Using the unique approach that he has employed in his previous books, author, columnist, and television commentator James Burke shows us our connections to the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Over the two hundred-plus years that separate us, these connections are often surprising and always fascinating. Burke turns the signers from historical icons into flesh-and-blood people: Some were shady financial manipulators, most were masterful political operators, a few were good human beings, and some were great men. The network that links them to us is also peopled by all sorts, from spies and assassins to lovers and adulterers, inventors and artists. The ties may be more direct for some of us than others, but we are all linked in some way to these founders of our nation.
If you enjoyed Martin Sheen as the president on television's The West Wing, then you're connected to founder Josiah Bartlett. The connection from signer Bartlett to Sheen includes John Paul Jones; Judge William Cooper, father of James Fenimore; Sir Thomas Brisbane, governor of New South Wales; an incestuous astronomer; an itinerant math teacher; early inventors of television; and pioneering TV personality Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the inspiration for Ramon Estevez's screen name, Martin Sheen.
Showing 1-1 of the 1 most recent reviews
1 . Everything you expect from James Burke (and more)
Posted December 17, 2009 by Shane Thielen , Lincoln, NebraskaIf you are an American fan of James Burke, and I am, you will find everything you are looking for in this book. The book focuses on connections stemming from the American founders, so the stories are less technology oriented than many of Mr. Burkes documentaries, but they are just as full of twists and turns.
James Burke is a master at making history engaging. If you are an American with even a passing knowledge of the founding fathers, you will enjoy this book immensely.
Simon & Schuster
July 02, 2007
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from American Connections by James Burke
The trouble with iconic heroes like the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (note the reverential uppercase) is that they're like stuffed exhibits in museum cases -- passed by thousands of children sleepwalking their way through an educational tour, who never visit the signers again. Most of us don't remember their names.
Heroes also become imbued with virtues we wish on them -- such characteristics as honesty, selflessness, and courage in the face of danger. And while it is true that what the signers did was dangerous and could have got them strung up, not all were honest and few if any were selfless. Nearly half of them would much have preferred some kind of compromise with the British. One of them even repudiated his signature. And of course the Brits regarded them all as what would today be called "terrorists."
One reason for this book is to remind readers briefly of the signers' flesh-and-blood characters: Some were crooks, some had dysfunctional families, some were involved in financial shenanigans, some were masters at political backstabbing, many were egomaniacs, and a few were just good people.
The other reason for the book is to connect these men to the reader and the modern world. Historical figures are always a surprisingly short distance away in time. You may have heard your grandfather speak of his grandfather, who talked about his grandfather. That's when the signers lived. They're close. And not so different from us.
The past feels like a foreign country only because of all those wigs and breeches and strange behavior. But think: In the 1960s men had shoulder-length hair and wore flared pants. In the 1950s, before contra- ceptive pills, unmarried motherhood was a disgrace. Behind their contemporary fashions and social rules the signers were essentially much like us. Of course marvels like electricity and airplanes and computers would be incomprehensible to them. But if you were transported to the eighteenth century, would you know how to send a letter or even how to write it? How to prepare a quill pen and a sheet of parchment? And how would you dry the ink? What was the equivalent of an envelope? It's a mistake to think that people in the past were different or stupid just because we don't think they could handle our modern technology. Given time, even a caveman could learn to use a computer. And, by the way, the Upper Paleolithic was only five hundred grandfathers away.
I've tried to link the signers even more directly to us with an approach I've been using for thirty years, which has recently become known as "six degrees of separation." In this way each signer triggers a chain of events that links him to the modern world through a series of connections: Someone he knew knew someone who knew someone, and so on.
These trails through history show how incredibly diverse are the ties that connect us to each other, back and forward in time and space. The network linking the signers and their modern counterparts is peopled by spies, assassins, cuckolds, fraudsters, murderers, the incestuous, bomb-throwers, pillmakers, inventors, artists, musicians, statesmen, royalty, explorers, infanticides, transvestites, counterfeiters, con men, doctors, lovers, heroes, scientists, clergymen, and a host of others. And if you look far enough, you, too, are linked to this network. You are linked to the signers. We all are. It may be a few more than six connections, but not that many more.
In a medium other than print I might have been able to offer each reader (user) the means to make his own connections so as to become part of the narrative. Perhaps at some point in the future this book will take that form and you'll be able to make the connections yourself. Meantime, next best (and half-proving the point), I've connected each signer to someone or something bearing his name in the modern world.