Friday, November 4, 2016

Politics in Missouri and Elections at the University of Missouri

With election season upon us, the Missouri Student Unions turns to election history right here in Missouri and at the University of Missouri.

Come see our prints of George Caleb Bingham and Missouri politics on the ground floor of the MU Student Center 
Come see our exhibit about politics at MU in the Traditions Lounge on the second floor of the MU Student Center.


Renowned nineteenth-century Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham composed a triad of paintings relating to politics right here in Missouri, two of which are currently on display on the ground floor of the Missouri Student Center.  Bingham himself was active in the Missouri political scene, being a member of the Whig party, only leaving it over the divisive slavery issue.  Then he joined Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party, but by 1872 he was associated with the Democratic party instead.  Bingham was also an active participant in the politics of the state of Missouri, having himself served in the state legislature.

The print of The County Election on display represents a local event for Bingham that took place in Saline County, Missouri.  This election day in 1850 was when the Bingham himself was running for a seat in the state legislature, which he ultimately lost to E.D. Sappington.  Bingham's painting, which features Sappington, is a commentary on the political processes of the day and its corrupt nature.  For example, alcohol was often used to buy votes and this is represented by a man sitting at a table drinking and another man who has already drunk too much and is being held up in line by a friend. This representation of voting is a very different picture than what we might see today.  First of all, the voters are all male and do not include African Americans or women.  Secondly, casting a vote was conducted very differently, because men had to speak the name of their selected candidate aloud to a clerk who would then record the vote.  This, naturally, led to some amount of corruption.

Stump Speaking also speaks to Missouri Politics.  The corpulent man sitting on a chair behind the speaker has been identified as M.M. Marmaduke, the former governor of Missouri. In this print of Bingham's painting we see the Democratic speaker bent over, perhaps literally bending his words to appeal to his audience.  At this point in his life Bingham was a Whig and he painted this image to reflect the Whig's feelings towards Democrats.  We can see this in the contrast between the speaker at the podium and the stately man in a top hat sitting at the right of the composition.  Not only is he highly illuminated and sitting up very straight, but he also sits on a real stump, unlike the man made platform of the speaker.  This suggests that he, the Whig, is the real stump speaker and not the Democrat at the man made podium; here Bingham is drawing a comparison between real and artificial politics.


Elections at the University of Missouri are represented in several different ways.  Of course, student body elections were well represented in the tradition of the university.  As early as the 1910s, the students of Missouri met and formed governing bodies, but it was not until 1923 that the Student Government Association (SGA) was formed. For the first half of the twentieth century, women at the university had a different governing association, the Women's Student Government Association (WSGA).
Members of the SGA in 1936 (Savitar 1936)

Members of the WSGA in 1943 (Savitar 1943)

Corruption was rampant in student government politics at MU and was often credited to the fact that it was very much tied to Greek life.  In 1917 the Savitar documented the political situation at the university: “Don’t think you have to be honest about this politics business.  It isn’t being done, this year. It never was done…the records show that there has only been one honest politician here for the last twelve years.” A 1941 investigation into the Student Government Association was conducted by the university because “evils of a sort commonly recognized to be contrary to public morality, offensive to good citizenship, destructive to good government, and which have had a tendency to bring the University into disrepute.”  However, the university ultimately did not suspend student government at this moment.
The last class of elected officers in 1941 before student government was disbanded for the war (Savitar 1941)

Instead, student government was suspended in 1942 because of the war.  Arising in its place was the Student War Board, whose mission was to promote and coordinate all activities concerned with the war effort.  For example, it sponsored registration for service, physical fitness, first, aid, home nursing classes, a milk campaign, war savings stamps benefit concert, and student war speakers. 

Members of the Student War Board (Savitar 1942)
In 1945 student government was reinstated with a new constitution ratified.  In 1959 the SGA yet again adopted a new constitution and renamed the student governing body the Missouri Students Association (MSA), which remains its name to this day.

Members of the MSA Senate (Savitar 1964)

In 1975 Carrie Francke was elected the first woman president of MSA. 

Carrie Francke (AB '75, BJ '76, JD '81)
Francke had an active political career that began at Mizzou where she was elected the first woman as President of the Student body. She served as Assistant Attorney General in Missouri from 1982-1985.  
Savitar 1975

In 1997, MSA introduced electronic voting with the option to cast ballots by e-mail, which increased voter turnout.
Students voting the old fashioned way, in person (Savitar 1997)


The University of Missouri also played host to state and national politics by bringing politicians and political speakers to campus and through student activism. 

Important national political figures visited the campus.  Such visitors included Harry S. Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. 
Harry S. Truman on his 1954 visit (Savitar 1954)

Eleanor Roosevelt was invited to MU by the Student Unions Board and she gave a lecture entitled "You and the United Nations" (Savitar 1957)
Politicians also made the university part of their campaign stops during election seasons.

Republican Senatorial candidate John C. Dansworth came to Missouri’s campus for a debate against Democratic candidate Stuart Symington. Dansworth attacked Missouri’s seniority system and Symington spoke against Nixon and the Vietnam War.  Symington won his re-election. (Savitar 1971)

Republican Vice-President George H.W. Bush speaking at University of Missouri during his 1988 Presidential Campaign, which he would go on to secure. (Savitar 1988)


The University of Missouri has also produced many illustrious graduates who would go on to have political careers on state and national levels.

Democrat Jay Nixon (BA ’78, JD ‘81). Nixon was elected as Governor of Missouri in 2009 and was re-elected for a second term in 2012. He has also served as the Attorney General of Missouri and as a representative in the Missouri Senate (MIZZOU Spring 2004)

Republican Sam Graves (BS ‘86)
Graves was elected in 1992 to serve on the Missouri House of Representatives.  In 1994 he was elected to the Missouri Senate.  Graves is currently a representative in the U.S. House of Representatives of Missouri’s 6th congressional district.  He has served in this position since 2001. (Savitar 1983)

Democrat Claire McCaskill (BA ’76, JD ‘77).
McCaskill was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri in 2006.  She was re-elected in 2012. She has also served as State Auditor and as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives (Savitar 1975).

Republican Forrest C. Donnell  (BA ’04, JD ‘07). Donnell was elected Governor of Missouri in 1940. He also served as a U.S. Senator from 1945-1951. Here Governor Donnell oversees the first graduating class of the Naval Training School in 1943 (Savitar 1943)

Democrat Tim Kaine (BA ‘79). After moving from Missouri following graduation, Kaine was very active in Virginia politics. He served as a mayor in Richmond, a Lt. Governor of the state, and then was elected Governor of the state in 2006.  Kaine is currently a U.S. Senator and is running as the vice-presidential nominee of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election (MIZZOU Spring 2004)

Come and visit our exhibits on the first and second floors through the end of November!

Blog post authored by Lauren DiSalvo, Curator of Public Arts at the Missouri Student Unions