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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”
“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.”

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.