Words with the Power to Move Us

Josiah Quincy made a speech in Boston near the outbreak of the American Revolution. Quincy was an influential attorney and the spokesman for the Sons of Liberty, a group of revolutionaries that included John Hancock and Paul Revere.

In December 1773, the atmosphere in Boston was tense and angry. Yet the colonists hesitated to rebel, knowing that defying England would result in a sure, swift, and severe punishment.

Then the British sent over three shiploads of tea, with a mandatory tax. The simmering tensions boiled over. On December 16, more than 5,000 colonists – mostly farmers, merchants, and fishermen – crowded into Old South Meeting House to debate whether to pay the tax.

Josiah Quincy was among the leaders who spoke at the meeting. He acknowledged that British retaliation was a certain consequence of rebellion. Then he said:

Let us look to the end. Let us weigh and consider before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrible struggle this country ever saw.

I see the clouds which now rise thick and fast on the horizon, the thunders roll, and the lightnings play, and to that God who rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm, I commit my country.

Josiah Quincy

Josiah Quincy

Moments later, Samuel Adams adjourned: “Gentlemen, this meeting can do nothing more to save the country.”

Adams’ words were a secret signal to his listeners: hours later, 30 tons of tea settled to the bottom of Boston harbor. Yet it was Quincy’s words that are thought to have given the crowd the courage they needed to act on this bold plan that put the colonies on an irreversible path to revolution.

I want to mention that Quincy’s speech would have been ineffective if he did not have credibility with the colonists. It’s outside the scope of this post, but important to note that a speaker must be credible or the quality of the speech will not matter. However, a credible speaker can still give an ineffective speech.

How did Quincy inspire the colonists? His words were certainly beautiful and poetic, but their real power is rooted in imagery. He managed to paint verbal pictures that were so vivid, his listeners could actually see themselves as part of a critical moment in history.

For his listeners, the question ceased to be whether they would risk severe punishment for an amateurish strike at the oppressive British. They now saw their actions as part of a mighty storm that God himself was directing. What had they to fear?

William Hutchings, a Revolutionary War soldier at age 16, photographed at age 101

  William Hutchings, a Revolutionary War soldier at age 16, photographed at age 101

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