George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election (1852) is described as “a crowded voting scene on the main street of a town in front of an open porch.” What is its more profound meaning? The artist depicts an election through several vignettes in an era when slavery prevailed and only men could vote. Augmenting the museum’s notes, my interpretation, reading from left to right, is:
Almost certainly poured by a slave, a voter is given another drink–clearly more than ‘one too many’. Over his left shoulder, a seated voter has passed out.
Boys in the foreground play a game of mumble-the-peg. The game, played by tossing a knife in the air, may symbolize the potential peris of politics
Behind the boys, perhaps this is a self-portrait of the artist seated on the steps, sketching.
On the porch a hopeful candidate tips his hat while handing his card to the next voter in line. The wary voter keeps his hands in his pockets.
Beside the recalcitrant voter, another voter is sworn in, attesting he has not voted elsewhere.
Beneath them, three men discuss the election.
To their right, a gentleman reads a newspaper, perhaps looking for endorsements, while another looks over his shoulder.
At the far right a symbolic figure, beaten and bowed with head bandaged and trousers torn, has clearly lost his fight.
In Bingham’s Missouri of 1852, slaves had no rights at all, and many men asked: “Why should women have the right to vote, they’d only vote the way their husbands tell them?”
“Bingham believed slavery to be immoral and an issue that threatened the future of the Union. On these grounds, as a state legislator he advocated against the expansion of slavery beyond its original borders.” (Deborah Keating, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO)