Every four years American citizens go to the polls to elect a president of the United States. At the same time, they will vote for a whole slate of state and local officials. This month EDSITEment celebrates the voting process, which is so central to the American system of democracy, with a special feature on The County Election by Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879).
Bingham is famous for his images of frontier life and commerce along the great Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers. In works such as Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) and The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846), he endeavored to capture and memorialize a way of life that—despite its manifest energy and vitality—was vanishing before his eyes.
The artist grew up on the Missouri frontier during the period when Andrew Jackson and his party dominated American political life. Jackson who is one of the few presidents whose name is used to characterize a whole era in American history was the subject of another EDSITEment feature; the classic description of the political, religious, commercial, cultural and social life of this period is contained in Democracy in America. Bingham however belonged to the Whig party, which was founded in opposition to the Democratic policies of Jackson. He made speeches in support of the Presidential candidate William Henry Harrison and ran for office himself as a Whig candidate several times.
In a series of three election paintings, of which The County Election is the best known, he endeavored to capture the robust dynamics of the young republic's electoral process so that in his own words, "our social and political characteristics ... will not be lost in the lapse of time for lack of an art record rendering them full justice." Bingham even went so far as to turn the County Election and one of its companion pieces, Stump Speaking, into colored engravings, which could be widely disseminated across the nation. A full scale copy of The County Election was taken on tour of the South in order to raise subscriptions for the engraving.
The County Election depicts the 1850 election in Saline County, Missouri, when Bingham ran against E.D. Sappington; and the artist's affection for—and his ability to see humor in—America's democratic process is present everywhere. However, there were significant differences between the general voting process then and now, as well as different practices among the states.
Elections in mid-nineteenth century America were not conducted as they are today, as historian Jill Lepore explains in “Rock, Paper, Scissors” from the New Yorker magazine. The ballot was not secret, precinct workers were not kept at a distance from the polls, and in the case of Missouri, the voting lasted for three days. A man could vote in any township in the county, but he had to swear that he had not and would not vote elsewhere. Moreover, the voting rights of African American men and of women were not guaranteed until the passage of the 15th and 17th Amendments decades later
Despite the fact that the electorate is exclusively made up of white men, there is great diversity of human types in the crowd. Bingham, as a friend of his noted, "left nothing out, the courtier, the politician, the laborer, the sturdy farmer, the bully at the poles, the beer seller, the bruised pugilist." In The County Election, we see and can almost hear the high-spirited hubbub of a festival as townsmen and plain farmers argue, converse, and call out greetings. There is no after-dark, back-room politics here, but many wry observations by the artist.
Although the democratic faith in the judgment of the common man, "The will of the people is the supreme law," is printed on the bright blue standard that divides the background landscape from the action around the polls, this device leans precariously against the far column of the porch. It is not by accident that Bingham has located his Democratic rival, represented as an unctuous vote-getter tipping his shiny top hat to a voter, directly below what was a common Jacksonian slogan, while the artist, dressed in muted browns sits on the lowest porch step, perhaps quietly sketching or writing out his platform for two interested onlookers.
Alcohol played a major role in frontier America, and Bingham is not hesitant to show its effects in election-day politics. A plump, broadly smiling man in the left foreground holds his glass to be filled with hard cider—a favorite tool for attracting voters to candidates' sides. Liquor seems to have already overwhelmed the individual behind him, who is being dragged, barely conscious, to the polls. Violence—the result of the heady concoction of liquor, high spirits, physical coercion, and political argument is indicated by the battered fellow on a bench in the far right foreground. The power of money and chance is symbolized by the toss of a coin directly below the swearing in, and—in the midst of all the commotion—by two boys who play a game of throwing a knife into the ground. One critic noted these details and wrote that the picture defamed one of the most valuable of our political institutions. He was expecting a straight-laced civics lesson, not an insider's view on the electoral process
Although confusion seems to reign, the painting's composition is carefully constructed along a main diagonal that begins with a voter being sworn in on the porch and ends at the foot of the boy and laughing drinker in the left foreground. Moreover, every figure in The County Election has been carefully thought out and rendered with firm clarity, as we can see by viewing this interactive Web feature from the St. Louis Museum of Art. In the large groups of his Election Series, Bingham achieved his finest and most ambitious composition and characterizations.
In the words of a friend of Bingham, the painting helps us to appreciate that "the elective franchise is the very corner stone, upon which rests our governmental superstructure and as illustrative of our fine institutions, the power and influence which the ballot box exerts over our happiness as a people ..." In some sense these works of Bingham are the forerunners of the public service ads which we see during an election cycle urging us to get out and vote and reminding us that on election day the sovereignty of the people is made palpable to the entire country and the world.
George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879), The County Election, 1852. Oil on canvas, 38 x 52 in. (96.5 x 132.1 cm.). Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Mo., Gift of Bank of America.