Mr. Quincy's Reminiscences

IT is not without a sense of its privileges that The Atlantic Monthly is housed in a mansion famous for the men and women who have lived in it, or been entertained at its hospitable board; thus it is with a slight sense of returning courtesies that it welcomes a book1 which brings back so many figures once familiar in the Quincy mansion in Park Street, Boston, and not the least among

them that of the cheerful narrator of old scenes. For although Mr. Quincy writes mainly of other and often more famous men than himself, the glimpses which he gives of his own personality are delightful. He is an old man, telling mainly of scenes through which he passed in his youth; and he looks back upon the young man who figured as the annalist in his diary with a whimsical alienation, as upon a prankish colt, who amuses him greatly now. There are intimations, now and then, in his book, that the records have been obliged to pass the scrutiny of some vigilant literary censor; and Mr. Quincy even protests, with the air of an uncle who is under some tyrannical surveillance, that he is not allowed to tell some excellent stories which he had set down. We have no doubt of it. We are sure that he might shock us, and give us a guilty sense of enjoyment, and perhaps his censor was right; but after all, we are most pleased that the garrulousness of a sunny age has not been entirely checked, for the stream of reminiscences is one which flows on with a careless ease, very delightful to the reader.

Mr. Quincy gave a happy title to his volume, for it is eminently a book which calls up the figures of the past. The writer himself was not only brought into familiar relations with notable persons, when he was a young man, but it is plain that his interest in persons has always been lively, and the frank catholicity of his temper and belief made him quick to recognize the virtue which resides in character aside from circumstance. He is a democratic gentleman, who has all the fine instincts which enable him to penetrate mere class or arbitrary distinctions. A singular illustration of this is in the admirable portrait which he has drawn of Andrew Jackson. He lias not himself called our attention to his own good breeding, but the reader will scarcely fail to observe in the Governor’s young aid, who did escort duty to the President when he made his tour in Massachusetts, a genuine courtesy, which was no sham official politeness. Mr. Quincy recalls with candor the prejudice which he felt toward Jackson, and gracefully acknowledges his own unconditional surrender. In doing so, he not only gives us a clear and honorable sketch of the President, but he unwittingly writes down his own generous and chivalrous nature.

“ I was fairly startled,” he writes, “ a few days ago, at the remark of a young friend,2 who is something of a student of American history. ‘ Of course,’ said he, ‘ General Jackson was not what you would call a gentleman! ’ Now, although I had only a holiday acquaintance with the general, and although a man certainly puts on his best manners when undergoing a public reception, the fact was borne in upon me that the seventh President was, in essence, a knightly personage, — prejudiced, narrow, mistaken upon many points, it might be, but vigorously a gentleman in his high sense of honor, and in the natural, straightforward courtesies which are easily to be distinguished from the veneer of policy ; and I was not prepared to be favorably impressed with a man who was simply intolerable to the Brahmin caste of my native State. Had not the Jackson organs teemed with abuse of my venerated friend, John Adams? Had not the legislature of New Hampshire actually changed the name of a town from Adams to Jackson ; thereby performing a contemptible act of flattery, which, to the excited imaginations of the period, seemed sufficient to discredit republican government forever after? Had not this man driven from their places the most faithful officers of government, to satisfy a spirit of persecution relentless and bitter beyond precedent ?

“I did not forget these things when I received Governor Lincoln’s order to act as special aide-de-camp to the President, during his visit to Massachusetts ; and I felt somewhat out of place when I found myself advancing from one side of Pawtucket Bridge (on the morning of June 20, 1833) to meet a slender, military-looking person, who had just left the Rhode Island side of that structure. Lawyers are credited with the capacity of being equally fluent upon all sides of a question; and if I had suddenly received orders to express to General Jackson my detestation of his presidential policy, I think I should have been equal to the occasion. My business, however, was to deliver an address of welcome ; and here was Jackson himself, advancing in solitary state to hear it. Well in the rear of the chief walked the Vice-President and heirapparent, Martin Van Buren; and slowly following came the Secretaries of War and the Navy, Cass and Woodbury. It is awkward to make a formal speech to one man, and I missed the crowd, which the military, upon both sides of the bridge, were keeping upon terra firma. I seemed to be the mouthpiece of nobody but myself. The address, somehow, got delivered, the distinguished guest made his suitable reply, and then we walked together to the fine barouche-and-four, which was to take us through the State. The President and Vice-President were waved to the back of the carriage; Colonel Washburn and myself occupied the front seat; the Cabinet were accommodated with chariots, somewhat less triumphal, behind us; the artillery fired (breaking many windows in Pawtucket, for which the State paid a goodly bill), and we were off.”

This was the beginning of an intercourse which has supplied Mr. Quincy with reminiscences occupying a score of pages ; he has consulted his diaries and his memory, and has drawn thence a number of fresh and natural impressions regarding the President. “ His conversation,” he says, “ was interesting, from its sincerity, decision, and point. It was easy to see that he was not a man to accept a difference of opinion with equanimity; but that was clearly because, lie being honest and earnest, Heaven would not suffer his opinions to be other than right. Mr. Van Buren, on the other hand, might have posed for a statue of Diplomacy. lie had the softest way of uttering his cautious observations, and evidently considered the impression every word would make.”

Mr. Quincy gives an amusing incident which occurred during a review of the Boston Brigade, and takes the opportunity, with a somewhat mock gravity, of exonerating himself from an imputation under which he has rested for fifty years. Mr. Van Buren and the members of the Cabinet had declined to take part in the review, but suddenly reconsidered their decision, when all the suitable horses had been otherwise engaged. “ I frankly told him,” says Mr. Quincy, “ that I had given up the animals that had been engaged, and that the party must now take such leavings as might be had. Remembering that from a militia stand-point the trappings are about seven eighths of the horse, I at once ordered the finest military saddles, with the best quadrupeds under them that were procurable. They appeared in due time, and we mounted and proceeded to the field in good order; but the moment we reached the Common, the tremendous discharge of artillery which saluted the President scattered the Cabinet in all directions. Van Buren was a good horseman, and kept his seat, but, having neither whip nor spur, found himself completely in the power of his terrified animal, who, commencing a series of retrograde movements of a most unmilitary character, finally brought up with his tail against the fence which then separated the mall from the Common, and refused to budge another inch. In the mean time the President and his staff had galloped cheerfully round the troops, and taken up their position on the rising ground, near the foot of Joy Street, to receive the marching salute. ' Why, where’s the Vice-President?’ suddenly exclaimed the President, turning to me for an explanation. ' About as near on the fence as a gentleman of his positive political convictions is likely to get,’ said I, pointing him out. I felt well enough acquainted with Jackson, by this time, to venture upon a little pleasantry. ‘ That’s very true,’ said the old soldier, laughing heartily ; ‘ and you ’ve matched him with a horse who is even more non-committal than his rider.’ Now the democrats were very sensitive about Mr. Van Buren, and among them started a report that I had provided their prince imperial with this preposterous horse, in order to put him in a ridiculous position. I was much annoyed by this story, and although it may be thought a little late to give it a formal contradiction through the press, I feel constrained to do so. It was the Vice-President’s own fault, and no neglect on the part of the managing aide de-camp, that placed him in a position to which his party so reasonably objected.”

The President certainly made a convert of the young officer who was so near to him in those days, — a convert, not to his political doctrines, but to a belief in the chief’s integrity and true nobility. Mr. Quincy bears testimony to the indomitable will by which Jackson triumphed over the frailties of his physical nature : “ An immaterial something flashed through his eye, as he greeted us in the breakfast room, and it was evident that the faltering body was again held in subjection.” He relates how the general was compelled, at a public reception in Cambridge, to abandon handshaking, but that He made an exception in favor of two pretty children. “ He took the hands of these little maidens, and then lifted them up and kissed them. It was a pleasant sight, one not to be omitted when the events of the day were put upon paper. This rough soldier, exposed all his life to those temptations which have conquered public men whom we still call good, could kiss little children with lips as pure as their own.”

There is a delightful air of gallantry about these reminiscences. To the

young Mr. Quincy, jotting down his day’s experience in his diary, the maidens with whom he danced and rode were wonderfully lovely and witty; to the old Mr. Quincy, turning over the leaves of his diary, and piecing out the records with his memory, the loveliness and wit are just as real and lasting. A sigh escapes him, now and then, over the lost fragrance of the bouquet, and the feminine figures of the past move across the stage in the somewhat attenuated form of Miss A. and Miss B. ; but we are spared those hypocritical ejaculations of the vanity of life, which blooming youth sometimes brings to the lips of trembling age. On the contrary, there is a heartiness of enjoyment in the recollection of mirth, which gives one a sense of the generous nature of the fine old gentleman who reviews his past. Sometimes, indeed, he tells frankly whom he admired, and we cannot do better than reproduce a couple of pages of his book, which have the vigor of honest admiration, and conclude with a redoubtable caution: “Wednesday, March 8 [1826], spent the evening at Mrs. Bozeley’s ball [in Baltimore], where I was greatly struck by the beauty of the ladies. The principal belles were Miss Clapham, Miss Gallatin, and Miss Johnson. This last lady has one of the most striking faces I ever saw. It is perfectly Grecian. And this, added to her fine figure and graceful movement, presented a tout ensemble from which I could not keep my eyes. I was introduced to her, and found her manners as bewitching as her person. She was all life and spirit. After finishing the first dance, I discovered a corner, where we sat for nearly an hour, keeping up an easy, laughing sort of conversation. This would have occasioned observation elsewhere; but here no one seemed to notice it, except the gentleman who wished to dance with her, so I had a very comfortable time. When we were obliged to separate, I tried to dance with Miss Clapham, but found she was engaged. I could only represent to her partner that I should never have another opportunity of dancing with this lady, whereas he would have many others ; but he was inexorable, and refused to give her up; so I did the next best thing in standing by her and talking to her during all the intervals of the dance. After it was over, I retired, well satisfied that the reputation of Baltimore for the gayety and beauty of its ladies was fully deserved.

“ There is no use in multiplying extracts like this,” continues Mr. Quincy, philosophically. “ It is the old, old story of maidenly fascinations upon a young man. Let me hope that the intuitive sympathy of a few youthful readers will give piquancy to the foolish words which chronicle experiences once so vivid. At yet another ball, my journal tells how I was introduced to Miss

—, ' the great belle of the city,’ and

testifies that I found her ‘ pretty, agreeable, and sensible.’ And then there is written some idle gossip of the young fellows of Baltimore about this fair lady. The question with them was, Why did

not Miss -marry ? She was nearly

as old as the century, and had had annual crops of eligible offers, from her youth up. There must be some explanation ; and then excellent and apparently conclusive reasons why the lady had not married, and never would marry, were alleged, and these were duly confided to the guardianship of my journal. It is apropos to this lady that I shall be generous enough to relate a subsequent awkwardness of my own ; for it enforces what may be called a social moral, which it is useful to remember. A few years after this (that is, they seemed very few years to me), a gentleman from Baltimore was dining at my house. During one of the pauses of conversation, it occurred to me to inquire after the former belle of his city, about whom I had heard so much speculation. Expecting an immediate acquiescence in the negative, I carelessly threw out the remark,

' Miss—, of Baltimore, I believe, was

never married.’ No sooner were the words uttered than I saw that something was wrong. My guest changed color, and was silent for some moments. At length came the overwhelming reply: ' Sir, I hope she was married. She is my mother.' And so the moral is that we cannot be too cautious in our inquiries concerning the life, health, or circumstances of any mortal known in other years, and bounded by another horizon.”

Mr. Quincy’s reminiscences are made to revolve around certain important centres. He gives a few chapters to student life at Harvard sixty years ago, and calls up with mingled respect and entertainment the figure of Professor Popkin, whose name raises expectations which will not be disappointed. John Adams makes another centre, and so does Daniel Webster and Lafayette. It seems impossible for the old to communicate to the young the enthusiasm which Lafayette inspired when he returned to this country. They look back upon the days of that great triumphal reception with a half - puzzled air, and try in vain to record the immense excitement which pervaded the thinly settled country. ' To me,” says Mr. Quincy, " his last words were, ‘ Remember, we must meet again in France! ’ and so saying, he kissed me upon both cheeks. ' If Lafayette had kissed me,’ said an enthusiastic lady of my acquaintance, ' depend upon it, I would never have washed my face as long as I lived!’ The remark may be taken as fairly marking the point which the flood-tide of affectionate admiration reached in those days.”

Of all the figures in the book, however, Joseph Smith, the Mormon, comes forward with perhaps the most distinctness and freshness. It is worth while to get the impressions of such a man upon the mind of so honest a gentleman and good observer as Mr. Quincy; and we value the impressions the more that Mr. Quincy makes so little attempt to construct a theory about the prophet. He does better than that: he gives us a series of instantaneous photographs. In fine, the whole volume is a most agreeable addition to the scanty memoirs of our social life in the early part of the century ; and since we have not reached the somewhat scornful height of Mr. Wendell Phillips’s depreciation of diaries, we are well content to applaud Mr. Quincy’s half-serious, half-whimsical defense of himself for these trifles: “Ah, Mr. Phillips, let us not altogether despise the poor fribbles who keep journals. They do manage to keep a few myths out of history, after all. . . . ‘You can count on the fingers of your two hands all the robust minds that have kept journals,’ says my eminent friend. Well, perhaps you can; but I think it might require all the hands of Briareus to number the robust minds that have lamented that they took no written note of the scenes and persons among which they passed. Most pathetic in its regret was the language 1 have heard from Judge Story, and other first-class men, respecting this omission. It has rung in my ears when, tired and full of business, I was disposed to shirk the task. So let us possess our souls in patience, even if our ‘ sixpenny neighbor ’ is keeping a journal. ... It is Arthur Helps who says that poor ‘ sixpenny ’ Pepys has given us ‘ the truest book that ever was written ; ’ no slight praise this, as it seems to me. But let not the reader fear that any chronicles of mine shall be catalogued among the diaries and journals from which Mr. Phillips would deliver us. I have taken stringent measures to secure him and his posterity from so great a calamity.”

  1. Figures of the Past, from the Leaves of Old Journals. By JOSIAH QUINCY. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1833.
  2. In our unworthy jealousy of Mr. Quincy’s literary adviser, we have decided to consider him and the young friend named above as identical.