It’s no surprise that in the heyday of editorial cartooning in the mid 1800s, the best campaign posters emulated the look and feel of these works of journalistic art. Like posters, they often provided the only chance for the American public to get a look at candidates. But it was in the hands of legendary cartoonists like Thomas Nast that presidential elections were won and lost. In 1864, when George McClellan and the Democrats ran on a platform of negotiating peace with the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican campaign printed millions of copies of Nast’s “Useless War” cartoon and distributed them around the country. And in 1868, Ulysses S. Grant credited his victory to the “sword of Sheridan,” a commanding Union general, “and the pen of Nast,” who published a depiction of Grant steering the “good Ship Union” through war and peace while being challenged and naysayed by those around him.
We think that live music today is more popular than ever, but prior to recorded sound, moving pictures, and near-universal literacy, in-person musical performance was the primary method of storytelling. The campaign song -- usually new lyrics set to an established tune like “Yankee Doodle” or “Dixie” -- is another political tool ascribed to Andrew Jackson’s everyman rise in 1824 and 1828, and it remained critical to campaign success throughout the 19th century. Case in point: “Battle Cry of Freedom,” written to rally the Union around Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, proved so popular that at one point its publisher was running 14 printing presses at one time and still couldn’t keep up with demand for the sheet music, 700,000 copies of which were eventually sold. That would have earned the song a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, had it been around 100 years earlier -- and had anybody cared in the middle of the Civil War.
The best campaign song, of course, is one that morphs into an instantly recognizable slogan. Take “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” for example. The upstart Whig Party tried to topple the ruling Democrats in 1840 by running rugged Indiana frontiersman William Henry Harrison for president against wealthy New Yorker and longtime bureaucrat Martin Van Buren. The song, written by a Zanesville, Ohio jeweler, celebrated Harrison’s victory over Tecumseh and a band of Shawnee Indians at the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe (and his running mate, John Tyler, too). But it became so popular -- newspapers of the time compared it to the “Marseillaise” -- that Whigs around the country used “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” as a rallying cry for Harrison, the first man-of-the-people, “log cabin and hard cider candidate” in American politics. And guess what? Once the votes were tallied, Harrison trounced the incumbent Van Buren, riding a confusing four-word phrase to victory.