GEORGE CALEB BINGHAM: The County Election, c.1852

The County Election pictures the American democratic system in progress. The story takes place in a small Midwestern town in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rituals of voting were still taking shape, particularly on the frontier. George Caleb Bingham,
known as “the Missouri artist” for the state where he lived and worked, recognized the responsibilities as well as the rights of citizenship; and because he played an active part in Missouri politics, he gained a personal perspective on the contemporary electoral process. In The County Election, Bingham presents a raucous voting party as an enactment of democracy, bringing together a variety of residents in a rural community to make decisions for the common good.

The County Election by George Caleb Bingham c. 1852

In this crowded composition, Bingham suggests the inclusiveness of a democracy with representatives of every age and social stratum—except, of course, African Americans, who would not enjoy the right to vote until after the Civil War, and women, whose right to participate would not be recognized for another seventy years. The painting reveals other irregularities in the electoral system that would not be tolerated today. Because there was no system of voter registration, the man in red at the top of the courthouse steps swears on the Bible that he hasn’t already cast a vote. Because there was no secret (or even paper) ballot, a voter calls out his choice to the election clerks behind the judge, who openly record it in a ledger. Because there were no restrictions on electioneering, the welldressed gentleman behind the voter—evidently one of the candidates—is free to hand his card to citizens just before they cast their vote. Yet none of this appears to dull the spirit of the
voting process.

The lack of a single dramatic focus in The County Election is an expression of the democratic ideal: all men appear as equals, with no one vote worth more than another. Several members of the electorate engage in serious discussion, perhaps debating
the candidates’ qualifications. Another group clusters around a newspaper, a potent tool of democracy. Nevertheless, Bingham seems to question the integrity of an election conducted so casually. In the left foreground, a portly man already sprawled
in his chair accepts more hard cider from an African American precinct worker, presumably in exchange for a vote. Behind him, a well-to-do gentleman literally drags a slumping body to the polls as he casts a meaningful glance toward the candidate
in blue. A figure beside the courthouse steps (directly below the man giving an oath) tosses a coin, as though the winner of this contest might as well be determined by luck (or money) as by an orderly election; and in the foreground, the actions of two boys, absorbed in a childhood pastime in which a knife thrown into the ground determines the winner, suggest that the political process is little more than a game of chance. More ominously, a tattered figure in the front right corner hangs his bandaged head, perhaps to imply that for all the apparent good will of the crowd, violence lies just beneath the surface.

Besides commenting on American electioneering in general, The County Election records a particular political event. As many of Bingham’s contemporaries would have known, the
painting depicts Election Day 1850 in Saline County, Missouri, when the artist himself was running for a place in the State Legislature. Bingham lost that election to E. D. Sappington,
whom he represents as the unprincipled candidate in the shiny top hat. Sappington, with his workers, did try to buy votes with liquor, and because he was related to the judge and one of the clerks, the election’s outcome naturally aroused suspicion. Bingham did not contest the results, but The County Election makes an obvious indictment of his political opponent. The artist himself makes an appearance in the picture as the figure in the stovepipe hat seated on the courthouse steps, attended by a friendly dog and two men in white hats who pause to look over his shoulder. Bingham’s quiet concentration sets him apart from the crowd, and we can only wonder whether he is keeping track of the votes in order to tally them for himself, or sketching the unruly practices of a young democracy.

Have a great week! -Mrs. S

“Bless the Lord, Oh my soul and all that is within me.  Bless His Holy Name.”


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