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Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Verdict of the People

The Verdict of the People, 1854-55, George Caleb Bingham
About noon tomorrow, January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will become the forty-fifth President of the United States of America. Regardless of your political affiliation (or my own), President Trump will become a fact of life for at least the next four years. Of course, if the past year or so has shown us anything, it's that there are no certainties in American politics. in a broader sense, One might even go so far as to say the same applies to American history in general. Around 1852-55, the American frontier artist, George Caleb Bingham, painted a series of large-scale depictions of the American political system as it existed on the western frontier of the United States at the time (basically west of the Alleghenies to the area bordering both sides of the Mississippi River. One of those paintings, The Verdict of the People, will hang on the wall of the Capitol's Statuary Hall (the old House of Representatives chamber) as it presides over tomorrow's traditional inaugural luncheon. To the surprise and dismay of the St. Louis Museum of Art, which owns the painting, its presence at such an august event has become controversial.
George Caleb Bingham
Self-Portrait, ca. 1834
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the chairman of the Joint Congressional Com-mittee on Inaugural Ceremonies, thought Bingham's painting would add a nice touch to the celebratory proceedings. Ilene Berman, an art student at St. Louis University, and art his-torian, Ivy Cooper, who teaches at Southern Illinois University, think otherwise. They started a petition which, at last count, had been signed by over two-thousand people who agree with them. Why the big ado? First of all, it has little to do with the painting itself and much to do with the title. The petitioning group disputes the fact that Trump's election, in which he trailed his opponent by nearly three-million votes, does not reflect the "Verdict of the People." It reflects the constitutional verdict of the Electoral College. Thus, under the circumstances, the largely academic pet-itioners see the painting's title (if not the painting itself) as being inappropriate.

Stump Speaking,  1853-54, George Caleb Bingham
When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the founding fathers did not trust the white, male, landowning, voting citizens of their country with the all-important responsibility of electing their leaders, specifically Senators, the President, and the Vice president. The system of governing, of, for, and by the people was so new to the existing realm of political thought as to be considered a highly dangerous experiment. The institution of an Electoral College, elected by the people, but free to act on its own, was considered a prudent buffer between ignorance and governmental wisdom. And, if the nature of most of the voting individuals Bingham depicts in his Stump Speaking (above) and his Verdict of the People (top) is any indication, such a move was likely a wise one. They are far from the embodiment of democracy at its best. Instead, they are democracy as a hectic undertaking in which those who take politics seriously are inseparable from those who view politics as a spectacle. (Notice the man at far right wearing three hats, which he has likely won in wagering on the election outcome.) Bingham also makes a point of depicting the disenfranchised in the form of the shadowy African-American figure in the far lower-left corner (with the bandana around his head) pushing a wheelbarrow. Bingham became an Abolitionist and later a Lincoln Republican.

The County Election, 1852,  George Caleb Bingham
(probably the first in the series).
As seen by Bingham, during the 19th-century, voting was, indeed, something of a public spectacle, only a little more dignified than a public hanging. It's difficult to say at precisely what point in American history the Electoral College became antiquated, and later detrimental to the whole political process. If one were to venture a guess, it might be at the same time that high school attendance became mandatory, thus providing some semblance of a politically astute electorate. Another possible date might be April 8, 1913, and the passage of the 17th Amendment mandating the direct election of U.S. senators (as opposed to their being selected by state legislatures). The reasoning being that if the electorate was considered sufficiently trustworthy in directly electing their senators, the same should be true as to their President and Vice president.

Canvassing for a Vote, 1852, George Caleb Bingham
Much has changed in the American political system, as underlined by Bingham's 1852 Canvassing for a Vote (above). The politician has a familiarly "shady" look, but otherwise, virtually nothing is the same. Nothing, that is, but the constitutional relic from more than two-hundred years ago by which twice in recent American history (five times altogether) a president has been elected having lost the popular vote. The artsy petitioners out in the Midwest should not be protesting a painting underlining the political changes of the past two centuries; but instead, fighting to repeal the one remaining constitutional anachronism it represents, which so distorts and abuses the will of the American people.


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