Election Campaigning

Now and Then!

With the 2001 Presidential election machines in high gear, it is only to be expected that doubts will be raised about the propriety of campaign funding and voter bribery. This seems a good time, therefore, to demonstrate how far we have come since the artist William Hogarth recorded the British parliamentary election at Oxford in 1754.

In simple terms, the English system throughout the 18th century pitted the "Old Interest" of the Tories against the "New Interest" of the Whigs--conservatism versus liberalism. The Tories would remain Tories and the Whigs would become the Liberal Party of the next century. Today, of course, nobody is quite sure who stands for what. The Conservative Tories still represent what's left of the old aristocracy while the Whigs have become Labor, Liberal-Democrats, supported to a greater or lesser degree by a miscellany of fringe parties with often-weird populist agendas. In 1754, the Whig candidate was one whom we might have expected to belong with the Tories. He was the wealthy Duke of Marlborough. However, his agents and electioneering operatives pushing local candidates provided the necessary contacts with the voters--as Hogarth made abundantly clear

The first in the series of four prints begins with a campaign-launching binge in a tavern by the Duke's Whig supporters. While they swill champagne, burgundy and gin, a parade of Tory promoters hurl brickbats through the window and get an emptied chamber pot and a flying stool in return. The second engraving is called Canvassing for Votes and shows a potential voter taking money from both party agents, a practice not far from the modern corporate penchant for donating to rival candidates to ensure that they have the ear of the winner. In the same engraving an entrepreneur takes advantage of the moment by selling campaign buttons and other topical gee-gaws to a couple of young women hanging out of an upstairs window.

Hogarth's third plate takes us to the day of the polling when "registered" voters were required to swear on the "Good Book" before casting their ballots. An old soldier with only a hook for a hand lays that on the Bible, and an encouraging felon (his legs in shackles) whispers the right name into the ear of a simpleton who has no knowledge of either candidate. Behind him two more party operatives (one of them having lost his nose to venereal disease) drag a dying or possibly already dead man to the voting booth.

Lastly, with the votes tallied, the victorious candidate is chaired through the street--thereby providing his supporters an excuse for hooliganism that leaves windows smashed and a house ransacked. Whether there is reassurance to be derived from knowing that in 250 years electioneering has changed hardly at all, depends on whether or not our guy gets in.

FURTHER READING:

Sean Shesgreen (ed.) Engravings by Hogarth, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1973.

Lichtenberg's Commentaries on Hogarth's Engravings, trans. by Innes & Gustav Herdan, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966.

John Ireland, Hogarth Illustrated, 2 vols. London: J & J Boydell, 1791.

Ronald Paulson, Hogarth's Graphic Works, 2 vols, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 1970.

Copyright: The Web of Time: Pages from the American Past, Volume 3, Number 1