Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bingham's Citizens: Antebellum Elections

Artist George Caleb Bingham gave us some of our best images of antebellum America. Perhaps one of his most famous is his painting of election day, part of a series including images of a stump speaking and the announcement of results. I particularly love this one, as it represents something that the overwhelming majority of the soldiers we study, Union and Confederate, would have been familiar with. Here we see a community of citizens on display. From the gentleman/candidate in the blue coat on the steps, doffing his tall beaver to a farmer for his vote, to the party men so plied with whiskey that they can no longer stand (but maybe can pull themselves together enough to pronounce for the Party's candidate), and the ever watchful party organizer sitting on the steps counting the votes and marking off his list of constituents as they come forward. All ranks of the citizen are here.

Who isn't here? Women, for one, are not. In Bingham's mind, this is a gathering of citizens, a gathering where women have no place. While women were important to shaping politics, they influenced decisions within the domestic sphere. African Americans are not present either, save for the one man dispensing drinks at the behest of his owner/employer (depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon you presume this to represent). In reality, women, children, and African Americans were present at elections, politics was entertainment and elections, speeches, and political parades were times for socializing. The entire community would have turned out for the election. Bingham, though, shows citizens: white, male, citizens. He wants to depict American democracy as it was, and by excluding noncitizens he did precisely that.

The fact remains, though, that even with citizenship restricted as it was, antebellum elections saw voter turnouts of 70-90% regularly. I know that at 5:50 (in the a.m.) when I went to the polls this morning there was already a 30 minute wait. I couldn't have been more proud of my fellow citizens there, in line before the sun came up. Let's hope that this election -- whoever you vote for -- can reinvigorate American democracy.

Most of us can't understand or experience much of what Civil War soldiers went through during the war. I will never feel the rush of adrenaline in combat, the pains of homesickness, the suffering and terror of an army hospital. But I can -- you can -- participate in this public ritual that both sides went to war claiming to defend.

1 comment:

Seeker said...


Was Lincoln on the ballot in Tennesee? He was not allowed on the ballot in 9 of the 11 Southern states.

It didn't matter much if he had been -- but elections in the Deep South were a joke anyway. Only pro slavery candidated were allowed to campaign anyway.

Lincoln would have been hung if he had campaigned in the South, or handed out literature. The SOuth had suppressed anti -slavery speech from 1820's on.