Democracy Delineated

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Between 1847 and 1855 George Caleb Bingham completed a half dozen or so canvases that are among the most unusual and interesting documents in the history of American painting. They are well known to students, critics, and art historians but they are only occasionally reproduced in books that celebrate the “finest” American paintings. Others of Bingham’s works are duly included in such selective compilations, for at his best he was a highly competent artist.

The fact remains, however, that his most creditable pictures have attracted attention as much, if not more, for their subject matter than for the creative talents that gave them a special quality. And so it is with this group, known as his “election series. He once wrote a friend that his purpose in painting it was to record “our social and political characteristics as daily and annually exhibited,” and this is precisely what he accomplished.

When he wrote “our” characteristics he was referring to the people of Missouri, among whom he had lived for the greatest part of his life. Bingham had been brought to Missouri from Virginia by his parents when he was a child, and when that area was a raw territory not yet admitted to statehood. In the spring of 1820 young Bingham’s father had opened a “house of entertainment” at Franklin, which, he assured travelers, would be kept “clear of disorderly company.” As a small boy Bingham must have watched the adventuring American traders taking off with pack horses and wagons from the steamboat landing of the little town for their long and arduous trek to the remote Mexican outpost of Santa Fe. In those and the years to come he also witnessed the constant procession of flatboats and keelboats that, even after the advent of the steamboat, carried a large share of the freight and migrants that passed incessantly up and down the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers. He was familiar with the breed of rough and hardy boatmen who manned these rude vessels. Their inexhaustible capacity for work and play fired Bingham’s imagination, and his numerous paintings of them illuminate their legend with explicitly drawn and colorful images.

It was about the same time that he was creating this so-called river series that Bingham undertook his political scenes. (And all the while he was painting portraits “to make the pot boil,” as he put it.) He had become interested in politics when he was still in his twenties and he retained this interest for the remainder of his life. In fact, when he died in 1879, he was eulogized more for his career in this field than for his merits as an artist. During his campaigning he came to know intimately the ways and manners of his fellow citizens. With good reason he early became known as the “Missouri artist.”

The special importance of his election series is that it presents a unique close-up view of grass-roots politics at a time when American democracy had no precedent or parallel in history.

 

To the Founding Fathers of the nation, Bingham’s scenes no doubt would have been undecipherable and, had they any means of understanding them, fearsome. Nothing in the Constitution had presaged such developments. To virtually all the men who framed that enduring document, the very word “democracy” was tainted, with ominous implications and better not used.

Actually, the people themselves had no direct part in wording the famous document that starts “We, the people....” That memorable phrase and the many others that followed it were drafted by men who for the most part were men of property, education, and unusual distinction. They were by no means indifferent to the liberties of the plain people, nor were they unduly influenced by selfish or class interests. But almost to a man they were persuaded that those liberties could best be secured through government by men of caliber equivalent to their own. But as George Mason, author of the famous Virginia Declaration of Rights, correctly observed, the genius of the people was for democracy, and the rapid growth of democratic sentiment and practices throughout the nation, beyond any intention of the Founding Fathers, became what was in effect a continuous peaceful revolution that caught the world’s attention.

During the presidency of Andrew Jackson the rising democratic spirit reached an almost frenzied level. Most of the new Western states admitted to the Union had reduced suffrage qualifications to a minimum and opened political offices to males generally. Early in the century Josiah Quincy, a purebred New England Federalist, had maintained that admission of any territory by majority vote without consent of all the original federators would virtually destroy the Union. He complained that Congress had “no authority to throw the rights and property of this people in the ‘hotch-potch’ with the wild men on the Missouri.”

But to no avail: with Jackson’s election a “wild mob” (albeit not all from the West) had won the highest office in the land for their candidate, a post the Founding Fathers thought they had put beyond the clutches of such constituents.