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Background Image Voices and Votes

Voice and Votes: Democracy in America Labels

Voices and Votes: Democracy in America
Smithsonian exhibition

Voices and Votes: Democracy in America  

More than just waging a war of independence, American revolutionaries took a great leap of faith and established a new government based on the sovereignty of the people. It was truly a radical idea to entrust the power of the nation not in a monarchy but in its citizens. Each generation since continues to debate and shape this radical idea. 

Credit Panel

A Museum on Main Street exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 

Based on an exhibition by the National Museum of American History 

Funded by the United States Congress 

Brought to you by Humanities Kansas

Kansas programming is supported by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas Foundation, ITC Great Plains, Kansas Tourism, Mariah Fund, and Friends of Humanities Kansas.


Scene at Naturalization Ceremony, 2007. Courtesy of J. Emilio Flores

Section 1: The Great Leap

The World They Inherited 

In colonial times, Britons on both sides of the Atlantic believed that governing was the role of monarchs, hereditary aristocrats, and wealthy gentlemen. Political power came with economic power, birth into the right social circles, and influential connections. 

Common people had a limited role. Common men who owned enough property could vote for someone to represent them in the legislature. Voters could also serve on juries that enforced the law. Most people did not qualify to participate in those ways, but free British subjects could petition their rulers with grievances in writing or with mass demonstrations. They could seek justice in courts with juries of their peers. 


An Accurate Map of North America by Eman Bowen, Geographer to His Majesty, London, 1747.
Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“. . . in all times some must be . . . high and eminent in power and dignity; others 
mean and in submission.” 
–John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630

Image: Display of Monarchy

Detail from “The Pageant,” London, 1771. Courtesy of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Parliament and the People 

Parliament passed laws regulating trade within the empire, while routine taxes and legislation were left to the legislature of each colony. Americans were accustomed to being taxed by their colonial governments, but they objected when Parliament, in which the colonies had no representation, taxed them. 

The House of Commons represented “the people” of England. But only about 17 percent of adult males in England were eligible to vote. In the colonies, more men owned enough property to qualify as voters – an estimated 50 to 70 percent of adult free males.


The House of Commons, from The Microcosm of London, published by R. Ackermann, 1808 

Take a Selfie! 

What does democracy mean to you? 

Take a selfie in the exhibition and share your reflections on what democracy means to you. Use the hashtag #VoicesVotes. 


Parliament sent new officials to enforce their unpopular laws, with power to bypass law courts where colonial juries had a voice. They sent troops to keep the colonists under control. They directly taxed colonists, sidestepping the legislative assemblies elected by voters in each colony. Americans insisted that legislators who enacted colonial laws and taxes needed to be chosen by colonial voters. Government was legitimate only when it actually represented the people being governed.


“The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man or Tarring and Feathering,” London, 1774. Courtesy of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Tarred and Feathered

This British image criticized American patriots’ practice of inflicting pain and humiliation on those who supported Parliamentary authority. It shows the tar-and-feathering of customs commissioner John Malcolm in Boston in 1774. Similar acts by crowds punished a relative few but intimidated many more into compliance with patriot programs that resisted Parliamentary laws. 


“Bloody Massacre in King Street,” engraving by Paul Revere, 1770. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Boston Massacre

In 1768 Parliament sent troops to police unruly Bostonians, resulting in bitter disputes between soldiers and civilians. In 1770, soldiers fired on a Boston crowd, killing five men. Silversmith Paul Revere created prints of the event to fan the flames of public outrage. 


“Burning the Stamps in Boston” by Daniel Chodowiecki, printed 1784. Courtesy of Granger Historical Picture Archives

Burning the Stamps

The Stamp Act of 1765 was a Parliamentary tax on colonial newspapers, pamphlets, and legal documents. This graphic shows a crowd burning tax stamps in Boston in 1765.

"The only representatives of these colonies are persons chosen therin by themselves…” – The Stamp Act Congress, representing nine colonial assemblies, October 1765

Economic Boycotts

Patriots created new ties with their neighbors by forming economic networks. They pledged to boycott imported British commodities, such as fine fabrics or furnishings, and to buy plainer American- made goods instead. This English print shows a crowd pressuring merchants to sign a pledge, under the threat of tar and feathers.


Merchants Signing a Boycott Agreement This English print shows a crowd pressuring merchants to sign a pledge, under the threat of tar and feathers.

The Alternative of Williamsburg, by Philip Dawe (detail), 1775. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Facing Down a Great Corporation

With the Tea Act of 1773, Parliament gave a monopoly on the tea trade to the East India Company, the wealthiest private corporation of the day. The law also laid a tax on the tea. Colonists accused Parliament of serving company stockholders at the expense of American traders and consumers. Patriots in nearly every colony blocked tea sales, shipping it back to England or locking it in warehouses. Boston was the first city to destroy East India Company tea, in December 1773.


“Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor,” printed 1846. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Great Leap

British colonists in North America inherited a world ruled by kings, aristocrats, and wealthy gentlemen. In 1776, Americans decided to take a leap of faith and change that world. They would create a new government based solely on “the people.”

But who would really count as “the people,” and how would it all work? Should wealthy gentlemen still dominate the government? Could a new, representative form of government truly represent the interests and views of common men and women? How should those people participate to make their voices heard?

Ever since the Revolution, Americans have debated these vital questions.

Image: "The Horse America, Throwing His Master," London, 1779

In this cartoon, a horse named “America” throws off Great Britain’s King George III. The king waves a fearsome whip, made of swords, axes, and bayonets. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Image: Join or Die

Benjamin Franklin first published this cartoon in 1754 to urge the colonies to come together during the French and Indian War. He used it again in the 1760s and 1770s to urge resistance against the British Parliament. Courtesy of Library of Congress


In 1765 colonists said they were loyal to King George III and proud to be Britons. How did that change?

What began as disagreement over particular British policies quickly became a deeper dispute over government. Neither king nor Parliament seemed to even listen to colonial grievances.

In 1776 many Americans made a great leap to a new idea: maybe they could do without monarchy and aristocracy. If they could unite with one another, “the common people” of the colonies might form a more equal society and government. Maybe “the people” were enough.

From boycotts, to a declaration of independence, to armed resistance, the people made their voices heard.


"The Battle of Lexington, April 19th, 1775. Plate I." (1775) Engraving by Amos Doolittle. Courtesy of The New York Public Library

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” –Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

Organizing the Colonies

The colonists’ grievances led them to organize committees, county congresses, and conventions within each colony. The first Continental Congress brought colonial representatives together in 1774. Two years later, Congress would call on colonists to embrace a new and independent political identity.


“Premiere Assemblée du Congrès” [First meeting of the Continental Congress], printed 1782. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Power of the Press

Widespread literacy made it possible to circulate ideas through pamphlets, newspapers, and other print products. Printers in England and America enjoyed substantial freedom to publish information about government policies, sometimes including debates, critical essays, and cartoons that satirized political leaders.


“The Printer,” from The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts, London, 1805


Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes, by Daniel Dulany, 1765


Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, 1776 Praising the common sense of the common people, Paine argued that America needed neither monarch nor aristocrats to have good government.

Declaring Independence

In 1776 many colonists united around the ideals that “all men are created equal” and entitled to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They declared that all government arose from the people and depended on popular consent. These ideals would shape American politics and society in the centuries that followed.

Yet it was an unequal world. Americans also inherited a belief in social hierarchy and institutions that perpetuated inequality. Through the generations, Americans inspired by the Declaration of Independence would contend with these conflicting ideas.

Image: The Declaration of Independence, 1776 

Members of the Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776, then spent two days editing Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the text. They officially declared independence on July 4. In August they signed a carefully lettered parchment copy that today is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: Announcing Independence

A man on horseback rides through town reading the Declaration of Independence to cheering crowds.

“The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent [sic],” London, printed about 1783. Courtesy of Library of Congress


"The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776” (1786-1820) by John Trumbull. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

Creating the Constitution, 1787

After a long war and many disputes,many Americans saw the need for a stable, central government to “secure the blessings of liberty.” A constitutional convention met in 1787 to establish anew frame of government.

Adopting the Constitution required Americans to make another leap of faith. Could the growing nation pull together? The states had not alwayscooperated with one another. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed to shift power to the central government. At the same time, they provided that federal government officials be elected, either directly or indirectly, to represent the people.


Design for the Verso of the Great Seal of the United States, 1774-1789, by Charles Thomson. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

The Constitution of the United States 

In September 1787 Americans had their first chance to see thenew constitution proposed by a convention in Philadelphia. Over the summer, the convention had met in private, allowing no press coverage of their debates or decisions. The Providence Gazette and Country Journal was among the newspapers that first published the plan. What followed was a broad debate that Alexander Hamilton called a “great national discussion.” Should the states ratify, reject, or amend the document that became the U.S. Constitution?

Courtesy of Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History 

Image: The Chain of States

This design and the words “We Are One” appeared on Continental paper money in 1776. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: The Federal Pillars

In 1788 The Massachusetts Centinel newspaper published a series of images showing each state that ratified the proposed constitution as a pillar that, standing with the others, would create a new nation. This image depicts the first five states to ratify, joined by Massachusetts on February 7, 1788.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

“It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country . . . to decide . . . whether societies of men are really CAPABLE or not of ESTABLISHING GOOD GOVERNMENT . . .” –Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No.1, 1787

Interactive: Join the Debate

The founders disagreed about how democratic and participatory the United States should be. How far shouldthey trust the people? What’s your view?

Video: Who Are the People

2 minutes, 55 seconds [no audio]

Who Should Participate?

The Revolutionary generation opposed organized political parties, but the nation split into factions in the 1790s. The Democratic-Republicans encouraged broad political activism, even among men who owned no property. Federalists opposed the participation of people they saw as uninformed and unruly. This lampoon portrays a chaotic meeting, with Thomas Jefferson orating and the Devil enjoying the scene.


A Peep into the Antifederal Club” (detail), unknown artist, New York, 1793. Courtesy of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University


“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” (1940) by Howard Chandler Christy. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

Great Debates

By the end of 1789, the Constitution had been ratified. But debates about the meaning of government by “the people” were just beginning.

The first federal Congress proposed changes to the Constitution, ten of which became the first amendments — the Bill of Rights — in 1791. They protected institutions that Americans considered vital to liberty, including public assemblies, churches, newspapers, jury trials, and state militias.

The new government also faced other divisive issues, including slavery; the rights of free working men; therights of women; and relationships with Native nations and European powers.

Image: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

Illustrated broadside for the poem “Our Countrymen in Chains,” 1837. Original design created ca. 1780. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Congress in Chaos

Congress soon broke into partisan factions, and disputes about policy became bitterly personal. In 1798 a fight broke out on the floor of Congress between Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold of Connecticut.


Detail from “Congressional Pugilists,” Philadelphia, 1798. Courtesy of Granger Historical Picture Archives

Flipbook: Great Debates

A Free Press?

Could the same free press that unsettled American loyalty to George III now undermine loyalty to the newgovernment?

Newspapers free from government control seemed essential for citizens to be well informed about public affairs. But many newspapers became frankly partisan, presenting only one side of every issue, denouncing anyone who disagreed. 

President John Adams’ administration tried to punish printers who criticized the federal government. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts created fierce controversy until they expired or were repealed in the early 1800s.


True Republican, October 14, 1807

Washington Federalist, November 19, 1802

New Hampshire Patriot, October 6, 1812

New York Spectator, February 24, 1810

Sentinel of Freedom, October 1, 1811

“Nothing but a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers.”–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1848

Slavery or Freedom?

Enslaved African Americans claimed freedom in countless ways during the Revolution. They fought in the war, ran away to the British, petitioned and sued for freedom when they could. White Americans, too, came to question the morality of slavery. Gradual emancipation laws passed in many northern states, and some southern slaveholders voluntarily freed their slaves or allowed them to purchase their freedom. Yet southern states pushed to protect slavery and the slave trade in the U.S. Constitution. The new nation became dividedinto free states and slave states.

Image: Portrait of Richard Allen

Richard Allen, born a slave, bought his freedom during the Revolution and became a preacher. He founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, in 1794. Free African American communities grew and established independent churches, mutual aid societies, and schools in New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other towns. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

“This land, which we have watered with our tears and our blood, is now our mother country "–Richard Allen, 1829


How would American women participate in public life? Active in both the American and French Revolutions, many women saw themselves capable of a vital political role. They attended speeches and parades, and took sides in partisan disputes. In New Jersey, women with property could even vote.

The 1800s brought a backlash against women’s political role. Yet women persisted in seeking access toeducation as a route toward richer lives and fuller participation as citizens. They founded schools to teach girls many of the same disciplines taught to boys.


Ink drawing, “Image of the World,” by M.A.S. Fornead, Charlestown Girls’ School, 1831. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“Whether this will prove a blessing to the world and be the means of educating the young for important stations in life, time and eternity must unfold.” –Martha Whiting, head of the Charlestown Girls’ School, 1831

Revolutions beyond Our Borders

The American Revolution had a powerful impact on people and events outside the new United States. International events also challenged Americans to think further about the commitments of their own nation.

Image: I, Too, Am Free

Haiti fought to end slavery and establish independence in 1791–1804. Moi Libre Aussi, by Louis-Simon Boizot and J. Louis Darcis, Paris, early 1790s, depicts a freed slave, presumably in Haiti, wearing a red cap that indicates his new status. Courtesy of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

“We are free by natural right. It could only be kings . . . who dare claim the right to reduce into servitude menmade like them and whom nature has made free.” –Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution

Native American Nations

America’s new government viewed Indian nations as potential allies and buffers against Spanish, French, and British powers, but it also presumed the right to displace Native peoples when it pleased. Native groups thatcontinued to live within the U.S. struggled to secure political rights of their own.

Image: Indian Nullification

In this pamphlet William Apess, a Pequot and a Methodist preacher, championed the cause of the Mashpee Indians of Massachusetts, who were unrepresented in the state legislature and sought self- government. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“Resolved, that we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country.” –William Apess, co-leader of the Mashpee Revolt, 1833

section 2: A Vote, a Voice

When the United States of America was established, voters made up just a fraction of the new country’s population. The nation’s founders never foresaw the numbers of Americans — of all classes, sexes, and races — that now cast ballots each Election Day. They envisioned a world in which propertied men rose above self-interest and voted on behalf of the rest of “the people.” Many of “the people,” however, showed a stubborndesire to vote directly to choose their leaders and laws.

The result has been reluctant adjustments, contentious struggles, and ongoing negotiations as groups tried to persuade lawmakers, the courts, and their fellow citizens to let them share the power of the polls.

Image: Woman Suffragist

Alison Turnbull Hopkins pickets the White House, 1917. Courtesy of the National Woman’s Party at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

“This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless.” – President Lyndon Baines Johnson, August 6, 1965

Gaining the Vote

Voting rights expanded, contracted, and expanded again as Americans dealt with shifting issues of politics, race, class, and wealth. Each addition to the electorate brought a change to the balance of power and led to collisions between practical politics and America’s democratic ideal of government “by the people.” Some established voters believed that extending the vote to more Americans would strengthen the nation. Others questioned the inclusion of people who might not share their concerns, or who could threaten their control of the country’s political, social, and economic structures.

Constitutional amendments and federal laws have sought to protect voting rights from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or sex, and to make voting easier.

Timeline: Voting Rights Laws

  • 1870: 15th Amendment: The right to vote cannot be denied because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
  • 1920: 19th Amendment: The right to vote cannot be denied because of sex.
  • 1942: The Soldier Voting Act guarantees the right of soldiers to vote in presidential and congressional elections during wartime.
  • 1961: 23rd Amendment: Residents of the District of Columbia have the right to vote in presidential elections.
  • 1964: 24th Amendment prohibits conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax.
  • 1965: The Voting Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination in voting, reinforcing the 15th Amendment. The Act would be amended in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.
  • 1971: 26th Amendment lowers the voting age from 21 to 18.
  • 1975: The Voting Rights Act is amended to include protections for four “language minorities” — American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Spanish-heritage citizens.
  • 1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable modifications to make polling places accessible to persons with disabilities.
  • 1993: The National Voter Registration Act allows voters to register by mail, while renewing or applying for a driver’s license, or at other public agencies.


“The First Vote,” by A.R. Waud, Harper’s Weekly, November 1867. Courtesy of Library of Congress

A Woman Living Here Has Registered to Vote suffrage window sign, 1919. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Disability rights are civil rights button. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: Marching for Votes, 1965

A young participant in the Selma Voting rights march. Courtesy of Bettmann / CORBIS

Sometimes It Takes an Amendment 

By the time the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, states had established their own qualifications for voting. Rather than force a compromise, the framers of the Constitution left the states to determine who among their residents was eligible to vote. This created a country of citizens with unequal representation. Four constitutional amendments have addressed this imbalance: two of them bar discrimination because of race or sex, and two give voting rights to specific groups of Americans.

15th Amendment, 1870

Five years after slavery ended, the 15th Amendment gave African American men the right to vote. However, southern states soon began to use intimidation, violence, and other means to keep African Americans from the polls.


Lithograph celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment, 1870. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

19th Amendment, 1920

The woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in 1878 and languished for decades in Congress. Ratification meant that women could not be excluded from the polls because of their sex, but it did not guarantee women a ballot. Depending on the state, African American, Latina, Native American, and Asian American women faced the same voting discrimination as their male counterparts.


Postcards for the right of women to vote, 1910s.

Raising Banners for Ballots

In January 1917 suffragists began picketing the White House to demand the vote, the first protesters to do so. After America entered World War I later that year, their banners called out the hypocrisy of President Woodrow Wilson’s pro- democracy rhetoric when American women could not vote.


“College Day on the Picket Line,” February 1917. Courtesy of Library of Congress

23rd Amendment, 1961

The Constitution did not grant the District of Columbia representation in Congress or the Electoral College, because it is not a state. In 1961 the 23rd Amendment gave D.C. residents a vote in presidential elections, but the District still does not have a representative inCongress with voting privileges.


Washington, D.C. license plate.

26th Amendment, 1971

During the war in Vietnam, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was the rallying cry for lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The 26th Amendment establishing 18 as the legal voting age was ratified in 1971.


Newsweek magazine, Oct. 25, 1971.

Demanding the Vote

By the 1850s, white men who didn’t own property became the first addition to the electorate; that meant the American voter was (with very few exceptions) male, white, and at least 21. In the 1800s and 1900s, more Americans of different races, sexes, ancestries, religions, educations, and levels of prosperity demanded the ballot. They worked to convince their fellow citizens — sometimes in the face of violent opposition — that justice and true democracy required the votes of all Americans.

American Democracy?

World Wars I and II focused American attention on the gap between the nation’s assertions of democracy and the discrimination faced by women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities. Voting rights became civil rights.


Native Americans register to vote in New Mexico, 1948. Courtesy Bettman/Getty Images

Voting rights activists march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. Photograph by Matt Herron. Courtesy of Matt Herron

One Man, One Vote

Almost 100 years after the 15th Amendment gave them the right to vote, African Americans were still blocked from the polls in many states. In the South especially, poll taxes, literacy tests, complicated voter registration rules, intimidation, and violence made it impossible for blacks to vote. Voting rights demonstrations were viewed as a threat to the entrenched white power structure.

In the early 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began conducting voter education and registration drives in Mississippi using the slogan, “One Man, One Vote.”


Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee bumper sticker. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Bloody Sunday

In 1965, after a demonstration in Alabama was met with violent attacks, African American residents planned a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Millions of Americans were horrified by images ofpeaceful marchers being beaten by police while white onlookers cheered. From across the nation volunteerscame to join the march. Others sent letters and telegrams to Washington demanding reform.


Buttons and a bumper sticker from the civil rights movement.

Life magazine, March 19, 1965

Image: Voting Rights Act

Four months after the public outcry over the brutality in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Courtesy of LBJ Library, photo by Robert Knudsen

Voter Registration

Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans also faced barriers to voting, with the added complication that literacy tests, ballots, and registration instructions could be an obstacle for citizens who were not fluent in English. Community activists organized to fight for civil and social rights.

Image: Latino Registration

Founded in 1947, the Community Service Organization (CSO) led voter registration drives for Latino citizens throughout California. Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Cesar Chavez Foundation

Image: Overcoming the Language Barrier

In the 1970s members of Chinese for Affirmative Action ran registration campaigns and demanded bilingual ballots for San Francisco voters. Courtesy of Russ Lowe, San Francisco Journal

Flipbook: Sketches and Skirmishes: Cartoonists on Voting Rights

Hyphenated Americans

Americans are proud to be part of a nation of immigrants, but some were reluctant to share the ballot box with more recent arrivals. Worried that newcomers might compete with them for political power, they questioned the loyalty, politics, religions, and self-interest of each new group. These concerns lingered long after immigrants became citizens.

“The Hyphenated American,” Puck, August 9, 1899. Courtesy of the Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum 

Move On

Thomas Nast’s cartoon pointed out the hypocrisy of enfranchising immigrants, but not the country’s original inhabitants. In the 1800s and early 1900s, most Native Americans were classified as members of sovereign nations or dependents under guardianship of the U.S. government. Neither group were citizens, and neither group could vote. Even those who were U.S. citizens could not vote in all states. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 made all Native Americans citizens,but many states still found ways to keep them from voting.

“Move On,” Harper’s Weekly, April 22, 1871. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Out in the Cold

Although women were eventually enfranchised in 1920, Asian immigrants were still barred from citizenship, and the vote, until 1943. Their American-born children had been accepted ascitizens and eligible voters since 1898.

“Out in the Cold,” Judge, March 22, 1884. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Voteless Flags

Since 1961, DC residents have been able to vote in presidential elections and have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Today, over four million citizens in the five permanently inhabited territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands) are constitutionally unable to vote in federal elections despite serving in our military and paying some federal taxes. Americans debate about whether another Constitutional amendment is needed to extend voting rights.

“The Voteless Flag,” by Clifford K. Berryman, June 14, 1932. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Locking Away the Vote

Only two states, Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote while incarcerated. Most states now restore voting rights immediately upon release or after a specified amount of time. In two states, Kentucky and Iowa, a person convicted of a felony can lose voting rights permanently unless given an individual pardon from the government. Such disenfranchisement has a greater impact on minority groups, who are disproportionately represented in the nation’s prisons. Long wait periods and confusing registration processes also deter former felons from going back to the polls. Courtesy of Luke Eastman​

Keeping the Vote

As new and diverse groups of Americans won the right to vote, local and national concerns shifted from whether they could vote to whether they would vote. Some advocates and officials encouraged voters to come out to the polls and looked for ways to make voting easier. Others changed voter registration requirements and Election Day rules in attempts to minimize the political power of newly enfranchised groups.

As debates continue about voter qualifications, ballot language, and physical access to the polls, the most vital questions are: How do we hold on to our vote? How do we get people to go out and vote?


Nearly 500 students registered to vote as a part of National Voter Registration Day on September 25th, 2018. The event is part of an ongoing competition between USC and UCLA to register the most voters. Courtesy of Ling Luo/Daily Trojan

Protect Voting Rights

In 2013 participants commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington carried posters that voiced concern over the possible erosion of gains made by the civil rights movement after a Supreme Court decision rolled back part of the Voting Rights Act. Courtesy Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

“The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it. - John Lewis, October 3, 2016

Getting Out the Vote

Each election year a wealth of buttons and stickers are worn by Americans celebrating their vote and urging others to go to the polls. Advocates for a wide variety of constituencies and causes work to build a sense of community among like-minded voters and encourage them to turn out on Election Day. High voter participation can make a group a force to be reckoned with and can pressure politicians to pay attention to their concerns.

Many interest groups use items like these to motivate people to vote.

Video: Why do you vote?

Video duration: 4 minutes, 16 seconds



  • Su voto es su voz / Your vote is your voice, about 1980
  • NAACP headquarters sign, Warrenton, North Carolina, Register Now!, about 1965V
  • Vote or Die, 2004
  • With Rights Comes Responsibility, Americans with Disabilities Vote, about 1990
  • Register Today So You Can Vote for a Better Tomorrow, about 1948
  • Register and Vote, 1972 
  • Registrese y vote, 1972 
  • Listen Up!, 1996
  • Hands That Picked Cotton . . . Now Can Pick Our Public Officials, Register and Vote!, 1970

Bottom left to right: 

  • Register and Vote Democratic, 1972
  • How Do You Get an Elephant into a Voting Booth? Register Him!, about 1964
  • Rise Up Women, 1972
  • Have You Registered to Vote, Don’t Lose Out on One of Your Basic Freedoms, 1972
  • Vote Nov. 4, Set the Right Example for Her Generation, about 1970

All images courtesy of National Museum of American History.

The Push and Pull of Voting Regulations 

Since 2000, many states have proposed or adopted new voter requirements. Some aim to make voter registration easier, extend voting times, and ensure absentee voting. Others create more stringent requirements for voter identification and residency and cut back on early voting. Supporters claim that stricter regulations help eliminate voter fraud. Opponents counter that there is little evidence of widespread voter fraud and that these laws disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

Image: Lining Up to Vote, 2012

Lines for the last day of early voting in Olathe, Kansas, 2012. From The Kansas City Star. © 2012 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license.


Poll tax notice from Amarillo, Texas, 1960s. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Restoring Rights

In 1868, the 14th Amendment prohibited states from disenfranchising male citizens over the age of 21 for any reason, other than participation in “rebellion or other crime.” Many states began expanding the list of applicable crimes and license.

Image: Votes for Felons

Supporters rally at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee to urge changes in state laws that would restore voting rights to convicted felons, 2014. Courtesy of Tom Urban / News Service of Florida

Flipbook: Restricting and Assisting Voting Rights

Restricting Voters: Poll Taxes

Begun in the 1890s as a way to keep African Americans from voting in southern states, poll taxes were essentially a voting fee. Eligible voters had to pay a poll tax before they could cast a ballot. A “grandfather clause” excused some poor whites from payment if they had an ancestor who voted before the Civil War, but there were no exemptions for African Americans.

In 1964, the 24th Amendment abolished poll taxes for federal elections. Five states enforced payment of poll taxes for state elections until 1966, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional.

Poll tax notice from Amarillo, Texas, 1960s. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Assisting Voters: Voter Accessibility 

Activists have brought public attention to the needs of voters with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. Their efforts have resulted in legislation to make polling places and ballots accessible to all Americans.

Sign from the New Hampshire primaries, 2008. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Restricting Voters: Literacy Tests

Proponents of tests to prove an applicant’s ability to read and understand English claimed that the exams ensured an educated electorate. In practice they were used to disqualify immigrants and the poor. In the South they were used to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. The Voting Rights Act ended the use of literacy tests in the South in 1965 and the rest of the country in 1970.

In Mississippi, applicants had to interpret a section of the state constitution and write an essay on the responsibilities of citizenship. Registration officials selected the questions and interpreted the answers, effectively choosing which applicants to pass and which to fail.

Mississippi voter registration form, 1955– 1965. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Assisting Voters: Soldiers’ Rights

The Civil War was the first conflict in which arrangements were made for deployed soldiers to vote. During World War II, federal ballots were provided for service members who had not received their own state’s absentee ballots.

Interactive: Vote!

Participate in democracy by voting with a coin. Choose the answer that best fits why you vote!

Why do you vote?

  1. It is a civic responsibility.
  2. I believe I will affect how the government is run.
  3. I only vote if I like the candidates.
  4. I wish I could vote, but I’m under 18.
  5. I don’t vote. My vote won’t make a difference.

Section 3: The Machinery of Democracy

Informal institutions and activities not actually spelled out in the Constitution help make America’s participatory political system possible. State and national parties, nomination and ratification conventions, and intense and elaborate campaigns are examples of the informal processes Americans have adopted that give life and form to the ideas in the Constitution. In the end, it all comes down to getting people to go out and vote.


Televised debate with presidential candidates Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot, Richmond, Virginia, 1992. Courtesy of George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Advertisement for the Automatic Voting Machine. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Instructional voting machine, 1944. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Popular Images and Party Symbols

American political parties began to form in the 1780s. Visual images became a handy shorthand for expressing points of view and identifying parties. They can also mask the complex details of policy positions.

Image: Rise and Fall of American Political Parties, 1780–1880

Moving from left to right, a timeline of parties, policies, persons, and events flows like a river through a chart marked in four-year intervals.

From Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government, by Walter R. Houghton, 1880. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“When they lay down the weapons of argument and attack us with musical notes, what can we do?” –supporter of candidate Martin Van Buren, 1849

The Gerry-Mander

This “Gerry-Mander” cartoon first appeared in the Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812, and was quickly reprinted in Federalist newspapers in Salem and Boston. The cartoon expressed opposition to state election districts newly redrawn by Massachusetts’ Democratic- Republican Party, led by Governor Elbridge Gerry. Fearing that his party would lose power in the 1812 election, Gerry consolidated Federalist voting strength in a salamander- shaped voting district. The practice — though not invented by Gerry — became known as a “gerrymandering.” The tactic remains an issue in politics today.


“Essex South District Formed into a Monster!” Salem Gazette, April 2, 1813. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Party Symbols: Elephant and Donkey

In the 1870s, German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast was the first to use an elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party and a donkey to represent the Democratic Party. These animals have symbolized the two parties ever since.


Untitled. Kevin KAL Kallaugher, The Economist,

“Stranger Things Have Happened,” with Democratic donkey and Republican elephant. Cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, December 27, 1879. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“Third-Term Panic,” in which a Republican elephant crashes through the planks of his own platform. Cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1874. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Party Animals

The elephant and donkey have been used on political memorabilia, games, and artwork for over a century.

Party Symbols: Frontier Democracy

The first time a campaign used a predetermined set of symbols was during the presidential race of 1840, when members of the Whig Party deployed images of log cabins, axes, and hard cider to promote the candidacy of William Henry Harrison. The images, marking Harrison as a man of the frontier, were designed to appeal to the newly enfranchised white male voters of the western territories. Harrison was in fact born on a Virginia plantation. He won the election, but died a month after his inauguration.


Sheet music, “The Hard Cider Quick-Step,” 1840. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Detail from the Whig Party newspaper The Log Cabin Gazette, July 18, 1840. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“Lincoln the Rail Splitter,” after J.L.G. Ferris, ca.1909. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Lincoln Parade Axe, 1860
The closely contested election of 1860 generated mass entertainments such as “Wide Awake” torchlight parades staged on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. The imagery of a railsplitter put forth by this parade axe reversed Lincoln’s public persona, from the attorney he had become to the rail-mauling day laborer he had been. Courtesy of National Museum of American History


Political campaigns of the 1800s reflected popular traditions of celebration, such as Fourth of July parades, to promote candidates and build momentum. Mass campaign spectacles arose as a way of demonstrating partisan strength and mobilizing indifferent and easily distracted voters.

In more recent decades, party activists have turned to television, radio, and the Internet to promote their candidates.


Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964. Courtesy of Library of Congress

“ . . . the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.” –Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Presidential nominee, 1952 and 1956

Torchlight Parades

The 1860 presidential campaign of Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln perfected the nighttime torchlight parade, a display that caught the attention of all. The marchers, some of them too young to vote, sported distinctive oilcloth capes and caps. These parades spread to cities all over the northeastern United States, culminating in a Grand Procession in New York City on October 3, 1860. The martial spectacle — featuring fireworks, floats, and 10,000 uniformed men— created envy among New York’s Democrats, and alarm among southern sympathizers.


Torchlight parade for Abraham Lincoln, New York City, 1860, published in Harper’s WeeklyCourtesy of National Museum of American History

Lincoln Campaign Marcher
Tintype of marcher with oilcloth cape, 1860. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Pin-back button catalog
The Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark, New Jersey, acquired the rights to produce celluloid pin-backsafter purchasing a series of patents in the 1890s. The firm produced buttons under the trade name of Whitehead & Hoag until it was sold in 1953. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

The Candidates in Your Living Room

Face-to-face debates between the presidential candidates of the two major political parties are a recent development in American political campaigning. The first series of televised debates took place in 1960 with Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon. Courtesy of National Museum of American History / Estate of Howard Smith

Video: Campaign Commercials

The Campaign on the Screen
Since the 1950s, political campaigns marched into the home through television ads. Today, campaigns even reach into your pocket by way of smartphones and social media.

  • Eisenhower, 1952 “You Like Ike, I Like Ike” animated cartoon, courtesy of National Museum of AmericanHistory
  • Stevenson, 1956 “The Man from Libertyville,” courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library
  • Kennedy, 1960 “Kennedy-Kennedy-Kennedy,” courtesy ofJohn F. Kennedy Library
  • Nixon, 1960 “Most Important Issue,” courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library
  • Johnson, 1964 “Daisy Girl,” courtesy of National Museum of American History
  • Goldwater, 1964 “We Will Bury,” courtesy of Republican National Committee, 1964

  • Nixon, 1968 “The wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future,” courtesy of Nixon/Agnew Campaign Committee

  • Goldwater, 1964

    “We Will Bury,” courtesy of Republican National Committee, 1964

  • Nixon, 1968 “The wave of crime is not going to be the waveof the future,” courtesy of Nixon/Agnew Campaign Committee

  • Humphrey 1968 “Civil Rights,” courtesy of Citizens forHumphrey- Muskie, 1968

  • Wallace, 1968 “Busing and Law and Order,” courtesy of American Independent Party

  • McGovern, 1972 “Welfare,” courtesy of McGovern, 1972

  • Carter, 1976 “South,” courtesy of 1976 DemocraticPresidential Campaign Committee, Inc.

  • Ford, 1976 “Leadership,” courtesy of President Ford Committee, 1976

  • NCPAC, 1980 “Out of Gas,” courtesy of National Museum of

    American History

  • DNCC, 1980-82 Generic spots, courtesy of National Museum of American History

  • Reagan, 1984 “Morning in America (Prouder, Stronger),” courtesy of National Museum of AmericanHistory

  • Mondale, 1984 “Ticket,” courtesy of National Museum of American History

  • Bush, 1988  “Willie Horton Americans for Bush,” courtesy of

    National Museum of American History

  • Dukakis, 1988 “Dan Quayle,” courtesy of Northeastern University

  • Clinton, 1992 “Man from Hope,” courtesy of William J.Clinton Presidential Library

  • Perot, 1992 “Who should manage your money?,” courtesyof National Museum of American History

  • Dole, 1996 “The Story,” courtesy of Dole Archives, Dole Institute of Politics

  • Bush, 2000 “Gore reinvents himself — founded internet,”

    courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library

  • Gore, 2000 “Environment, Matters (Ocean),” courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library

  • Bush, 2004

    “Kerry Windsurfing — whichever way the wind blows,” courtesy of George W. BushPresidential Library

  • Obama, 2008 “Country I Love,” courtesy of Obama office

  • McCain, 2008“ Joe the Plumber / Sweat Equity,” courtesy of Office of Senator John McCain

  • Romney, 2012 “The Obama Plan (Can’t afford four moreyears),” courtesy of Romney for President, Inc.

  • Clinton, 2016 “Role Models,” courtesy of Office of Hillary Rodham Clinton

  • Sanders, 2016 “Simon and Garfunkel / (Look for) America,” courtesy of Friends of Bernie Sanders

  • Trump, 2016 “Two Americas: Economy,” courtesy of Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.

Voting, 1789 to Present

Because the Constitution gives states the job of running elections, ways of voting in the United States vary. Americans have developed a patchwork of manual, mechanical, and electronic balloting.

The earliest elections were conducted by voice vote or with paper ballots put into ballot boxes. As the United States grew and the electorate expanded, improvements appeared in the form of the Australian or blanket ballots that listed all candidates; wooden ballot boxes with mechanical security features; and metal gear-and-lever voting machines. Later, computerized punch-card ballots and touch-screen voting allowed for the speedy tabulation and announcement of returns.


Ballot markers with box, 1908. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“Voting is the only way to make a change in a democracy.” – Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey

Blowing Up Bosses

This cartoon describes the ballot box as an “American Invention for Blowing Up Bosses,” Puck, November 16, 1881. Note the construction of the ballot box with its clear glass bowl.

Courtesy of Ralph E. Becker Collection of Political Americana, National Museum of American History

Paper Ballots, 1860–1884

Voting in the 1800s usually involved casting a printed paper ballot. State election laws typically specified the dimensions and thickness of the paper and the size of type to be used. The rest was left to the issuing parties, local party operatives, and candidates, resulting in various ballot forms and styles — and a potential for voter confusion and fraud.

Voting was not entirely secret. Color helped observers identify party ballots as they were cast — and who cast them. Virginia’s Union Party issued a pink paper ticket in 1860. The ballot of the 1878 Regular Republican ticket in Massachusetts had a complex color scheme.

Union Ticket, Maryland 1860
Virginia Union Ticket, 1860
“Regular Republican Ticket,” 1878
“Republican and Independent Ticket,” 1884
All images courtesy of National Museum of American History

Counting Votes

With the gear-and-lever voting machine, developed in the late 1800s, voters pulled a lever to cast their votes. At the close of polls, election officials opened each machine to view and record the counters on the back. New Yorker magazine cover, November 3, 1956 

The Florida Vote, 2000

The close presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush came down to a struggle over the tabulation of Florida’s punch-card ballots. A confusing ballot design in Palm Beach County and the problem of incompletely punched punch-cards tested public confidence in the nation’s vote- recording machinery.

Hanging Chad

Incompletely punched ballots left behind a scrap of paper called a “hanging chad.” Those that could not be counted by machine had to be inspected one by one. Ballots that teams of counters could not agree upon went to a judge for a final decision.


Judge Robert Rosenberg examines a ballot in Broward County, Florida, November 2000. Courtesy of Robert King / Getty Images

Butterfly” Ballot (detail)s 
In an effort to keep the type on the ballot legible, the Supervisor of Elections in Palm Beach County enlarged a single page of presidential candidates to two pages. The two-page “butterfly” spread led to voter confusion. Courtesy of National Museum of America History

Citizen ballot counters and observers examine Votomatic punch cards, Emergency Operations Center, West Palm Beach, Florida, November 2000. Courtesy of William L. Bird

The Electoral College

Americans don’t elect their president directly. A vote for president is really a vote for a slate of members of the Electoral College, who cast the actual votes. Article II of the Constitution established the Electoral College as a way of balancing the votes of high-population and low-population states. Each state has a number of electors equal to its number of senators and representatives. In most states, the candidate who gets the most popular votes wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes. Currently, a presidential candidate must get 270 electoral votes to win.

The Electoral College system occasionally produces a president who actually received fewer popular votes than his opponents. This occurred in 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1860 (Abraham Lincoln), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison), 1912 (Woodrow Wilson), 1948 (Harry S. Truman), 2000 (George W. Bush), and 2016 (Donald Trump).


Electing the Electors, 1789
This ballot from 1789 names four men to serve as members of Maryland’s delegationto the Electoral College in the first presidential election under the U.S. Constitution. In that election, every state’s electors voted for George Washington. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

New York Electoral College Ballots, 1909
Electors meet to cast their votes 41 days after Election Day. These Electoral College ballots were cast for William Howard Taft and James S. Sherman, who won the election. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Counting the Vote

In the old days, paper ballots were counted by hand, one-by-one. With the expansion of the voting population,various mechanical systems have evolved to count votes quickly, while seeking to keep voting safe from interference and fraud.

Computer-based ballot systems entered the voting scene in the early 1960s. Voters either perforate a punch-card or mark a standardized form with No. 2 pencil, and a computer reads and records the ballot. Touch- screen voting appeared in the 1990s.

Computerized vote processing offers economy and speed — an advantage in reporting election returns quickly. The future of voting most likely will involve a touch-screen ballot with a paper printout or an optically scanned paper ballot for verifying the count.


Voting Patchwork
This map shows types of voting equipment used in the 2000 elections in all 3,141 counties in the United States.

Map courtesy of Election Data Services, Inc. © 2000

Voting equipment used in the 2016 elections.

Map courtesy of Election Data Services, Inc. © 2016

Stuffer’s ballot box

Some old ballot boxes actually enabled fraud. This dishonest “stuffer’s ballot box,” featured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1856, concealed a sliding false bottom and side. These panels hid party ticket ballots, which were added to legitimate ballots — all without tampering with the lock.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 19, 1856. Courtesy of National Museum of American History


Precinct count card reader, 2008
With this machine, ballots may be counted up to four times, and in four ways. (1) An antenna transmits the tally to a central location electronically. (2) The machine prints the tally on paper tape. (3) The transmitted tally and the tape tally can be checked against the machine’s memory cartridge. (4) The ballots can be counted by hand. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Section 4: Beyond the Ballot

The First Amendment of the Constitution establishes that Congress shall make no law restricting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Not limiting their participation to electoral politics, individuals and groups with very different resources —on the streets, in back rooms, and through the media of their times — have brought their interests and concerns before the nation.

Image: Where Is Democracy?

Behind this question was a demand forequal representation for all who have feltexcluded or marginalized by the electoral process and political institutions. Detail from Congress of Racial Equality(CORE) organizing pamphlet, 1960s. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“You not only gain the person’s name, but you excite inquiry in her mind and she will excite it in others; thus the little circle imperceptibly widens until it may embrace a whole town.” -- The Monthly Offering, November 1840

Image: Delivering Petitions

Environmental organizations deliver written petitions to Congress opposing the Keystone Pipeline, February 14, 2012. Courtesy of


The simple act of adding your name to an official appeal asserts your political identity and rights. While petitioning has been open for everyone, it was especially important for those barred from voting. In the early Republic, mass petitioning gave poor white men, women, free blacks, and other minorities a means to voice grievances andto claim a role in determining the direction of the country.

Petitioning has maintained a role in the democratic process. Whether they are traditional paper forms orelectronic mailings, petitions continue to offer a means for individuals to shape political discourse.

Image: Petitions

A small sampling of petitions sent to the United States Congress, 1800s–early 1900s. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Image: Baskets of Petitions

Congress receives petitions for reducing federal tax on earned income, December 1929. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Petitions to Congress

One of the first nationally organized petitioning drives was a protest against the federal government removing Cherokee Indians from their eastern native lands. Since then, petition drives have focused on topics as diverse as one can imagine.


“. . . Save This Remnant of a Much Injured People”

Memorial from the ladies of Steubenville, Ohio, protesting Indian removal, February 15, 1830. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society Petition   

In the 1830s abolitionist groups, often organized by women, conducted massive petitioning drives calling for an end to slavery. Their efforts helped to keep the debate before Congress. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Petitioning for Neutrality

The Organization of American Women for Strict Neutrality called on Congress to end arms shipments to countries engaged in World War I “for humanitarian reasons” and because they felt it violated American neutrality, 1916. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Protesting Imitation Butter

Postcards sent to Congressman William Fuller requesting support for the labeling of imitation butter and cheese, 1886. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Online Petition

A steady stream of petitions to Congress are now sent digitally. Boys and Girls Clubs of America posted this petition on the Care2 website in 2017. Courtesy of Care2

Petitioning with Your Feet

From local protests to massive marches in Washington, demonstrators have forced officials to confront issues that they have often wished to avoid. By every imaginable means, people have come before the government and demanded to be heard.

Carrying signs, singing songs, and shouting from a podium, whether beautiful and moving or disrespectful and offensive, these demonstrations are an exercise in the American democratic process.


The National Stage
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, by Rowland Scherman. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Senior Citizens March
Senior Citizens March, October 1973. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

The American Agriculture Movement staged a "Tractorcade" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., February 1979. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives 

Protest Signs 

Piles of signs ready to be picked up by marchers for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Women's March

Participants across America including St. Paul, Minnesota, marched in the Women’s March in January 2017. It was the largest single-day demonstration in the country’s history. Ken Wolter /

Immigrant March

Demonstrators gather on the National Mall to protest congressional bill HR 4437, the Immigrant Control Act of 2005, April 10, 2006. Courtesy of MCT / Getty Images

“The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” - Martin Luther King, Jr., December 5, 1955

Artifacts: Protest Fashion

A sample of items worn during protests.

Video: Historic Protests

Video duration: 3 minutes, 17 seconds


Like other forms of petitioning, lobbying involves direct actions intended to influence governmental policy. From the days in which politicians were regularly confronted in hotel lobbies in Washington, D.C., it has been a significant way for some people to affect and participate in their government.

Lobbying has been carried out by individuals and informal groups advocating their causes, and by well-funded professionals who represent large corporations and established organizations with significant sums of money at their disposal. Where money and power meet, there is always the possibility that in this representative democracy not everyone is listened to equally.

Image: Citizen Lobbyists

About 60 Wisconsin Farmers Union members took part in a Farm & Rural Lobby Day on February 21st, 2018 in Madison, WI. Courtesy of Tommy Enright / Wisconsin Farmers Union

“It is certain in theory, that the only moral foundation of government is the consent of the people. But to what an extent shall we carry this principle?” —John Adams, May 26, 1776

Image: Female Lobbyists at Washington

An 1888 newspaper reported: “The Marble Room in the Senate wing of the Capitol at Washington is peculiarly the haunt of the professional female lobbyist....These female lobbyists are for the most part accomplished, versatile and fair to look upon, and the raw and inexperienced Senator falls an easy prey to their blandishments.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 4, 1888. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Artifacts: Literature Left Behind

Sampling of materials given by lobbyists and other groups to Congressional offices in 2019.


“Lobbyists at the Capitol: A familiar scene in Statuary Hall during a session of Congress,” from Collier’s Weekly, by Thure de Thulstrup, 1900. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Lobbying for Arts and Culture

New Mexico museum advocates meet with Representative Ben Ray Luján (D-NM-3) and his staff during Museums Advocacy Day 2018. Risdon Photography /; Courtesy of the American Alliance of Museums

Keep Out

The role of professional lobbyists has always been controversial. Congressman Alfred N. Phillips in 1937 posted a sign on his office door welcoming everyone, “except professional lobbyists.” Courtesy of Library of Congress

Deceit and Corruption

Lobbying has its dark side. At times money, scandals, and politics just seem to go together. While many people hope dishonesty is the exception, the more cynical believe it is just the norm.

Image: The Deadly Upas Tree of Wall Street

The face of Jay Gould, financier and railroad developer, is formed by the limbs and branches at the center of this toxic tree blooming with bribes. In folklore, the Indonesian upas tree was said to poison everything around it. Puck, August 30, 1882. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: “The Bosses of the Senate”

Big money dominates the Senate chamber in this cartoon from Puck, January 23, 1889. Courtesy of U.S. Senate Collection

Jack Abramoff Scandal

In one of the most publicized political scandals in modern times, lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. The case, which centered on an Indian casino, uncovered a world of bribes, money laundering, and double-dealing that even surprised the capital’s establishment. Time magazine, January 16, 2006

Image: Campaign Contributions

Newspaper cartoonist Clifford Berryman lampooned presidential candidate William Taft for using the issue of tariff reform to fill his wallet in this 1908 drawing.
Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Creating Citizens

Fulfilling the ideals of American democracy required defining “The People” and determining the meaning of citizenship. These issues were not clearly articulated in the founding documents, so they were left to future generations to decide. Some basic questions have long been debated by Americans. How diverse should the citizenry be? Do we need to share a common national story? What are the rights and responsibilities of citizens?

Image: Proud Americans

Arab American children from the Nicola family celebrate the Fourth of July, around 1920. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Defining Citizenship

Americans have prided themselves on being a nation of immigrants who helped to build the country and enriched its society and culture. Yet there has been an ongoing tension between welcoming newcomers and concern that the character of the nation might be changed.

Images: Becoming Americans

New citizens take the Oath of Allegiance as part of their naturalization ceremony, Chicago, October 13, 1939. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Naturalization ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, July 2013. ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Interactive: Could You Pass the Test?

Explore these sample questions taken from the “Civics Flash Cards for the Naturalization Test” created by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. How many can you answer correctly?

Question 1: Name one branch or part of the government.


  • Congress 
  • Legislative
  • President
  • Executive
  • The Courts
  • Judicial

Image: The Capitol and National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1980. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Question 2: Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?


  • Provide schooling and education
  • Provide protection (police)
  • Provide safety (fire departments)
  • Give a driver’s license
  • Approve zoning and land use

Courtesy US Department of Education

Question 3: Name one U.S. territory


  • Puerto Rico
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • American Samoa
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Guam

Depiction of Guam when it was a colony of Spain, 1734. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Question 4: What does the Constitution do?


  • Sets up the government
  • defines the government
  • protects basic rights of Americans

The phrase “Equal justice under law,” is proclaimed outside the Supreme Court. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Question 5: Who makes federal laws?


  • Congress
  • Senate and House of Representatives
  • Legislature

Pedestrians in front of the U.S. Capitol, published by Currier & Ives, 1874. Courtesy Library of Congress

Question 6: Who makes federal laws?


  • Congress
  • Senate and House of Representatives
  • Legislature

Pedestrians in front of the U.S. Capitol, published by Currier & Ives, 1874. Courtesy Library of Congress

Question 6: How many justices are on the Supreme Court?

Answer: Nine (9)

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman sworn onto the Supreme Court, 1981. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Question 7: What is the name of the national anthem?

Answer: The Star-Spangled Banner 

Image: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by Percy Moran. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Question 8: Under the Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government.

Answer: â€‹

  • To print money
  • To declare war
  • To create an army
  • To make treaties

Image: President Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, April 2, 1917. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Question 9: Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

Answer: Because the stripes represent the original 13 colonies

Image: U.S. flags fly above the Farm Progress Show, Decatur, IL. 2017. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung

Question 10: What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

Answer: The Bill of Rights  

Image: Farmers exercised their first amendment rights protesting the 1977 Farm Bill in Washington, D.C., 1978. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Citizenship – a Timeline

Amendments and Laws

  • 1776: Declaration of Independence protests England’s limiting naturalization of foreigners in the colonies.
  • 1789: U.S. Constitution, under Article I, states that Congress is “to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” eventually giving the federal government sole authority over immigration.
  • 1789: Bill of Rights outlines basic rights under the new government.
  • 1790: Naturalization Act of 1790 provides the first rules in granting national citizenship to “free white people.”
  • 1865: 13th Amendment abolishes slavery, although it does not grant formerly enslaved persons the full rights of citizenship.

  • 1868: 14th Amendment grants that allpersons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens and are guaranteed“equal protection of the laws.”

  • 1870: Naturalization Act of 1870 extends naturalization rights to former African slaves not born in the United States; Asian immigrants remain excluded fromcitizenship.

  • 1882: Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is the first U.S. law to ban immigration based on race or nationality; it would be repealed in 1943.

  • 1898: U.S. Supreme Court rules that any child born in the United States, regardless of race or parents’ citizenship status, is an American citizen.

  • 1921: First quota law is passed limitingthe annual number of immigrants based on country of origin.

  • 1924: Indian Citizenship Act extends U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans.

  • 1940: Alien Registration Act requires all non- citizen adults to register with thegovernment. It also empowers the president to deport foreigners suspected of espionage or being a security risk.

  • 1952: Immigration and Nationality Act eliminates race as a bar to immigration or citizenship.

  • 1965: Hart-Celler Act abolishes the national origins quota system, replacing it with a preference system that focuses on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents.

  • 1986: Immigration Reform and Control Act grants amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants who entered the country before January 1, 1982.

  • 2001: USA Patriot Act adds terrorist activities as a reason to exclude or deport aliens.

  • 2012: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) grants individuals who entered the U.S. as children, and meet certain criteria, temporary protection from deportation and eligibility for work permits.

Do We Need a Shared National Identity? 

Following independence, citizens of the new nation sought to forge their own identity and create a unique history. They established holidays such as the Fourth of July and later Thanksgiving Day, and they chronicled the story of America from the landing at Plymouth Rock through the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War. In part Americans did so not only for themselves, but also to instill in future generations a shared ideal of citizenship. An ongoing debate resulted: if there were to be common beliefs and a national narrative that expressed the values of the nation, what should be included?


“Remember the 4th” holiday banner, 1860s. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“In a composite nation like ours, as before the Law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights, and a common destiny.” –Frederick Douglass, 1882

Our National Anthems

8 Lights for Song Selections

  • America (My Country Tis of Thee), United States Air Force Concert Band
  • Grand Old Flag, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Corps Band
  • Stars and Stripes Forever, United States Army Concert Band
  • America the Beautiful, The Singing Sergeants, United States Air Force
  • Washington Post March, United States Army Concert Band
  • Yankee Doodle, United States Air Force Concert Band
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic, United States Army Chorus
  • The Star-Spangled Banner, United States Navy Band

“America Forever! March” Sheet music cover, 1898. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Creating the Father of Our Country

Mason Locke Weems’s biography of George Washington became the most widely read 19th-century book about the Revolution’s celebrated hero. Weems recounted many familiar anecdotes about Washington, including the tale of the cherry tree, and helped to establish a national narrative that cemented the Founding Fathers in our national consciousness.


“Father, I Cannot Tell a Lie,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Artifact: "The Father of Our Nation"

A commemorative plate of George Washington's Farewell Address. Vernon Kilns plate, made between 1931-1953.

Image: Uncle Sam

By the mid-1800s, Uncle Sam became the most recognizable personification of the U.S. government. Rather than an authority figure, he most often was portrayed with affection and used as an emblem of national kinship to instill patriotism. He is an especially popular symbol during the Fourth of July, the first national holiday. Just like Uncle Sam, Independence Day celebrations help foster an unique American identity and a tribute to our founding principles. For Americans still fighting for those freedoms the holiday became a day to remind the country of the promise yet to be fulfilled.

Wilburt E. Leppien first appeared as Uncle Sam in 1956 and took part in numerous ceremonies and parades across the country, including five presidential inaugurations.

Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Teaching American History

Since the 1990s there have been many attempts to establish national standards for teaching Americanhistory. These efforts have sparked contentious debates:

How much should schools focus on teaching patriotic values and the history of the nation through theFounders and aspirational figures? How much should they focus on historical understanding and the stories of less famous and more diverse people and groups?

Schools throughout the nation have struggled to find the right balance appropriate for their communities.

Image: Contemporary Classroom

Classroom of young students, about 2015. Courtesy of United States Department of Education.

Courtesy of United States Department of Education

Image: The Pledge of Allegiance

Francis Bellamy wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance. It first appeared in The Youth’s Companion magazine to coincide with the dedication of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on October 21, 1892, as a way to instill American nationalism through flag ceremonies. The pledge was quickly adopted across the country.

Students in Mott Street Industrial School salute the flag, New York City. Photograph by Jacob Riis, around 1892.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Image: Student Demonstration

Colorado students protest a proposal by the Jefferson County School Board to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the school curriculum, October 2, 2014.

Courtesy of Jason Bahr / Getty Images

Image: A National Martyr and a National Holiday 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, transformed the civil rights leader into an icon of the struggle to fulfill the American promise of equality for all. Four days after the assassination, Congressman John Conyers 

introduced a bill to establish a federal holiday in his honor. For advocates it was an effort to place King and the civil rights movement into the national narrative. It took years of organizing to overcome strong resistance. In 1983 the King Holiday bill was signed into law. Initially only 27 states officially acknowledged the holiday. Not until 2000 did all 50 states recognize the day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

How Diverse Should the Citizenry Be?

In a diverse nation, nothing has been more debated than what should be the ideal character of its citizenry.

One view is that “multiculturalism,” the preservation of diverse cultural heritages, enriches the country.

Some call for a common citizenry — a “melting pot” where immigrants are assimilated and their traditions are transformed into a homogeneous American culture.

Still others challenge diversity by seeking to restrict immigration and exclude certain racial and ethnic groups.

These very different positions have greatly impacted the nation’s political debates on economic, foreign, and immigration policy, and education and social welfare programs.

Image:“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” 

Thomas Nast cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“We are a nation of communities . . . a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

–President George H.W. Bush

Image: Celebrating Diversity

Many new immigrants desired, and at times were encouraged, to preserve their cultural heritage while at the same time embracing their new identity as Americans. In this school pageant, a teacher dressed as the Statue of Liberty is surrounded by students from New York’s Lower East Side wearing traditional costumes, around 1910.

Courtesy of Picture Research Consultants & Archives

Artifacts: Reaching Out

These presidential campaign buttons display multicultural patriotism.

Image: The Melting Pot

From 1880 to 1920 more than 20 million people, largely from eastern and southern Europe, came to the United States. In response, the government and industries developed Americanization programs to turn the foreign-born into patriotic citizens by teaching “real American” values and English.

The Ford Motor Company dramatized the ideals of Americanization in its elaborate English-school graduation pageants. In this 1916 photo, workers in foreign dress enter into a giant pot stirred by the school’s teachers and emerge in their best “American” clothes waving United States flags.

Courtesy of Collections of The Henry Ford Museum

Image: Americanize America

This poster, issued by the private National Americanization Committee and distributed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Education, represents the ideals of the Americanization movement through the use of the flag and its symbolic message expressed in verse.

World War I-era poster. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: Stirring the Pot

Although the ideal of Americanization was to welcome all foreigners, some groups were viewed as toodisruptive for the rest of the pot. In this example, Irish radicals were seen as too unruly to mix in.

“The Mortar of Assimilation,” Puck, June 26, 1889. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

A Nation Only for Some

Out of belief or fear, many Americans sought to limit diversity in the United States. At the height of their political power, the Ku Klux Klan, in 1925, brought to the nation’s capital more than 40,000 members in full regalia to promote their ideals of white Christian supremacy before the public.

Image: The Ku Klux Klan marches down Pennsylvania Avenue, August 8, 1925. Courtesy of Getty Images

Know-Nothing Party

The American Party, also called the Know-Nothings, was a major national political force in the 1850s. It saw immigrants and Catholics as a threat to self-government and to the nation. Arguing for rule by native-born Protestants, the Know-Nothings ran former President Millard Fillmore as their presidential candidate in the 1856 election and received more than 21 percent of the vote. During the Civil War the movement fractured and largely disappeared, but fear and distrust of new immigrants remained within thecore beliefs of many future political movements.

Image: Sheet music cover, 1856. Courtesy of National Museum of American History


There was strong sentiment against Asian immigrants in America during the late 19th century, especially against the Chinese. Chinese immigrants had come to America to work in mines, agriculture, factories, and railroads. “The Chinese Must Go!” was a common cry among those who saw their success as a threat."

Image: “The Chinese Must Go,” Scribner’s Magazine, October 1895.

Love It or Leave It

Americans desiring a more homogeneous citizenry did not limit their objections to certain ethnic and racial groups. They also sought to exclude those of differing political, social, and economic philosophies, religious beliefs, or sexual orientations. The 1970s “love it or leave it” bumper sticker was directed at anti-Vietnam War protesters.

The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens 

America’s founders asserted that the independent nationwould be based on the ideal that its citizens had the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and that the government under the Constitution was designed to“promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” With these rights, they believed, came responsibilities that citizens needed to assume in order to fulfill the promise of the new nation.

These lofty goals and principles never had one single interpretation. Over time, they have led to differing ideas and heated debates.

Image: Jury Duty

In a nation based on the sovereignty of the people, the jury system is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The Constitution establishes everyone’s right to an impartial jury of one’s peers. This right also implies an obligation of citizens to serve as members of a jury.

A jury listens to evidence, Louisville, Kentucky, 1954. Courtesy of Robert W Kelley / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” –President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938

The Four Freedoms

In defense of democracies around the world, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress on January 6, 1941, articulated the aims of the nation facing the threat of a world at war. “We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” he stated. Two of these freedoms (speech and religion) were included in the Bill of Rights. Two were freedoms deeply desired by a generation confronted by economic depression and the threat of dictatorships: freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Artist Norman Rockwell dramatized those aims in a series of paintings that appeared as covers for the Saturday Evening Post and as posters produced by the Office of War Information for its war bond campaign in 1943.

Image: Four Freedom's Speech

Franklin Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms" speech was the 1941 State of the Union Address. Courtesy of Bettman / Getty Images

Image: Census

The U.S. Constitution requires that the federal government take a census, every ten years, of all persons living in the country. All residents (citizens and noncitizens) are required by law to be counted. The primary purpose of the census is to allocate seats in the House of Representatives to the states according to their population.

Census Bureau questionnaire, 1960 Census badge, 1900. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: The Virtuous Citizen

Of the many core responsibilities of citizenship, the most basic has been being a “good citizen.” The founding generation believed that liberty and freedom could only survive if the Republic and its people were virtuous. For them, and still today, this means respecting the country’s institutions, fulfilling civic duties, contributing to the community, and generally being a good neighbor.

Give a Hoot comic, 1973. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Military Service

The scope and brutality of the Civil War quickly challenged the military resources of the North and South. The Confederacy and the Union established general compulsory military service. Many considered the draft an infringement on individual liberty. Critics charged class discrimination, as draft laws provided financial ways to avoid service. The debate over a military draft has continued ever since. Today all men are required to register for Selective Service at 18 years of age.

Draft card, 1864. Courtesy of National Museum of American History


The 16th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913, granted Congress the power to impose a federal income tax on individuals. The concept of contributing your fair share is widely held, but agreeing on what that is all depends on who is paying the bill.

Income tax form, 1921. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: Census Record

Inhabitants in Whites Township, Bertie County, North Carolina, June 9, 1880. Courtesy of National Archives and Record Administration"

Right to Bear Arms

The Second Amendment of the Constitution grants that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The debate over what this right actually means is highly contested.

The Second Amendment: America’s Original Homeland Security bumper sticker Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Right to an Education

Though not guaranteed by the Constitution, Americans largely agree that an educated citizenry is a requirement for a healthy democracy. The more controversial question is: should (and can) education be equal and open to all?

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that public schools segregated by race were unconstitutional. Through their decision, the Court entered into the ongoing debate of whether education should be a right of every citizen.

Image: Mrs. Nettie Hunt, sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court, explains the meaning of the court’s decision onbanning school segregation to her daughter, 1954. United Press International, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Right to a Job

Is freedom from want the right of all Americans? What responsibility does the nation have to provide employment to its citizens? In response to economic crisis, at times the government has enacted massive employment programs. One such program, the Works Progress Administration, employed as many as eight million people during the depression of the 1930s. Federal legislation enacted in 1964 led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

Protest poster from the Poor People’s Campaign which called for better jobs, housing, and education forAmerica’s poor, Washington, D.C., 1968. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Image: Land of Dreams

In this scene, an ocean steamer passes the Statue of Liberty. "Welcome to the Land of Freedom," sketchby staff artist featured in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Right to Health Care

In the 2010s, the long-debated subject of national health care became a hotlycontested political issue. The central question is: should all citizens have the right to medical care, and if so, how should it be made available? Still a divisive issue, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2013.

Rally for health care reform, New York City, September 22, 2009. Courtesy of Mario Tama / Getty Images

Equal Rights for All

The most basic right of citizenship has been equal access and protection under the law. The fight to extend this right to all began before the Declaration of Independence and continues today.

Buttons advocating various civil rights causes. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

“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.” –Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Touchscreen: Stories of Democracy



National Woman’s Party march for woman’s suffrage, Washington, D.C. February 14, 1917. Photograph, gift of Alice Paul Centennial Foundation. National Museum of American History

World War I Liberty Bond drive at Worthington Pump and Machinery Corporation, Deane Works, Holyoke, Massachusetts, April 15, 1918

First inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861. Photograph by Alexander Gardner; bequest of Montgomery Meigs. National Museum of American History

American Experiments

Building a nation together requires conversation, debate, negotiation, and compromise. We invite you to experiment in this space—join in, play, maybe talk to someone new. There are no right answers here, just anopportunity to share and discuss ideas, and to think about the questions that have faced generations of Americans.

American Experiments is offered as a dynamic companion to Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, a traveling exhibition by the Smithsonian and brought to you locally by Humanities Kansas.

American Experiments was developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in collaboration with the Exploratorium of San Francisco, and was made possible by a gift from the Julie and Greg Flynn Family Fund.

Background: Naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles, 2007. Courtesy J. Emilio Flores

Activity Board: Ideals and Images

Do Americans have shared ideals? Whatdo they look like?

Try this:

Spin the wheel to select a word.
Each player uses their own identical deck of cards.
Without showing others, pick four cards you think best fit the word. Place themface down in the boxes.
When everyone is ready, turn all cards faceup.

Now discuss the images each of you selected Did you pick different images? Find out why. Did you pick the same images, but for different reasons?

Choose a new word to play again.

Activity: HEAD TO HEAD

Try this:

  • Begin by placing all the tiles under Start Here on both sides of the panel. It doesn’t matter which tiles go where
  • For each matchup, discuss and debate to come to a decision about which one best answers the question. Advance

    each “winner” to the next round.

  • What will you do when you don’t agree? Will you vote, debate, or do something else?

What’s this about?
We often make decisions after discussion and persuasion. It’s how families, neighbors, and coworkers make choices about everything from what to eat for lunch to voting. How did your group make decisions?

(Both Right and Left Side) Start Here

Round 1
Round 2
Round 3 

Magnet Activity: Which Food is More American?

Peanut Butter 
French Fries 
Corn on the Cob
Hot Dogs 
Clam Chowder 
Fried Chicken 
Sunflower Seeds 
Green Beans 
Canned Tuna 


Robert E. Lee
Confederate Army of Virginia commander during the Civil War

Theodore Roosevelt
26th U.S. president

Shoshone interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Neil Armstrong
First human to walk on the moon

Henry Ford
Founder of the Ford Motor Company

Susan B. Anthony
Leader of the 19th-century women’s rights movement

The Wright Brothers
Aviation pioneers

Muhammad Ali
Boxing champion who advocated for civil rights

Ronald Reagan
40th U.S. president

Thomas Jefferson
3rd U.S. president and author of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Edison
Inventor and businessman

J. Robert Oppenheimer
Scientist who led development of the first atomic bomb

Celia Cruz
Singer who popularized salsa music

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Civil rights leader

Eleanor Roosevelt
First Lady and delegate to the United Nations

Abraham Lincoln
16th U.S. president during the Civil War

George Washington
1st U.S. president

Walt Disney
Creator of Disneyland and Mickey Mouse

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
32nd U.S. president

Clara Barton|
Founder of the American Red Cross

Alexander Hamilton
First secretary of the United States Treasury

Cesar Chavez
Civil rights activist and labor leader

Oprah Winfrey
Television personality and businesswoman

Jackie Robinson
Broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball

Albert Einstein
Scientist who developed the general theoryof relativity

Harriet Tubman
19th-century abolitionist leader

Diane Nash
Student leader in the civil rights movement

John Deere
Inventor of the first commerciallysuccessful steel plow

Yo-Yo Ma
Award-winning classical cellist

Rosa Parks
Civil rights activist

Steve Jobs
Inventor and businessman

Margaret Sanger
Founder of the modern birth control movement

Activity: My Fellow Citizens

What does a person need to do to be a good citizen?

Try this:

  • Take a moment to explore the oath sworn by all new citizens.
  •  Think about what citizenship means to you. Does it mean obeying laws? Abiding by traditions? Defending the nation? Something else
  • Now, complete the sentence on a whiteboard.
  •  If you like, have someone take your photo with your response and share your photo tagged #myfellowcitizens and #voicesvotes.

The United States Naturalization Oath of Allegiance

I hereby declare, on oath, that:
I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate,
state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;
I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and
I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion;
so help me God.

Consider this:
Many people living in the United States are citizens by birth, but those born elsewhere and seeking citizenship must take this oath. Are you surprised by anything it includes? Do you agree with its requirements? What do you think citizens should swear to do?

Did you know?
The oath has changed several times since 1790.
People with strong religious or ethical objections to war can recite a modified form of the oath.
A noncitizen born with a noble title must renounce it to become an American citizen. Saying the phrase “so help me God” is optional.






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