Painter: John Trumbull

That time George Washington bought an election with 160 gallons of booze (and other Presidents’ Day stories)

February 12, 2016 Peter Brusoe

Invariably when people read about the billions of dollars spent on elections, they sometimes wistfully say “I want to go back to the old days like Washington and Lincoln, before money dominated politics.”

On Monday we celebrate the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. These men had a number of outstanding qualities that we should seek to incorporate into our lives – money’s role in politics is not one of them. We wanted to share two of the more amusing stories of our past presidents engaging in electioneering.

George Washington Treats Voters to Alcohol

In Colonial America, voting took place at county seats and involved an all-day affair across dusty roads. After arriving at the voting place, the voters would often be parched and in need of a beverage. The candidates would generously offer to provide refreshing beverages for the voting public. This practice was called “treating” the voters.

When George Washington first ran for the House of Burgesses – the colonial legislature of Virginia – he refused to engage in this practice. He went on to lose the election 271 to forty votes.

In 1758, George Washington changed his position on treating and instructed his campaign manager, Colonel James Wood, to treat the voters. According to Douglas Freeman, 160 gallons of alcohol were provided to 391 voters. This included 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer and 2 gallons of cider royal. Writing to the Colonel on July 28, 1758 Washington was concerned that they did not spend enough saying “my only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.”

Many of the early political leaders of our country engaged in this practice which enabled them to hold public office. This practice was looked at askance by reformers of the day, and gave rise to the first American campaign finance reform law – in 1811 Maryland prohibited candidates from purchasing alcohol for voters.

Abraham Lincoln Buys a Paper

If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve heard complaints from every candidate that the media is being unfair to their campaign and favoring one of their opponents. Some candidates have gone so far as to refuse to participate in debates because of one of the moderators. The notion of the media being unbiased is a twentieth century phenomenon. In the early days, newspapers were vehicles for partisan positions. Indeed, the federalist papers were published in newspapers to sway public opinion.

As the newspaper industry matured and as new waves of immigrants arrived in America, papers began appearing in different languages. According to Harold Holzer, Irish immigrants were voting for the Democratic Party, while German immigrants were voting for the newly formed Republican Party.

The German Language newspaper Freie Presse fell into hard times financially and the equipment was repossessed. Lincoln purchased the equipment for $400 and retained the publisher Dr. Theodore Canisius to create a new newspaper called Illinois Staats-Anzeiger. In the contract, Lincoln specified that the paper must publish weekly and support the Republican Party. After the presidential election, Lincoln divested himself of ownership. For his loyal service to the election effort, Canisius was made a diplomat with the title of special consul to Vienna.

While President Washington and President Lincoln were great men who did tremendous things for our country, we should acknowledge that they were politicians and that as politicians they engaged in accepted and common political practices of their day–which just so happened to include free booze and media manipulation.

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