Swilling the Planters With Bumbo: When Booze Bought Elections

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It's one thing for a political candidate to promise a chicken in every pot, as the Republican National Committee—though never Herbert Hoover himself—did during the 1928 presidential campaign. In the salad days of American democracy, the sales pitch was a little more direct: candidates actually plied voters with food and drink.

Even the father of our country, George Washington, was known to bribe the electorate with booze. In his recent book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent writes: "When twenty-four-year-old George Washington first ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he attributed his defeat to his failure to provide enough alcohol for the voters. When he tried again two years later, Washington floated into office partly on the 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer his election agent handed out—roughly half a gallon for every vote he received."

The practice, which was widespread and accepted (if technically illegal) at the time, was referred to as "swilling the planters with bumbo," according to the 1989 book Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices, by Robert J. Dinkin. "If a candidate ignored the custom of treating, he often found himself in great difficulty," Dinkin writes. When James Madison attempted to campaign in 1777 without "the corrupting influence of spiritous liquors, and other treats," he lost to a less principled opponent.

The practice of wining and dining the electorate can be traced back to Britain and, even earlier, to ancient Rome and Greece. By the 19th century, political parties—living up to the term—had elevated the tactic to a grand spectacle. In October 1876, Republicans in Brooklyn held the mother of all campaign barbecues, parading two oxen through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn before roasting them whole in Myrtle Avenue Park and passing the meat out on sandwiches. The New York Times called it "one of the most magnificent affairs of the kind ever held in this neighborhood. The grounds were thronged with men, women, and children during the whole of the afternoon and evening, and at the close of the festivities it is estimated that not less than 50,000 persons were in the park."

Sixteen years earlier, during the 1860 presidential election, the Douglas Democrats held a "Grand Political Carnival and Ox-roast" in Jones' Wood (in today's Upper East Side of Manhattan) that didn't go quite as smoothly. The event attracted 20,000 to 30,000 people, according to an amusing account in The New York Times:

The native voters and the unnaturalized votaries of the party on empty stomachs wended to the Wood, and awaited the feast for which they had reserved their appetites. But disappointment waits on expectation. Of all those who for hours stood there in hungry anticipation, comparatively few obtained a dinner. An ox, a sheep, a calf, and a hog, were the sacrifices by which the people were sought to be propitiated.

The 2,200-pound ox was cooked for 12 hours in a stone-lined pit 16 feet long, eight feet wide and five feet deep. It was served alongside 2,000 loaves of bread and 10 barrels of Boston crackers. But, alas, this was not enough for the hungry electorate:

It was nearly 2 o'clock, and everything was prepared for the orderly and quiet feeding of the people, when,—cito concurritur—there was a sudden rush, the barriers were overthrown, the policemen and the cooks were driven back, and Popular Sovereignty in its most extended signification was practically exemplified. Around and upon the tables that groaned under the dismembered parts of the ox and his fellow-victims the crowd swarmed like so many ants. There was a wild scramble for the choice bits; a pulling and hauling at greasy bones and gravy-soaked fibre, a melee over the rind of pork, a tossing of crackers and bread and meat hither and thither, and the barbecue was ended.

I don't know whether the barbecue influenced any voters one way or the other, but Stephen A. Douglas was trounced come election time. I'd like to think the outcome had more to do with his policies (including allowing states to decide on slavery, and support for the Dred Scott decision) and those of his opponent, Abraham Lincoln.

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