American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith
“We the People.”
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 instead, entrusted to its citizens. Every generation since has faced questions ignited by that revolution while on a quest to form a “more perfect union.”
The History Center examines the bold experiment to create a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in its new exhibition, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, open now at the Smithsonian’s home in Pittsburgh.
Developed in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), this timely exhibit provides much-needed historical context following a year that included heated elections, civil unrest, and challenges to our democracy.
With rare artifacts, engaging interactives, and immersive exhibit design, the American Democracy exhibit showcases the history of how we’ve voted, protested, and engaged with our politics, from the nation’s formation to today.
The History Center’s exhibit reveals how Pittsburghers and events in Western Pennsylvania history have helped shape our democracy, including the Whiskey Rebellion, African American and women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and more.
Highlights of the 7,000-square-foot exhibit include:
- A Pennsylvania land grant signed by Benjamin Franklin
- A travel desk that belonged to George Washington, on loan from Carnegie Museums, as well as his knee buckle and a platter from his home in Mount Vernon
- More than 15 artifacts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, including a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk
- Powerful objects of politics and protest, including a banner carried by University of Pittsburgh students during the famous “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963; a Black Construction Coalition flag, and campaign buttons and ribbons from 1840 to present day;
- A special section on citizenship in a diverse society and Pittsburgh’s role in the development of the U.S. naturalization exam;
- Artifacts showcasing our region’s history and impact on the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990.
- Objects from the History Center’s family of museums, including a well-preserved 1770s waistcoat worn by George Morgan, a U.S. agent for Indian Affairs, from the Fort Pitt Museum; and an early 19th century millstone and corn grinder from Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.
The American Democracy exhibition is a key component of the History Center’s America 101 initiative, which empowers citizens to know and act on the promise of the country’s founders, enabling them to write the next chapter of our democracy.
This History Center initiative engages visitors through public programs, special exhibitions, digital learning tools, and educational curriculum. By 2026 – America’s 250th anniversary – America 101 will ensure that citizens in Western Pa. and beyond are more knowledgeable about American history and able to pass the history and civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test.