27 May 2016

Southern Heritage, Southern Family, Southern Tradition: Part 2

Stump Speaking by George Caleb Bingham, ca 1854
(This is part 2 of a 4 part series for Memorial Day, focusing on Southern heritage, family and tradition. Part 3 will be an excerpt from the introduction from my latest book, The Battle of Waynesboro. Part 4 will be delayed until next week, but will link to a recent interview with Earl Ijames.)

Caleb Bingham's Stump Speaking is an iconic image in the history of American politics. Born in my home of Augusta County, Virginia, Bingham's image captures the pathos of a 19th century run for political office. Self-taught and mostly an obscure artist during his own lifetime, Bingham is now considered to be one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century. Stump Speaking depicts a politician appealing to voters (in Missouri) for their vote. Most readers know that the term "Stump Speech" was coined due to the habit of politicians mounting a convenient tree stump in rural areas to deliver impromptu speeches which, like many political speeches today, simply repeat the central themes of the campaign.

Wikipedia's interpretation of this painting is quite intriguing and focuses on the three central figures in the painting, all dressed in white:
Before the creation of the painting, Bingham had made preliminary sketches of the three aforementioned people, who represented Bingham’s belief of the past, present, and future of American politics. The "Outstanding Citizen", as Bingham’s sketch refers to him, represents the past as the man’s sharp edges and fine clothes show how he is unwilling to bend his beliefs and instead works among the people. His sharp edges contrast with the softer curves of the "Stump Speaker", the character that represents the present of American politics. The "Stump Speaker" appears to be swaying the assembled crowd by bending to the people’s desires, shown by the curving arm that is outstretched to the audience. The "Small Businessman" represents the future. That child shows how people are starting to focus more on their money, as the child is, and less on the politics, parallel to how the child is detached from the debate surrounding him. The three people represent "the Jeffersonian past, of statesmen and gentlemen farmers; the Jacksonian present, of demagogues, party hacks, and gullible citizens; and a materialistic future of isolated citizens with no common public life at all."
That last sentence indicates that little has changed since Bingham's time - other than the intensity and extremism. 

The political Stump Speech. Southerners perfected it. And below is one more Southerner who has perfected it: Captain Clay Higgins of Louisiana. Some who listen to this speech will not be able to get past Mr. Higgins's Southern accent. That will be their misfortune and loss. I have to say this speech and the Q&A is, perhaps (for its purpose) the best political speech I've ever heard. And I've heard a bunch of them in my 58 years.

Higgins hits on all the necessary themes and does so with a skill that is rare, even among seasoned politicians. In a word, he's a natural. And he handles the questions masterfully; especially the contentious question from the second "reporter."

No comments: