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How To Break a Democracy: Lessons From an Age of Acrimony

Evening Program on Zoom (Session 1 of 2-Session Series)

Tuesday, May 25, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1L0395
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Jon Grinspan (Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke)

Save when you purchase the How To Break (and Fix) a Democracy series!

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.

Session Information

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.

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

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.