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Primary Source of the Month
The County Election, 1852
by George Caleb Bingham
Saint Louis Art Museum, used with permission
The County Election is part of George Caleb Bingham's Election Series, which portrays various scenes from American political life. Bingham used his experiences as a Missouri politician to inform his paintings of the mid-nineteenth-century political system. Voting in the nineteenth century was much closer to that of the colonial period than that of today. Although many of the restrictions on property ownership and religion had been eased, the franchise was still restricted to free white men over the age of 21.
As can be seen in the painting, voting was not always the quiet, private affair we experience today. For much of American history, voting day was a major community event, noisy, busy, and chaotic. Candidates and their representatives were present at the polling place, and could continue to convince voters of their worthiness for office as they waited in line. Plying voters with alcohol and food was common. Votes were given orally and so were not private. A clerk would record the votes, but a voter had no way of knowing whether the clerk was keeping an honest record.
In order to achieve a high level of detail for each figure in the painting, Bingham sketched each figure separately and then transferred him to the painting. The people were designed and placed very purposefully. The children playing a game in the foreground, for instance, symbolize Bingham's opinion that politics is a game. The African American man serving drinks reminds viewers of those who were not allowed to vote. For more on the symbolism in the painting, view the Saint Louis Art Museum's interactive site at http://www.slam.org/bingham/.