Election Day!

The County Election, 1852, George Caleb Bingham

This is Election Day. It is a day that many of us thought would never come, but finally it is here. Along with all of the excitement and hoopla, there will be both tragedy and angst. I submit that it has always been like that. My only apology is that things have gotten better, as we all strive towards a more perfect union.

George Caleb Bingham’s “The County Election” pictures the American democratic progress. I don’t normally do this, but click on the picture to enlarge it. This painting belongs to the Saint Louis Art Museum, which is “Dedicated to Art and Free to All”. It also permits non-flash photography. The story portrayed in the painting, takes place in a small Missouri town in the nineteenth century, when the rituals of voting were still taking shape. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency, has created an excellent description of this painting, here. This is my synopsis of the NEH description:

Known as “the Missouri artist”, Bingham presents this raucous voting party as an enactment of democracy, bringing together residents of a rural community to make decisions for the common good. In his crowded composition, Bingham suggests the inclusiveness of a democracy with representatives of every age and social stratum, except 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 records it in a ledger. Because there were no restrictions on electioneering, the well dressed gentleman behind the voter, 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 elections sins portrayed by Bingham were meant as criticisms. The scene portrayed was the artist’s perception of an actual election, an election that Bingham lost and the well dressed gentleman, a Mister Sappington won. Saint Louis residents will recognise this old family name.

According to Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” Today, Election Day, there will be new cheats, new controversies. We are only puny, fallible humans, so do your best, go vote.

Are you a patriot or a vampire?

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