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A New System of Government
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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

[Picture of Professor Maier]

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.

[Picture of Thomas Paine]

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 ruling principle.

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 men.

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 "manufactories."

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.

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