Field of Science

Book Review: "American Rebels", by Nina Sankovitch

I greatly enjoyed this excellent book on the intertwined lives and fortunes of three families from the little town of Braintree - the Adamses, the Hancocks and the Quincys. Nina Sankovitch has woven a wonderful tale of how these three families and the famous names they gave rise to were both spectators and participants in some of the most famous events in American history. The account is often quite engaging and it kept me glued to the pages. I was aware of the general facts and characters, of course, but the book accomplished the valuable goal of introducing me to Josiah Quincy in particular, a name I had only heard of but did not know much about.
Sankovitch''s account begins in the 1740s when she shows us how John Adams, John Hancock and Josiah Quincy grew up together in Braintree, along with other kids like Abigail Quincy. She leads us through well known events ranging from about 1765 to 1775 - the years of turmoil, and ones during which all these men and women found the role that history had created for them - with flair, and also sheds light on underappreciated events like the dysentery and smallpox epidemics that swept through Boston. The book portrays Braintree as a small town and quintessential example of American egalitarianism, one where everyone was equal - from the distinguished Quincys and wealthy Hancocks to the Adamses who came from yeoman farming stock. Today Braintree is simply the south end of the "T" for most Bostonians.
All the boys and girls played together in the same town square and attended the same church where their fathers were ministers. Abigail Adams came from the prominent Quincy family. Everyone had been drilled right from childhood in both the values of self-reliance and that of community service. The colony had already been enlightened about the evils of slavery, and many colonists did not own slaves unlike their Southern brethren. After John Hancock's father died, his wealthy uncle Thomas and aunt Lydia took him under their wing and spirited him away to Boston. There on Beacon Hill, in a wealthy mansion, Hancock grew up and took charge of the family's prosperous trading business. He soon became perhaps the most prominent citizen of Boston, certainly the wealthiest but also the most charitable. All spit and polish, he would throw dinner parties, give to the poor and somehow still avoid "entangling alliances" with the British, especially the much-hated Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
The real star of the story, however, is Josiah Quincy. A brilliant student at Harvard who raided the library while the others were drinking and playing cards (he knew almost all of Shakespeare by heart), he became a prominent lawyer who started publishing letters promoting the liberty and property rights of the colonists in the "Boston Gazette" and the "Massachusetts Spy". His brilliance, eloquence and dedication to the cause of liberty and property rights all exceeded those of his compatriots, the two Johns. John Adams really became prominent only after his defense of the British soldiers accused of orchestrating the Boston Massacre of 1770, and before that the limelight seemed to belong to Hancock, Quincy and his brother Sam Adams who headed the incendiary group the Sons of Liberty which was responsible for the Boston Tea Party. Racked with consumption almost all his life, Josiah could be laid low for days and nights and it was remarkable that he undertook the work that he did with such enthusiasm and industry. His friend Dr. Joseph Warren regularly visited him and nursed him back to health every time - Warren later martyred himself on Bunker Hill. Josiah had a fraught relationship with his brother Samuel Quincy who was appointed solicitor general of Boston by Hutchinson; even while the other children who he grew up with were turning into patriots, Samuel remained a loyalist. Later he fled to England, leaving a young wife and three children behind, never to return. In some sense his story is a tragic one because he was never completely won over to the Loyalist cause, but at the very least he should be faulted for not realizing what direction the winds were blowing and especially for abandoning his family.
Josiah took it upon himself to spread the cause of Boston and rally the other colonies. In 1773 he traveled by himself to the South to wake up the Southern colonies and press home the oppression that was then being visited by the British on Boston by the Tea Act and then the blockade of the port of Boston. His brother Ned had died during a sea voyage and Josiah feared the same, but this did not come to pass. In 1774 he undertook an ever more serious mission, traveling to England to try to quell any misunderstandings between the parent and the child, trying to convince the prime minister, Lord North, and other high officials that Boston wanted to live in peace with England in spite of its rebellious spirit. But back at home, his incendiary pamphlets and letters indicated that he was completely won over to the cause of rebellion, if not independence. When he found out that the king and Parliament were deciding to tighten the screws even more on the colony (machinations and misunderstandings in England are brilliantly described in Nick Bunker's "An Empire on the Edge"), he decided to go back home in the spring of 1775 to alert his countrymen. Sadly, he fell prey to consumption on the voyage back. Sankovitch's account has convinced me that if Josiah had lived and been in good health, he would likely have surpassed both John Adams and John Hancock in his success, perhaps rising to the stature of Jefferson and certainly occupying high office. Sadly this was not to be. His wife Abigail bore him two children, but the girl died when she was a baby. The son later became a prominent political leader and a governor of Massachusetts.
John Hancock, meanwhile, was treading a delicate balancing act. As perhaps the wealthiest and most prominent citizen of Boston, he had to associate with the governor and royal officials and was given a commission as a colonel. But he still had to stand firm on the principles that his friends were fighting for. Admirably enough, both he and John Adams turned down many very tempting offers from the crown to occupy high office. When the colony's leaders signed a non-importation clause to punish British trade, Hancock who had made his fortune based on trade with Britain joined in. It was Hancock and the firebrand Adams brother, Sam Adams, who later became the most prominent targets of the crown, Hancock commanding the Massachusetts militia and the minutemen who were soon to became famous. By 1775, when the first shots at Lexington and Concord had been fired, there was a price on Hancock and Sam Adams's heads and they had to abandon Boston.
The last part of the book deals with the momentous summer of 1775 when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Abigail Adams had stood guard over the house in Braintree to protect it and her four children from both marauding British soldiers and the horrors of the plague, even as John was away for months during the first, second and third continental congresses in Philadelphia, overseeing logistics and communicating with George Washington who had immediately made his way to Cambridge as the new commander of the Continental Army. Sankovitch tells us how Abigail made a remarkable and brave effort to convince John to include the cause of women, poor people and black people during the signing ("Remember the ladies", she said); when John flippantly dismissed her admonitions as female ignorance, she wouldn't back down. Later of course, Abigail became known as "Mrs. President" because of her strong and intelligent opinions as President Adams's wife.
Sadly as is well known (and superbly documented by Danielle Allen in her book "Our Declaration"), a paragraph condemning slavery and King George's slave trade had been included even by Jefferson in the original draft of the Declaration but had to be taken out to gain the Southern states' fealty. Both John Hancock and John Adams along with their wives were utterly opposed to the institution, and it was Josiah Quincy who had first called it a "peculiar curse" (forerunner of the more famous phrase "a peculiar institution"). John Hancock had his beloved aunt free all their slaves in her will. The summer of 1775 presented a signal opportunity to right the wrongs in both the country's past and its future, but it would not come to pass and the peculiar institution would only be eradicated in a horrifying and destructive war a hundred years later even as its informal effects persevered for another hundred. But they tried, these residents of small Braintree where all were as equal as was possible during those times, and where the ministers and residents alike preached the message that you cannot succeed in your own estimation and that of God's if you don't succeed in the estimation of your community.

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