13 Questions with J. L. Bell (Part 2)


May 10, 2013
by Todd Andrlik Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

WashingtonBell1Today we pick up where we left off yesterday with our J. L. Bell interview.

8 // As someone who knows the start of the Revolution better than most, what books do you recommend most to fellow history buffs who are eager to learn more about the 1763-1776 period?

If you ask me again tomorrow, this list will change, but right now I’m in the mood to recommend:

Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. This book traces how American Whigs who saw themselves as standing up for traditional British values turned into champions of independence from Britain and a new form of republic. It also discusses how British politicians talked about “the mob” in a time with tightly limited suffrage, when ordinary people might not be able to express their political desires any other way.

Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre. Still the best study of Boston’s political turmoil in the late 1760s through 1770, with an unsurpassed level of detail. As some critics (including Maier) noted when this book first appeared in 1970, it leans to the right politically. For example, the book tends to blame Samuel Adams for stirring up popular opposition to the army in Boston when that was a natural response from all levels of society.

Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution. This book talks about the little-known year before the war began when the Massachusetts countryside became more radical than Boston. By early September 1774, it became clear that the royal governor had no power past Boston neck, and the country towns started to set up a new government with its own military force. That was overshadowed, of course, by the start of a shooting war.

9 // Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill acknowledges you for reading and providing feedback on his manuscript. How often are you consulting on book manuscripts about the Revolution? I assume you sign NDAs on most manuscripts, but anything on the horizon that you’ve recently reviewed that we should be excited about?

I worked in a publishing house for over a decade at the start of my career, so I learned the process of creating a book and can fit my advice around it. Probably the most prominent book I read before publication is the award-winning novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, but M. T. Anderson had already done an incredible amount of research for that book; he might just have wanted someone able to gossip about Revolutionary Boston with him!

The Harvard professor and New Yorker correspondent Jill Lepore is about to publish a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister, Jane Mecom. My contribution to that book has been nothing more than helping to straighten out a map, so I’m looking forward to the rest.

10 // As the NPS website states, “the house at 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge was witness to many significant events.” From your research of the book-length study, what do you think are the two most significant events to take place at Washington’s headquarters and home in Cambridge?

Until Valley Forge, Washington thought his job was to maneuver the British commanders into a big, glorious battle that would end the war. He never got to do that. (And when he tried, as at Brooklyn and Brandywine, the results were disastrous.) Washington didn’t realize his real accomplishment in Cambridge was providing a firm organization for the Continental Army and a system for commanding it.

One part of that effort was defining who could be an American soldier. When Gen. Washington arrived in Cambridge, he was surprised to see African-Americans in the New England regiments. He tolerated those black soldiers, but didn’t want them to stay once their enlistments ran out at the end of 1775. That was headquarters policy, the policy of the “great majority” of the generals, and the policy of the Continental Congress. As January 1776 approached, however, Washington started to worry about having enough troops. He also realized that those men had served just as well as white soldiers. So on December 30, the general changed his mind 180 degrees and on his own authority reversed the Congress’s orders. I see that as the first link in the chain of decisions that led to Washington freeing his own enslaved workers after his death.

Another very important event was Washington’s decision to replace the first commander of the American artillery, Col. Richard Gridley, a hero from Massachusetts’s siege of Louisbourg in 1745. Washington put his weight behind another man, almost forty years younger, with virtually no battlefield experience, named Henry Knox. As artillery commander and Secretary of War, Knox remained one of Washington’s most trusted aides for two decades.

11 // Where can people pick up a copy of this epic volume, General George Washingtons Headquarters and HomeCambridge, Massachusetts?

The National Park Service published a very limited quantity for park sites, research libraries, and historical organizations. But thanks to the magic of the internet, anyone can download an electronic version (PDF form) from these two websites:



12 // On Boston 1775, you reference your Washington-at-Cambridge work as a “book-length historic resource study.” Do you consider this your first book? Why or why not?

My first book is Soap Science: A Science Book Bubbling with 36 Experiments, for kids 8-12. That combination of titles was a bit confusing for a library cataloguer who was trying to figure out whether the two J. L. Bells could be the same. And I didn’t even tell her about my fiction.

13 // I imagine many of your loyal readers are craving a hardcover history book by J. L. Bell. Can you tell us whether you’re planning/writing any nonfiction books? If so, what can you divulge at this moment? What else can we expect from J. L. in 2013 and beyond?

Nothing I can divulge now, but I definitely want to assemble some stories that I dribbled out on Boston 1775 and to publish some longer studies that don’t fit that format. I’m also working on a couple of projects in comics form, including an adaptation of a Revolutionary War memoir. The American publishing industry is going through a major transition now, so I don’t know what shape those projects will eventually take.

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