Face to face with the voters: Bingham’s Country Politician

Before TV and Twitter, politicians talked to voters face-to-face.

George Caleb Bingham, Country Politician, 1849, oil on canvas, 51.8 x 61cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Speakers: Emily Jennings, Director of School and Family Programs, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Steven Zucker.

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Bingham, Country Politician

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Key points

  • In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the legality of slavery in new territories was a contentious matter, foreshadowing the American Civil War. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have prevented slavery in these new territories, was passed twice by the House of Representatives, but was never approved by the Senate. In its place, the Compromise of 1850 attempted to defuse these tensions by allowing states to vote on slavery while strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act.
  • Politics in the nineteenth century was conducted on a more personal level, as politicians had to travel to meet voters and speak with them directly about their stance on issues. As a politician himself, the artist would have been familiar with this process, particularly in frontier areas like the one depicted in this painting.
  • George Caleb Bingham was a representative in the Missouri House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party and an advocate for returning to the ideals of the American revolution. He believed that the people should be given the power to make decisions. When the Missouri legislation passed the “Jackson Resolutions” of 1849, which claimed it was unconstitutional for Congress to bar slavery in newly acquired territories, Bingham countered with the “Bingham Resolutions,” recommending that states be allowed to vote on the matter.
  • This painting was purchased by the American Art Union, where it was reproduced widely as an affordable print. As a print, it contributed to the national conversation on states’ rights and contemporary politics, but it also created an entertaining depiction of politics in the western U.S.

Go deeper

See this work at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

See this related print at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Learn about sectionalism in the mid 19th century and growing tensions over slavery

What was the Wilmot Proviso?

Explore primary source documents about the Compromise of 1850

Learn more about George Caleb Bingham’s artistic and political career

Read more about 19th century genre painting in the United States


More to think about

How do you think Bingham’s depiction of politics in the 19th century compares to contemporary images about politicians, political debate, and civic engagement of the public? If you were going to create a genre scene about politicians talking to their constituents today, how might you alter Bingham’s original image to reflect your own ideas and experience?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.