The first time I heard this song, it ran through my head for days. Days. If I’d been able to vote in 1952, this song would certainly have run through my brain while I stood in the voting booth. The song was written for the Man from Abilene by the great Irving Berlin (left), who gave us such earworms as “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and (of course) “God Bless America.”
While praise is due to Mr. Berlin for Eisenhower’s catchy campaign song, I’d contrast the success of Ike’s original campaign song with the decision to pair original lyrics with familiar melodies. For a modern comparison of this latter composition, I’d point you to Lyndon Johnson’s campaign song, which paired the melody from the title song of Hello, Dolly! with pro-Johnson lyrics. (Hello Dolly! premiered in 1964, the same year Johnson faced reelection.)
Although there are no doubt earlier examples, I first noticed this propensity when we read The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Melodies (1840) for class. This book, along with several others, provided many, many options for singing supporters of Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler, too).While some were set to folk melodies I knew, many were not. (And if you’ve heard of “Turn out, Giovanni, turn out”…well, I’d like to play on your trivia team some time.)
- John Frémont’s (right) songbook (1856) included “Freedom’s Dawn,” an adaptation of “The Morning Light is Breaking.”
- Abraham Lincoln’s signature campaign song, “Lincoln and Liberty” (1860), was based on the “Old Rosin the Beau” (as noted here, among other places)
- Uylsses S. Grant relied on an adaptation of “Low Back Car” in 1872, but his first jam—“Grant, Grant, Grant” (1868)—used “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching!,” a Civil War song that trickled into the popular vernacular.
In “’We Want Yer, McKinley’: Epideictic Rhetoric in Songs from the 1896 Presidential Campaign,” William Harpine also noted that, ““Marching Through Georgia” seems to have had extensive appeal as a melody for campaign songs,” particularly in the 1896 election (79).
Although Harpine doesn’t note regional differences, I wonder whether the anti-Southern song was the most effective melody for a national campaign. In 1972, James Irvin and Walter Kirkpatrick argued that music’s rhetorical power came from both melodies and lyrics. They theorized that when familiar—and well-liked—melodies accompanied unfamiliar lyrics, the listener was primed to develop positive feelings toward the lyrics. In using the melody of a song that, in its original form, celebrated Sherman’s March to the Sea, campaigns in the Gilded Age may have—intentionally or unintentionally—alienated a whole region of voters.
Horace Greeley (song cover sheet, left) puts my point more succinctly in The Log-Cabin Songbook: “People like the swing of the music. After a song or two, they are more ready to listen to the orators” (quoted from Robert Gunderson, “Presidential Canvass, Log-Cabin Style,” Today’s Speech 5 (1957): 19). Or if they don’t “like the swing of music,” maybe they’re not “more ready to listen to the orators.”
Another example of campaign rhetoric from the 1868 election is another cartoon from Harper’s Weekly. Whereas the last pro-Grant cartoon portrayed Seymour as timid and almost innocently dumb, this one does the opposite. Seymour is depicted as Satan. Also present are Columbia and what appears to be a male voter. The voter is centered between the two, with Columbia trying to draw him towards the light and Seymour trying to draw him towards the darkness.
Essentially, the cartoon claims that a vote for Grant is a vote for the “road to peace,” as is carved on a rock above Columbia. In contrast, a vote for Seymour is a vote for the “road to war and ruin.” To emphasize this, the side that features Columbia shows the Capitol Building and an open sky. There are Civil War memorials for the Union as well as farming tools, which seem to symbolize prosperity and economic growth. Seymour, however, is shown with a tail and hoofs for feet like some kind of beast. His hair has been drawn in a way to make it appear like horns. Behind him is what seems to be the lynched corpse of an African-American. Blair can be seen sharpening a sword and above him is a bust of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, with the words “slavery,” “CSA,” and “KKK” carved above him. There are several captions, one of which is Biblical. “Lead us not into temptation,” reads one. There are also several quotations that contrast Grant’s plea for peace with the rhetoric of Blair, demanding the president disperse the “Carpet-Bag State Government.”
This cartoon is a prime example of waving the bloody shirt. Republicans have directly linked the Democrats to the Confederates and the Ku Klux Klan. Not only that, they have taken it a step further and made the debate about a struggle between good and evil. Although the previous two examples of pro-Grant campaign rhetoric appeared to be far more focused on Grant’s character, making their allusions to Democratic collusion with the Confederacy minimal, this is far different. Its implication are blatant.
The second piece from the campaign is a cartoon that ran in Harper’s Weekly during the campaign. It too alludes to Grant as a tanner, giving an indication that this was something the Grant campaign pushed quite hard.
In this pro-Grant cartoon, he is labeled “The Great American Tanner.” Grant is pictured with a ragged apron and a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He has a cigar in his mouth. He looks like the everyman. To his left are once again his three “references”: Lee, Pemberton, and Buckner. Each of them is holding their backsides like they’ve just had their hides tanned. To Grant’s right is Seymour and Frank Blair, the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates. Seymour looks timid with his hands folded and Blair looks somewhat ridiculous in an ordained uniform. They are both being escorted by New York gubernatorial candidate John Hoffman, who was the leader of of New York City’s Tammany Hall Democrats. This sect of the party tended to be more reform minded, which could be indicated by Hoffman’s native American dress.
The power of the Tammany Hall Democrats, which was associated with New York’s political machine, could also be indicated by Hoffman’s sheer size in comparison to Seymour and Blair. As he delivers the two to Grant, he tells him that there are two more hides to be tanned. Grant responds that he’ll finish them off in early November, meaning election day.
Much like the first piece of campaign material, this cartoon works well. It reinforces the image the Grant campaign was trying to form of Grant as one of the people, a simple tanner who happened to become a good soldier. It also links the Democrats with the Confederates. Although this is not done directly, by making the Democratic nominees the next ones Grant needs to tan after three Confederate generals, it seems to group them as similar in nature. This indeed played a role in the campaign with the Civil War still fresh in the minds of many Americans and the Republicans running on the fact that many Democrats defected after Lincoln’s election and became members of the Confederacy.
The election of 1868 saw Civil War hero and Republican nominee Ulysses S. Grant poised against Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour of New York. This was just three years after the end of the war and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Being the first election since the war’s end, rhetoric surrounding the Confederacy ran high and Republicans used their martyred president to their advantage against Democrats, who were largely painted as compatriots of the Confederates.
The campaign card capitalizes on Grant’s military record as well as his humble roots. Before his service in the military, Grant was largely unsuccessful in everything he did. The son of a tanner, he worked in his father’s tanning shop in Illinois as a young man before the Civil War. Tanners were leather workers. They created such things as saddles, belts, gloves, and other leather goods. They also skinned the hides of cows and stretched and dyed them to create leather. In the campaign card, the Grant campaign uses this to make an analogy towards Grant’s opponents. The card reads that Grant and his vice presidential nominee, Schuyler Colfax, “respectfully inform the People of the United States that they will be engaged in Tanning old Democratic Hides” until after election day 1868. In this segment of the text, Grant, who was highly popular in the north after the end of the Civil War, is being projected to crush his Democratic opponents in the election. But instead of phrasing that in plain language, they allude to Grant’s roots as a tanner and the impressions many held of that work, which most voters would have been aware of at the time. The following line enforces the fact that Grant has experience in that field.
At the bottom of the card several references are listed as if this truly were a business card given to someone in need of a tanner. The references include General Buckner, who was Simon Bolivar Buckner, a Confederate general from Kentucky who surrendered Fort Donelson to Grant in 1862. The second reference is General Robert E. Lee, the commanding Confederate general of the Army of Northern Virginia who famously surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, bringing a close to the Civil War in the eastern theatre. The third and final reference is General Pemberton, who surrendered the city of Vicksburg to Grant in the summer of 1863 after a several month long siege. (Interestingly enough, Pemberton is considered the founder of Coca-Cola. A surgeon from Atlanta, Pemberton created a coca wine to ease wounded soldiers’ addiction to morphine. His concoction would later become Coke.)
The Grant campaign’s rhetoric is quite clever. It works on various levels but particularly because it’s funny. These are names many voters would know after having fought in the war a few years before or followed it in the newspapers. As such, the Grant campaign is able to allude to his military record as a hero without ever once mentioning the war directly. Indeed, the only military reference is the prefix of general before the three reference names. Not even Grant is referred to as a general, merely a tanner.
The use of a campaign card does several things as well. Not only is it furthering the humor of the text by acting as a kind of business card, it is also something that could be distributed to numerous people at events like fairs or parades. As such, it is a very personalized and social piece of campaign material and rhetoric that foreshadows the mailers that many campaigns use today