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.
The earliest objects in this display commemorate George Washington’s inauguration as the first president in 1789. Commemorative clothing buttons, sewing boxes, and crockery gave way to campaign advertising novelties such as badges, buttons, and ribbons, designed to encourage activism and engagement. By the mid-20th century badges, buttons, and ribbons began to be displaced by investments in radio and television advertising and opinion polling.
The expansion of white male suffrage in the 1830s led to a strategy of political imagery that co-opted hatchets, axes, and log cabins as empathetic symbols that could be understood by anyone. The exclusive use of such symbols masked the difficult and contentious positions of rival candidates and partisans who, with a wink and a nod, universally embraced the rough-hewn values of the American frontier.
Davy Crockett Ceremonial Hatchet, 1835
Use of the axe as a political symbol dates to the era of Congressman Davy Crockett (1786–1836). The Young Men’s Whig Association of Philadelphia presented Crockett with this ceremonial silver, mahogany, and ivory-tipped hatchet in 1835. One side of its head is engraved, “Crockett.” The other side is engraved with his motto, “Go Ahead.”
Political campaigns of the 19th century reflected popular traditions of commemoration and celebration—such as Fourth of July parades—that became familiar to many Americans in the early Republic. Mass campaign spectacles arose as a way of demonstrating partisan strength and of mobilizing indifferent and easily distracted voters.
Torch, White Paint with Golden Lettering, “Hurrah for Lincoln”
Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign perfected the nighttime torchlight parade as an entertainment of unprecedented scale that attracted the attention of men, women, and children. A Grand Procession in New York City on October 3, 1860, created envy among the city’s Democrats, and panic among southern sympathizers who regarded it as a provocation.