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.
Everyone is connected, the argument goes, by a mere six degrees of separation: You have met someone who has met someone (and so on) who has met Queen Elizabeth II. James Burke takes this idea back through history to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One by one, he traces the 56 names forward through time in American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked., leaping across oceans and continents (and even through outer space), until arriving at a modern resolutionusually a person with the same name, but in some cases a ship or a shared residence 200 years apart.
Burke's book is neither history nor biography. Perhaps the best description is to call American Connections a curiosityan experiment in what you can do with names, people and places, from the mundane to the bizarre, to arrive at connections that no one would imagine possibleleast of all the Founding Fathers. American Connections is best read in small servings, where the oddities can be appreciated as tasty morsels. Pick it up and read about Samuel Adams' accidental connections with spies, transvestites, poisoners and movie stars. Later, move on to Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and discover his links to a Nazi warship. Or follow founding father Matthew Thornton to the planet Mars. Burke's writing moves quickly and is often mixed with wry humor, which adds to the fun. Try it, and see where the quirks of history's network can lead. Who knowsyou might find a connection to yourself.
Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.