- Date of birth: March 20, 1811
- Place of birth: Augusta County, Virginia
- Claim to fame: Missouri politician and American artist famous for paintings including: Verdict of the People, Stump Speaking, The County Election, Canvassing for a Vote, The County Politician, The Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, Mississippi Raftsmen at Cards, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, and Martial Law or Order No. 11
- Political affiliations: Whig Party, Democratic Party by the end of the war
- Date of death: July 7, 1879
- Place of death: Kansas City, Missouri
- Cause of death: “cholera morbus”
- Final resting place: Union Cemetery, Kansas City, Mo.
George Caleb Bingham was a recognized son of Missouri throughout his life: a reputation that was solidified by his paintings portraying life in the state and on its rivers. While Bingham’s reputation as an artist is widely known, his role in Missouri politics and specifically in the border conflicts of the 1860s is less familiar. The brutality visited on the noncombatants along the Missouri-Kansas border before and during the Civil War appalled Bingham, but despite his strong feelings, he used his paintings to support his political philosophy that the Union must be maintained.
Bingham was born in Augusta County, Virginia, on March 20, 1811, to Mary Amend and Henry Vest Bingham. A financial setback in 1818 forced his father to move the family to Saline County, Missouri, where he died of malaria in 1823. Mary Bingham opened a girls’ school to support her large family, and 12-year-old George worked as a janitor at the school to assist her. Bingham left his home in Arrow Rock in 1827 to study cabinet making but also began to earn money painting portraits of members of local families in Saline and Benton counties. By age 19 he was earning as much as $20 per portrait, and by 1833 he was able to support himself through his painting. In 1836 Bingham moved to St. Louis and opened a portrait studio and within two years was well established as a portrait painter. Although almost totally self-taught, Bingham later studied the techniques of well-known artists in New York galleries.
...even though his father owned slaves (which Bingham sold before the Civil War began), he believed slavery to be immoral and an issue that threatened the future of the Union.
Although not as obvious to modern admirers, Bingham was considered a political painter in his day, with his works reflecting issues of regional and national import. He did more than paint about the issues, however. Described by one biographer as an activist who felt obligated to fight for the principles he held dear, Bingham engaged in Missouri politics. He ran for the Missouri state legislature in 1846 but lost the seat when his opponent challenged the election results. He was again elected in 1848. Expansion of slavery to the territories was a topic debated throughout the United States, and even though his father owned slaves (which Bingham sold before the Civil War began), he believed slavery to be immoral and an issue that threatened the future of the Union. On these grounds, as a state legislator he advocated against the expansion of slavery beyond its original borders. To influence his constituents, he wrote articles in the Missouri Statesman describing the evils of the institution, a position considered radical at the time. He left the legislature after the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1848 and returned to painting. In 1856, with his second wife, Eliza K. Thomas, whom he married in 1849, and his daughter Clara, he traveled to Paris to study the European masters. He finally settled for several years in Dusseldorf. Even while in Dusseldorf, Bingham worked on commissions from the Missouri state legislature and other private contracts. Upon the death of his father-in-law in 1859, he returned to the United States and became embroiled in Missouri state politics.
While Bingham worked in Europe, the political climate in America worsened. Threats of Southern secession and fears of war dominated the political scene as Abraham Lincoln received the presidential nomination for the Republican Party. In Missouri a secessionist, Claiborne Fox Jackson, won the Missouri governorship. Fearing that Jackson would lead the state to join the Confederacy, Bingham allied himself with James Rollins, Frank Blair, and others to prevent Missouri from following South Carolina in seceding. They solicited the help of Hamilton R. Gamble, a native Virginian who lived in Missouri from 1818 to 1858 and served as chief justice of the State Supreme Court. Gamble returned to Missouri to assist in keeping the state in the Union. Although Missourians voted to remain in the Union, Governor Jackson continued to negotiate with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After a series of confrontations and battles, Jackson withdrew into Arkansas, and a state convention named Gamble the provisional governor of Missouri. Soon after hostilities broke out, the 50-year-old Bingham enlisted as a private in the Union Army but resigned to accept a captaincy in the United States Volunteer Corps, which formed to guard Kansas City. In September 1861, Confederate General Sterling Price marched his troops to Lexington, Missouri, just 30 miles east of Kansas City. Bingham’s company engaged in the battle but was forced to surrender. According to historian Lew Larkin, the terms of surrender “included an oath that the Union men never would fight again against the Confederacy,” so Bingham was once again a private citizen.
With the market for paintings depressed by the war, Bingham sought employment and was rewarded by being named Missouri state treasurer in 1862.
With the market for paintings depressed by the war, Bingham sought employment and was rewarded by being named Missouri state treasurer in 1862. He served in this position until November 1865. While treasurer, Bingham turned his attention to the prolonged conflicts along the Missouri-Kansas border. He became particularly incensed by the actions of Union Colonel Charles R. Jennison, leader of the 7th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. The regiment was formed at the request of Kansas Governor Charles Robinson to protect Kansans from the raids of Missouri border ruffians. His regiment became known as “Jennison’s Jayhawkers,” and under the auspices of the Union banner it indiscriminately attacked Missouri residents, often robbing them of their property and burning their homes. Bingham saw Jennison’s callous abuse of Missouri citizens as a misuse of power and a threat that would push Missouri into the Southern camp. He determined to have Jennison removed from his position. While he gathered information about Jennison’s activities, he attacked him in public speeches and newspaper articles. Jennison’s actions, coupled with Bingham’s public campaign, eventually resulted in Jennison being arrested in April 1862, and he resigned his commission. Later he was reinstated but was once again arrested in 1865. He was court-martialed, convicted of plundering, and given a dishonorable discharge.
Bingham saw Jennison’s arrest in 1862 and eventual dishonorable discharge as a victory for the side of justice, but his dislike for Jennison paled in comparison to his resentment of General Thomas Ewing Jr., who issued the infamous General Order No. 11 on August 25, 1863. Bingham understood the order to be in retaliation against rebel sympathizers along the Missouri-Kansas border, but he felt strongly that the majority of the residents of the affected area were loyal to the Union and did not deserve such harsh treatment. Bingham traveled to Kansas City and asked Ewing to rescind the order, but he refused. Legend has it that Bingham told Ewing, “If you persist in executing this order, I shall make you infamous with my pen and brush so far as I am able.” While some historians doubt this exchange took place, there is no doubt as to Bingham’s animus toward Ewing.
In 1865 Bingham completed the first version of his painting, Martial Law or Order No. 11 (a second was painted in 1869), which showed the brutality of the Union Army’s treatment of loyal Missouri residents. He publicized the painting in the newspapers and arranged for it to be engraved so that he could sell prints. Order No. 11, according to Bingham, depicted liberty being threatened by military despotism. He traveled the country with the painting, selling copies and lecturing against the abuses of power that he believed Missourians experienced as a result of Ewing’s order. Some historians contend that Bingham’s campaign against Thomas Ewing was so effective that it prevented Ewing from gaining the U.S. Senate seat he desired after the war’s end.
In 1879, shortly before his death, Bingham engaged in his final attack on Ewing when he became involved in an exchange of letters with former Governor Benjamin Gratz Brown. In the letters, published in newspapers in Kansas City and St. Louis, Bingham unrelentingly condemned Ewing. When Bingham died in 1879, his son, Rollins, posthumously printed the last letter Bingham wrote in the exchange. Rollins entitled the letter, “A Voice from the Grave.” Bingham did not just engage in a war of words about Ewing. When appointed adjunct general in 1875, he worked to obtain compensation for the families that suffered from the destruction brought about by the order and the war. He also traveled to Washington to lobby for reimbursement to the state for money paid to Missourians who served in the federal army.
George Caleb Bingham died in Kansas City on July 7, 1869, and was buried in the Union Cemetery at Kansas City. His fame as an artist quickly faded but was permanently restored when museums in St. Louis, Kansas City, Hartford, and New York held exhibits of his work in 1934 and 1935. His impact as a painter has been permanently established. Nonetheless, his work can be more fully appreciated if one considers it within the broader context of his life, as Bingham’s contributions to the state of Missouri far exceed his artistic accomplishments alone.
Bryant, Keith L. “George Caleb Bingham: The Artist as Whig Politician.” Missouri Historical Review. July, 1965. Vol 59, No. 4, 448-463.
Nagel, Paul C. George Caleb Bingham: Missouri’s Famed Painter and Forgotten Politician. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Rash, Nancy. The Paintings and Politics of George Caleb Bingham. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.