American Rebels: Answering Questions Raised by Long-Ago Historians

Nina Sankovitch
Apr 8, 2020 · 8 min read

Three years ago, while browsing through the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, I came across a captivating book by a man named Daniel Munro Wilson.

Daniel Munro Wilson

Daniel Munro Wilson was a late 19th/early 20th century minister and historian who published a number of historical works in his lifetime. Born in Scotland, he moved with his parents to Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. In 1873, he graduated from the Harvard Divinity School after a brief career as a journalist. In the late 1800s, he served as minister of the First Church of Braintree, formerly the North Parish Church of Braintree.

The North Parish Church was the home church of historical figures I had long found fascinating, including John and Abigail Adams, John Hancock (his father was minister there), and the many members of the Quincy family, including Josiah Quincy I, early agitator for colonial rights, his son Josiah II, equally committed as his father to colonial freedoms and many times more fiery; Josiah II’s brother Samuel, Crown lawyer and supposed Loyalist; Josiah’s sister Hannah, who drove John Adams mad with love long before Abigail came on the scene, and Josiah’s cousins Esther and Dorothy.

More even than his ministry, Daniel Munro Wilson loved American history, and specifically, the history of Massachusetts and of Braintree. I think I can safely say, being also a lover of American history and especially the history of New England (although I can lay no claim to roots in the area), nothing would have made Munro happier than to have been able to travel back in time and live for awhile in the Braintree of the past, when all those Adams and Hancocks and Quincys called the village home. I hope he visited, as I have, the homes of the old families and felt their presence across what I most definitely believe is the passable space of time.

Homes of Josiah Quincy, John Adams, and Dorothy Quincy, all in Quincy, Massachusetts (formerly, Braintree)

The book written by Munro which I discovered in my browsing of the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society was titled Where Independence Began. In the book, I came across this extraordinary paragraph. It spoke to me across time and fascinated me with its assertions.

Of course I was enthralled, and on so many levels. I also had questions, lots of questions:

Why was is so surprising that American patriots would come from this small village?

And if it is so surprising, how then did it happen to come about?

Which patriots, exactly, is Reverend Munro referring to?

And what about that romance mentioned?

And most of all: where Independence began? Really?

Intrigued, I copied the passage out, word for word, and carried it around with me for over a year. Then one day, I sat down at my computer and began to try to answer some of the questions raised by the short passage. What I found only raised more questions, and ones that couldn’t be answered by a Google search. With the help of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the generous support they gave me in the form of the Marc Friedlander fellowship, I began to dig deeply into the history of Braintree, Massachusetts, and into individual histories of the families that called the village home during those crucial years leading up to the American Revolution.

The Adams family. The Hancocks. The Quincys. It was easy to find the romance part mentioned by Wilson. Abigail Smith was a Quincy on her mother’s side, and would return to live in the maternal village of Braintree after marrying John Adams. But their romance was not the only romance Reverend Munro was referring to — and was not the only romance for John Adams that took place in Braintree, or with a Quincy.

As for the “surprisingly manifested” part of Wilson’s passage, once I began uncovering the intriguing history of Braintree, I found it not surprising at all that this small village would rear those sons and daughters that would propel the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, and all the other colonies along with it, towards a declaration of freedom from tyranny and separation from England. And so I worked on.

In my research I came across a second kindred historian, a woman like myself, and like Daniel Munro Wilson, deeply attached to the past and equally determined to document history for future generations. In fact, I realized, this was not the first time I had met Eliza Susan Morton Quincy. In writing my previous book, The Lowells of Massachusetts, I had come across her father Josiah Quincy III, her father, and Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, her mother. Josiah III had broken off romantic ties with Anna Cabot Lowell when he met Anna’s good friend Susan Morton, whom he subsequently married. They had ** children, including one they named after their (jilted) friend Anna Cabot Lowell, and one they named after her mother, the historian I now met again, Eliza Susan Morton Quincy.

Eliza Quincy spent the entirety of her life researching and writing up the history of the Quincy family in American. She was also an artist, creating numerous watercolors of the village of Braintree and its surroundings as a supplement to her historical research. She lived for years in the Josiah Quincy home (pictured above) and went through the house for clues as to her heritage, as well as culling through family papers, memoirs, letters, diaries and journals to write her history of the Quincy Family. Her work was published to great acclaim — but under the name of her father, the third Josiah Quincy.

Eliza Susan Morton Quincy

There is no question in my mind that Eliza was both sole researcher and author of the histories. All of the research and the notes, and all of the writing of the book is in her (by now familiar to me) handwriting. Every detail interested Eliza and she was able to pass that interest on to her readers. It is largely thanks to her that I knew where and how to look for the history of Quincy family, not only within her own books but also in the archives, names, and other materials that she refers to in her work. Eliza deserves a full-scale biography of her own, so full was her life, so ample her research, and so varied and rich her array of friends, family, and supporters.

But her story is not the one I set myself to writing, not yet anyway. I was determined to write about the young people of Braintree who started a revolution. They were, across the board, young, with the oldest, John Adams, reaching only the age of 40 at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in the summer of 1776. Which was first signed, as we all know, by John Hancock (age 39). But did you know he was born in Braintree, and found the love of his life there as well? (Spoiler alert: Dorothy Quincy, who would become his wife on the eve of the revolution).

The road to independence for the American colonies began with the first emigrants from England who came deliberately seeking a life very different from the life they had had in England. John Adams (taking on the role of historian) wrote in 1818 that “Independence of English Church and State was the fundamental principle of the first colonization, has been its general principle for two hundred years…Who, then, was the author, inventor, discoverer of independence? The true answer must be, the first emigrants.”[2]

Given the underlying urge to break with the old ways of doing things and to seek new opportunity in a new world, it should have come as no surprise that a complete break with England was the logical ending place for the Pilgrim and Puritan journeys west. Edmund Quincy III, born in Braintree in 1681, was asked early in the 18th century, “how soon he thought America would be dismembered from the mother country.” He offered up the date of within “half of a century.” He was certain that, if the colony continued to improve “in the arts and sciences… in that time it would be accomplished.”[3] Less than three decades after his death in 1737, his heirs and their friends, all to a large extent born and bred in Braintree, would make good his prediction.

Did these young people, men and women, somehow imbibe from the soil, the air, the trees, the sea, the sands of the coastline of their small village, the will and the desire to bring freedom to their native country? Or was it something else, the stories they were raised on, the education they received, the models for living they were offered, the resources they found in their native town, that made them the way they were? Answering those questions laid the groundwork for my new book, American Rebels. Questions posed by historians that came before me, and that I have done my best to answer, following their lead.

[1] Where American Independence Began, by Daniel Munro Wilson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902), hereafter “Wilson”, p. 13.

[2] John Adams to William Tudor, September 13, 1818, printed in Novanglus and Massachusettensis; or, political essays, published in … 1774 and 1775, on the principal points of controversy, between Great Britain and her colonies; the former by John Adams … the latter by Jonathan Sewall [or rather, Daniel Leonard] … To which are added a number of letters lately written by President Adams to the Hon. William Tudor, etc, (Boston: Hews & Goss, 1819), p. 306.

[3] Wilson, p. 40.

Nina Sankovitch

Reader, Writer, Historian.

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