INVENTING AMERICA: Conversations with the Founders
Public Television Project

The Challenge

If American college students were tested on their knowledge of U.S. history, the vast majority would flunk. That was the finding of the Roper organization, which recently surveyed graduating seniors at 55 of the nation’s top-ranked colleges and universities. This was the startling result:

  • Three out of five could not identify George Washington as the American general at the battle of Yorktown.
  • Three out of four could not identify James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.”
  • Four out of five could not identify “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Two out of three could not identify the Constitution as establishing the three divisions of powers in American government.

Yet, when tested on their knowledge of American pop culture, 99 percent knew who the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead were, and 98 percent identified the rap singer Snoop Dogg.

When the Founding Fathers undertook the great American experiment, they viewed an educated electorate as crucial to its success. But as the Roper survey pointed out, our future leaders are graduating from college with an alarming ignorance of our national heritage, a condition that bodes ill for the future of our republic.

How, then, can we better educate the American public—especially our young people—about who we are? Upon what principles was American democracy founded? And how can we remain true to these principles in an increasingly complex and divided world?

The Project

WGVU Public Media and Hope College seek to close this knowledge gap with a three-part public television project called Inventing America: Conversations with the Founders. Blending humor with substance, it brings our Founding Fathers back to life in a TV talk show and engages them with a 21st century audience. While imagined and presented as a retrospective, the conversations are based on fact, using the Founders’ actual words.

The project includes the following episodes:
  • Episode 1—“Making a Nation”—tells the story behind the Declaration of Independence. It features three of the Declaration’s signers—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin—and one delegate to the Second Continental Congress who refused to sign, John Dickinson, revealing the conflict behind this historic event.
  • Episode 2—“Making a Government”—tells the story of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, four momentous months that changed the world. 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.
  • Episode 3—“Liberty for All”—reveals the infighting behind the ratification of the Constitution and how that led to the Bill of Rights. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Patrick Henry describe how they overcame their differences to create another historic wonder, one that not only defines who we are as Americans but serves as a beacon to the world.

Each episode runs 56:46 minutes, the standard length for a one-hour PBS program. All three episodes were filmed before a live audience at Hope College’s DeWitt Theatre. Episode 1 was released to public television stations nationwide by the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) in June 2016 for broadcast in July 2016. Episodes 2 and 3 were released in June 2017 and June 2018 respectively. According to TRAC Media Services, Episode 1 reached a potential viewing audience of 30 million; Episode 2, 62 million, and Episode 3, 78 million.

Production Team

Darell Schregardus (Executive Producer): A clinical psychologist and former Hope College dean, Darell is the principal underwriter of this project and a lifelong friend and college classmate of writer-producer Milton Nieuwsma. This is their first professional collaboration. Darell previously supported the making of a documentary called The God Squad. After graduating from Hope he received his M.A. from Roosevelt University and Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis.

Milton Nieuwsma (Creator/Writer): Milt wrote and produced his first TV show, College Omnibus, while a Hope College student. Inventing America is his third collaboration with WGVU Public Media. His earlier projects included Surviving Auschwitz and DefyingHitler (see Phil Lane bio below). His 1998 book Kinderlager, about three young Holocaust survivors, was named “Best Book for Teens” by the New York Public Library. In 2009 Hope College honored him with a Distinguished Alumni Award.

John K.V. Tammi (Stage Director): John is professor emeritus of theatre at Hope College and the founding artistic director of the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre. Besides directing more than a hundred productions at Hope, he has worked with the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival and the Colonnades Theatre in New York City. In 1974 he directed David Copperfield in The Magic Man, Chicago’s longest running musical. In 1986 the Kennedy Center awarded him the Gold Medallion.

Phil Lane (Television Director): Phil is the director of content at WGVU-TV, the PBS affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the winner of numerous national and international awards for his work including two PBS documentaries, Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah and Defying Hitler, on which he collaborated with Milton Nieuwsma. Phil has also been honored for his work on the Hope College Christmas Vespers.

Zach Liniewski (Director of Cinematography/Editor): Zach is a producer/director at WGVU and the winner of two Michigan Emmys for his work on two PBS specials—Newsmakers: The World of Dr. Seuss and Newsmakers: Through the Eyes of Weidenaar. He also worked on the multiple award-winning documentaries Talons Out Honor Flight and Brushback: A History of Black Baseball in West Michigan.

Chuck Furman (Consulting Producer): Chuck’s contributions to the television industry spanned nearly 40 years. He helped launch public television station WGVU and later served as its program director and general manager. He initiated the Christmas Vespers telecasts at Hope College and conceived the idea for Inventing America. In 2006 Chuck was inducted into the Michigan Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Cast Members

Marc Baer (Host, Episode1; Producer, Episode 3): Marc is professor emeritus of history at Hope College and served as department chair and dean for the arts and humanities. He is the author of three books including Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London (Oxford, 1992), made into a play. At Hope he helped organize the Veritas Forum and Pew Society, which equips students for graduate school and college teaching.

Bill Barker (Thomas Jefferson, Episodes 1 and 3): Bill has portrayed Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg since 1993 as well as at Independence Hall, the White House, the Palace of Versailles and other venues in the United States, Great Britain and France. He also has appeared as Jefferson on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, the History Channel, C-SPAN, and with Sam Goodyear in the film version of Jefferson & Adams.

Tom Bengston (Gouverneur Morris, Episode 2): Tom recently appeared at the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre as Bellomy in The Fantasticks. His other recent credits include Wilson in Harvey at the Alhambra Theatre, Uncle Jocko in Gypsy at the Arts Theatre of Coastal Carolina, and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol: The Musical. He has also toured with Troupe America and Candlewood International.

Hal Bidlack (Alexander Hamilton, Episodes 2 and 3): A retired Air Force officer and national security aide, Hal has portrayed Alexander Hamilton before live audiences since 1996. His venues have included (among others) the Smithsonian Institution, the State Library of Ohio, and C-Span. A University of Michigan graduate, he holds a Ph.D. in political science and taught for 15 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Sam Goodyear (John Adams, Episode 1; Production Consultant, Episodes 2 and 3): Sam first played the role of John Adams in the 1995 premiere of Howard Ginsberg’s play Jefferson & Adams at the Leatherstocking Theatre in Cooperstown, New York. Many performances followed at such venues as the Kimball Theatre in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Town Hall Theatre in Middlebury, Vermont. In 2004 he reprised the role in a film version of the play produced by Colonial Williamsburg.

John Douglas Hall (James Madison, Episodes 2 and 3): Considered the nation’s pre-eminent James Madison interpreter, John has been portraying the fourth president for more than 25 years. His venues have ranged from Montpelier, Madison’s home in Virginia where he is Madison’s official portrayer, to Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandra where Madison dined as President.

John Hamant (Benjamin Franklin, Episodes 1 and 2): A life-long interest in history prompted John to turn from a full-time acting career to the educational efforts of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In his 38 years with Colonial Williamsburg, he has held the position of senior archaeologist, director of special events and protocol, and character interpreter of persons of the past specializing two Franklins—Benjamin and FDR.

Fred Johnson (Host, Episodes 2 and 3): Fred is an associate professor of history at Hope College and a 17-year member of the Hope faculty. He previously served as a U.S. Marine Corps officer and worked in the private sector. A graduate of Bowie State College, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Kent State University. In 2005 he received the H.O.P.E. (Hope Outstanding Professor Educator) Award.

Richard Schumann (Patrick Henry, Episode 3): Trained as a classical actor at the Herbert Berghoff Studio in New York, Richard has portrayed Patrick Henry at Colonial Williamsburg for more than two decades. He is also featured as Patrick Henry in the Turner TV mini-series Pirate Tales and two Colonial Williamsburg productions, The April Conspiracy and Taxes, Tea and Tyranny.

Rodney TeSlaa (John Dickinson, Episode 1): John is a four-time Best Actor nominee for the Grand Award at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. He was first nominated for his portrayal of King Arthur in Camelot, and later for his portrayals of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, John Adams in 1776, and Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana.

Gary Zell (George Washington, Episode 2): Gary is a retired partner in a Big Four accounting firm. This is his acting debut.

Production Partners

Hope College is a private liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan. Founded in 1851 by Dutch immigrants, it is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America (formerly the Dutch Reformed Church) and has a student enrollment of approximately 3,200 undergraduates. Courses at Hope are divided into five disciplines: General Education, Arts and Humanities, Natural and Applied Sciences, Social Sciences, and Pre-Health. Hope College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association and has consistently ranked in the top tier of private colleges in surveys conducted by Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and Washington Monthly.

WGVU-TV is a Pubic Broadcasting Service (PBS) member television station in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It operates a full-time satellite station, WGVK, in Kalamazoo. The two stations are owned by Grand Valley State University and maintain studios in the Meijer Broadcast Center in Grand Rapids. WGVU-TV signed on the air in 1972 as WGVC-TV. In addition to carrying national shows from PBS, American Public Television, and the National Educational Telecommunications Association, it produces numerous local programs and has produced several award-winning documentaries including Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History, Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah, and Defying Hitler.