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?