The Harrison Bandwagon

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Our forebears were much given to singing. They sang themselves through revolution with “The Liberty Song” and “Yankee Doodle,” and afterward each struggle of the young nation inspired songsters to extol in music and lyric the virtues of freedom. Political songs were also common, so perhaps it is not surprising that the Presidential campaign of 1840 turned into a songfest— at least for the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison.

The odds against Harrison’s winning were formidable: he was running against an incumbent, Martin Van Buren, who had already beaten him in 1836; his nomination had divided his own party; and he was nearing his sixty-eighth birthday. There was some question whether Harrison’s health would stand up to the long (nine-month) campaign. The hero of Tippecanoe (a battle fought nearly thirty years earlier) was wishy-washy on issues and not a deep thinker, which prompted a Democratic newspaper to suggest that Harrison would be happy with nothing more than a log cabin and a barrel of hard cider. Whig politicians seized the insult and made it a virtue. Harrison—born of a wealthy Virginia family (father Benjamin was a signer of the Declaration) —ironically became the log-cabin-and-hard-cider candidate, the ordinary man’s friend. The outpouring of banners and slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” in tribute to running mate John Tyler), the numerous logcabin headquarters (where of course hard cider was dispensed), and the flood of musical compositions (from waltzes and marches to songs) were without precedent in American politics—and drove Van Buren supporters to distraction. “Some of the songs I shall never forget,” said a Democratic editor. “They rang in my ears wherever I went, morning noon and night. … Men, women and children did nothing but sing. It worried, annoyed, dumfounded, crushed the Democrats, but there was no use trying to escape. It was a ceaseless torrent of music. … If a Democrat tried to speak, argue, or answer anything that was said or done, he was onlysaluted with a fresh deluge of music. …” As diarist Philip Hone remarked after the overwhelming Whig victory, Harrison had been “sung into the Presidency.”

Here then is a selection of Harrison campaign song sheets, adapted from Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents by music historian Vera Brodsky Lawrence, which Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., will publish later this month. The book is also the basis of a musical play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee that is scheduled to open on Broadway in the near future. — N.B.