Swilling the Planters With Bumbo: When Booze Bought Elections
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.”