The County Election, 1852
Artist: George Caleb Bingham
Medium: Oil on canvas
Citation: The County Election, 1852. George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879). Oil on canvas. 38 x 52 inches (96.5 x 132.1 cm.). Saint Louis Art Museum.
Rights Holder: Saint Louis Art Museum
Engage! Theme: Participation
George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election captures the triumphs and hazards of American participatory democracy and its founding principle that every voter is entitled to a single vote regardless of wealth, education, or influence.
The painting shows a wide range of voters gathered to campaign, debate, cast their ballots, and even brawl in a local election taking place in a generic frontier town.
The voters reflect the widening of the electorate in Jacksonian America to include poor laborers as well as prosperous gentlemen and even immigrants, represented by the red-shirted man at the top of the pyramid of figures, whose red hair and snub nose identify him as a stereotypical Irishman; he is shown taking an oath that he has not already cast a ballot in the race.
Women are virtually absent from the scene, and the only African American is the servant marginalized behind a table at the far left.
In The County Election, Bingham celebrates American democracy even as he points up its pitfalls: a wily campaigner turns his charm on a country bumpkin; an intoxicated voter is hauled to the polls; and in the foreground, two boys play a dangerous knife-game of chance, a sly commentary on the election’s outcome.
This is one of a series of paintings Bingham made to show American democracy in action, based on his often-bitter direct experience as a Whig politician in Missouri in the 1840s.
Both the American electorate and the electoral process itself have changed greatly since Bingham’s day, yet the fundamental principles of democracy, as well as its practical shortcomings, persist.
In this image of a county election from 1852, what kinds of people have shown up to campaign, debate, or vote? Who is not here?
What is the overall tone of this election? Why do you think the artist included all these different men? What is he saying about elections at the time?
In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, the ideas of Jacksonian democracy prevailed, and white men of all sorts—regardless of wealth, education, or influence had the right to vote. Previously, “universal male suffrage” had really applied only to educated men of a certain class. How have we extended this broader concept of universal suffrage today? Who else would we see in an image of a county election today?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Consider what it means to have the right to vote. Is it a responsibility, an honor? Do we have to deserve the right or should it be inherently ours as Americans, no matter what? Are there groups that are still disenfranchised today? If so, should they be granted the right to vote? Why or why not?
Over the course of American history, various groups have gained the right to vote: black males and all women, most notably, as well as any immigrant who becomes a citizen. Find people from these groups in your community and interview them about what it means to have the right to vote in America.