Just in time for U.S. Independence Day on July 4, a new museum exhibition in Washington uses artifacts and historical treasures to examine the evolution of American democracy.

Now installed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith explores the debates that have shaped the U.S. for more than 240 years and traces the evolution of the American experiment in a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Antique wood wagon with signs related to women's suffrage (Smithsonian Institution)
Women’s suffrage wagon, 1870s–1920. Suffragists painted this delivery wagon with slogans and used it for rallies and publicity. (Smithsonian Institution)

“It seems so obvious now that you can have a representative democracy, but the idea was revolutionary in the 18th century,” said Barbara Clark Smith, one of the exhibition’s curators.

Curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy said residents of the 13 British colonies that formed the nascent United States set aside their differences in order to forge a new nation.

Silk banner depicting Lady Liberty (Smithsonian Institution)
Rare silk banner, depicting Lady Liberty. It was probably carried in one of Philadelphia’s many public parades during the 1790s. (Smithsonian Institution)

“When you abandon monarchy and become a country of popular sovereignty, there are issues that need to be addressed,” said Graddy. “For example: 1) Who are ‘the people’? Who gets to vote? 2) How do you turn out the vote? 3) How do citizens participate, beyond voting? and 4) What kind of citizenry does a democracy need?”

Thomas Jefferson's mahogany desk (Smithsonian Institution)
This mahogany desk, belonging to Thomas Jefferson, was used in drafting the Declaration of Independence. (Smithsonian Institution)

Some of the iconic items on display are the portable desk used by Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a red silk shawl worn by women’s suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony and a pair of shoes worn by a civil rights supporter in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Also on view: presidential campaign memorabilia, including campaign buttons proclaiming allegiance to George Washington; a crescent-shaped button depicting Theodore Roosevelt’s smile; and bottle stoppers bearing the likenesses of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Overhead screens show political campaign commercials, recalling the nonstop messages aimed at voters during election season. Elsewhere, visitors can use touchscreens to answer questions about their views on how democracy should work at the federal, state and local levels. (At the end of each day, curators tally the responses to gauge the spectrum of opinions.)

Political cartoons from the 1700s and the famous World War II bond posters of the “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear) are displayed.

Cartoon showing man on bucking horse (Smithsonian Institution)
This 1779 print, published in England, predicted Britain’s defeat by the Colonial rebels. (Smithsonian Institution)

The exhibition’s overall message, said Graddy, is that democracy only works when citizens are engaged. Democracy is a messy enterprise, she said, but Americans “are always striving to form ‘a more perfect union,’ as their country’s founders intended.”