Abraham Lincoln. Source: Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Gilmore Music Library, M1660 W639
The U.S. presidential election of 1860 was perhaps the most momentous in American history. Abraham Lincoln won, in part because the pro-slavery opposition was divided among three candidates: Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge, and John Bell. Lincoln’s victory was followed by the secession of the Southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War.
In nineteenth century, political candidates did not have the option of advertising on radio, television, or the Internet, but they frequently used music to rally their supporters and spread their ideas. Campaign songs were customarily published in pocket-sized volumes called “songsters.” The Wide-Awake Vocalist, or, Rail Splitters' Song Book is a typical example. (The “Wide Awakes” were a group of young Lincoln supporters known for wearing military-style uniforms and holding large torchlight marches. Rail-splitting was one of Lincoln’s occupations when he was a young man, and it became a popular symbol of his humble origins.) This small volume contains 62 songs about Lincoln and the election of 1860. Some include both music and lyrics, while others offer new texts that are to be sung to familiar tunes. For example, we are given words but no music for a song called “The Lincoln Flag,” along with the instruction “AIR—‘Yankee Doodle.’” Although the Wide Awakes were opposed to slavery, some of the tunes they borrowed came from the minstrel show tradition, which is now understood to be racist.
A few of the lyrics in The Wide-Awake Vocalist mention slavery, but it is by no means the only subject. At least as much attention is devoted to the fact that Lincoln was tall, while his main rival, Stephen Douglas, was short. There are songs entitled “The Taller Man Well Skilled” and “The Short and Long of It, Or, The Complaint of Douglas,” and several other songs also mention the height issue. Geography is another popular topic, but the focus is not necessarily on the friction between North and South. As a citizen of Illinois, Lincoln was considered a Westerner, and this became a major theme of his campaign, as seen in songs such as “Abe of the West, and Victory” and “Western Star, Give It Three Cheers.” Although Lincoln’s Western background distinguished him from earlier presidents, it did little to separate him from Douglas, who was also from Illinois.
We have not been able to locate recordings of any of these songs in the versions that are published in The Wide-Awake Vocalist. However, many of them merely supplied new words for tunes that most Americans already knew. Some of these tunes are still widely performed today, so there are many recordings of them, but not with the words written for the election of 1860. Three examples: "We're Bound to Work All Night" (page 22 [p. 30 of the PDF], sung to the tune of Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races"), "Lincoln of the West" (p. 57 [p. 65 of the PDF], sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"), and "Honest Abe of the West" (p. 59 [p. 67 of the PDF], sung to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner").