college course, which he described as "thorough drilling." Again, the president's personal notions triumphed over common sense.

The president finally collided head-on with the student body in the justly-famed riot of 1834, a protest that has no equal in Harvard history. It started mildly enough--a few bonfires in the Yard livened by gun-powder-stuffed logs--then a dispute between the Latin professor and the freshmen and sophomores, and the inevitable Faculty crackdown. The College bell started to ring mysteriously during the night, and more broken windows appeared every day.

Old Josiah took what he thought was the sensible course. On May 29th, he dismissed the entire sophomore class, and made the stunning announcement that criminal prosecution would be instituted against the window-breakers. Then, hell broke loose. More windows were smashed, Quincy was hanged in effigy, handwriting appeared on the wall in the chapel saying "A Bone for Old Quin to Pick," and the flag of rebellion flew over Holworthy. Quincy himself testified for three days before the Concord grand jury, the only three times he missed morning prayers while at Harvard.

By starting legal proceedings, Quincy again revealed his ignorance of the most elementary psychology. His Puritanical pigheadedness prevented him from taking more sensible action; any personal popularity he held among the students promptly vanished. The College suffered too, as Harvard's enrollment dropped nearly 50 per cent.

Quincy's reign, though, was not completely detrimental. Gore Hall, the College library until the construction of Widener, the first Observatory, and the Dane Law College were built during these sixteen years; a start was made toward the elective system; the financial affairs of the College received a much-needed straightening-out. The Bicentennial Celebration in 1836 was long and merry; forty toasts livened the ten-hour dinner and celebration. This merriment stood alone during the business-like regime of Quincy. President Walker once deemed him "The Great Organizer of the University." Although he failed eminently in his quest of the school for gentlemen, Quincy did maintain and expand the tradition of academic freedom.

President Quincy retired in 1845, and before his death at age 92, wrote voluminously. A History of Harvard, a biography of his father, and a History of Boston are among his major works. But the old, dour Puritan must have spent much time in contemplation, looking over a life filled with public activity.

He must have taken satisfaction, if he ever could, reflecting on the moral education he provided for sixteen years of Harvard students. The brash students themselves may have disagreed with him, but Josiah Quincy was staunchly proud of his righteousness in upholding the old verities against the moral latitude of new and looser generations

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