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A NEW TRAVELING EXHIBITION FROM THE SMITHSONIAN

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. - - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

— The Declaration of Independence, 1776

Revolutionary Americans took a great leap of faith by establishing a new government based on the sovereignty of the people. Power would not be in the hands of a monarchy or a dictator, but entrusted to its citizens. Every generation since continues to face questions ignited by that revolution: who will have the right to vote, what are the freedoms and responsibilities of citizens and leaders, and whose voices will be heard?

American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith is a public engagement initiative featuring a dynamic traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service explores the continuing evolution of America’s experiment in a government “of, by, and for the people.” American Democracy is a foundation for public programs that engage audiences in a robust discussion about the principles and practices of our democracy. The initiative, which draws from the American Democracy exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, launched in spring 2019 for its national tour.

“Join or Die,” by Benjamin Franklin, 1754. Library of Congress
“Join or Die,” by Benjamin Franklin, 1754. Library of Congress

Featuring engaging multimedia experiences, immersive design, and artifacts from the Smithsonian and state historical organizations, American Democracy demonstrates that democracy relies on our active participation in the quest to form a "more perfect union." Exhibit sections explore the origins of our democracy, the changing identity of eligible voters, the machinery of democracy, the right to petition and protest beyond the ballot, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Throughout its 12-city tour, host museums will seamlessly incorporate local stories and artifacts into the exhibition resulting in a unique installation each time. Support materials for public programming and education as well as the creation of "Unity Square" - a complementary space to hold debates, conversations, and performances – will also bring local stories to life. As an exhibition and catalyst for public programming, American Democracy will inspire audiences, reflect the value of civics education, and spark important discussions that are essential to a healthy democracy.

The Exhibition Experience

American Democracy explores the many forces and voices within our democracy. Five distinct sections demonstrate how our democracy relies on active participation to form “a more perfect union.”

"The ballot is stronger than the bullet."

— Abraham Lincoln

“The Bloody Massacre,” by Paul Revere, 1770. Library of Congress.
In 1776, British colonists in America revolted to change their world to a government based on the people. The identity of “the people” has been debated ever since. We are still on a journey to make a more perfect union, but we must all take active roles in this great American democracy.
“The First Vote,” by A. R. Waud, Harper’s Weekly, 1867. Library of Congress
The Founding Fathers never imagined the diverse body of voters we have today. They envisioned that a limited body of propertied white men would vote on behalf of everyone. The fight for fair representation, suffrage, and a voice at the polls has meant struggle and changes to laws ever since.
Kennedy Presidential Campaign, 1960. National Archives, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
We often participate in the political system through informal institutions including state and national parties, nomination and ratification conventions, and political campaigns. This machinery of democracy engages the citizenry and often controls how we get our information about candidates and issues.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963. National Archives
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. In different places, and with different resources, diverse groups of Americans have petitioned for their interests and concerns.
Eleanor Roosevelt votes in the 1936 Presidential election. National Archives
How do we define “We the People”? What is the meaning of citizenship? Who is a citizen and what are their rights and responsibilities? We have continued to shape our diverse national identity by understanding our rights and responsibilities and by exploring our complex national story.
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