Forefathers & Founding Fathers: A book review by Bob Morris

Forefathers & Founding Fathers (Second Edition)
Michael Gorton
Brown Books (2018)

You are there…sort of.

Disclaimer: I am unqualified to authenticate the accuracy of this book’s historical material. However, as Simon Schama (among many others) has already demonstrated, “historical fiction” is not necessarily an oxymoron. I trust the reliability of Michael Gorton’s scholarship.

* * *

I read this second edition with interest and appreciation because it covers a period of U.S. history that — in Michael Gorton’s opinion — had not previously received the attention it deserves: “the founding years in the American colonies.” His focus is primarily on the Rhode Island colony whose leaders’ disagreements with those of the other colonies anticipate the same issues addressed later in the Declaration of Independence: “In Boston or the Plymouth Colony of 1640, any one of the founding fathers would have been banished, whipped, or killed for their beliefs.”

Rhode Island’s various co-founders — notably Samuel Gorton, Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, and Roger Willims — “opposed slavery and fought for freedom of religion, democracy, and equal rights in the mid-1960s. For those beliefs, they were ostracized, banished, whipped, and killed, but in the process they planted the seeds and would sprout and be used by our founding fathers to grow the great democracy. This book tells the story of a few of the significant forefathers to our founding fathers.”

The sequence of major events is presented within a “bookend” narrative structure: the beginning and conclusion of a dinner at Monticello hosted by Thomas Jefferson and his two guests, Catherine and Nathaniel Greene. At Jefferson’s request, Greene his account “forefathers and founding fathers” prior to, during, and following the defeat the British Army. Yes, Gorton reconstructs plausible events and especially plausible conversations between and among dozens of major and minor historical figures throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Historical fiction is definitely not for everyone. I enjoyed reading this novel, remembering all the while what it is…and what it isn’t. As I read it, I was reminded of a CBS radio and then television series long ago, “You Are There,” that recreated accounts of major historical events, featuring notable guest stars such as John Cassavetes as Plato in “The Death of Socrates,” James Dean as Robert Ford in “The Capture of Jesse James,” Paul Newman as Marcus Brutus in “The Assassination of Julius Caesar” and as Nathan Hale in “The Fate of Nathan Hale,” Rod Steiger as Richard Burbage in “The First Command Performance of Romeo and Juliet,” and Joanne Woodward in “The Oklahoma Land Rush.” Each program heavily relied on drama (or if you prefer, melodrama) in a series of crises.

That does not seem to be Michael Gorton’s purpose. Rather, “my goal was simply to write an historical account for a few friends and family to read, but as the research progressed, I came to see that it was an important part of our early years that has been largely ignored or buried! I discovered a lost part of history to be told.” Read the book and judge for yourself.

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