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Up Beat Down South "He Put His Thumb Up to His Nose, And Twirl'd His Fingers at His Foes" Presidential Campaign Songs in 1 844 BY GAVIN JAMES CAMPBELL Whigs, Now's the Time, Vote andSing, Sing and Vote —National Clay Melodist (1844) On 17 August 1844, a Tennessee schoolteacher namedJason Niles joined a large crowd of spectators to watch the raising of a "Clay pole" celebrating the Whig party's presidential ticket of Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen. Local party organizers were undoubtedly embarassed when the pole fractured and had to be sent to the local blacksmith's shop for swift repairs. Despite the loss of about forty-five feet, the pole went up successfully and there was "shouting and singing all night." Not to be outdone, Democratic partisans carted in their own pole a week later "drawn by some 20 odd yoke of oxen," on one of which sat a fiddler. After raising their pole without incident, observed Niles, Democrats "sung 'Damn old Clay and Frelinghuysen'." Two weeks later the Whigs responded with another rally and Niles again joined a large assembly of spectators, this time serenaded by "the music of an accordian, fiddle and sweet voices of some Whig singers." As Niles's diary reveals, nineteenth-century presidential candidates could expect their bids for office to inspire a torrent ofmusic and political songs, much of it created for the occasion. Beginning with the raucous 1 840 election between William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren, music played an increasingly prominent role in the arsenal of campaign weapons. By 1 844 both Whigs and Democrats were convinced that music could help tip the electoral scales at a time ofbalanced and fierce party competition. Theypublished and disseminated thousands of cheap, pocket-sized booklets, or "songsters," containing newly minted political verses set to well-known tunes. These songsters were important in generating enthusiasm and invective, in sketching out a campaign's broader issues, and in uniting voters at the grassroots in public displays of party loyalty. Such functions were critical in 1 844 as the "dark horse," Tennessee's James K. Polk, sought to defeat Kentucky's Henry Clay in an election eventually decided by fewer than 40,000 popular votes. Although the annexation ofTexas and the westward expansion of slavery were the touchstones of the election, music neverthe-»39 Titlepagefrom The Clay Songster (n.d.). Courtesy ofDuke University Special Collections Ubrary, Durham, TV. C. less played an important role in creating an enthusiastic, committed, involved, and amused electorate. Songs and music celebrating presidential candidates had deep roots, but it wasn't until William Henry Harrison's "log cabin and hard cider" campaign that specially printed political songsters made dieir debut. With tides like A Drop of Cider, or the Tippecanoe Roarer, and The Ij)g Cabin Minstrel, the 1 840 songsters celebrated the virtues and achievements of"Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" while at the same time jeering at the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren. Democrats scoffed at such uninspired Whig lyricism as "Van, Van, Van is a used up man." "The idea," one Democratic editor sniffed, "that the people are to be gulled by songs, widiout merit ofeither truth or patriotism, is a chimera ofentire Whig origin ." Whig organizers, on the other hand, were ecstatic, reporting that "our songs are doing more good than anything else." Although many Democrats charged diat Harrison had simply been sung into the White House, they also vowed not to be outsung again. Music helped usher Harrison into the White House, and it also helped usher him out. The composer Henry Dielman had barely finished inking in die last note I40 OAVlN JAMES CAMPBELL ofa "Grand Inauguration March" before he was furiously at work on "President Harrison's Funeral March." Harrison's sudden death after only one month in office catapulted Vice PresidentJohn Tyler into power. Very quickly, however, Tyler and the Whig leadership foundered on ideological shoals, making it clear that Tyler (caustically dubbed "His Accidency") could not bear the Whig party standard in the 1 844 contest. The only logical choice was Henry Clay. "Harry ofthe West" was no stranger to the presidential campaign trail. He had already run twice, losing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 139-148
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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