Swilling the Planters With Bumbo: How George Washington Won Votes Before Campaign Ads

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In colonial times, it was considered ungentlemanly, corrupt, and downright sleazy to openly solicit votes through campaign speeches and advertisements. Instead, upstanding politicians engaged in an old and cherished tradition called “swilling the planters with bumbo” – otherwise known as "getting voters drunk on Election Day." (Bumbo was a type of rum.)

In Washington's day, elections were largely an excuse to party.

Voting presented a rare opportunity for people to gather from miles around, catch up with their neighbors, and imbibe liberally. Crafty politicians capitalized on the festive climate to rack up votes. In fact, it was difficult for anyone to win an election without wining and dining his constituents. Though it was technically illegal to explicitly purchase gifts for voters, it was perfectly appropriate for a politician to buy a round for two hundred of his closest friends on Election Day.

But when 23-year-old George Washington made a bid for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755, he made little effort to court the drunk vote. In fact, he believed that there were too many taverns in town. Washington even wrote the governor a letter complaining that local bars were a “nuisance” to his soldiers because they were “incessantly drunk and unfit for service.”

Washington’s beef with saloons, combined with his refusal to treat his fellow townsmen on Election Day, angered a lot of voters. Washington lost in a landslide – winning only 40 votes to his opponent’s 271.

Drink Up

Washington learned his lesson. When he ran again in 1758, he rolled out the booze: 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and two gallons of cider royal — nearly enough for a half-gallon per voter.

But as Washington awaited the results of the election, he was plagued by guilt and anxiety. It wasn’t that he regretted openly bribing voters with liberal libations. To the contrary, he worried that people hadn’t gotten enough to drink. Washington feared that his campaign manager, James Wood, had “spent with too sparing a hand.” He also hoped that political opponents hadn’t felt left out, saying he hoped that “all were treated alike.”

But in the end, declaring independence from sobriety proved to be sufficient. Washington captured 331 votes, crushing his three rivals.