American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Times That Tried Men's Bodies

The Manly Sport of American Politics

Lead us not into temptation.

-- Mark Twain, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"

Cursing, drinking, sometimes fighting, getting black eyes, bloody noses, and when the election is over coming home with coat torn off and sometimes minus a hat--verily they appear to be the number of the elect . . . in those times that tried men's what? Souls--it may be; but I should think the body was most exposed.

-- Henry B. Miller, "Diary," March 23, 1838, HSM.

Politics is a contact sport.

--"Tip" O'Neill, Man of the House

Henry B. Miller was in St. Louis when he participated in his first elections. The initial one, for city officers in the spring of 1838, was a memorable induction for the young man into the sport of American politics, even though "it went off middling quiet, as far as regards fighting." The second, in August of the same year for state and national positions, was a notable brawl which "learnt me," Miller wrote, "that there was as many rowdies amongst the Whigs as amongst the Democrats." Miller's first voting experiences included many common aspects of belligerent antebellum democracy and suggest how much intimidation, bruising, and violence the American system incorporated into its democratic virility.

In the "middling quiet" city election, Miller recounted many "amusing sights":

Each one exerting himself for his respective candidate, talking loud and fast . . . , raising the one above the superior class of mankind and sinking the other below the lowest of mankind to whom the Devil himself would be virtuous . . . , bringing forward the voters telling them who to vote for, and challenging the votes of everyone with who they have the faintest shadow of a chance; handing out tickets, crossing out names, with many arguments pro and con.

Around this genial mayhem swirled the swearing, swilling, and fighting, the black eyes and bloody noses and torn coats that made this a time that tried men's bodies "by smart raps and sound kicks."

If the spring election provided days that tried other men's bodies, Miller's own was to be tested in the three-day August election. The voting process was "Viva Voce, that is everyman's vote is read off at the Polls and the name of the different

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