Declaring himself a “thorough democrat” George Caleb Bingham portrayed the American voter with an artist’s eye—and a seasoned politicians savvy
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Another development unforeseen by the authors of the Constitution was the emergence of political parties. In his Farewell Address Washington specifically had warned his countrymen against the “baneful effects” of party spirit. But as the years passed, the American party spirit was providing the working machinery of democracy, and this too without changing a word in the Constitution. The United States had become a large federal system, made up of various sections with different problems and with a population of multitudinous interests, pursuits, beliefs, classes, religions, and racial backgrounds. It was charged with centrifugal forces. The parties had become the essential adhesive that held the Union together through endless bargains and compromises.
In Bingham’s day the parties that had by then been organized, the Whigs and the Democrats, were proceeding in many of the ways that remain familiar to us. To win a majority of the votes, both represented themselves as standing for all things to all men. Important issues often were clothed in ambiguous rhetoric, or avoided altogether. Candidates increasingly were chosen not from the most qualified men but from those least likely for any reason to displease any large number of voters.
Every device that might lure voters to the polls on the side of the “right” candidate was brought into play. Gigantic parades and torchlight processions were staged, barbecues were planned to tempt those looking for free meals and incidental frolics, campaign songs were sung in the streets, political drums were beaten, and brass bands blared until the din reached the ears of almost every citizen in the land, all but drowning out any semblance of serious discussion.
The presidential campaign of 1840 between General William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren was one of the noisiest, jolliest, and most absurd of all, and set a pattern for others to follow. It was an unprecedented carnival of political demagoguery. Delegates to the Whig convention at Indianapolis marched in a mile-long procession. Twenty thousand men converged on Columbus from all parts of Ohio through the rain, snow, and mud to march eight abreast in a column two miles long. At a Cleveland rally there was no building large enough to hold the crowd, and the gathering was held out of doors. One result of all that hullabaloo was that a record 2,500,000 voters turned out to register their choice for President, about a million more than in the previous election.
One of Bingham’s first ventures in politics (he was a Whig) was to paint a large four-sided canvas frame with an elaborate assortment of images and symbols for use in that campaign. This document has long since disappeared, but it was praised by the local press as “by far the most imposing banner that graced the occasion.”
Bingham’s political scenes that have survived are his most ambitious and complex compositions and include some of his finest characterizations. Groups of scores of figures have been assembled into a closely knit structure from which individual figures emerge with remarkable clarity. He once remarked that he had no particular persons in mind in these assemblages of portraits, at least among the major characters. But from his many attractive preliminary drawings it is clear that these represent people he had drawn from life. Some can be identified as friends whose likenesses he introduced because their features and attitudes typified those of the men he had so often observed at political gatherings. In any case he knew all the types he represented, farmers, politicians, lawyers, editors, village drunks, dignified gentlemen, and playful children—knew them down to the patches in their pants, the seams of their shirts and jackets, their top hats, and their characteristic expressions. Referring to Bingham’s County Election, one reporter observed that “all who have ever seen a county election in Missouri are struck with the powerful accumulation of incidents in so small a space, each one of which seems to be a perfect duplication from one of those momentous occasions in real life.”
Bingham’s intention was certainly not to glorify, ridicule, or satirize, but simply to report what he saw in the world about him and understood so well from shared experiences. In the small towns that he visited along the river and in the interior of the state there was little public entertainment. The most dramatic general diversion was provided by such political gatherings as he depicted. Visits by candidates on speaking tours with their henchmen, party rallies and conventions, and election proceedings all attracted sizable and appreciative audiences. In almost every case audience participation was intensified by limitless booze provided for the thirsty.
Election days were especially memorable. Missouri polls were then kept open for three days. There was no secret ballot; voting was done viva voce, and precinct workers were permitted to attend the polling (not kept at a distance as they are today). A man could vote in any township, as long as he swore he had not and would not vote elsewhere in the country. The final gathering took place when the tally of returns was completed and announced from the courthouse.