Stranger Than Fiction: When George Washington gave new meaning to the term “Political Party”

STF George Washington 06172013

George Washington on his death bed

George Washington, the father of our country, could arguably be regarded as the first action hero. While he garners much respect and reverence, his humble beginnings were, at times, somewhat comical. Early politics in America was vastly different by today’s standards. There were things politicians could do then that they are absolutely forbidden to do today. Following two successive political defeats, Washington quickly learned a thing or two about campaigning. He learned that to win an election sometimes a politician had to stoop to the level of his opponent.

The first election George Washington won was not for President of the United States. It was for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses under British Colonial rule. His technique for winning the election was questionable. He got many of the voters drunk.

The House of Burgesses was the first elective assembly Great Britain established in its overseas possessions. In 1755, before the United States declared her independence, 23-year-old George Washington decided to run for burgess in Frederick County, Virginia.

Winning would not be an easy task. He was unpopular with the voters because, as commander-in-chief of Virginia’s frontier forces, he had seen it necessary to seize horses and wagons from the locals to bolster his own forces. He had also conducted a campaign against the local saloons where his soldiers became unfit for service. Washington lost in 1755. He tried again in 1757, but, to no avail. He began to study his opponents and their tactics for winning. He noticed that his opponents would appear at the polling place as the votes were being cast. Here they would do a little last minute campaigning. Most often his opponent was armed with a jug of whiskey or rum. His opponent would offer the voter a quick drink to ease their thirst and remind the voters to vote for him.

In 1758, Washington ran for burgess again. This time he had a political strategy he knew wouldn’t fail. He would simply outdo his opponents in their offering of whiskey. In the process he would get the voters thoroughly liquored up. Whether or not he intended to get the voters thoroughly inebriated is subject to debate. But, the fact remains a lot of liquor was consumed that day.

On Election Day, Washington was away with the militia. Therefore he sent a friend, Lieutenant Charles Smith, to tend to the election in his absence. Smith appeared at the polling place in Frederick County ready for some last minute campaigning. Unlike Washington’s opponents, who showed up armed with a single gallon of liquor, Smith arrived with a horse drawn wagon loaded with 160 gallons of various liquors. This included 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer and two gallons of hard cider. He also had a number of mugs from which the voters could drink.

Washington had spent several weeks making the liquor himself. That’s right! George Washington, like many farmers of the day, was a moonshiner. He was ready to kick this campaign into high gear and give new meaning to the term political party.

As the voters appeared Smith offered them a few drinks to quench their thirst. He invited them to drink to their heart’s content. Many of the voters who appeared that day clearly were not Washington supporters. But, after a few large mugs of whiskey they began to warm up to ol’ George. Smith took this last opportunity to make one final speech on Washington’s behalf to the inebriated constituents. The drunks, that is, the voters who had only hours before disliked George Washington, were now applauding him. No one knows how many voters got drunk that day. But all 160 gallons of liquor was consumed in the festive event.

Washington won the election receiving 310 votes. He beat out 3 other opponents. One has to wonder if the voters woke up the next morning with a hangover and asked, “I voted for whom?”

In 1761, Washington was reelected to the House of Burgesses. This time there was no drinking involved. He employed a different tactic. He had a dinner party complete with fiddler in which he entertained his constituents. Today, handing out drinks at the polls is strictly forbidden.

Source: Michael Williams, Jefferson County Post Staff Writer