American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked.
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American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked.

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by James Burke

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

In the late 1970s, James Burke kept PBS viewers rapt with his Connections, a 30-part series that presented technological advances as often astonishing series of interconnected innovations. With American Connections, Burke applies the same methodology to the Founding Fathers, linking the "six degrees of separation" dots and providing mini-biographies of hundreds of people. More fun and more informative than any trivia book.

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Simon & Schuster
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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. Why write a book like this? Well, writing beats real work. And I hope you'll find it diverting. History is where we come from, so it's worth a look. And as navigators say: you don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.

And perhaps there's a more serious reason. In a world fast becoming more interdependent and interconnected, where change happens faster than ever because of the way people and ideas connect, we are all on a communications network of some sort and we feel the effects of change much more quickly than even only a decade ago. Innovation comes so frequently now that by the time you understand how some new gizmo works it's already obsolete. We need to learn to handle accelerating rates of change by becoming more aware of how change happens. One way to do this is to think more connectedly than we have been educated to do. Because if an event in Uzbekistan is going to cause the closure of the company we work for in Oshkosh, the sooner we find ways to secondguess that event the better for us.

I hope this book will provide an example of interconnected thinking that will encourage you to try it, too.

One last note: Many people believe the Declaration was signed on July 4. In fact that was the date of the congressional vote agreeing to the wording of the document. On July 5 a version was printed and signed by John Hancock (president of Congress) and Charles Thomson (secretary), and this was distributed to state assembles and other interested groups. On July 19 Congress ordered a formal version (in special formal handwriting) to be printed and when this was ready, on August 2, fiftyone delegates finally signed. Five delegates were absent for reasons of ill health or army duties, and these men signed later on. A few congressional delegates never signed.

London 2007

Copyright © 2007 by London Writers

Chapter One

John Hancock (MA) was thirty-nine. He was an egomaniac and nobody liked him. He signed first because he was presiding officer of the Continental Congress. You can tell from the size and flamboyance of his signature on the Declaration (biggest by far) why he was unpopular. When he left Congress to the automatic vote of thanks, none of his Massachusetts colleagues would sign it. Somebody called him "pompous, vain and self-important."

Hancock got what he wanted because everybody owed him money. Thanks to whale oil trade, real estate, and most of all, government contracts he was a mover and shaker, so in 1785 he became seventh "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" (of the ten presidents under the Articles of Confederation). Illness caused Hancock to step aside for the eighth POTUSICA (as the Secret Service might have termed it), Nathaniel Gorham.

Gorham had spent some time on the wild side as a privateer attacking British shipping. What he lacked in public speaking he more than made up for in political smarts, even going so far (in 1786 during a brief, armed insurrection against the Massachusetts government) as to suggest the need for an American constitutional monarch to provide political stability. Gorham approached Prince Henry of Prussia with the offer. No, thanks. Others had the same idea and even major players like Monroe and Hamilton (and some say Washington himself ) sent a delegation to discuss an American royalty with the claimant to the British throne, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka "Bonnie Prince Charlie").

However, long before things came to a regal pass the insurrection in Massachusetts subsided and republicanism looked as if it would survive. Besides, Prince Charlie felt obliged to decline on grounds of poor health — a euphemism for being permanently crocked and beating his wife. At this time Charlie (a legend in his own lunchtime) was living in Florence on overextended credit, playing bad cello, calling himself "Charles III of England" and being regularly visited by you-never-know aristos and various hangers-on with an eye to the main Stuart-comeback chance.

One such visitor was florid, bushy-eyebrows John Moore, ex-Glasgow doctor turned tutor and culture-vulture-tour-of-Europe companion to the umpteenth Duke of Hamilton. The duke dropped in on such eminences as Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia, and (inevitably) Voltaire. All of which went into Moore's little notebook and ended up as a multivolume work ("A View of Society and Manners in...") about what-was-hot-and-what-was-not in demimonde Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and France. Everything a traveling Brit wannabe had to know. The work flew off the shelves and gave Moore overnight literary cred even with such real writers as Dr. Samuel Johnson. And Johnson's ménage à trois (some say sado-maso) lady friend Mrs. Hester Thrale.

Hester was a tiny, plump, witty Welsh twenty-five-year-old when Johnson met her. Minutes later he had moved in and was great pals with Eton-and-Oxford Mr. Thrale (with whom Hester had a platonic marriage). The lady herself (who had coarse hands but delicate writing) hosted dinner parties for Johnson and his literary cronies, made jokes in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, and generally enlivened the otherwise less-than-glamorous house in Deadman's Place from which Thrale ran his brewery. Until the stroke that killed him and turned Hester into what the papers called an "amorous widow."

The Anchor Brewery (still going strong today) boasted that it sold ale "from Russia to Sumatra" thanks to Henry Thrale's business acumen. Which failed him only once, when he tried making beer without hops or malt and lost so much money Hester's family had to bail him out. But he was canny enough to recognize the value of new technology when he saw it and was the first to use the new hydrometer (introduced by the Excise to measure the alcoholic strength of booze so they could tax it appropriately — initially, to pay for the war against the American rebels; and then for some other excuse).

Hydrometers floated more or less deeply in a more or less alcoholic liquid, and in 1803 the hydrometer developed by Bartholomew Sikes was designated official. A year later, after Sikes had turned up his toes, his widow found that "official" meant an order for two thousand instruments. So she made sure her daughter's husband, Robert Bate, got the contract. Everybody lived happily ever after. With that kind of backing, Bate was able to branch out and make telescopes, barometers, spectacles, theodolites, the official Troy pound for the U.S. Mint, and anything else required in a world crazy about measurement. Including one gizmo that measured nothing. A toy, really. In 1819 Bate built the kaleidoscope for its inventor, eminent Scottish science buff David Brewster.

Brewster's little multimedia-before-multimedia was an instant rave. And then was pirated right and left. Story of the ingenious Brewster's life, really. At a time when there was everything still to discover, Brewster discovered. He also set up the British Association for the Advancement of Science, became an honorary something everywhere, and wrote 299 scientific papers on arcana ranging from spectroscopy to refraction to polarization to crystals to photography. And 1,240 other articles (for the general public) on God, life on other planets, philosophy, railroads, physics, and whatever else was required by the editors of the slew of mags from which Brewster tried to make a living. Alas, all he's remembered for today is the no-profit kaleidoscope.

On which in 1817 a serious dissertation was penned. "In the memory of man, no invention...ever produced such an effect," enthused writer and physician Mark Roget, whose feelings of inadequacy drove him to wider interests, in one case, foreshadowing Hollywood. In 1825 Roget wrote that if you saw a moving carriage wheel through a window with a vertical Venetian blind the slats didn't stop you seeing the wheel rotate (persistence of vision being what the eye does to fill the gaps in between the frames of a movie). Roget also filled other gaps. His great Thesaurus, produced in 1852, answered the scribbler's "tip-of-the-tongue" problem with an exhaustive list of synonyms (similar expressions) useful for every occasion (event).

Similarly useful was Roget's Library of Useful Knowledge, which included an article on optics by Henry Kater. Who started life measuring large bits of India and was best known for his amazingly accurate pendulum. Gravity affects pendulum swing, and Kater showed that a onesecond swing in London required a pendulum 39.13929 inches long. Kater also asked the classic question: "If the universe is infinite then everywhere you look you should see a star. So why is much of the sky dark?"

One answer came from the pen of a man better known for his grisly tales of murder. First thriller writer, poet, critic, and drunk (it killed him) Edgar Allan Poe's last work, "Eureka," suggested that if the universe were infinite then the darkness was where stars would be, if they weren't so infinitely far away that their light never reached us. This was all part of Poe's Big Bang theory (a hundred years before the Big Bang theory). Poe's gee-whiz imagining was described by Poe's editor Evert Duyckinck as "a mountainous piece of absurdity." Poe wasn't the only insultee. It was Duyckinck who also called Melville's Moby-Dick "intellectual chowder."

For over thirty years Duyckinck ruled the editorial roost in New York, publishing anybody who was anybody (Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow, Cooper, Irving, et al.) and frightening the rest. And helping to move American literature out from under Eng. Lit. In 1860 Duyckinck produced an anthology of poetry illustrated in England by the Dalziel family of engravers. Back in 1840 they'd done the first edition of Punch magazine and then in 1841 that of the Illustrated London News. The Dalziels kicked off the Victorian mania for the pictorial press and their gilt-embossed Fine Art Gift Books (the original coffee-table adornments) were deemed collectibles while the the Dalziels were still alive.

The Dalziels also reproduced the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who aimed to go back to the simplicity of art-before-Raphael with painting that was so detailed it was photographic, none more so than the work of Holman Hunt, who even dressed up in Arab costume (in his studio) to paint when he was working in Cairo. He and his fellow traveler Thomas Seddon, both devout Christians, then moved on to Palestine and were so blown away by their first view of Jerusalem on June 3, 1854, that they spent months on works about Jesus that made them both a fortune.

Seddon had arrived in Egypt ahead of Hunt and bumped into (and painted) another great cross-dresser, Richard Burton (on the way to his third Forbidden City, in disguise as an Arab sheikh). Explorer Burton (who claimed to speak forty-six languages and dialects) wrote more travel books than the Blue Guide and his Great Idea was to find the lake that was the source of the Nile. He found the wrong lake but made the front page anyway. After which, in 1861, he became consul in Fernando Po (small dot off West Africa) and then hit the big time with Santos (smaller dot, deepest Brazil).

On cabin-fever escape trips out of Santos to Rio Burton met and conversed in Arabic with Brazilian emperor Pedro II, aka Dom Pedro de Alcantara João Carlos Leopoldo Salvador Bibiano Francisco Xavier de Paula Leocadio Miguel Gabriel Rafael Gonzaga de Bragança e Borbón. A plump bookworm with a dumpy wife (and enjoying the occasional side affair), Pedro aimed to modernize Brazil. To which end he spent years elsewhere looking at police precincts, city waterworks, trains, schools, and (in 1876) the U.S. Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Where he was transfixed by Bell's telephone ("My God! It talks!") and spent four hours a day for two weeks looking at every exhibit with Brazilian potential. He missed the lecture by Brit surgeon and antiseptic freak Joseph Lister (of "Listerine"), who was visiting Philadelphia to publicize operating-theater use of his new carbolic antiseptic spray.

In Lister's audience (as much transfixed by carbolic as Pedro was by telephones) sat Robert Wood Johnson, apprentice pharmacist, who realized there might be a market for a more individualized application of Lister's idea. Within ten years Robert and his brothers were Johnson & Johnson. Within a century they were a multi-billion-dollar international company. And "Band-Aid" was in the dictionary.

By the 1990s the company was a major supporter of the new National Marrow Donor Program. In 1991, with the aim of increasing public involvement in the program, retired U.S. admiral Elmo Zumwalt established the Marrow Foundation. In 1996 the Zumwalt Community Award went to a Charlotte, North Carolina, radio talk-show host for above-and-beyond work on the bone-marrow drive. The name of the radio host was JOHN HANCOCK.

Copyright © 2007 by London Writers

Meet the Author

James Burke is the author of several bestselling books, including Circles, American Connections, and The Knowledge Web. He is a monthly columnist at Scientific American and also serves as director, writer, and host of the television series Connections 3 on The Learning Channel. He is the founder of the James Burke Institute for Innovation in Education, whose flagship project, the Knowledge Web, an interactive website, was recently launched. He lives in London.

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American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked. 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
James Burke in his TV program presented to his avid viewers a perspective of history never before discovered. The book did nothing that his TV series did for viewers. The author is an amazing historian yet this book left me flat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago