A More Perfect Union: George Washington and the Making of the Constitution (Full Movie)
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A More Perfect Union: George Washington and the Making of the Constitution (Full Movie)

(dramatic music) – [Narrator] History
is filled with stories of rebellion and revolution,
oppressor and oppressed. But for every dictator overthrown and noble victory achieved, too many revolutions have succumbed to either the siren call of new tyrants or descended into bloody chaos. So how is it that the United States, formed from its own eight-year war, managed to avoid these common pitfalls? How is it that no American king stepped forward to be crowned? That 13 fractious states chose to unify rather than go their separate ways? (grand music) It was largely due to the leadership of a small group of visionaries who understood the lessons of the past and sought a new representative
form of government, leaders like George
Washington who were capable of compromise while pursuing
a more perfect union. (people laughing) The American revolutionaries
declared that government existed to protect fundamental rights, and when those rights were violated, that government could be overthrown. (gentle music) But what should fill the void? A government made too powerful
could lead to tyranny, but without power to
protect the rule of law and the liberties of the people, anarchy. The trick was finding the right balance. During the War for
Independence, the colonies had united under the
Articles of Confederation. The bond formed under the
Articles was weak at best. (dramatic music) The Confederation Congress
had no power to tax or coordinate foreign policy. The states, retaining much of
their original sovereignty, even had their own separate currencies. Though the Americans had secured their independence under the Articles, it was increasingly evident that this weak government was no match for the diverging interests and priorities
of the individual states. It was a union in name only. (peaceful music) Though he had led the
Americans to victory, General George Washington was unsure about the lasting stability
of this new American nation. If the citizens did not
find a way to set aside their regional interests
for the greater good, America risked civil war or being picked apart by foreign powers. But he had relinquished his command and resumed a private
life at Mount Vernon. “Now,” he said, “It was
the choice of the people “whether they will be
respectable and prosperous “or contemptible and
miserable as a nation.” But his advice was ignored. The states were in debt from the war and acted with increasing self-interest. Some responded by printing paper money, causing rampant inflation. Others raised taxes on
farmers, throwing them in jail when they could not pay. Without power to tax or enforce law, the Confederation Congress
could do little but watch. It was so weak, it did
not even have the power to enforce the peace
treaty with Great Britain, whose forces lingered menacingly
in American territory. Foreign policy consisted
of begging for new loans to pay existing debts. By 1786, the Union was unraveling. (dramatic music) Amending the Articles of Confederation required unanimous
support of the 13 states, an impossible hurdle. To a growing number of the nation’s political and intellectual leaders, a new, lasting solution was needed. A new national constitution. But without widespread public support, could there really be
any chance of reform? For the Constitutional Convention to have any chance of success,
they needed the leadership of the only man known and
trusted throughout the states. They needed George Washington. But Washington was reluctant
to leave Mount Vernon and risk his hard-won reputation in a cause that was less than certain. “That it is necessary to revise “and amend the Articles of Confederation, “I entertain no doubt,” he uttered. “But what may be the consequences of such “an attempt is doubtful.” In the fall of 1786,
angry mobs of farmers, led by the Revolutionary
War veteran Daniel Shays, went on a march through Massachusetts, protesting high taxes, closing courthouses and threatening the armory in Springfield. Ultimately, Shays Rebellion was brought to a bloody halt, but the
fear of further uprisings convinced Congress that action was needed. They called for a national convention to be held in Philadelphia in 1787. “There are combustibles in every state “which a spark may set fire
to,” Washington exclaimed. He agreed to attend the convention, concluding that, “Reform of the present “system is indispensable.” He would wager his hard-earned reputation on the hope that the
convention would succeed not in revising the
Articles of Confederation but in drafting a new constitution that would create a truly
national government. (gentle music) Throughout May 1787, delegates from all over the union
arrived in Philadelphia. Luminaries like Benjamin Franklin and rising stars like Alexander Hamilton were in attendance. There were seven former governors, including Virginia’s Edmund Randolph and jurists like
Pennsylvania’s James Wilson. And there were relative
newcomers like James Madison. Eventually, 55 men would
serve at the convention. And chairing this body, George Washington. Together, they had won the war. Now, they needed to secure the peace. Foreign powers had predicted the American experiment would fail. This convention sought
to prove the world wrong. The delegates agreed that they would write a new constitution. It was risky. They were only authorized by Congress to suggest amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation. To proceed, they would work in secret. Windows were shuttered
despite the summer heat, and oaths of secrecy were taken. It was thanks to James Madison’s diligent note taking that we even
know what took place. There was little unity
over many of the most important questions
confronting the delegates. Smaller states, which had enjoyed equal representation in the existing government, feared they would lose sovereignty to the dominance of the larger states. Delaware’s Gunning Bedford warned that the small states would find some foreign ally if their
autonomy was threatened. The larger states wanted representation based on population. James Wilson reminded the delegates, “Can we forget for whom we
are forming a government? “Is it for men or for the imaginary “beings called states?” As the debate went on, two delegates from New York walked out,
believing the convention had exceeded its mandate. If others left, the
convention might collapse. (men muttering) Overseeing the debate, Washington grew anxious for a solution. Then Roger Sherman of Connecticut
arrived with a proposal. It would come to be known
as The Great Compromise. Sherman proposed a legislature
split into two bodies. One would allocate representatives based on a state’s population. The other would treat states as equals. Here was the birth of the House of Representatives and Senate. The Great Compromise broke the deadlock between large and small states, but left them with a
new, troubling question. (somber music) The next challenge: how
would enslaves people be counted for purposes of
representation and taxation? In 1787, slavery existed in every state except Massachusetts. But the institution was
most heavily concentrated on the plantations and farms
of the southern states. This painful reality raised the question of how should states determine population. More to the point, who counts as a person? The southern state delegations,
led by Charles Pickney and Pierce Butler, sought to have slaves counted as part of their population, even though they were considered to be property by their owners. The Southern delegates
threatened to oppose any actions that would
limit or constrain slavery. – Dangerous in the extreme. – [Narrator] Some Northern
delegates were incredulous. Once again, faced with
the threat of a mass defection and a doomed convention, the delegates reached
yet another compromise. They agreed to count all slaves, for purposes of representation,
as 3/5 of a person. Looking back through
time, this 3/5 decision looks like a moral failure. But to the delegates, many who assumed that slavery was already fading away, this compromise was deemed necessary if the Constitutional Convention was to have any chance of success. Of course, what the
delegates could not see is that this new constitution
left millions in bondage and failed to extinguish the slow fuse that would ignite in bloody
civil war 70 years later. (drum music) (gentle music) The last challenge:
would the American people accept a powerful executive? The Articles of Confederation lacked one. Each state could overrule the others. There was nobody to
transcend states’ interests and represent the nation’s. Hamilton and Madison argued a powerful, national leader was necessary. Madison’s proposal, the Virginia Plan, offered a powerful, single executive balanced by a representative
legislature and a judiciary. Others, including Edmund
Randolph, questioned the nature of this executive, worrying that too much power in the hands of one person could lead to monarchy. (gentle music) Even Benjamin Franklin expressed concern. Though he expected Washington would likely be the first to serve
as the chief executive, he worried that nobody knows what sort may come afterwards. But in the end, the proposal
for a single executive carried, based largely
on the hope that one man would lead the new
government, George Washington. The public had been kept
in the dark for months. What had the greatest
minds of their country, their beloved General
Washington, conceived? By the time the Constitution
was ready for signing, 42 of the original 55 delegates
remained in Philadelphia. Washington signed first,
followed by the rest. Three delegates, George
Mason, Elbridge Gerry and Edmund Randolph refused to sign, protesting the lack of a bill of rights. What they signed contained
a mere seven articles, seven pieces that together
formed a new government. The first three defined
the branches of government, creating checks and balances between them. Three more outlined the relationship between the states and
the federal government, along with the process
for making amendments. And the seventh established rules by which the new Constitution
could be adopted. The reaction was mixed. The Confederation Congress
briefly considered censuring the delegates for exceeding their original mandate. But they concluded
something needed to be done, and that this new constitution
was the best option. The states were called
upon to form conventions to ratify or reject the new charter. At least nine states had to approve for it to take effect, any less, and the
Constitution would be dead. Rival factions quickly formed. – A king, is a king, is a king. – I disagree. What is to keep us all together. – [Narrator] Some favored
the new Constitution as a necessity. They became known as Federalists. Others, like the Patriot
Patrick Henry, were skeptical. The Constitution had no guarantee of individual rights, like a free press and protections against
unlawful prosecution. And they feared the executive
could become a tyrant. – The whole of Europe has
been within that space for hundreds, nay, thousands. – [Narrator] Together, they
were known as Anti-Federalists. In states where Federalists held sway, ratification came quickly. Delaware was first, voting unanimously in favor on December 7th. Five more states followed
over the next two months, but six states were far
from the nine required. Even worse, the largest
and most powerful states, New York and Virginia, were deadlocked. Could there really be a United States without New York and Virginia? (dramatic music) In Virginia, Patrick
Henry and George Mason were the most vocal
opponents of ratification, fearing its lack of safeguards
for individual liberty. James Madison, with the quiet support of Washington, argued fervently in support of the Constitution. Two more states voted to ratify. Just one was needed for the Constitution, the new federal government, to be born. Who would be the ninth? Could New York be convinced to ratify? Could Virginia? Or would the United
States be born in pieces? Would Washington suffer the indignity of seeing his native state
reject the constitution he worked so hard to conceive? On June 25, 1788,
Virginia’s votes were cast. It was two days before the
news reached Mount Vernon. Virginia’s convention has compromised. They asked that a bill of rights be added to the Constitution, and they had voted to ratify by a margin of just 10 votes. Unbeknownst to them,
just four days earlier, New Hampshire had become
the ninth state to ratify. They had ensured the United
States would be born. Now, by its vote, Virginia had ensured the United States would live. (peaceful music) Though he had remained
publicly silent in the debate, the public’s faith in
George Washington’s role at the Constitutional Convention played a vital role in Virginia’s ascent. They assured, wrote
James Monroe, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, that
Washington’s influence carried the government. The new government now a certainty, and with the endorsement of Virginia, the remaining states, including
New York, voted in favor. Rhode Island would be the last hold out, joining the Union in 1790. After ratification,
the question now turned toward just who would
lead this new government. It seemed a foregone conclusion
that George Washington would be its first president. He had presided over the
Constitutional Convention. He was trusted, beloved. Many had agreed to support ratifying the new charter because they believed Washington would assume a leadership role. But he was eager for a life of tranquility at his Mount Vernon estate. Letters from leaders throughout the states began to arrive, urging him to reconsider. No other man could bind the
fractious nation together. Duty overcame desire. To deny the call, he realized, would see the country shipwrecked in sight of the port. He decided he would re-enter public life if the voters wanted him. On April 14, 1789, the answer came by way of a messenger from Congress. It had taken several months
to complete the tally. George Washington had
been elected president by unanimous vote of the electors. (gentle music) His leadership carried a nation ahead and into a realm
unknown to humankind. There were rights to be guaranteed, a presidency to be defined and a nation to be built from a
collection of feuding states. There were rivalries to be healed and compromises to be made to ensure the great American experiment continued. Thanks to the leadership
of George Washington and his fellow delegates,
the former colonies were truly unified into one United States, equipped with a representative government that was both balanced and
empowered to serve the people. Now more than 200 years old, the U.S. Constitution
has endured to become the world’s oldest
representative constitution in existence today. Born of compromise and
enhanced through amendments, the Constitution continues
to be the democratic bedrock of our more perfect union. (grand music) (dramatic music)


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