This summer in Washington, D.C., The Jefferson Hotel has crafted a unique lens through which to view our nation’s history. Developed in partnership with The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the program does not approach the concept of American Democracy in a traditional sense. Rather, guests will be able to experience three “Summer of American Democracy” itineraries developed by hotel historian and Senior Fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, Susan Sullivan Lagon, Ph.D. The three itineraries cover “How Women Shaped American Life and Culture,” “America: The Pursuit of Justice,” and “America’s Best Friend: Famous Dogs and Animals in American History.”

In the second piece of our two-part series on the Summer of American Democracy, IVY Magazine sat down with Dr. Lagon to hear her take on why she crafted this particular approach to our nation’s history, and what visitors can expect to get out of it.

The Jefferson’s Summer of Democracy hits on three main themes: the material culture at the dawn of the American democratic experiment, the role played by women in shaping American cultural life, and famous dogs and animals in American history. Why those three? What is their significance?

As we were building out this campaign, these topics stuck with us the most as we sought to provide an immersive experience for our guests while underscoring the notable players within our ever evolving democracy.

Which of our Presidents were animal lovers? Did any one of them have a particularly exotic pet?

While bear hunting in the southern U.S., President Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt decided it was unsportsmanlike to shoot a bear that had been surrounded by dogs and tied to a tree. The episode became the subject of an editorial cartoon that portrayed TR as an animal lover. A toy manufacturer quickly capitalized by creating the stuffed “Teddy Bear,” which became an instant sensation.

Dogs are a President’s best friends.

During Jefferson’s presidency, he kept mockingbirds and encountered two new species sent to the White House. The Lewis and Clark expedition sent back prairie dogs and miraculously, they survived. Even more exotic was the 1807 gift of a pair of grizzly bear cubs from Captain Zebulon Pike. At first, Jefferson kept them in an enclosure on the White House lawn. However, as the bears quickly grew larger and more ferocious than any bears he’d seen in his native Virginia, he dispatched them to his friend Charles Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. Jefferson’s accompanying letter assured Peale that the pair were “perfectly gentle” and “quite good humored.”

Fun facts about the presidential pets: FDR’s Scottish terrier, Fala, had his own press secretary; Warren G. Harding’s Airedale, Laddie Boy, had his own seat at cabinet meetings; and George H.W. Bush’s springer spaniel, Millie, wrote a book that sold more copies than her owner’s! George Washington bred dogs and visited their kennels daily.

What pieces will be on display at the Smithsonian exhibition?

One of the most noteworthy parts of the exhibit is the portable writing desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Can you illustrate the choice behind the timing of the Summer of Democracy program? Why now?

We wanted to keep education at the forefront even in the summer months when many families take to the road to relax.

The continuation of American Democracy isn’t guaranteed: driving home its success demands wisdom, action, and vigilance from American citizens. With freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty. If that deal is not kept, democracy is threatened.

What should visitors and participants take away from this program?

After delving into how American democracy came to be and what was instrumental in shaping our country, we encourage travelers to put their learnings into action by exercising their civic rights.

What single object on display do you think is most critical for our audience to see?

While it’s extremely challenging to select only one, I would highly encourage travelers to see: Thomas Jefferson’s portable desk, which was used to pen the Declaration of Independence; the inkstand that Lincoln used to draft the Emancipation Proclamation; and the table on which Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, as these speak to our ever evolving political ideals and principles that have helped solidify the current state of American Democracy.

In light of current events, why are the underpinning themes of American Democracy more important than ever?

There’s no better time than now to take an active role in American Democracy, as its future isn’t guaranteed. With that said, we wanted to provide an immersive learning experience for guests to gain a deeper understanding of the past in order to be an active and engaged citizen of the future.

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