In its earliest days, America’s path toward democracy excluded minorities and women. While the nation’s forefathers discussed their roles in the new United States, groups other than wealthy white male landowners were left on the outside, only to watch as the former British colonies worked to become a nation. Today, the once excluded are among the new-look Congress and state houses as women and people of color swept into office during the 2018 general election.
“American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” examines the United States’ development and growth as a country. Omaha’s Durham Museum hosts the traveling exhibit, sponsored by the Smithsonian in conjunction with the National Museum of History, through June 23. I viewed the exhibit as part of a media tour.
From pre-revolutionary war protests over issues such as taxation without representation through modern elections, the exhibit explores key aspects of America’s path toward democracy. When the colonists declared their independence from Britain, they sought a new style of government. Foregoing royalty and titles that were common in European monarchies, American leaders developed the representative style of democracy we practice today.
However, before the United States of America became a nation, colonists had to reach a tipping point of having British rule. The Tea Act of 1773 likely kicked off the inevitable road to the 1776 revolution. Leading up to the Declaration of Independence, newspapers played a role in Americans learning about and discussing the issues. Even illiterate people could listen to the issues being discussed and develop their own views, according to the exhibit.
As we all know, the colonists won the Revolutionary War and the United States became an independent nation. As leaders worked on creating the Constitution, organizers such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin debated over the country’s government style. Seeking a government “of, by, and for the people,” the early American leaders struggled when it came to who were considered “people.” Deciding to omit people of color, women and non-property owners, the definition of “people” was limited. It’s taken wars, protests and lobbying to change the Constitution through amendments to make the United States inclusive of its citizens.
Road to inclusion
From the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freeing slaves to a 1924 law that recognized Native Americans as citizens of the country, Congress enacted changes to include its citizens. However, women’s rights suffered from the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified and added to the Constitution. While the ERA fizzled, women earned a victory lap when 100 candidates won seats in the 2018 Congressional election. Among them were the first two Native American women elected to serve in Congress and the first Muslim American. The rookie representatives reflect the goals of American democracy, to continue to grow and adjust to society.
Another look at the growth of our democracy involves changes in the election process. From legislatures selecting Congressional representation to the public election of senators and representatives, as well as the president and vice president, the art of campaigning has also taken on a new role. The exhibit looks at literature that highlighted presidential candidates such as William Taft to today’s media blitzes with constant television ads and campaign swag. Sometimes, it seems style wins elections over substance.
Americans enjoy the right to petition their government. They achieve this in a variety of ways, including protests, marches and speeches. In 1968, African American sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, seeking better pay and benefits. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the marches and met with group leaders. During this visit, he was assassinated outside his room at the Lorraine Motel.
The exhibit also includes local displays, such as newspaper headlines and campaign signs.
For more information on “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” and other Durham exhibits, please visit durhammuseum.org.