SONGSTUFF by Cary Ginell: Tippecanoe & Tyler, Too! (The History of Political Campaign Songs in America, Part 3)

The modern era of the American political campaign really began with the presidential election of 1840. It was during that campaign that current philosophies and tactics took hold for the first time. The race pitted the incumbent president, Martin Van Buren, a Democrat; against the Whig Party’s war hero, William Henry Harrison.

Although Harrison was born to an aristocratic Virginia planter, his handlers manufactured an entirely new image for Harrison, claiming he was born in a log cabin and was at one with the average American. He became the “log cabin and hard cider candidate.” As territorial governor of Indiana from 1800 to 1812, he received his famous moniker, Tippecanoe, in 1811, having won a decisive, though relatively insignificant battle against American Indians led by Tecumseh, fought near the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers. To expound upon the Tippecanoe legend and Harrison’s military prowess, the campaign included as its symbol a log cabin, with Harrison depicted in full military regalia, sitting on a stoop in front of the cabin, sipping homemade hard cider. Alcohol played a major role in the campaign as well, with a Philadelphia distiller (whose name was – I kid you not – E. C. Booz) distributing hard cider to supporters at Harrison rallies. Harrison’s new image was totally manufactured, totally false, and totally effective.

For the first time, music played a major role in a presidential campaign, which featured published “songsters,” small pamphlets consisting of pro-Harrison songs celebrating his victories, deriding Van Buren, and flaunting Harrison’s new rustic, populist image. When John Tyler was nominated as Harrison’s running mate, the first political slogan was born, with a “hit” song to go with it: “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!” (If automobiles had existed then, there would no doubt have been thousands of bumper stickers manufactured with the catchy phrase.)

Two of the songsters were titled Log Cabin and Hard Cider Melodies: A Collection of Popular and Patriotic Songs and Songs for the People, or Tippecanoe Melodies. The music featured the now accepted formula of new lyrics written to accompany familiar folk melodies. Some of the song titles included “General Harrison’s Quick Step,” “The Log Cabin Song,” “A Drop of Hard Cider,” and “Tip and Ty (A New Comic Whig Glee).”

One Whig contemporary of the time, Thomas Elder, summed up the raucous, rancorous campaign that followed with this statement: “Passion and prejudice, properly aroused and directed, would do as well as principle and reason in a party contest.”

Harrison won in a landslide vote of the Electoral College, but his reign as president lasted barely a month. His inaugural address was the longest of any president, lasting an hour and forty-five minutes, delivered in a raging snowstorm. The 68-year-old president caught cold three weeks after his inauguration and died of pneumonia thirty-one days into his term. (Contrary to legend, Harrison didn’t catch cold after refusing to wear a coat during his speech. Harrison was in failing health to begin with.)

The election of 1840 marked the first time music was effectively used in a presidential campaign. Learning from this, the Democrats emulated the Whigs by inventing a populist image for its 1844 entry, former Tennessee Governor James K. Polk. It also worked.

In next month’s blog, I will discuss Abraham Lincoln and how music was used in the elections of 1860 and 1864.

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