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Postcard of 'The Signing of the Declaration of Independence', painted by John Trumbull A new series from Radio 4 charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)

Monday to Fridays - 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 1 - 15 September-24 October

Week 3 - Independence & Republicanism

Declaring Independence

In April 1775, after nearly a decade of British attempts to tax North America without the consent of the colonists, fighting broke out at Lexington, near Boston. A full scale battle followed at Bunker Hill.

In response, the Continental Congress, which represented all the American colonies, set about drafting a formal declaration of independence, which was approved on 4th July 1776. Its principal author was the Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, whose preamble set out the founding ideas of the new republic.

Winning Independence

The new nation now had to win its independence from Britain by war. After initial military setbacks, the American colonists gained French support which helped them isolate the British forces. In 1783 Britain signed a treaty acknowledging American independence.

Around 25,000 Americans had died in what was not only a war of independence but also a civil war - one fifth of white Americans remained loyal to the Crown and, after 1783, they settled in Canada or Britain. Black people fought on both sides and some slaves won their freedom fighting for the British.

'To Form a More Perfect Union'

The new constitution of 1789 was a bundle of compromises, based on an underlying concept of checks and balances. To ensure balance in the new Congress, in the lower house of the new legislature representation was determined by the size of the state's population. In the upper house (or Senate) each state, regardless of size, would have two seats. To ensure balance within the new Federal Government, executive, legislature and judiciary were separated. Neither the President nor the heads of executive departments would sit in the legislature. But to offset the dangers of too much democracy, in the Senate each state's two Senators were chosen not by the people but their state's legislature.

Slavery was abhorred by many northerners, but they accepted that it would have to remain in order to keep the South within the Union. This was probably the most fateful compromise of all. In the new American republic, power now rested with the people, but only if they were white, male and property-owners.

The Constitution was followed by a Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, which enshrined fundamental liberties including freedom of worship.

Making the Republic Work

In April 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as America's first president. His administration was wracked by conflict between two senior Cabinet members - Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton envisaged America's future as a capitalist nation, developing industry, banking and transatlantic trade. This vision appalled Jefferson who believed America's greatest asset was its free farmers, holding a stake in society by owning land. Jefferson was also deeply distrustful of Britain - unlike Hamilton - and saw the country's burgeoning industry and national debt as signs of corruption not progress. Here were rival visions of America's future, one looking east to Britain, the other into the heartland of America, a clash of world views that would endure in American history.

Founding a Capital

The city of Washington was the world's first purpose-built national capital, but its location was decided only after complex political bargaining between North and South. They agreed to locate the capital in a tract of land cut out of Virginia - the District of Columbia. The city was planned in the grand classical manner but for many decades it remained unfinished and half empty. This was embarrassing yet apt because, for much of the 19th century, the Federal Government was marginal to the lives of most Americans. Politics revolved around the town, the county or, at most, the individual states. This was the meaning of American federalism.

Quotes featured on this page were voiced by: Kerry Shale, John Chancer, Peter Banks and Lydia Parker. Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.

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