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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
Once the verdict was proclaimed, political tempers that had flared to a white heat during the campaign immediately cooled. Defeated candidates congratulated their victorious rivals whom the day before they had vilified. Friends and opponents of disputed issues accepted the decision of the people with good grace. As William James once said, Americans had developed “the habit of trained and disciplined good temper toward the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings.”
Actually, the political liberty that Americans enjoyed was as much a lavish gift of nature as a product of human ingenuity or reasoned theory. The nation was filling up a huge continent of immeasurable resources. There were enough opportunities, and space to find them out, so that few could honestly feel dispossessed—except the slaves—and enough adaptability in most of them to make a go of life. Every free citizen had a reasonable expectation, if not the likelihood, of rising in the world.
Under the circumstances, as the historian Carl Becker pointed out, “We could afford, in normal times at least, to regard international affairs as a formality to be attended to by the Secretary of State, and in normal times we could afford to take domestic politics casually, even cynically, as a diverting game played according to understood rules of rhetoric and melodrama—played with gusto, indeed, but for low stakes that, however it came out and whoever won, would not seriously injure business or any man’s chance of getting his own back."
As a politician, Bingham clearly would have understood the import of that last remark. In the summer of 1846 he stood as a Whig candidate for the legislature. He lost his seat in a contested election (which he apparently had won on the first round by a slim margin) after what he considered a sordid display of political infighting, and thereupon vowed to “keep out of the mire of politics forever.” Two years later, however, he again ran for the office and this time decisively defeated the same rival. And as earlier remarked, he remained active in politics the rest of his days.
But the years during which Bingham undertook his most important political paintings were not altogether normal times. By the 1850’s the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Conditions of life were changing more radically than they had for the past millennium. Although westward expansion was gathering an enormous momentum, the nation had not yet digested nor even explored the vast new territories that had been added to the Union, and each new addition brought with it sectional rivalries that ineluctably focused on the problem of slavery.
Not everyone foresaw that centrifugal forces were so dangerously dividing the interests of the nation. In its awkward way, the democratic system of continual compromise and strong local attachment along party lines had, on the whole, served the country well and had seen it through numerous crises. Many believed that the Compromise of 1850 had succeeded once again in maintaining national goodwill. There is little apparent foreboding in any of Bingham’s pictures. Some of the characters he portrayed are grim of mien, but there is nowhere a specific allusion to the divisive problems that were shaking the very foundation of the Union. Here everything is politics as usual, a combination of bazaar and sporting event, in which fierce local pride and interests operating through a well-established party machinery hoped to support the national interest.
The conflict to come was irrepressible. Its long agony was endured at a very heavy cost. The two-party system had for a time failed. But it gradually was restored, reassuming many of the familiar guises that are still recognizable in our own current presidential election year. As Herbert Agar has observed, “so long as the United States remains a rambling, easy-going and enormous federation, it is doubtful whether the parties can nominate first-class candidates except by mistake.” Unfortunately, no such mistakes were made in the 1850’s. Whatever the circumstances, it is not possible to will great leaders into being. Governing wisely without them is the normal challenge of humanity.
Much has happened since Bingham painted his scenes, developments that have both confirmed and challenged Americans’ traditional notions about themselves and their country. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that the world can never be made safe for democracy, for democracy is a dangerous trade. Its problems are never really settled. Today American democracy must meet unprecedented problems that once again may test its flexibility to the utmost and—perhaps—even its viability.
In the end we are what our past has made us. In spite of its awkwardness, its irrationalities, and, at times, its almost intolerable slowness of procedure, our democratic system thus far has continued to serve the nation’s most pressing needs. It may be, as Winston Churchill advised the House of Commons in 1947, that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.