October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Declaring himself a “thorough democrat” George Caleb Bingham portrayed the American voter with an artist’s eye—and a seasoned politicians savvy
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.
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.
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.