Challenging The Union Vote

Object Number: 
Painted plaster
Overall: 21 1/2 x 13 x 10 1/4 in. ( 54.6 x 33 x 26 cm )
signed: center base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of base: "CHALLENGING THE UNION VOTE" inscribed: back of base: "PATENTED Sept..1869" inscribed: proper left side top of base: "THE RIGHT TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS GROUP/IS NOT SOLD WITH IT"
Genre figure: A light tan painted plaster vase featuring a voting scene taking place in the old South. A Unionist has come to the polls with his granddaughter to register his vote in the ballot box, but the registrar, an ex-Confederate who is opposed to his views, pushes his hand aside while he examines the registry to find his name and perhaps an opportunity to disqualify him. Patent # 3364: February 9, 1869
Gallery Label: 
In this coda to his highly praised Civil War sculptures, Rogers took on a subject that, perhaps unintentionally, alluded to Reconstruction and the difficulties the nation experienced healing the deep rifts of the war. An older man, a Unionist, has come with his granddaughter to cast his vote, but his hand is pushed away from the ballot box by the ex-Confederate election official who is carefully checking his records to see if he can find a way to disqualify the man's vote. Below his desk a revolver lies with casual menace in his hat, ready for use. Rogers intended the group to depict an antebellum incident. The sales catalogue plainly stated: "This represents a voting scene at the South before the war [emphasis added]. An old Unionist has come with his granddaughter, and is about to deposit his vote in the ballot-box; but the Registrar, who is opposed to him in politics, pushes his hand one side [sic], while he examines the Registry to find his name." However, the subject would not have appeared retrospective to his audience, since it paralleled current political strife in the South and dark events surrounding the recent presidential election. David Wallace, Rogers' biographer, has suggested that the artist may have intended to issue the group in time for the 1868 presidential election, but instead it was released in early 1869. Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant ran on the Republican ticket under the slogan, "Let us have peace." In the wake of Vice President Andrew Johnson's impeachment, the Democratic nomination went to New York Governor Horatio Seymour and his running mate, Francis P. Blair, who ran on a platform of white supremacy and opposition to Reconstruction, which had severely limited Southern Democrats' political power. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866, launched a campaign of murder and intimidation throughout the South against Republican leaders, both black and white, and made it virtually impossible for blacks to vote. In the face of unrest in the South, Americans indeed wanted peace; Grant won the election but by a much slimmer margin than was expected. The Springfield Republican considered Challenging the Union Vote a companion to Rogers' Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations of 1865 (1926.34, 1936.654), which showed a dignified Southern woman swearing her allegiance to the Union before a polite Northern soldier in exchange for food for her child. But where Taking the Oath offered a vision of national reconciliation based on mutual respect, Challenging the Union Vote seems to despair of the possibility. In this surprisingly pessimistic vision in Rogers' oeuvre there is no moral lesson, no call to action for the betterment of society, only the offended Unionist, the contemptuous ex-Confederate, the worried, vulnerable granddaughter, and the pistol symbolizing not only the potential for violence but the reign of terror that resulted in literally thousands of deaths related to the election. Though it is not initially apparent to twenty-first-century viewers, Challenging the Union Vote was probably interpreted as a grim commentary on post-Civil War America. It is not surprising that the sculpture appears to have sold poorly; surely in the wake of the 1868 election Americans hoped to put violence and strife behind them and, at the very least, would be unlikely to purchase a sculpture for their living rooms that served as a constant reminder. A sophisticated businessman, Rogers may well have known the risk that he took with such a controversial subject, but his impulse toward social commentary apparently trumped commercial concerns. Challenging the Union Vote is now relatively rare and exemplifies the wide range of subjects undertaken by an artist best known for his sunny depictions of American life.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 3, 4, New York Historical Society. The New York Evening Mail, December 18, 1869, p. 2. Barck, Dorothy, "Rogers Group in the Museum of the New-York Historical Society," New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 3, October, 1932, p. 74. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.74-5. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 221, 295, 297, 304. Holzer, Harold, and Farber, Joseph, "The Sculpture of John Rogers," Antiques Magazine, April 1970, pp. 756-768. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 114-5.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group