Splitsider

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Seba Smith and the Birth of American Political Satire

Ever since George Washington laughed at himself while attending a farce by the “father” of American theatre William Dunlap, comedians have been knocking down presidents just as fast as the electorate can set them up. Political satire may be the best example of what freedom of speech is good for: it's dangerous, persuasive, and brings the mighty low, just the sort of thing a democracy needs to keep things fresh. Best of all, comedy can reach across party lines and far beyond the self-absorbed circle jerk of political insiders. One good SNL sketch will change more minds than a thousand policy briefs and think tank reports.

Perhaps the first breakout star of American political humor was Seba Smith. In 1830 Smith was the publisher of a small newspaper in Maine that needed a boost, so Smith created a character called Jack Downing and had him take a load of axe handles down to the capital for trade. Downing promptly stumbled into the state legislature  during a particularly nasty outbreak of politics and wrote to the folks back home all about it.

“They kept disputing most all the time the first two days about a poor Mr. Roberts…they got three or four majority that he shouldn’t have a seat. And I thought it a needless piece of cruelty for they want crowded and there was a number of seats empty.”

Smith had an icon on his hands, and what’s more a sturdy archetype of American literature: the shrewd fool. Downing was naïve enough to be surprised by the commonplace and canny enough to cut right through the usual bullshit. He was in himself a critique of Jacksonian Democrats who were led by the sort of man who gives populism a bad name. A tough and genocidal racist from the west, Andrew Jackson was deliriously popular among the tough and racist pioneer populace. He appeared to be a stark contrast with the more cultured eastern establishment and the rural and uneducated flocked to his banner. With his following quickly becoming national in scope, Downing flocked along with them heading to Washington DC to look for an office.

“I did n’t think getting an office was such dangerous kind of business… ‘If you really want a bit of a box jest throw away your powder and ball and here’s the boy for you. I’ll take a fist or two with you and be glad of the chance.’ ‘You impudent scoundrel,’ says he.  Who are you… But I jest put my foot down and doubled my fist…’You don’t go through this door tonight without you pass over the dead body of Jack Downing of the State of Maine.”

That incident was all Jackson needed to know about Downing. He was made a Captain and sent off for an early skirmish in the hilariously real Pork and Beans War. Soon he was Jackson’s right hand man and a member of the also real but not as funny Kitchen Cabinet. From now on we get an insider’s view of the President through the eyes of Downing.

“And he fetched a stomp with his foot and his eyes kind of flashed so fiery that I cou’d n’t help starting back for I did n’t know but he was going to knock me over.

Oh, said the President. Duff Green [Jackson ally] wants to have a lick at you does he? Well don’t retreat another step Mr. Downing I’ll stand between you and harm. Upon that he called his boy and told him to bring his pistols in a moment.

He started up on his feet and says he Major Downing, if my eyes don’t deceive me there’s Nullification coming up Pennsylvany Avenu. He begun to call for his pistols.”

That Jackson, what a card! But straightforward belligerence appeals to Downing as an antidote to the self-serving duplicity he and Jackson see in every word and deed of the opposition. Downing is a strident supporter and his family falls into line eager for a share in the spoils.

“Squire Dudley shut up your clack, or I’ll knock your clamshells together pretty quick. It’s got to be a pretty time of day indeed if, after we’ve worked so hard to get President Jackson in, you Federalists are going to undertake to praise his proclamation as much as though he was your own president. You’ve a right to grumble and find fault with it as much as you like; but don’t let me hear you say another word in favor of it, if you do I’ll make daylight shine though you.”

Smith had not only inspired the Down East school of dialect humorists, but also its regional sibling the Old Southwest. Major Downing, who was promoted to fight Nullification, which is also real and not funny at all, became something of a stand-in for the American people in political cartoons of the day. He was also appropriated  by other columnists, most notably Charles Augustus Mencia Davis.

“I kinder feel tho that so many attempts to imitate my letters is complimentary, as everyone likes to rite letters in my name and the nearer they cum to the likeness the better they are.”

In his personal life Smith was married to Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a poet and feminist who was nominated to serve as the president of a women’s rights convention. She was ultimately rejected from that position for showing up in a dress that exposed her arms. So she was obviously awesome. Among their children was Appleton Oaksmith, who was a filibuster, a Confederate gun runner, and was convicted of slave trading during the civil war. He was obviously not awesome.

Smith seems to have left the Major in the hands of others after the Jackson Administration, but he takes up the reins again to help Polk out during the Mexican War and paint another unflattering portrait of American leadership.

“I’m determined Scott and Taylor shan’t whip the Mexicans any faster than is prudent.  All the glory of this war belongs to me and I’ll have it.

I want you to tell me candidly if you think the people was any more fond of him [Jackson] than they are of me…Well now Major, says he and he reddened a little when he said this. That only shows how strong your prejudices set in favor of the old Gineral.”

Downing sets off to straighten out the war according to Polk’s wishes. Still, Smith can’t seem to commit Downing to Young Hickory as fully as he was to Old Hickory. As a result Downing spends much of his time hectoring Polk from the extreme end of Polk’s constituency. The political jabs are much sharper, but the satire lost some of the zing that made it so influential. While criticizing the President for not pushing Democratic policy far enough, the Major ends up seeming more like a fool on the fringe rather than one in lockstep with the political maneuverings of his boss.

Smith continued to write, including a collection of short stories called Way Down East, which capitalized on the popularity of Major Downing and his dialect style to present snippets of life in New England much as other writers in the Old Southwest school did for that region. Still, his lasting legacy is the shrewd militia officer who dared make a fool of King Jackson and set the pattern for the American jesters who followed speaking truth to power.

Micah Hofferth makes things in Chicago. He tweets here.

  • akivaddict

    History nerd is to comedy nerd as peanut butter is to jelly. Love this.