Interview with J.L. Bell of Boston 1775

Todd Andrik and J.L. Bell

Check out Todd Andrlik’s interview with Bell at the Journal of the American Revolution.  The prolific blogger talks about his sideburns, the birth of Boston 1775, his favorite books about the Revolution outside of Boston, his use of Google Books, his connection with Nathaniel Philbrick, and the potential of a future book stemming from his posts at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste:

2 // Your first posts on Boston 1775 published May 13, 2006. What inspired you to launch your blog seven years ago? And, more importantly, what kind of coffee have you been drinking to give you enough energy to write almost daily since then? 

Back in 2005 or so, I was thinking about a website to share some of the fun little things I’d discovered about Revolutionary history. I talked about possibilities with a writing friend named Greg Fishbone (, who also did website design, and I realized that it would be much easier to build up the site gradually as a blog than to try to design it all from the start. Plus, with blogging architecture I wouldn’t have to learn all of HTML or go through a sixteen-year-old webmaster every time I wanted to make a change

I didn’t actually do anything more until I went to a workshop by another writing friend named Mitali Perkins (, and she urged everyone to start blogs on their special interests. So later that month I posted my first Boston 1775 essay.

As for coffee, I don’t drink it. I do, on the other hand, drink about six cups of tea a day. I probably wouldn’t have survived well in America in late 1773. 

3 // You’re one of the few bloggers I know who has sustained such an aggressive editorial calendar. What’s your secret and how do you choose/plan your content? 

I don’t really plan my content. Oh, sure, I stay aware of major anniversaries like the Boston Massacre, Battle of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and the Boston Tea Party. But many other significant dates sneak up on me until it’s too late.

Sometimes I post items that I’ve had saved on my hard drive for years. Sometimes a story or question catches my fancy on one day and I end up following a tangent for two or three more days, often longer than I expect. Sometimes a comment or email will raise questions that I can’t resist looking into, and then I want to share the results more widely.

At busy times I will gladly pilfer content—excuse me, pass on excellent research and writing from other websites. With links, of course.

John Adams Took The Case

Heather Cox Richardson reminds us, in a post titled “John Adams and the Rule of Law in Boston,” that Adams defended the British soldiers who fired into a crowd on March 5, 1770, killing five people.  Of course we know this event as the Boston Massacre.

Richardson draws some parallels between Adams’s insistence that the British soldiers get a fair trial and the case of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Here is a taste:

Message boards and blogs are full of angry people calling for Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be tortured or killed. Or both. Immediately. After all, it’s pretty clear he’s guilty, right? Why waste tax dollars on this guy with a long, expensive trial? 
And anyway, who ever said a terrorist who murders Americans should get a fair trial? 
Well, Founding Father John Adams, for one. Right here in Boston…
But by insisting on a fair trial for his country’s enemies, Adams served his cause far better than if he had bowed tothe popular desire to mete out mob justice. Adams and his team established that Massachusetts—and by extension, the new nation Massachusetts men wanted to create—would put no man, even a killer, beneath the law, and no man above it. Theirs would be a nation based not on popular sentiment, but on law. “Facts are stubborn things,” Adams said in defense of the soldiers, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates or our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He went on: “The law no passion can disturb. ‘Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ‘Tis . . . written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but, without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low.”
What do you think of this comparison?

King Hancock

John Hancock

J.L. Bell has served up another fascinating post at Boston 1775.  This one is about “King Hancock,” the nickname that Massachusetts farmers used to describe John Hancock in the wake of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.  Here is a taste:

Giving John Hancock the nickname “King” could have been an allusion to his wealth. Likewise, colonial Americans referred to Robert “King” Carter of Virginia (1663-1732), and Robert “King” Hooper (1709-1790) of Danvers. Men in Lexington might have had a particular fondness for Hancock because his paternal grandfather had been the minister of their town for a long time…
…With Hancock just concluding a stint as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, royal officials might have suspected he wanted to set himself up as monarch of Massachusetts.

Hancock and other leading American politicians of April 1775 would have hotly denied such an ambition. At the time they were still professing their loyalty to George III and the British constitution. The source of all the troubles, they complained, was the corrupt ministry in London, not the king. So I doubt those men would have been pleased to hear the provincial soldiers shout “King Hancock forever!”

In fact, in nearly all the uses of the term that have come down to us, “King Hancock” was a pejorative thrown out by supporters of the royal government trying to discredit or ridicule Hancock and the Patriot cause.

Did the British Plan to Burn Harvard in 1775?

J.L. Bell has a great post at Boston 1775 on a 1775 Thanksgiving sermon accusing the British of plotting to burn Harvard College.  The sermon was preached by Rev. Isaac Mansfield Jr., a Continental Army chaplain.  When it was published in 1776, it contained a footnote that described a plan that would have had British soldiers destroying Harvard in April 1775 on their return from Concord.

Bell is not buying Mansfield’s story.  He writes:

Mansfield thus accused the British commanders of planning to capture the Massachusetts legislators, destroy Harvard College, and fortify Cambridge common. He refused to identify his source for that inside information about enemy plans. And of course he was speaking in the midst of a war, when rumors and accusations fly at their fastest.
In fact, Mansfield’s claims don’t make sense. Gen. Thomas Gage did issue a call in September 1774 for the Massachusetts General Court to convene, but they were to gather in Salem, not Boston, and he quickly canceled that summons after the “Powder Alarm.” (The politicians gathered in Salem anyway, out of his reach, and formed a Provincial Congress instead.) There was no call for a legislature in April.

There was also nothing in Gen. Gage’s orders about Harvard. Indeed, the college was so little on Col. Percy’s mind on 19 April that he had to ask tutor Isaac Smith, Jr., which road led from there toward Concord. Percy didn’t have entrenching tools, and Cambridge was a poor place to stop and defend. So when Percy brought the column back through Cambridge, they didn’t pause at the college or the common, nor tried to recross the bridge over the Charles River, but pushed straight on to Charlestown, which was closer to the troops in Boston and more easily defended. 

Read the entire post here.

The Tarring and Feathering of John Malcom

Nathaniel Philbrick is gearing up for the release of his new book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution.  You can read an excerpt from the book at  Here is a taste:

Earlier in the evening, Malcom had taken a manic delight in baiting the crowd, bragging that Governor Hutchinson would pay him a bounty of 20 pounds sterling for every “yankee” that he killed. His undoubtedly longsuffering wife, the mother of five children (two of whom were deaf), opened a window and pleaded with the townspeople to leave them alone. Whatever sympathy she had managed to gain soon vanished when Malcom pushed his unsheathed sword through the window and stabbed a man in the breastbone.  

The crowd swarmed around the house, breaking windows and trying to get at the customs official, who soon fled up the stairs to the second story. Many Bostonians served as volunteer firemen, and it wasn’t long before men equipped with ladders and axes were rushing toward the besieged house on Cross Street. Even Malcom appears to have realized that matters had taken a serious turn, and he prepared “to make what defense he could.”

Collective violence had been a longstanding part of colonial New England. Crowds tended to intervene when government officials acted against the interests of the people. In 1745, a riot had broken out in Boston when a naval press gang seized several local sailors. Twenty-three years later, anger over the depredations of yet another press gang contributed to the Liberty Riot of 1768, triggered by the seizure of John Hancock’s ship of the same name by Boston customs officials. In that the crowds were attempting to address unpunished wrongs committed against the community, they were a recognized institution that all Bostonians—no matter how wealthy and influential they might be—ignored at their peril. On August 26, 1765, as outrage over the Stamp Act swept across the colonies, a mob of several hundred Bostonians had attacked the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, breaking windows, beating down doors, and ransacking the house of its elaborate furnishings. But as John Malcom was about to find out on that frigid night in January 1774, and as Thomas Hutchison had learned almost a decade before him, the divide between a civic-minded crowd and an unruly and vindictive mob was frighteningly thin.

The First Catholic Easter in Boston

Pope’s Day in Boston, Nov. 5, 1769

Yesterday I did a phone interview with John Turner‘s American religious history class at George Mason University and one of the students asked me about anti-Catholicism and the founding fathers. I talked a little bit about why Catholicism was a threat to the largely Protestant colonies and how many of the founders were anti-Catholic in their religious sentiments.

I could have also called the students’ attention to Emilie Haertsch’s recent post at The Beehive, the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Haertsch writes about the first Roman Catholic parish in Boston.  I was struck (but not surprised) that a Catholic parish was not founded in this Puritan stronghold until 1788. 

Here is a taste of the post:

…when the Massachusetts Constitution took effect in 1780 it became legal for Catholics to practice publicly. The Rev. Claudius Florent Bouchard de la Poterie, a former French naval chaplain, established the first Catholic parish in New England in 1788 on School Street in Boston, and he celebrated the first mass there on November 2, the Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day.

So exotic was Catholic worship to Bostonians when the parish opened that La Poterie felt it necessary to write an explanation of Catholic practices in order to show that there was nothing to fear. In 1789 he published a pastoral letter titled “The Solemnity of the Holy Time of Easter: The Order of the public Offices, and of the Divine Service, during the Fortnight of Easter, in the Catholick Church of the Holy Cross at Boston,” a copy of which the Society has in its collections. His explanation begins with Palm Sunday, continues through Holy Week, and finishes with Easter Sunday. He writes of the “paschal duty” of Catholics to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and the subsequent availability of daily confession to Catholics throughout Holy Week. La Poterie also illuminates the ritual surrounding Holy Thursday mass, including the washing of the “feet of 12 lads, between 10 and 14 years of age; the poorest will have the preference.” The 12 boys represented the 12 apostles, who had their feet washed by Jesus in the Gospel. La Poterie also describes the importance of the Easter Vigil mass as the time when new Catholics are welcomed into the Church through baptism.

Read the entire post here. 

What Happens When the Blogmaster at "Civil War Memory" Wants to Study the American Revolution?

I have never met Kevin Levin, and I am not a scholar of the Civil War, but I am a big fan of his award-winning blog and website–Civil War Memory.

In his most recent post, Levin confesses that his research and writing interests are moving toward the American Revolution in Boston.

I hope Levin makes the switch. 

Here is a taste of his post entitled “Contemplating a Different Trail.”

So, what to write about?  Most of you won’t be surprised by this, but what I am most interested in are the bricks that make up Boston’s Freedom Trail.  Begun in the 1950s, the Freedom Trail frames Boston’s Revolutionary history in a profound way.  The path steers thousands of visitors each year through the winding streets determining what they see and hear.  There is no one organization responsible for the trail and because it is physically laid out the trail is contested space.  As a result, there are ongoing disputes about what sites and stories ought to be included.

Such a topic would give me the opportunity to explore issues related to tourism, public history, and historical memory and all in my own backyard.  I haven’t thought much about the scope of the project, but I would want to write something that blends a scholarly narrative with the playfulness of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic.  I’ve only just begun to do some background reading on the subject so whether I carry through or not has yet to be determined.  What do you think?

I like it.

Religion on Boston Freedom’s Trail

Heather Curtis, a professor of religion at Tufts University, takes us on a walk along the famous Freedom Trail and argues that this two and a half mile stretch of Boston history has a lot to teach us about America’s religious past.  Her particular focus is on the evangelical Park Street Church, a congregation that was the hub of 20th century New England evangelicalism.  Here is a taste of her piece at Religion & Politics:

What befuddles many of my Tufts students about Park Street Church is not that nineteenth-century congregants sought to “Christianize” American civic and political culture (this seems a relatively familiar concept for a generation that has been exposed to the rhetoric of what they call the “Christian right”). Rather, these students are surprised to discover that this “evangelical landmark” actually succeeded in making what Rosell calls “an enduring impact” on both the moral life of the city and the country. Certainly Park Street’s influence over city and state politics has fluctuated over its two hundred year history, as revivalist evangelicalism lost ground to more liberal forms of Protestantism, and also to the Roman Catholicism that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants brought to Massachusetts. Yet, in the twentieth century Park Street retained its place as Boston’s preeminent evangelical institution, even as Catholics increasingly dominated city and state politics, and as the Commonwealth developed its reputation as a liberal stronghold. Park Street’s staff members proudly boast that when Billy Graham first came to Boston in December of 1949, he held his opening revival meeting in the church’s sanctuary. Graham preached his final sermon of the crusade—“Shall God Reign in New England?”—from the exact spot on the Boston Common where George Whitefield had proclaimed his evangelistic message more than two centuries earlier. Echoing Puritan and revivalist jeremiads, Graham declared that the “destiny of America” was at stake, and insisted that only widespread repentance of sin could ensure “Peace in Our Time.”

How Do You Pronounce the "Faneuil" in Faneuil Hall

The visitor center of the Boston National Historical Park is moving from the Old State House to Faneuil Hall.  J.L. Bell has been covering the move over at Boston 1775.

In yesterday’s post, Bell’s addressed an issue that I have long wondered about.  How do you pronounce “Faneuil?”  (Peter Faneuil was the Revolutionary-era merchant who funded its construction). Here is a taste:

One clue to how people of the Revolutionary period pronounced the name “Faneuil” is how they spelled it, In particular, people who had less formal education or hadn’t seen the name on paper might have written it phonetically. Eighteenth-century folks weren’t shy about respelling words to their liking.

In looking at period sources, I found most people used the spelling “Faneuil,” but “Fanuel” was also common. I’ve seen that variant in a 1734 Massachusetts General Court resolution, the record of Boston town meetings, reports to Customs officials, an itinerary of the Rev. Ezra Stiles, the orderly book of Gen. William Howe, and letters by Dr. Thomas Young, Henry Pelham, John Adams, Joseph Barrell, Belcher Noyes, and others. In the early 1800s “Fanuel Hall” was printed in guidebooks, town directories, and advertisements, suggesting that it was widely accepted….

I didn’t find anyone spelling “Faneuil Hall” as “Funnel Hall” except in post-Revolutionary newspaper articles that were obvious political parodies. That’s not to say people didn’t pronounce the name like “funnel,” especially when they referred to the Faneuil brothers decades before the Revolutionary War. But it makes it less likely.

The much more common “Faneuil,” “Fanuel,” “Fannel,” and the like suggest to me that most Bostonians pronounced the first vowel in “Faneuil” as an A, and then disagreed about the rest of the word. The same way we do today.