Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview
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George Caleb Bingham's The County Election

Whig Tribute to the Will of the People


George Caleb Bingham's Election Series occupies a unique place in the history of American art due to its thematic focus on practical politics in a representative democracy. The artist's own passionate involvement with the frontier electoral process, including his personal experience as a candidate for office, has created an aura of authenticity around these paintings and invited speculation that Bingham's view of backwoods politics was based on a strong partisan bias. Consistent with recent scholarship on Bingham, Gail Husch emphasizes his Whig Party affiliation in her consideration of the Election Series; but she also challenges the consensus view that these works constitute a cynical critique of populist democracy by an orthodox Whig with elitist contempt for the common man.

Husch believes that the Election Series has been misread as an indictment of the American electorate by oversimplifying Whig ideology and misrepresenting the core of Bingham's own political convictions. She argues instead for an understanding of the series as an idealistic vision of national unity achievable through political compromise. Although she admits to Bingham's growing disillusionment with the electoral process and its capacity to resolve the problems created by westward expansion, Husch attributes Bingham's loss of faith in representative government to the growing corruption of self-serving politicians and their insistence on blind loyalty to partisan interests.

"Political excitement," lamented a female observer in 1848, is

a pestilence which is forever racing through our land, seeking whom it may devour; destroying happy homes, turning aside our intellectual strength from the calm and healthy pursuits of literature or science, blinding consciences, embittering hearts, rasping the tempers of men, and blighting half the country with its feverish breath. 1

This election fever must certainly have infected the Democratic voters whose raucous procession down the streets of New York was captured in a crude woodcut published on the second page of the New York Morning Herald on November 5, 1839. The print shows wild-eyed marchers advancing through a foreground littered with trampled bodies; in the far right of the scene a man vomits from excessive drink while behind him


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