Kisses for Votes

Tracing the history of the kiss as symbolic gesture and campaign strategy

[10-minute read]

Eighteenth-century elections were rumbustious affairs that revolved almost exclusively around local issues and local personalities. Despite the fact that many contests never went all the way to a poll, there were few seats that were totally secure. Election contests frequently involved entire communities, voters and non-voters alike. And, by the middle of the eighteenth century, they had become carnivalesque episodes of self-conscious political theatre characterized by rituals of social inversion.

During election campaigns patrons and candidates, their families and their elite supporters, temporarily stepped out of their social spheres and roles to mix willingly or unwillingly with their social inferiors. Public houses and great houses were opened; hogsheads of ale were broached; punch was brewed; long-standing debts to tradesmen were paid; local artisans’ wares were purchased (frequently in larger numbers and for higher than usual prices); tenants’ debts were paid or forgiven; leases were extended or renegotiated; and patronage was promised. Voters and their womenfolk were flattered, visited, wined, dined and whirled about dance floors; douceurs of all sorts were dispensed. Most of the latter were too small to be considered bribes: a few shillings here, a guinea somewhere else; a new dress for a voter’s wife, a bit of lace for a voter’s daughter, the gift of some game or a pineapple or two.[1] They were meant to flatter voters’ self-importance and/or secure the influence of their womenfolk.

The electioneering kiss needs to be seen in this context: as one of a number of symbolic behaviours in a culture of influence. For men, it was almost always assumed to involve women of the lower sort. One of the few exceptions to this can be found in a poem published during the fierce contest for the city of Durham in 1813, where a battle ensued as two candidates, one young and the other significantly older, vied for the support and political interest of the recently widowed Lady Antrim. The situation was ripe for sexual innuendo and the political hacks made much of the appeal that a young man was assumed to have to a lusty widow. ‘The Struggle’ depicts a pointedly similar situation, albeit cast in the light of a courtship. The poem implies that the candidate who wins Lady Antrim’s political support would have to be prepared, like the suitor in the poem, to supply what the widow was missing:

The Captain was modest; he made a low bow,

          Saluted and thought all was right

The General succeeded; — pray what did he do?

            He staid with the widow all night![2]

The purpose of the electioneering kiss was symbolic: to demonstrate the worthiness of the candidate through his approachability and genuine politeness (or indirectly through that of whoever was canvassing for him), to flatter the voters’ sense of self-importance, and to create a sense of obligation or seal a compact. Among elite men and women it was usually depicted as one of the distasteful but necessary duties that came with being politically active and maintaining a political interest. Thus, Lord Dartford saw it as a suitable penance for Lord North when North went dutifully to his borough of Banbury in August 1766 instead paying him a visit: ‘I hope for his punishment he will spend all this delightful weather in eating Venison in Banbury, and kissing the Aldermen’s Ladies’.[3] Alderman’s ladies were conventionally described as vulgar and unappealing, but they were at least higher on the social ladder than freeholders’ wives, who were often depicted as loathsome. The idea of candidates having to kiss either group provided both satirists and reformers with copy. In The Humours of a Country Election (1734), the Mayoress and Alderman’s wives are portrayed as lustful, foul-mouthed, violent harridans whose control over their husbands’ votes is complete. The two young candidates secure their support sexually, through a combination of kisses and sexual favours.[4]

Thirty years later, in John Trusler’s farce, The Country Election (first published in 1768 to accompany Hogarth’s election series prints), the kiss is employed by Artful, the opposition candidate for the County. Under the cover of greeting Mrs Blunt, an independent freeholder’s wife, he kisses her and transfers a guinea from his mouth into hers. The money and some astute flattery of her children ‘buys’ her support and, by implication, her influence over her husband’s vote. In this instance, however, Artful’s efforts are doomed to failure. He receives his comeuppance from Blunt himself soon afterwards at the local tavern. After demanding from Artful the same sort of salutation as his wife received and consequently securing his guinea, he then informs Artful that his vote is promised to the rival candidate. The interchange ends with Blunt contemptuously dismissing Artful’s attempted bribery: ‘Now testify your joy to [i.e., kiss] my Breech’.[5]

Trusler clearly intended his audience to see this combination of kiss and coin as corrupt and potentially corrupting. They would have recognised in Mrs Blunt stereotypical female malleability and a predisposition to corruption, stemming from traditional assumptions about women’s ‘natural’ lustfulness, their avariciousness and their weakness for flattery. They would also have been expected to cheer for Blunt who typified sturdy honest independence and not only turned the tables on his ‘betters’ but also used the system to his advantage.

As an electioneering behaviour, the kiss was always problematic, and particularly so when used by elite women. It was not until the Duchess of Devonshire canvassed so successfully for Charles James Fox in the 1784 Westminster election that she was deemed to have secured the election for him, and in many ways became more the candidate than he was in the eyes of the press and public, that the kiss came to be depicted as a danger to the political order itself. In order to counter the Duchess’s influence, the Pittite press ran the notorious kisses-for-votes campaign against her, exploiting to the full various negative stereotypes about women, women’s sexuality, and women and politics. That the Duchess already had a high public profile as a leader of the bon ton, a known gambler, and a close (perhaps too close) friend of the notoriously rakish and impecunious Fox, only played into the hands of the press. The campaign also coincided with, and drew unashamedly and self-interestedly upon, wider and increasingly more vocal concerns about sexual and political corruption expressed by reformers and moralists alike. Socially, their concerns translated into a desire for ever tighter controls over female sexuality and a more domestic role for women; politically, they emerged as demands for a more accountable, respectable form of politics.[6]

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘The Devonshire, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes’ (1784). © The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The press campaign did not stop women from being involved in electoral politics thereafter, but it does appears to have rung the deathknell for the kiss as a female electioneering strategy. After 1784, any elite woman whose canvassing included kissing men of the lower sort would have risked attracting press commentary and having her respectability called into question. This is not to say that the practice vanished immediately. Hardy elite women existed and it would not have been out of character for a vivacious and unconventional woman like Pitt’s own leading political hostess, the duchess of Gordon, to have continued the practice. She reputedly recruited soldiers for the Gordon Highlanders during the French Revolutionary Wars by having them take the king’s shilling from her lips.[7]

The gradual desexualization of the electioneering kiss over time, even for men, is perhaps best exemplified in the ‘safe’ kissing of the very old and the very young. While eighteenth-century candidates regularly made a fuss over individual voter’s children and might even agree to standing as godparents to a privileged child, there is no indication in eighteenth-century sources, serious or satirical, that kissing children was part of an overarching canvassing strategy. It is not until the nineteenth century that the actuality was well enough established to be satirized by Charles Dickens in his famous depiction of the Eatanswill election in The Pickwick Papers (1836).

Like Trusler, Dickens took women’s influence over men’s votes for granted and assumed that it was crucial to the outcome of elections; similarly, he portrayed it as being readily ‘bought’ by candidates and their agents. In Eatanswill, it is not purchased ‘corruptly’ by coins and kisses, but ‘respectably’, by flattering the women’s sense of social importance and appealing to their vanity and love of luxury. The election agent holds a special tea party for the women and the parting gift of a parasol each in the candidate’s colours secures their support. As he proudly explains to Mr Pickwick, it may have been expensive, but it was worth it:

“A parasol!” said Mr. Pickwick.

“Fact, my dear Sir, fact. Five-and-forty green parasols, at seven and sixpence a-piece. All women like finery, — extraordinary the effect of those parasols. Secured all their husbands, and half their brothers — beats stockings, and flannel, and all that sort of thing hollow. My idea, my dear Sir, entirely. Hail, rain, or sunshine, you can’t walk half a dozen yards up the street, without encountering half a dozen green parasols.”[8]

The electioneering kiss makes its appearance only in conjunction with children, but in so doing, it provides the crowning touch to the formal canvass. The candidate, Sir Samuel Slumkey, shows very typical elite reluctance to kiss at the outset and has to be chivvied into it by his agent, but once he recognises its efficacy, he proceeds with enthusiasm:

“Nothing has been left undone, my dear sir — nothing whatever. There are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you’re to pat on the head, and inquire the age of; be particular about the children, my dear sir — it has always a great effect, that sort of thing.”

“I’ll take care,” said the Honourable Samuel Slumkey

“And, perhaps, my dear Sir — “said the cautious little man, “perhaps if you could — I don’t mean to say it’s indispensable — but if you could  manage to kiss one of ’em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd.”

“Wouldn’t it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?” said the honourable Samuel Slumkey.

“Why, I am afraid it wouldn’t,” replied the agent; “if it were done by yourself, my dear Sir, I think it would make you very popular.”

“Very well,” said the honourable Samuel Slumkey, with a resigned air, “then it must be done. That’s all.”

[…. the procession begins; he shakes the men’s hands …]

“He has patted the babes on the head,” said Mr. Perker, trembling with anxiety.

A roar of applause that rent the air.

“He has kissed one of ’em!” exclaimed the delighted little man.

A second roar.

“He has kissed another,” gasped the excited manager.

A third roar.

“He’s kissing ’em all!” screamed the enthusiastic little gentleman, and hailed by the deafening shouts of the multitude, the procession moved on.[9]

The modern stereotype of the politician kissing babies to win votes had been born.


[1] This practice continued at least in to the early years of Victoria’s reign. Mrs Gwynne Holford’s canvassing techniques in Breconshire in 1837 were entirely ‘unreformed’ in their tone, canvassing visits being followed by special gifts of luxuries such as grapes, pineapples or trout. See Matthew Cragoe, ‘ “Jenny Rules the Roost” ’, in Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson (eds), Women in British Politics, 1760–1860: The Power of the Petticoat (Basingstoke, 2000), 156.

[2] ‘The Struggle’, in The Addresses Together with the Speeches, Hand Bills, and other Particulars, Relative to the Election of One Citizen to Serve in Parliament for the City of Durham, December 1813 (1813), 23.

[3] Bodleian Library, MS North d.10, fo. 171v, Dartmouth to Guilford, Sandwell, 22 August 1766.

[4] The Humours of a Country Election (London, 1734), 15–20.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Susan Kingsley Kent, Gender and Power in Britain, 1640–1990 (London, 1999), 120–4.

[7] As cited in C. C. Bombaugh, The Literature of Kissing (London, 1876), 74.

[8] Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, in W. H. D. Rouse (ed.), Election Scenes in Fiction (London, 1929), 56. Birds of a Feather all Flock Together, a poem from the Durham election of 1813, one of the candidates, remarks upon George Baker’s method of canvassing, He not only give the Ladies a separate election treat — plenty ‘Of Meat, Drink, and Fruit, and every thing dainty’ — but also provides them with ‘Dresses alike’ of ‘Lincoln Green’, and secures their support. See ‘Birds of a Feather all Flock Together’ in The Addresses Together with the Speeches, Hand Bills, and other Particulars, Relative to the Election of One Citizen to Serve in Parliament for the City of Durham, December 1813 [1813?], 42.

[9] Ibid., 70–1.