For a brief chaotic time in the weeks between 1946 and 1947, Georgia had three governors–a political crisis caused by governor-elect Eugene Talmadge’s death before taking office that was unaddressed by the state constitution. 

And while drafting the documents that would shape the U.S. Constitution and guide American democratic principles, our nation’s 18th-century founders briefly considered whether to make the presidency a lifelong job.

American democracy has always been a work in progress, as illuminated by these historical moments from a new Smithsonian Institute exhibit, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, on display at the Atlanta History Center.

The traveling exhibit explores periods in history– the Civil War, the suffrage movement, and civil rights–that propelled America forward. Along with displays about the founding days of the United States and later suffrage movements, there are interactive games and quizzes.

Historical artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collection include a Civil War absentee ballot, rare books and maps, a replica of a wig worn by aristocrats, and a reproduction of the desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independent in June 1776. 

The Atlanta History Center has added some Georgia democracy history to the Smithsonian exhibit, said Claire Haley, its vice president of public relations and programs, so visitors can learn what happened locally while seeing how the founders created the American system of government and democracy that still stands today. 

In Georgia’s three-governors crisis, three men claimed the governorship after Eugene Talmadge’s death–his son, Herman Talmadge; outgoing governor Ellis Arnall; and lieutenant governor-elect Melvin Thompson. Lacking guidance from the state constitution, the Georgia Supreme Court ultimately settled the matter in favor of Thompson. (Meanwhile, Georgia’s secretary of state, Ben Fortson, hid the state seal in his wheelchair, so no official business could be conducted until it was resolved.)

Haley gave Atlanta Civic Circle a tour of the traveling exhibit, which runs until March 23. Here are some highlights:

Zone 1: The Great Leap: How did the United States become an independent nation?  This section chronicles how our founding documents developed. “It was a process of compromise and give-and-take,” Haley said.

Replica of Thomas Jefferson desk.

Be sure to check out the digital kiosk that details which ideas made it into the U.S. Constitution, which did not–and why. The founders ultimately rejected the suggestion to make the presidency a lifetime job, saying it would be another form of the monarchy they’d left behind in England. But it wasn’t until 1947 that Congress enacted the 22nd Amendment to set term limits.)  

Atlanta History Center contribution: a Revolutionary War-era coverlet.

Zone 2: A Voice, A Vote: Who gets to vote in the United States? This section explores suffrage and voting rights, which have changed markedly since the nation’s founding, when only white, male property owners were enfranchised. 

Atlanta History Center contribution: The 127th United States Colored Troops Regimental Flag, a rare artifact in the History Center’s collection, illustrates the fight for inclusion by Black Americans throughout the Civil War. The flag’s motto, “We Shall Prove Ourselves Men,” showed their desire to be full citizens with voting rights.

Zone 3: The Machinery of Democracy:  Learn about the United States’ plethora of early political parties and their conventions, campaigns, as well as how voting systems evolved. .  

Atlanta protest placards from Summer 2020

Atlanta History Center contribution: A collection of absentee ballots that Union soldiers used to vote while fighting in the Civil War.

Zone 4: Beyond the Ballot: This section delves into the ways people address their government beyond electoral politics through petitions, protests, lobbying, and other methods.. 

Atlanta History Center contribution: Protest signs from Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020 that Atlanta History Center staff collected from Atlantans.

Zone 5: Creating Citizens: How do you become an American? This section traces the changing definition of “citizen” in American history, showing how immigration and citizenship requirements have shifted over time. It talks about how diverse America’s citizenry should be. It also features Frances Bellamy, author of The Pledge of Allegiance, and how the pledge was first published in The Youth’s Companion as part of the dedication of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in October 1892. 

A game in the American Democracy exhibit

Part of creating a national identity is holding stories in common about our history. Many of the widely believed foundational myths about George Washington, such as the famous story of him coming clean about chopping down the cherry tree, were established in an early-19th century bestseller by Parson Weems that’s on loan from the Smithsonian:  The Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, 1813 edition. 

IF YOU’RE GOING:

American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which runs through March 23, is on display at the Atlanta History Center in the basement level. The center, located at 130 West Paces Ferry Rd N.W., is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. COVID-19 protocols are in place. For ticket information and other details, check the center’s website here.

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