Lesson Plan 7: Songs of the Times: American Concerns in 19th Century Campaigns

By Jennifer Erbach


Students will examine campaign songs from the 1840, 1848, and 1860 elections to explore the campaign strategies of 19th century political parties.

Students will draw connections between elements of the songs and the political, social, and economic climate in which they were written.


During the 1830s most states had dropped property qualifications for voting rights, which up to that point had allowed only the wealthy upper classes (those who owned enough property) to have control in presidential elections. Dropping these qualifications allowed for greater numbers of men to vote and made the election process in the United States more democratic (women and African-Americans were still denied the right to vote, however). The number of voters swelled from 1.5 million in 1836, to 2.4 million by the 1840 election. Because of this increase of participation by members of the lower classes, political parties and their candidates had to begin appealing to the common people. In the 1840 election, the participation of the average citizen in campaigning through rallies, parades, barbecues, and the like was larger than ever before. Political parties 'marketed' their candidates to voters through songs, banners, and even dolls and porcelain figurines.

The campaign songs from these elections can be of particular use to historians looking to examine American political thought, culture, and ideals, because they are designed to make the candidate look appealing to the greatest number of voters. Examining what these songs say about the candidates can give us a clue as to what Americans were concerned with and what was valued at the time the elections were held.

Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p.65.
Boyer, Paul. The American Nation. Austin: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1998. p. 241.

Part I:

Divide the class into three teams, with the following songs (Click on the team name to access the team's songs in one file):

Harrison Team (1840) 8-12 students

  • "Little Vanny"
  • "Should Brave Old Soldiers Be Forgot?"
  • "Song of the Jackson Men"
  • "Washington Meeting, KY"

Taylor Team (1848) 6-9 students

  • "Taylor, The Fine Old Southern Gentleman"
  • "Hurrah for Rough and Ready"
  • "The American Volunteer"

Lincoln Team (1860) 6-9 students

  • "Then Put Away the Wedges and the Maul"
  • "Roll on the Republican Ball"
  • Hurrah for Abraham Lincoln

In groups of 2-3, complete the Song Analysis Worksheet (one song per group.) (The Song Analysis Worksheet is included with each team's documents available above.)

Part II:

Reconvene into teams and groups report the findings to the team. Compile a list of the campaign strategies as revealed in these songs. Who was the party appealing to? What qualities did they choose to highlight in the candidate? In other words, what does a vote "buy?" (A vote for your candidate is a vote for___________). Choose a song that you feel is the best example of this strategy to present to the class.

Part III:

Now go into the textbook. Look at the chapters and sections which cover the decade prior to your election. What political, social, and economic events/problems/changes had occurred? How do these campaign songs reflect these changes and events? Write down 3-5 events that you think most influenced your party's campaign strategy. Use specific examples wherever possible.

Part IV:

Pick three people from your team to present your findings. One person should outline the campaign strategy/candidate image, one person should present the song that your group has chosen as the best example of this strategy, and one person should present an overview of the political, social, and economic events that you think most influenced the campaign strategy. Each team will have about 10 minutes to make their presentation.

State Standards Addressed:

14.F.5 Interpret how changing geographical, economic, technological and social forces affect United States political ideas and traditions (e.g., freedom, equality and justice, individual rights). 16.A.5aAnalyze historical and contemporary developments using methods of historical inquiry (pose questions, collect and analyze data, make and support inferences with evidence, report findings). 16.B.5b (US) Analyze how United States political history has been influenced by the nation's economic, social and environmental history.

Notes for the Instructor:

Time required for this lesson is two 50-minute class periods.

Sound recordings of all of the songs except "Hurrah for Abraham Lincoln" and "The American Volunteer" are available on the Team Songs and Song Analysis Worksheet pages.