Monday, November 5, 2012

Rude presidential elections of the past

Vote for Harrison. He's the kind of down to earth guy who you can get drunk with! Also a war hero!

No matter what their politics, most Americans can agree that this years' presidential election has been unusually bitter. The glut of corporate money pouring into political attack adverts has made TV a wasteland of recriminations against one candidate or another.

However, contentious campaigns are hardly new. The so-called "Revolution of 1800" which overthrew John Adams in favor of Thomas Jefferson held nothing back. "Gags, inquisitors and spies" and "hordes of harpies"? "Lordlings" with "gorging jaws"? "Fiery bigots" and "holy laws"? The Democratic Republicans were using these terms to describe the administration of Federalist President Adams. The Sedition and Alien Acts under his administration were thought to erode the liberties guaranteed under the Constitution. In general, Federalist policies favored New England merchants over the small farmers of the west and south-- although most of the prominent Republican leaders were  wealthy Southern planters.

The gloomy night before us lies,
The reign of terror now is o'er;
Its gags, inquisitors and spies,
Its hordes of harpies are no more

Rejoice, Columbia's sons, rejoice
To tyrants never bend the knee
But join with heart and soul and voice
For Jefferson and Liberty.

O'er vast Columbia's varied clime
Her cities, forests, shores and dales;
In riding majesty, sublime,
Immortal liberty prevails.

Hail! long expected glorious day
Illustrious memorable morn:
That freedom's fabric from decay
Secures for millions yet unborn.

No lordling here with gorging jaws.
Shall wring from industry its food;
No fiery bigot's holy laws,
Lay waste our fields and streets in blood.

Here strangers from a thousand shores
Compell'd by tyranny to roam;
Shall find, amidst abundant stores,
A nobler and a happier home.

Let foes to freedom dread the name,
But should they touch the sacred tree
Twice fifty thousand swords would flame,
For Jefferson and Liberty.

William Henry Harrison's campaign for the presidency in 1840 was less rancorous. The Democratic-Republicans were running Martin Van Buren for reelection. They characterized the elderly Whig Harrison as "granny" and one newspaper stated "Give him a barrel of hard cider, and ... a pension of two thousand [dollars] a year ... and ... he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin."

Even though Martin Van Buren came from a poor family, while Harrison was the scion of a wealthy Virginia plantation dynasty, the Whigs turned Democratic condescension into an advantage. They characterized their candidate as a down to earth war veteran, living in a Western log cabin and giving travellers hard cider.

The Whig campaign went so far as to construct log cabins at campaign stops and gave out free drinks to voters. That's right. A presidential campaign gave out free booze. It was a common tactic in early American politics-- see Davy Crockett's political campaigns.

The props of the campaign led in turn to a great song called "Log Cabin and Hard Cider"

Come swell the throng and join the song
Extend the circle wider!
Join the run for Harrison, Log Cabin, and Hard Cider.

With Harrison, our country's won

No treachery can divide her
Thy will be done with Harrison, Log Cabin, and Hard Cider.

Let Calhoun jeer and Benton sneer

Like every such backslider!
The fight was won by Harrison, Log Cabin, and Hard Cider.

To all the world our flag's unfurled

To vict'ry Tipp'll guide her.
Second to none is Harrison, Log Cabin, and Hard Cider!

Of course, another song emerged from the Whig camp: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" which has somehow indelibly entered the American consciousness even if Harrison himself is only occasionally remembered as the shortest-lived President. A great jab in the song is "Little Van is a used-up man" referring to the incumbent Van Buren.

Just imagine how great American politics could be if we once again made up rude songs about the candidates, and the political parties bought us booze...

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