Skip to main content
Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful
How To Break (and Fix) a Democracy: Lessons From an Age of Acrimony

2-Session Evening Series on Zoom

Tuesday, May 25 and June 1, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. ET
Quick Tix Code: DEMO
$35 Package Member
$45 Package Non-Member
Reserving your tickets...


Americans may claim we are more divided than we’ve been since the Civil War but forget that the lifetime after that conflict saw the loudest, roughest political campaigns in our history. Presidential elections from the 1860s through the early 1900s produced the highest turnouts, the closest margins, and the most political violence: The period was marked by three presidential assassinations, two presidents who won the White House while losing the popular vote, and one impeachment. Widespread political participation and frustration went hand in hand until the reforms of the early 20th century traded that participation for civility.

Join Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, for a two-part series in which he delves into the deep and sometimes wild history of American democracy to uncover a period of extreme division in the late 1800s.

Please Note: Individual sessions are available for individual purchase.

MAY 25  How To Break a Democracy

Grinspan explores the forces that made American democracy public, partisan, and passionate from the Civil War into the 1890s. Responding to economic disruption and technological innovations, mass migration and racial tensions—and enabled by a new populism—Americans participated in politics at incredible rates, but in ways that could be tribal, violent, and deeply uncivil. Many concluded that their democratic experiment was failing. But in these dark years, innovators, cranks, and oddballs were inventing a new approach to politics that would one day reform American democracy. At the core of this relevant story lies the family dynasty of the radical Congressman William “Pig Iron” Kelley and his fiery labor-activist daughter Florence, whose drama-filled personal saga traces their nation’s political struggles.

JUNE 1  How To Fix a Democracy

The concepts of civil politics accepted as “normal” in the 20th century were not designed by the Founders but invented around 1900 to rescue a seemingly broken democratic experiment that many worried was failing. Grinspan introduces the reformers and cranks who replaced the public, partisan, passionate campaigns of the 1800s with a more private, independent, restrained style. In the process Americans managed to reduce violence and division, but sometimes at the expense of participation and access. This quiet revolution upended the lives of the Kelley family dynasty and created the political world whose rules most of us know. Grinspan finds it both an optimistic story that reveals political reform is possible and a cautionary tale about the cost of a calmer, cleaner but more distant democracy.

Grinspan’s book, The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 18651915 (Bloomsbury) is available for purchase.

2 sessions

Photo Caption (upper right): Jon Grinspan (Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke)



  • If you register multiple individuals, you will be asked to supply individual names and email addresses so they can receive a Zoom link email. Please note that if there is a change in program schedule or a cancellation, we will notify you via email, and it will be your responsibility to notify other registrants in your group.
  • Once registered, patrons should receive an automatic email confirmation from
  • Separate Zoom link information will be emailed closer to the date of each session. If you do not receive your Zoom link information 24 hours prior to the start of each session, please email Customer Service for assistance.
  • View Common FAQs about our Streaming Programs on Zoom.

Photo caption (upper right):

This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.