Our Presidents in Song

         By David B. Kopel

Chronicles magazine, November 2000, pp. 42-44

Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr., share something in common: They are the only Presidents since George Washington who were elected without having a campaign song written for them. Perhaps as a reflection of the vacuousness of their platforms, the two candidates used popular songs for their campaigns. George Bush surely made Woody Guthrie spin in his grave by adopting "This Land is Your Land." Bill Clinton did better with Fleetwood Mac's apolitical "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."

George W. Bush, however, appears to be willing to learn from some of his father's mistakes: The day he accepted the Republican nomination, the  campaign released its original, official song. The country song says nothing about Bush, but it does extol working people. It is also one of the first Presidential campaign songs to have an original tune, as opposed to the more common practice of setting new words to well-known music.

Does a President's campaign song reveal something significant about the man, or the people who elected him? Judging by the compact disc Presidential Campaign Songs 1789-1996from the Smithsonian Institution's Folkway series, the answer seems to be yes.

John Quincy Adams, who established the Smithsonian, would be delighted that his museum has restored an important part of American political history. He would also be appalled at the decline in character, patriotism, and education that is revealed by contrasting the earlier songs with those of the 20th century.

Consider the decline of cultural literacy. In 1856, James Buchanan proclaimed "there is balm in Gilead" (Jeremiah 8:22). In 1796, John Adams could invoke the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), urging voters to imitate the great Spartan king who led the Greeks against the immense Persian army: to "unite  heart in hand, like Leonidis's band."       

Religion is also banished, although it used to appear frequently in campaign songs. William Henry Harrison's "The Harrison Yankee Doodle" egotistically echoed the Lord's Prayer with "Thy will be done with Harrison; log cabin and hard cider." In "Lincoln and Liberty," abolitionism was referred to as "the Great Reformation," and the song extolled Lincoln's debating skills by claiming "our good David's sling is unerring." "Adams and Liberty" could promise that war's lightening "bolts could not render freedom's temple asunder"--an explicit reference to the lightning strike which sundered the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus died. "Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah" returned to the America-as-temple metaphor, for "unshaken still the Temple stands." Even Jefferson's song urged Americans to commit their "soul" to liberty.

In the 19th century, almost every voting American, atheists included, understood references to Jeremiah, King David, and the life of Jesus. Many fewer Americans today would even know what was being mentioned, let alone approve of identifying American freedom with God's will.

Freedom itself is no longer celebrated. Adams supporters could sing that "ne'er shall the sons of Columbia be slaves," while Jefferson's supporters were urged: "to tyrants never bend the knee." Should the British attack, "the Heavens would soon interpose," boasted Madison's song.

In the 20th century, however, almost all the songs have been vapid odes to the candidate's personality, rarely daring to mention God or liberty, or even using an idea unfamiliar to a sixth-grader.

The campaign tune those most closely resembles Bush's current paean to the people is the 1816 song, "Monroe is the Man." But while Bush's song celebrates people who work hard at their jobs, Monroe's reminded Americans of their civic duties: "Oh say sovereign people, whose voice is the law, whose will is supreme, and keeps faction in awe."

Unfortunately for John Quincy Adams, the Smithsonian dutifully records Quincy Adams' 1828 campaign, which still sets the record for excessive hysteria. "Little Know Ye Who's Comin'" reeled off a litany of warnings about Jackson, climaxing with "Satan's coming, if John Quincy's not elected."

Jackson, of course, turned out to be a much better President than his detractors had expected. His brand of populism transformed American politics, and his campaign song reflected this. "The Hunters of Kentucky" achieved acclaim as a song in its own right; the melody and words have a popular appeal far beyond the stilted songs of almost every other presidential candidate. It is a vivid celebration of the great American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815--quite unlike Gerald Ford's pathetic "I'm feeling good about America...and I'm feeling good about me."

The Jackson/Van Buren Democrats mastered the art of popular politics in the new era of the "common man." The Whigs (like George W. Bush today) proved that they could learn from experience, by putting forth in 1840 a pointless but catchy tune, "Tip and Ty," urging voters to join "the ball a rollin' on for Tippecanoe and Tyler too." (Men rolling a giant Harrison ball from town to town was a popular campaign event.)

After the Civil War, Republican campaign songs were sung to the tune of popular war songs. "Grant, Grant, Grant" to the tune of "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" or "Just Before Election, Andy" to the tune of "Just Before the Battle, Mother." (This last song was obsolete before its time, since President Andrew Johnson was denied renomination.)

The Civil War obsession made sense for the 1868 election, but the Republicans demonstrated their hollowness sticking to this theme even in 1880, warning that "If the Johnnies Get into Power," ("When Johnny Come Marching Home") they would desecrate Lincoln's tomb and change the flag's stripe into "rebel bars." This absurd charge was made even though the Democratic candidate was Winfield Scott Hancock, a retired Union General.

No Smithsonian product would be complete without at least a few additions designed to make people feel resent being Americans. The Smithsonian liner notes (written by the CD's perfomer Oscar Brand) deliberately foster anti-Americanism. They point out that when Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1757, he held campaign events at which large quantities of liquor were distributed. But this was a standard campaign practice at the time.

The Smithsonian also misleadingly claims that the electorate during Washington's time was composed of "white males owning at least 50 acres or the equivalent." This is no more than a half-truth, since several states allowed free blacks to vote, and many states had less stringent property requirements.

The liner notes also have socialist overtoness. The reader is told that Madison observed that "the most common source of friction in society is the unequal distribution of property," and is led to think that Madison favored redistribution of property. However, a primary purpose of the Constitution, which Madison largely wrote, was to prevent democratic government from confiscating the property of the wealthy to give to the masses.

The liner notes also claim that Martin Van Buren "infuriated working people and businessmen by refusing to help them in the general depression." Yet Van Buren believed that the most effective way to end the Panic of 1837 was to prevent the state from meddling in the economy and to ensure that the federal government obeyed constitutional limits on its power.

Not all the errors stem from anti-Americanism; some are the result of ignorance and sloppiness. Thus, the notes state that "Jefferson's first task as President was to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts." Actually, the Acts were not repealed; they simply expired.

Likewise, "In 1829, Andrew Jackson...was decisively elected." The election was in 1828. During the Buchanan administration "Mormons were threatening war in Utah"--a statement equivalent to "Belgians in 1914 were threatening war with Germany." Brand writes that Lyndon Johnson was "Majority Leader of the House of Representatives"; actually, he was Senate majority leader.

Fortunately, the value of the album is not the liner notes. (If you want to learn more about American political songs than the Smithsonian liner notes convey, have a used book service find you a copy of the Irwin Silber's fascinating book Songs America Voted By, Stackpole, 1971). While the songs reflect certain negative traits of the American political character, they can also inspire us to return to our highest principles--especially as expressed in the songs for the first six Presidents. As the war song of the Father of our Country urges, "Follow, follow Washington...determined to be free my lads, determined to be free. Till freedom reigns, our happy bands, we'll fight like true Americans. With heart in hand and God our trust, we'll freely fight; our cause is just."

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