Contributor Close-up: John L. Smith, Jr.


August 10, 2015
by Editors 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

About John L. Smith, Jr.

John L. Smith, Jr. is a retired corporate communications manager for a Florida energy company. He is a state certified social sciences instructor and a former board member of the Tampa Bay History Center. His family lineage holds membership numbers with Sons of the American Revolution. Smith is a Vietnam-era veteran and holds honorable discharges from the U.S. Air Force Reserve and the U.S. Army Reserve. He graduated with a BS degree from the University of South Florida in 1989 and received an MBA from the University of Tampa. Listed in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb), Smith is an active SAG-AFTRA member, having appeared in many films, television shows, commercials, and corporate training videos. He is currently writing a book about the American Revolution and his historical work has been featured by Knowledge Quest, National Review and Smithsonian Magazine.

What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?

In the early 1970s, I was living in a redwood canyon near Santa Cruz, California. I could only get two TV channels and one of them was KQED, the public station out of San Francisco. I started watching the Alistair Cooke PBS series called America and I watched it with utter fascination, partly because no other channel was available. But that’s when I started to become hooked on the Revolution.

However, my true American Revolution inspiration for me happened while reading the electric meter at the mountaintop home of Dr. Page Smith (no relation), who had just retired from his history professorship at UCSC.

He was writing a history of the American Revolution, due to be published by Penguin Books for the bicentennial. I asked about it and he invited me out to his “writing office”, which was a wooden building away from the main house. It was filled with books, a Franklin stove and typewriter, and named pet chickens that walked in and out of his open door. He lectured me about the miracle of this country’s founding and how he was trying to capture the “spirit of ’76” in his book.

His two-volume set A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution was published in 1976 to much acclaim. It can still be found in bookstores. Other than what I see now as Page’s virulent dislike of footnotes or citations, it is still a classic read. His work and enthusiasm started me reading, when I could, in the coming decades on the American Revolution.

What historians or books have most influenced your work? Why?

Other than Page Smith, I had been caught up in the excitement of David McCullough’s works such as 1776 and his HBO/Playtone miniseries John Adams.

But finally with my early retirement, I found that I could start researching and even writing my own slant on Founding Era things. In all honesty, the books and articles by Todd Andrlik, Don Hagist, Hugh Harrington and J.L. Bell influenced not only my first serious writing, but also taught me the importance of good, quality research. Being able to judge if something written in an old letter, journal or diary is, in fact – a truth or if it should be questioned; at the very least being suspicious of many secondary writings and even some primary materials. People in the colonial days didn’t always speak in convenient sound bites.

Otherwise the detailed work of David Hackett Fischer is always a delight for me. I consider the books by John Ferling and Thomas Fleming as very readable classics. The writing style of non-historian Bill Bryson is closest to my internal style. His A Walk in the Woods not only tells a story of “two old geezers walking the Appalachian Trail”, but embeds interesting natural and environmental facts in the story. He often does it with sarcasm or outright explosive humor.

What are your go-to research resources?

Other than Founders Online and Bell’s Boston 1775 blog, the encyclopedias of Boatner and Blackwell are always on my desk. The books of Middlekauff, Higginbotham, Jenson, and Raphael are also well dog-eared on my library shelves. I’m now finding that JAR articles, with its growing library of well-written and sourced materials, are being included in my research materials. The advantage of those articles is that they contain some of the new discoveries and fresh research about long-held, folklore material.

Which of your own JAR articles is your favorite or most rewarding? Why?

I really enjoyed the experiences of researching and writing the two stories on Washington: Drilling Holes in George Washington’s Wooden Teeth Myth and Washington: Father of Two Scoops. Visiting Boston’s Liberty Tree Site was fun to do also, especially after I had visited the site in [spoiler alert] Boston’s Chinatown. But I think my most rewarding article was How was the Revolutionary War Paid For? It was a slant on the war studies that most people never even ponder.

Other than your own contributions, what are some of your favorite JAR articles?

Some of my stand-out favorites have been Invading America: The Flatboats that Landed Thousands of British Troops on American Beaches by Hugh T. Harrington; No Taxation Without Representation by J.L. Bell; The Real Immortal Words of John Paul Jones by Michael Schellhammer; Mary Hays McCauley’s Claim to Fame by Ray Raphael; William Lee & Oney Judge: A Look at George Washington & Slavery by Mary V. Thompson and 10 Disabled British Pensioners, by Don Hagist.

What books about the American Revolution do you most often recommend?

Although somewhat of a cliché for beginning readers, I would recommend 1776 to pull them in. I have found that John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle and Page Smith’s A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution are both easily digested by people cutting their history teeth.

What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m cranking and fully engaged in writing my own book on the American Revolution. It won’t be your standard-issue book however. I’m writing it for the general audience of people who don’t know that much about the subject, but who have always wanted to know. These are people of all ages who groan at the thought of trying to read a history book geared toward academics and scholars.

So I’m designing it to be both educational and entertaining to read, even fun or funny. The facts contained in it, however, will all be true and, yes, I’m using endnotes. Even though I was told it can be intimidating or gives a page a too-academic look, I offset that with light humor. But I also want readers to know the solid source of the quote used. Partly because they might be intrigued and go to that source for more investigation, and partly because I want them to realize all Founders’ quotes can’t be found on an Internet face posting… and if so, are probably wrong.

The irony in my book’s preface section is that the very first endnote quote I use is from Page Smith’s tirade against endnotes, which can be found in his American Revolution book. But he would understand. Maybe.

What is your favorite part of studying the American Revolution?

Visiting the sites where Revolutionary War events happened! I’m a firm believer that you can pick up the magnetic feel for a place and events if you trod that same ground. Sometimes you just have to lay down the pen (or tablet stylist) and head off to Carpenter’s Hall, Mount Vernon, Fort Ticonderoga, Williamsburg, or the Old North Bridge. Walk the cobblestones and kick the dirt. Better yet – take your kids or grandkids and let them gain lifetime memories and kick the dirt.

What other hobbies/interests do you enjoy?

Also, since “retirement,” I dabble in acting stuff – doing films, TV shows and commercials. I tell people that acting is my hobby, but that the American Revolution is my passion.

Why is Journal of the American Revolution important to you?

Since the magazine Patriots of the American Revolution folded up a few years ago, there had been no common forum, no common meeting ground where historians and history enthusiasts could gather to read, learn, and discuss “all things liberty.” Thanks to the vision and hard work of Todd Andrlik and his band of editors, JAR is alive and thriving. Every day it transfuses patriotic life blood into the cyber world of the American Revolution, and for that, I’m very grateful.

Is there an article, or subject area, that you would like to see appear in JAR?

Ever since I had read the two books The Men who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire by Andrew O’Shaughnessy, and Don Hagist’s British Soldiers, American War, I had been reminded that there are always two sides to every story. I would love for the stories of the other side (be it even the evil British side) to be explored even more in JAR. Hey, come to think of it… has the Queen ever apologized for King George III’s part in the war?


  • John,

    Great interview and I enjoyed reading your insights, particularly the fact that you have embraced the whole footnote concept! It was also great to see you photographed in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s reading room, a truly incredible place and one not too far removed from a religious experience. I do love going there, but find that the challenges of Boston traffic can be a little daunting.

    I was wondering if you and your body-double, Robert Redford, share RevWar points of view when the two of you cross paths on the set?

    1. Gary – Agreed! Not only do I embrace the whole footnote theory, I now prefer page bottom footnotes instead of endnotes in the back. I think too many times valuable information put in endnotes aren’t read because they aren’t convenient to read. A big vote for footnotes! I know a publisher will get huge input on which feature is used, but that’s how I’m trending lately.

      Yes, the Massachusetts Historical Society was indeed like a religious experience to be part of! I learned to take the Boylston T there because parking is, yes, daunting! Had to drive or take a taxi up to the State Archives Building on Dorchester Point, but that’s inescapable. A T doesn’t run up there.

      Do Redford and I talk RevWar subjects on set? I’d like to say yes, but in reality Bob (he demands you call him that if working with him), stays VERY focused on set and I know he’s always reviewing his lines and the staging in his head for the next scene. He’s the most prepared actor I’ve ever been privileged to be around; at least during the whole two months of shooting “A Walk in the Woods”. The closest we’d ever gotten to history was while he was directing “The Conspirator” a few years ago and I got to grow a beard and teleport back to 1865. I’d heard Ben Affleck has optioned “Bunker Hill”, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s great book, so hopefully if that happens, another good RevWar production would happen.

      1. Thanks, John. I recall an interview with Pauline Maier in which she brought up footnotes and how people raised objections because they found the little numbers so distracting.

        Her response: “Get over it”! I love it.

        Yes, the state archives are also a great place to go and not quite so challenging traffic wise as MHS is. My frustration is not being able to spend as much time as I would like lingering over documents because of the three hour commute each way to and from Boston from rural Vermont. It seems to be a constant flurry of taking many pictures and then going home and downloading them to see what I saw!

        Thanks again, and looking forward to your next scribblings.

        1. Pauline Maier’s response to footnotes is classic! I hadn’t heard that one. Great! I’m sorry I never got to meet Pauline. Her amazingly good “American Scripture” book holds a sacred place on my bookshelf. It’s perfection to me.

          Footnotes! When I received Don Hagist’s latest book “The Revolution’s Last Men”, I opened it and found footnotes. And I also found almost instantly, I liked them! I guess we’ve all been so endnote oriented in recent decades that what is old is new again. So maybe footnotes will have a revival. Oh, and Don’s book was very good also, with or without footnotes.

          Btw, I’d give anything to live in Vermont.

  • John,
    It’s great to get an inside look at your work, history and interests. I’m very pleased to see my name mentioned among those whose work you have enjoyed. I must say that I admire your research and writing style. George Washington’s teeth are unforgettable – I gave a copy to my dentist. I agree with your statements that there’s something special about visiting sites and treading on the sacred turf. I like to think that we’ve all felt it. Keep working on your book – there are many millions of readers out there impatiently waiting for it.

    1. You are too kind, Hugh. Thank you for your nice words. Its rewarding when like-minded people, like RevWar historians, connect with each other and the general public.

      It’s almost become a personal mission for me to try to help the general public, especially young people, moms and dads, and elementary and secondary history teachers and so on, to understand the miracle of the American Revolution. With this segment of history being glossed over or skipped altogether in schools, we owe it to each other to connect with the un-knowing by using the stories.

      I’d like to think my book would be enjoyable, even funny, to read, but would also (as if by accident) teach “regular people” the RevWar story. Like they lived through it by reading about the amazing tales of courage and about the awesome and even wacky players in the saga. I would love it if an eighth grade student after reading my book, told his teacher, “Ha! Benedict Arnold? Sure, he sold out… but before that… he was like a fearless Terminator!”. That’s be great.

      Thank you again!

    1. Tom – thank you and I know we seem to cross-pollinate each other with our individual RevWar enthusiasm. Your examinations of the Pennsylvania line and militia are, to me, especially touching because that’s where my heritage and SAR membership sprang from. Johannes Schneider/Snyder and that whole Westmoreland County band of rebels.

      Keep up the good fight, sir, and thank you again.

  • A fascinating interview John! And that’s a great picture too. Like you, I was also inspired by Alastair Cooke’s “America.” Your book will be a great success!


    1. Many thanks, Mike, and I have to say you’re the first other person to say they were inspired by the Alistair Cooke series. We’re showing our age. But that’s okay considering the alternative.

      By the way, I’m enjoying reading and will soon be citing some points from your great book, “George Washington and the Final British Campaign for the Hudson River, 1779”.

      Thank you again and continued good luck in your grad studies at the U.S. Army War College. Your dedication and focus is very admirable! As you were.

  • John,
    Excellent article and interesting stuff, thank you!

    Like you, when I opened Don’s new book, I was thrilled to see the footnotes on the same page instead of in the back of the book. It is easier for me to just look down instead of trying to find a page while mid paragraph. I also agree with your assessment of the Journal, Todd, the Editors and the Contributors are really bringing the American Revolution to life. The many people I talk to who are into the Revolution, read the Journal and say how much they love it. In some cases, they stated that the Journal got them hooked on the Revolution.

    Thanks again,

    1. Thank you for your compliments, Brian. I sense out in the reading community the beginnings of a footnote faction to being an end to endnotes.

      Todd Andrlik, Don Hagist, Hugh Harrington, and J.L. Bell deserve a huge thank you from JAR readers everywhere. They’re reviving a long-needed interest in this nation’s founding. Extra thanks also to all the life-blood contributors, as well as people like yourself… at the Fort Plain Museum – keeping the Revolutionary War in the Mohawk Valley alive and accessible to all.

      It’s a team effort!

  • I truly appreciate your enthusiasm for my work, John – even though I will admit to preferring end notes over footnotes. The important thing, of course, is that the work be well cited in whatever format so that others can, if they so choose, ferret out the source material and decide for themselves whether the author’s conclusions are valid. You always set a fine example by using source material that is as close as possible to the topic, and citing it clearly. Thanks for doing great work and for contributing it to JAR!

  • Kind words, Don, thank you. I have to say that I (and maybe many new budding historians) are trained by the best – you, Hugh Harrington, John Bell, and Todd Andrlik. It’s your combined dedication and vision for JAR that makes the stories of this nation’s creation happen for so many people who want to know more about the subjects JAR covers daily.

    Page Smith would fully approve of your energy, spirit, and team commitment. Minus the footnotes OR end notes, of course.

  • There is a distinct difference between Page Smith’s earlier and later work. He wrote a fine biography of John Adams, but his two volume history of the Revolution, A New Age Now Begins, was terrible. By his own admission he wrote 1800 published pages (which is more like 3000 pages of typewritten pages at the time) in only three years, and it showed. The work was so sloppy that two factual errors appeared in the first paragraph of page one, and Smith made goofy statements like Surinam is an island because he was too lazy to take 30 seconds to look on a map. I’m all in favor of professional courtesy, but any list of the worst non-fiction books on the Revolution has to include Page Smith.

    1. Will, an important function of this web site is for contributors and readers to be able to discuss and share important, timely, and sometimes vastly different aspects of works and research.

      It is for the betterment of history that it be done, and I thank you for sharing your thoughts very much.

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