Election day art — well, this is campaign art, but part of that American tradition of highlighting the public nature of elections and campaigns.
Yes, there’s Henry Clay — maybe the man most-expected to become president who never did. No, your high school history class probably didn’t cover Clay well, and most don’t today, either. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes may give him part of what he is due.
But there he is, campaigning in 1844, out on the road. Actually, he’s at the hotel, reading a newspaper — and everyone else stares. Some people bring their children to see the
It was Clay’s third run at the presidency, at to be his last. He ran on the Whig Party ticket, a party that would crash and burn within the decade, sinking from electoral politics forever. (Millard Fillmore would be last Whig President, ascending from the vice presidency on the death of Zachary Taylor; Taylor was the last elected Whig President.) Clay was amply qualified on paper, and in the minds of most people, to be president.
Henry Clay, Sr. (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852) was an American lawyer, politician, and skilled orator who represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives. He served three different terms as Speaker of the House of Representatives and was also Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829. He lost his campaigns for president in 1824, 1832 and 1844.
In 1824, he ran behind Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. In what Jackson later called the Corrupt Bargain, when no candidate got a majority in the electoral college, and the election went to the House of Representatives (where each state gets one vote!), Clay pulled out, and let it be known that he favored Adams, who had run behind Jackson. Adams was elected, and appointed Clay to be Secretary of State, the most common stepping stone to the presidency. (Was there a deal cut between Adams and Clay? No evidence can ever quash the suspicions of Jackson and his supporters.)
In 1832, older, wiser, from the Senate and as founder of the Whig Party, Clay ran and lost to Jackson, who won his second term.
In 1844 Clay was 67 years old. The presidency was open. Clay sought to walk the fence between groups who favored abolishing slavery, and groups who insisted slavery was necessary for the economy. He opposed annexing new lands to the U.S., in order to preserve the balance between slave and non-slave states in Congress, especially the Senate. James K. Polk, a young protege of Andrew Jackson, was chiefly unknown. But Polk endorsed the idea of the nation’s “manifest destiny,” meaning he supporting annexing lands, sorting out slave/non-slave issues later. Polk didn’t talk about his views on slavery in territories, and that was enough to mollify anti-slave forces in the party; but Polk was a slave holder, and that encouraged partisans on the other side to believe he’d favor them. Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote, Clay 48.1%; Clay captured 170 electoral votes when 138 were needed to win.
Clay was, no doubt, more hopeful at the time the painting conveys.
Notice Clay seems to travel alone. There is not gaggle of reporters, no clutch of campaign aides. There is no one to fetch the great man a newspaper so he can remain cloistered in his hotel room. It was, in all ways, a much different time. Voting in the election itself ran for a month, from early November to early December. How that would have frustrated the television networks!
The painting, on loan to and on display in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, came to light due to an owner’s bringing it to the Antiques Road Show of PBS, in 2008. Amon Carter’s curators, always alert to American art and art of the west, worked to get it on display. That story is told nicely by University of Texas at Dallas art historian Rick Brettell in the Dallas Morning News.
The painting represents the well-dressed — note the red silk living of his top coat — Sen. Henry Clay from Kentucky in the middle of a common tavern during his final run for office. He is at a stop on the campaign trail — his luggage is piled up on the right — and is catching up on the news in front of a stove. The tavern itself is respectable, and one small child, representing the future, looks intently at Clay, while two women and another child peep in curiously from the door. The entire painting projects an air of democratic common sense.
The painting actually focuses on the class differences between Clay and his constituents and represents the great politician as being out of touch with “the American people” — lost in his paper. Clay was a member of the American party that was dominant in the early 19th century and was called the Democratic-Republican Party. He had become a Whig long before the 1844 election, which he lost to James Polk.
With his beautiful clothes and his disdain for those around him, he is as out of touch as many of today’s politicians with their wealthy backers and super-PACS. What we learn from this trenchant analysis of 19th-century politics is that history does repeat itself. Interestingly, Clay, as a slave owner, opposed the annexation of Texas to the republic, a major issue in the election of 1844, for fear that it would exacerbate the debate about slavery then raging in America. How right he was.
Had Clay won instead, would Texas be a part of the U.S. today? Something to ponder on election day 2014 — or to visit, if you’re voting in Fort Worth.
- While you’re there, if you’re interested in U.S. history in the 19th century, be sure also to see “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River.” Yes, the same George Caleb Bingham who painted elections in Missouri.