Segments in this Video

Perspectives on the Constitution (02:06)


See a montage of clips of scholars discussing the Constitution's nature and purpose followed by Bill Moyer's introduction to the ongoing conflicts that surround the Constitution.

Introduction to Events of 1787 (02:53)

The Constitutional Convention worked through debate and compromise to found a government and organize it in such a way as to protect against faction. Three historians will discuss the Constitution in this film.

Heat at Constitutional Convention (02:23)

Forest McDonald's chief interests are the formative roots of the Framers. He talks about the mostly very fat Founders sweating profusely through the Convention, and how the heat affected the debates.

Hamilton's Convention Speech (01:54)

Hamilton delivered a brilliant six-hour speech- applauded by all but supported by none. He argued for limited but strong government, with power concentrated in the center and a President elected for life.

Constitution as Defense of Property (01:10)

Convention delegates were men of property and wrote the Constitution such that it put a brake on democracy's attacks on property but were not mostly or simply self-interested.

Framers' Intelligence (01:33)

The Framers were highly learned and had impressive military and governmental experience.

Panic over Shays' Rebellion (02:20)

General Henry Knox misreported the Shays' Rebellion as a general attack on property in a successful attempt to panic people into a Constitutional Convention; a Convention almost did not happen.

Conditions Making Possible Success (01:24)

New York's rejection of Congress's independent power to implement tariffs spurred it to call a Convention. If the Convention were as late as 1789, disagreement over the French Revolution may have made union impossible.

Acceptance of Slavery (02:38)

Forrest McDonald says the Framers saw union as the only way to protect liberty, and union meant accepting the reality of slavery. North Carolina brokered the 3/5 compromise, helped by South Carolina's intransigence.

Judiciary (02:33)

The judiciary, seen as the weakest branch, received little debate. Madison proposed uniting it with the executive. Gouverneur Morris, who gave the Constitution its wording, created an ambiguous wording he hoped would support his position.

Limited Government (02:05)

The Framers had a deep understanding of human nature as fallen. Their task was to protect liberty by limiting government; to McDonald, today's government has escaped limits and become incompetent at its basic tasks.

New Convention Not the Solution (01:39)

Government is no longer limited by law and a recognition that some things are beyond it, McDonald says, but a new Convention would only make it more efficient, and therefore worse.

Physical Constitution (02:33)

Michael Kammen has traced Americans' changing attitudes toward the Constitution. The Constitution was in storage in the nineteenth century- National Archives did not exist. It was hidden during the 1812 War.

Constitution as Means to End (02:25)

The Constitution came to be regarded as sacred, and as a machine working automatically. Lincoln's flexibility about the Constitution helped save the Union, however; the Constitution is a means to an end.

Constitution and Economic Revival (01:14)

Trade was depressed during the mid-1780s, and merchants hoped the Federal Government would revive it. General prosperity did indeed follow the adoption of the Constitution, creating a link in the public mind.

Secrecy of Convention (02:17)

The Constitution did not seize the American imagination as the Declaration had, partly because the Convention met in secret. Madison delayed publication of his Convention notes, fearing the information would undermine the Constitution.

Presidential Power (02:12)

Madison deeply considered the nation's problems and the history of republics. The Framers knew they wanted a stronger executive, but debated how much stronger. They did not anticipate the modern Presidency of a world power.

Technology Changes Politics (02:07)

Kammen rejects original intent-based jurisprudence. The political process includes groups formerly excluded and, contrary to Attorney General Meese, technology has fundamentally changed politics.

Danger of Complacency (02:11)

The idea of the Constitution as a machine running by itself, requiring little citizen participation, is dangerous. Washington wrote to Lafayette that he would not work for ratification. The Constitution is part of what holds us together.

Marshall Remanding Slaves (01:48)

Olive Taylor talks about Chief Justice Marshall, whose affirmation of the doctrine of vested rights in property remanded back to slavery blacks freed by states.

Marshall Backs Slavery Against State Sovereignty (02:00)

Marshall wanted to uphold the federal government as the locus of sovereignty, and the superiority of the Supreme Court over state Courts. He prevented states from freeing slaves, since no law can alienate a man's property.

Race and Marshall's Worldview (01:40)

Marshall did not hate blacks, but he and others viewed America as a beacon for white people and wanted to send freed blacks back to Africa.

Black Exclusion from Founding (01:21)

Blacks were not part of "We the People," children of the Founding Fathers. Taylor talks about growing up learning American ideals and then facing segregation laws.

Constitution, Slavery and Progress (02:03)

Moyers notes the Constitution's support for slavery. The moral arm of the universe bends toward justice, Taylor believes; improvements come through constant agitation.

Slavery and Sanctity of Property (01:37)

Asked if the compromise over slavery was justified, Taylor notes the doctrine of vested rights to property and the Founders' view of the sanctity of property.

Capital in Slave Territory (01:29)

Southern states accepted Hamilton's economic plan in return for putting the Capital in slave territory; Southern delegates had been embarrassed bringing their slaves to anti-slavery agitation hub Philadelphia.

Freedom to Own Slaves (02:13)

The Revolution was fought for freedom for Americans to pursue their economic destiny, which included freedom to hold slaves. White women, like black people, were not part of "We the People," Taylor says.

Black Faith in the Constitution (01:52)

Taylor can appreciate the genius of the Constitution, which was changed due to agitation. Most black Americans have faith in it as the practical instrument for improvements.

Sponsors & Credits: In the Beginning (01:38)

Sponsors & Credits: In the Beginning

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In the Beginning

Part of the Series : In Search of the Constitution
DVD Price: $79.95
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This program features discussions with three prominent historians about the roots of the Constitution and its impact on our society since its writing. Michael Kammen, Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of history at Cornell University, discusses the Constitution’s place and role as a symbol in American life; Forrest McDonald, professor of history at the University of Alabama, talks about the intellectual origins of the Constitution; and Dr. Olive Taylor, professor of history at Howard University, discusses black Americans and others who were not part of the Constitution. (60 minutes)

Length: 58 minutes

Item#: BVL4906

ISBN: 978-1-4213-9238-7

Copyright date: ©1987

Closed Captioned

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Not available to Home Video customers.

Only available in USA and Canada.