The “Inventing America: Conversations with the Founders” trilogy filmed at Hope College has been made available to PBS stations nationwide for broadcast on the Fourth of July by the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).
The series tells the story of the United States’ three foundational documents, exploring the origins of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The three episodes, subtitled “Making a Nation,” “Making a Government” and “The Untold Story of the Bill of Rights,” respectively, run as panel discussions hosted by a member of the Hope faculty with some of the Founding Fathers involved in creating the documents. While imagined and presented as retrospectives, the conversations are based on fact, using the Founders’ actual words.
WGVU in West Michigan will show the first of the three episodes, “Making a Nation,” on Sunday, July 4, at 3 p.m. Viewers elsewhere should check their local PBS listings to see if and when their local stations will be showing the series.
Created by Holland resident and 1963 Hope graduate Milton Nieuwsma, a two-time Emmy Award winner, “Inventing America” was a co-production of Hope College and WGVU Public Media, the latter of which filmed the episodes. Filmed before live audiences in the college’s DeWitt Center main theatre late in 2014, 2016 and 2017, the episodes premiered each following summer, shown first at the Knickerbocker Theatre in downtown Holland, and then on WGVU and subsequently on PBS stations across the country in conjunction with the Fourth of July holiday.
“Making a Nation” runs as an interview with three of the Declaration’s signers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin — and one delegate to the Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson, who refused to sign, revealing the conflict behind the historic document ratified on July 4, 1776. The moderator is Dr. Marc Baer, professor emeritus of history.
“Making a Government” tells the story behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787, four months that changed the world. In the program, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington discuss the conflicts and compromises that led to creating the world’s most enduring republic. The moderator is Dr. Fred L. Johnson III, associate professor of history.
“The Untold Story of the Bill of Rights” features Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and Patrick Henry describing the conflicts and infighting behind the new U.S. Constitution and how that led to the Bill of Rights. Johnson is the moderator.
The executive producer of the series was Darell Schregardus, also a 1963 Hope graduate. The portrayers were Bill Barker (Thomas Jefferson, episodes 1 and 3), Tom Bengston (Gouverneur Morris, episode 2), Hal Bidlack (Alexander Hamilton, episodes 2 and 3), Sam Goodyear (John Adams, episode 1), John Douglas Hall (James Madison, episodes 2 and 3), John Hamant (Benjamin Franklin, episodes 1 and 2), Richard Schumann (Patrick Henry, episode 3), Rodney TeSlaa (John Dickinson, episode 1) and Gary Zell (George Washington, episode 2).
Each episode is available online at inventing-america.org, as are additional information about the series and teacher resources.
In addition, a companion book written by Nieuwsma was published in April 2020 by Brick Tower Press. The book, also titled “Inventing America: Conversations with the Founders,” is designed to serve as either a classroom study aid or as a resource for anyone interested in knowing more about the documents and their origins. It contains the complete scripts for the three episodes, biographical sketches of the Founding Fathers who are portrayed, source notes, recommended reading, discussion questions, and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It retails for $16.95 and is available through Amazon.