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Program 5: A New System of Government
Donald L. Miller with Virginia Scharff, Louis P. Masur, and Pauline Maier
Miller: After the Revolution, the awesome and thrilling task of
creating a new system of government. Some of the best minds of the day come
together. They're drafting a new government in Philadelphia. It's done in
secrecy, absolute secrecy. They have armed guards around there.
Scharff: Since they wanted to conduct debates in secret, they closed
the windows. It was summertime. And they wore wool clothes. Can you imagine
what it's like?
Masur: It was all-out warfare. There's contested understandings in
meanings of those documents. I mean, those anti-Federalists did not buy into
what was going on in Philadelphia. And they said that that was a group of 55
well-fed, well-read men, slave-owners many of them, who had lost faith in the
people, who were repudiating the principles of the American Revolution.
Miller: Could a Constitution be created that would hold the fragile new
nation together? That challenge, today, on A Biography of America.
A New Independence
Maier: "You and I, dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when
the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live." So John Adams
wrote his friend in 1776. "When, before," he asked, had three million people
"full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and
happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"
The excitement of designing new governments for the American people attracted
the best minds of the day, and what they did transformed a colonial rebellion
into a world revolution. "If the colonists had only secured their independence
from Britain," Thomas Paine wrote in 1792, "their Revolution would have been a
matter... of little importance." But because independence brought, as Paine
put it, "a revolution in the principles and practice of governments," the
American Revolution became a landmark event for all mankind.
We're more inclined to emphasize other changes that the Revolution brought,
such as its transformation of American society. Twenty years earlier the
colonists thought a ranked society like Britain's was perfectly fine; they
could even look forward to having an aristocracy of their own. Then, quite
suddenly, "aristocracy" became "un-American." Equality, which, had, in fact,
long since been more characteristic of American than British society, became a
After independence the Northern states began dismantling their slave systems,
which were at odds with the country's assertion that "all men are created
equal." That "first emancipation" not only made slavery a distinctly Southern
institution, but also produced a community of free blacks, who became the
nation's most ardent opponents of both slavery and racism. Meanwhile, women
began questioning the assumption that they were "naturally" subordinate to
The American economy also underwent a seismic transformation. When Britain
excluded Americans from their old markets, they went out to find new ones -- in
China, for example, or the trans-Appalachian West, to which settlers streamed
in the 1780s. State legislatures started granting patents and copyrights as
they had never done before, and they also gave out charters of incorporation to
encourage groups to build bridges and roads, or to found schools, banks, and
It's not too much to say that the modern American economy has its roots in
changes the Revolution brought. We instinctively appreciate those social and
economic changes, in part because they remain part of our lives. We still argue
about the meaning of equality; we still encourage individual enterprise.