America tends to think of elections as somewhat staid, stoic affairs. Voters do their solemn duty as citizens and walk out of the polls with nothing but a sense of civic duty and maybe a sticker. Long gone are the days when casting a ballot was a wild, raucous affair—a literal political party.
This is the forgotten history of the Rum Bribe.
The young colonel was desperate to make a name for himself as a politician. Just 23 years old, he was ambitious but naïve in thinking his heroic exploits in the French and Indian War would make him a shoo-in for a seat on Virginia’s House of Burgesses—the very first colonial government under British rule.
But when the ballots were counted in the election of 1755, he finished dead last with just 40 votes. Why had Virginians rejected him? The young colonel may have been naïve, but he was also shrewd. He wanted to understand exactly why before running again in the next election.
He recognized that, as the leader of Virginia’s frontier forces, he needed to take unpopular actions to aid in the war effort. He ordered the seizure of citizens’ horses and wagons and sanctioned local taverns where his soldiers were getting drunk.
Yet that wasn’t it, at least not entirely. His moves were unpopular but couldn’t account for the fact that his opponents each received about 46 percent of the vote and he mustered just six percent. What had they done that he hadn’t?
Accustomed to studying enemy troop movements, the young colonel began to study his opponents’ campaigns. During the election of 1757, he noticed that candidates would show up to their local polling places with jugs of alcohol and offer a drink or two to voters as they arrived to cast their ballots. There was nothing illegal about the practice, and it turned voting into a social affair that also served to loosen up voters and make them more amenable to casting their ballot for the candidate who had paid their bar tab.
The colonel, always an over-achiever, pledged to himself that if this was the way the game was played, he would play it better than anyone ever had. In the weeks leading up to the election of 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget—50 pounds—on brewery and distilling supplies. For weeks, he worked and, on election day, while he was serving in the field with his troops, he sent a friend, one of his lieutenants, to the polling place armed for battle.
His opponents showed up with their customary gallon jugs, but the lieutenant came with 160: 50 gallons of rum punch, 46 gallons of beer, 28 gallons of rum, 34 gallons of wine, and two gallons of cider along with enough mugs for a small army. Voters were invited to drink to their hearts’ content, and even those who came to the polls intending to cast a ballot for another candidate ended up voting for the young colonel.
He won in a landslide with 505 votes. His next closest competitor managed 399.
The young colonel served with distinction in both the House of Burgesses and the Virginia militia. He rose through the ranks and when America declared its independence, he fought for his new nation’s liberty. And when that fight was over, when the war was won, and when it was time to elect America’s new leader, he no longer needed gallons of liquor to be elected, he won unanimously and was inaugurated as President George Washington.