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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Election Time

"The English are at present employed in celebrating a feast, which becomes general every seventh year;  the parliament of the nation being then dissolved, and another appointed to be chosen.  This solemnity falls infinitely short of our Feast of the Lanterns in magnificence and splendour;  it is also surpassed by others of the East in unanimity and pure devotion;  but no festival in the world can compare with it for eating.  Their eating, indeed, amazes me;  had I five hundred heads, and were each head furnished with brains, yet would they all be insufficient to compute the number of cows, pigs, geese, and turkeys, which, upon this occasion, die for the good of their country.

To say the truth, eating seems to make a grand ingredient in all English parties of zeal, business, or amusement.  When a church is to be built, or an hospital endowed, the directors assemble, and instead of consulting upon it, they eat upon it, by which means the business goes forward with success.  When the poor are to be relieved, the officers appointed to dole out public charity assemble and eat upon it.  Nor has it ever been known that they filled the bellies of the poor, 'till they had previously satisfied their own.  But in the election of magistrates the people seem to exceed all bounds:  the merits of a candidate are often measured by the number of his treats;  his constituents assemble, eat upon him, and lend their applause, not to his integrity or sense, but to the quantities of his beef and brandy.

And yet I could forgive this people their plentiful meals on this occasion, as it is extremely natural for every man to eat a great deal when he gets it for nothing;  but what amazes me is, that all this good living no way contributes to improve their good humour.  On the contrary, they seem to lose their temper as they lose their appetites;  every morsel they swallow, and every glass they pour down, serves to increase their animosity.  Many an honest man, before as harmless as a tame rabbit, when loaded with a single election dinner, has become more dangerous than a charged culverin.  Upon one of these occasions I have actually seen a bloody-minded man-milliner sally forth at the head of a mob, determined to face a desperate pastrycook, who was general of the opposite party.

But you must not suppose they are without a pretext for thus beating each other.  On the contrary, no man here is so uncivilized as to beat his neighbour without producing very sufficient reasons.  One candidate, for instance, treats with gin, a spirit of their own manufacture;  another always drinks brandy, imported from abroad.  Brandy is a wholesome liquor;  gin, a liquor wholly their own.  This, then, furnishes an obvious case of quarrel,--Whether it be most reasonable to get drunk with gin, or get drunk with brandy?  The mob meet upon the debate, fight themselves sober, and then draw off to get drunk again, and charge for another encounter.  So that the English may now properly be said to engage in war;  since, while they are subduing their enemies abroad, they are breaking each other's heads at home.

I lately made an excursion to a neighbouring village, in order to be a spectator of the ceremonies practised upon this occasion.  I left town in company with three fiddlers, nine dozen of hams, and a corporation poet, which were designed as reinforcements to the gin-drinking party.  We entered the town with a very good face;  the fiddlers, no way intimidated by the enemy, kept handling their arms up the principal street.  By this prudent manoeuver, they took peaceable possession of their head-quarters, amidst the shouts of multitudes, who seemed perfectly rejoiced at hearing their music, but above all at seeing their bacon.

I must own, I could not avoid being pleased to see all ranks of people, on this occasion, levelled into an equality, and the poor, in some measure, enjoying the primitive privileges of nature.  If there was any distinction shown, the lowest of the people seemed to receive it from the rich.  I could perceive a cobbler with a levee at his door, and a haberdasher giving audience from behind his counter.

But my reflections were soon interrupted by a mob, who demanded whether I was for the distillery or the brewery?  As these were terms with which I was totally unacquainted, I chose at first to be silent;  however, I know not what might have been the consequence of my reserve, had not the attention of the mob been called off to a skirmish between a brandy-drinker's cow and a gin-drinker's mastiff, which turned out, greatly to the satisfaction of the mob, in favour of the mastiff.

This spectacle, which afforded high entertainment, was at last ended by the appearance of one of the candidates, who came to harangu the mob;  he made a very pathetic speech upon the late excessive importation of foreign drams, and the downfall of the distillery;  I could see some of the audience shed tears.  He was accompanied in his procession by Mrs. Deputy and Mrs. Mayoress.  Mrs. Deputy was not the least in liquor;  and as for Mrs. Mayoress, one of the spectators assured me in my ear, that--she was a very fine woman before she had the small-pox.

Mixing with the crowd, I was now conducted to the hall where the magistrates are chosen:  but what tongue can describe this scene of confusion!  the whole crowd seemed equally inspired with anger, jealousy, politics, patriotism, and punch.  I remarked one figure that was carried up by two men upon this occasion.  I at first began to pity its infirmities as natural, he could not stand;  another made his appearance to give his vote, but though he could stand, he actually lost the use of his tongue, and remained silent;  a third, who, though excessively drunk, could both stand and speak, being asked the candidate's name for whom he voted, could be prevailed upon to make no other answer but "Tobacco and brandy."  In short, an election hall seems to be a theatre, where every passion is seen without disguise;  a school where fools may readily become worse, and where philosophers may gather wisdom.--Adieu"The Citizen of the World,Letter 112, by Oliver Goldsmith 

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