Preserve, Protect, and Defend: A Selection of Presidential Artifacts

National Constitution Center

Every four years on Inauguration Day, the newly elected president swears to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The following presidential artifacts have been on display at the National Constitution Center. Drawn from presidential libraries, historic sites and societies, and the Center’s own collection, they illuminate both the public and private sides of those who have held the nation’s highest office.

George Washington’s Dinner Plate and Cup, 1778-1788

George Washington worked to set the right tone as president. He purchased this tableware from the departing French minister in 1790. Elegant and simply decorated, the pieces gave a dignified but not too regal impression of the new nation when President Washington entertained guests.

Thomas Jefferson’s Inkwell, early 1800s

This inkwell is from President Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and was likely used by him. Beyond penning the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson spent much of his time replying to the many letters he received; he wrote nearly 20,000 letters during his lifetime.

Tassel and Mourning Ribbon from Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral, 1865

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the nation went into mourning. This tassel, from a horse that pulled the hearse, and mourning ribbon were worn while his funeral train stopped in Philadelphia. An estimated 300,000 people came to see President Lincoln’s body lying in state in Independence Hall.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Spurs, 1905

These spurs were given as a gift to President Theodore Roosevelt when he visited San Antonio, Texas, for a Rough Riders reunion. Roosevelt had famously commanded the volunteer cavalry unit during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Warren Harding’s Golf Club, early 1900s

Many presidents, including Warren G. Harding, have liked to play golf. President Harding gave several untrustworthy friends cabinet positions, and his administration became known for scandal, corruption, and financial fraud. He died in office in 1923.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Fedora, ca. 1937

Fedoras became one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s trademarks as president. During the Great Depression and World War II, his optimism and jaunty confidence inspired the nation. President Roosevelt purchased this fedora while in office.

Harry Truman’s Sport Shirt and Cap, ca. 1950s

President Harry S. Truman wore this Aztec-style shirt and straw cap during one of his frequent trips to Key West. His “tropical duds” caught the attention of the media, and soon, all of America. Companies and individuals sent him flamboyant shirts and hats that he selected as part of his “Key West Uniform.”

Lyndon Johnson’s Telephone from the White House “Little Lounge,” 1960s

This telephone was used by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the “Little Lounge,” a room next to the Oval Office where he could relax and conduct business informally. Having served 24 years in the House and Senate, Johnson was known for using the telephone to work out deals with members of Congress.

Richard Nixon’s Audio Recorder, ca. 1972

This is one of nine audio devices installed in the White House to record President Nixon’s conversations. Richard Nixon used the sound-activated system from February 1971 until July 1973 when the existence of the recordings was publicly revealed.

Richard Nixon Impeachment Hearings Gavel, 1974

Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino used this gavel while presiding over the inquiry into whether the House should impeach President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal. “I hope we’ve done the right thing,” Rodino said after voting to recommend Nixon’s impeachment.

Ronald Reagan’s Cowboy Hat, 1980s

President Ronald Reagan was given this custom-made cowboy hat as a gift. Having served as governor of California, Reagan’s public image was rooted in the American West; he vacationed as president at his ranch near Santa Barbara and was often pictured on horseback wearing rugged, western clothing.

Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” Speech, 2008

On March 18, 2008, at a pivotal moment of his campaign, presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a speech about race in America at the National Constitution Center. This hard copy that he later signed was on the podium; he had it in case there was a problem with the teleprompter.

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