J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

John Shubael Bell: housewright, under-sheriff

At the end of last year I corresponded with Don Shelton about the subject of this miniature, John Shubael Bell (1766-1819). Don has shared the information he’s accumulated about this art object and Bell at this website.

Bell followed his father, John Bell, into the profession of housewright, or carpenter. But he soon became a public servant, and that was how people remembered him when he died. This is an extract from the eulogy that Samuel L. Knapp delivered at Old North Church for the St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons ten days after Bell died.

Early in life the merits of Mr. Bell became known, and he was appointed to the command of a [militia] company which was composed of all ranks in society and of all ages proper to bear arms. His demeanour, his intelligence, and his humanity made him, in the opinion of the discriminating and the good, a proper person to take the laborious office of under-sheriff, which he did at the age of thirty.

This executive office had, in most parts of New England, been filled by coarse, boisterous, and iron-hearted men. Violence and insensibility seemed to be considered at that time by most people to be indispensable in the character of such an officer.

The conduct of Mr. Bell produced a general revolution in public sentiment upon this subject. He stood like the spirit of justice in the form of the angel of mercy between debtor and creditor, softening the severity of the latter and rousing the hopes and encouraging the exertions of the former. Delays were obtained, that he who owed might have time to struggle to pay, and, by his influence, terms were proposed to make payment practicable; and these arrangements frequently prevented much misery and restored confidence among men.
I was pleased to see Knapp state that a militia command was a way for a mechanic to attract favorable attention and rise in society. I think that’s the route that Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, Thomas Crafts, David Mason, and other men of the previous generations came to prominence. In addition, Knapp’s picture of how the credit system functioned in the years of debtor’s prison carries some resonance for us today.

In addition to checking out Don Shelton’s investigation of the Shubael Bell portrait, check out his extensive online gallery of other miniatures.

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