Episodes

The Unknown Country will present the dramatic story of our Founding and creation as a country, a story unknown to all but a few historians, and will introduce a set of fascinating but unfamiliar new characters.

In all of this, the series will be historically accurate.

The series will cover the 1772-87 period, as a whole, ending with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that made a nation of America. Viewers will find the series wonderfully entertaining—and realize that they knew very little about our Founding before they watched it.

The series will celebrate the heroes of the Founding. At the same time, it will bring out questions of race, class and gender that were never absent at the time, but which are usually ignored in popular accounts of the period.

Viewers will recognize that the questions over which the principals clashed remain as alive today as they were 250 years ago. Can republican government be preserved from the tendency to one-man rule? To what extent can the individual states be permitted to go their own way? How is the idea of republican virtue to be understood today, and is anything left of it in our politics? Finally, what remains to be done to address the injustices of race, class and gender seen in the series?

Episode One: The Ancien Regime

We observe a kitchen in which African-American slaves are at work. One of them. George, struggles with a cake he is trying to prepare. Another slave, Billy Lee, bursts in and takes a piece of bread, then hurries out. He grabs a cloak and places it on the shoulder of a tall man, whom we discover to be George Washington. Lee and Washington saddle up and ride away. They join another group of horsemen, who will ride to hounds in pursuit of foxes.

In Williamsburg, Lord Dunmore, vulgar and none too bright, arrives as Virginia's Royal Governor, where he is fêted by the foppish locals.

News of the Boston Tea Party comes to Benjamin Franklin in London. Franklin, serves as the American postmaster general and also as the agent for the colonies -- in effect their ambassador.

In Windsor, Lord North waits upon King George III to tell him of the Boston Tea Party.

Franklin professes his loyalty to the Crown to Lord Chatham (Pitt the Elder), who agrees that parliament should not impose taxes on America or interfere in American affairs. Franklin proposes a compromise, in which Massachusetts would pay for the tea dumped in Boston harbor and Britain would recognize American self-government under the British Crown.

George III tells Lord North that he sees the Americans as rebels and is determined to bring them into submission. He assents to the Boston Port Act, which will close the Boston harbor.

As colonial postmaster-general, Franklin opens the private letters of the Royal Governor of Massachusetts and discovers that he had sided with the British against the colonists. He shares this information with colonial politicians in Boston. For this, Franklin is subjected to a very public humiliation in London. Before a large group of British officials, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Franklin is forced to listen to a bitter and vituperative dressing down by the Solicitor-General, Sir Alexander Wedderburn. Franklin does not display any emotion during his ordeal.

Franklin sees no possibility of reconciliation with Britain, and tells Chatham that their friendship is over.

Washington attends services at Christ Church in Alexandria, where Rev. Jonathan Boucher preaches, then dines with George Mason down the street at Gadsby’s Tavern. Washington is troubled and uncertain, but Mason urges American independence.

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Episode Two: The Spark

In Williamsburg, Virginia, the House of Burgesses debates a day of “Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer” in a show of solidarity with Massachusetts.

In Maryland, Rev. Jonathan Boucher preaches a sermon on the subject of loyalty to the King, and produces a brace of pistols when his congregation of patriots tries to mob him on the pulpit.

In London, a Virginia slave, James Somerset, escapes from a ship in the harbor. He visits a British abolitionist, Granville Sharp, who briefs a young lawyer to seek a writ of habeas corpus to free Somerset. The ship carrying Somerset sails, but is becalmed in The Downs, where the writ is presented to the captain. Somerset had been chained, but is released and the case is heard by Lord Mansfield, before whom Somerset's young lawyer argues that "the air of England is too pure to be breathed by a slave." Mansfield tries to persuade the parties to settle, but eventually decides that the Virginia law of slavery cannot bind an English court and frees Somerset, in effect abolishing slavery in England.

Word of the Somerset decision comes to Mount Vernon. Washington's slave, George, urges Billy Lee to join him in escaping from slavery.

The Virginia House elects delegates to a Continental Congress, and Patrick Henry gives his “Give me Liberty of Give me Death” speech. In response, the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, prorogues the House.

Patrick Henry leads a local militia to Williamsburg, which Dunmore evacuates. He retreats to a British warship in Norfolk. From there he issues a proclamation freeing all slaves who will join the British forces to fight the patriot army.

Washington urges the arrest of Dunmore, but George, his slave, joins the British army.

In the House of Lords, Lord Chatham collapses in the midst of a speech on reconciliation with America.

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Episode Three: Independence

Washington leaves Alexandria VA to take command of the American forces in Cambridge MA. He takes his leave of Rev. Jonathan Boucher and confesses that he is undecided on independence.

Franklin arrives in Paris as the American ambassador. Wearing his beaver hat, he is presented to Louis XVI. With the French foreign minister, Vergennes, Franklin pleads for a French alliance against the British.

The Virginia House of Delegates approves a resolution drafted by George Mason in which Virginia declares its independence from Britain and adopts a constitution with a bill of rights. This is on June 12, 1776, three weeks before Congress in Philadelphia declares independence. Jefferson’s declaration will borrow heavily from that of Mason.

The French alliance brings the Marquis de Lafayette to Washington’s side. With Lafayette and Hamilton, Washington observes the British forces in New York from across the Hudson. Washington dearly wishes to capture New York, which he was forced to abandon in 1776.

Franklin is crowned with laurel by the ladies at a salon, and embraces the aged Voltaire. He meets with Beaumarchais (The Marriage of Figaro), who will supply arms for Washington's army.

Washington learns from a French officer that the French fleet can bottle up the mouth of the Chesapeake, and he delightedly realizes that if he can bring his army to Virginia he can lay a siege at Yorktown against the British. He leaves a guard in New York, to persuade the British forces there that he will attack them, and takes his army to Virginia.

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Episode Four: Victory

At Yorktown, Alexander Hamilton leads a dashing charge against a British earthwork. Surrounded and subjected to a devastating bombardment, the British surrender. As they march past in surrender they are denied the honors of war. The British commander is too bitter to appear but sends a junior officer to surrender his sword. This is offered first to a French officer, who sends the British officer to Washington, who directs him to a subordinate.

At a dinner after the surrender, the French and British officers easily socialize. The American officers sense that they have been left out.

In London, word of the defeat comes to a distraught Lord North, who asks to be dismissed from office by George III. The king finally relents, and in a chaotic scene in Parliament North announces his resignation to cut off a motion of non-confidence.

In Paris, Franklin signs on behalf of America the treaty with Britain that recognizes American independence.

In Orangetown NY, Washington meets with Sir Guy Carleton, the commander of British forces in America, to negotiate the evacuation of British troops and loyalists from New York. Washington angrily announces that he has heard that the British propose to take 3,000 loyalist ex-slaves with them. Carleton tells Washington that it would be inconsistent with his sense of honor to permit them to be returned to slavery.

The British forces and loyalists leave New York for the Royal Navy ships in New York harbor. Among them is George, Washington's ex-slave.

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Episode Five: The Constitutional Crisis

Washington retakes possession of New York on Embarkation Day, 1783. He is recalled four years later to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The Convention begins with Madison’s Virginia Plan, but this soon meets with strong opposition from the smaller states, who propose a rival New Jersey Plan. The delegates are at full stop until Franklin suggests a compromise.

Looking backwards, it’s tempting to assume that the delegates would necessarily come to an agreement. Nothing can be further from the truth. They nearly split apart several times. They threatened each other with civil war and the hangman’s noose. A return to British rule was not impossible. That is why the Convention matters even more than the Revolution.

The delegates included some of the most memorable characters in American history—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. As they were meeting, a woman was stoned to death as a witch five blocks away, and foreign spies sought to discover the secrets of the Convention.

The Convention was a turning point in American and world history, the moment when an agricultural society of republican virtue and slavery became a commercial one of money and business. It was the moment when for the first time we were challenged with reconciling the principles of the Declaration of Independence with the reality of slavery.

In Philadelphia, Washington is accompanied by Billy Lee, who meets his wife, a free black, there. Washington carries on a chaste flirtation with a society lady, Morris a less innocent one with a local courtesan.

For the proposed teleplay of this episode, see here.

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Episode Six: A Rising Sun

What we think we know about the Philadelphia Convention is mostly false. Scholars call it a Madisonian constitution, but James Madison was so dismayed that he nearly led a walkout in the middle of it. Alexander Hamilton was also a marginal figure, whose extreme ideas were rejected by the other delegates.

The Constitution was instead the work of lesser-known figures, especially Roger Sherman and Gouverneur Morris. The first two months of the Convention belonged to Sherman, who took Madison’s ideas and turned them inside out. The last two months belonged to the skirt-chasing Gouverneur Morris, possibly the cleverest person at the Convention and the person to whom more than anyone else we owe the modern presidency.

Washington represents the world we left behind. Franklin will speak to the new world being created by the Convention. He will say that, while we moderns might condemn the delegates for failing to end slavery, we will do so in language the founders of America taught us. And since the choice was between the Constitution they gave us and no country at all, we’re only Americans today because of them.

At dinner, Washington encounters his former slave, George, who has returned from Halifax.

For the proposed teleplay of this episode, see here.

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