During the so-called XYZ Affair in 1797-98, Abigail Adams attended a benefit concert at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre to hear a new arrangement of “The President’s March” by Philip Phile. “Hail Columbia,” as the new version was called, was designed to quiet the partisan conflict that had plagued the theater weeks before. The piece, arranged by Federalist lawyer Joseph Hopkinson, emphasized partisan unity but cleverly invoked both George Washington and John Adams as heroic figures, ultimately drawing support away from the Republican party and toward the Federalists. As Abigail Adams reported, “The song by the manner in which it is received, is death to their Party” (113).
Such scenes of tense political maneuvering, occurring not in presidential chambers but on a musical stage, inform the framework for Laura Lohman’s impressively thorough Hail Columbia! American Music and Politics in the Early Nation. Drawing on hundreds of tunes and songs that circulated in the early American period (in song collections, newspapers and manuscripts, as broadsides, sheet music, and performances), Hail Columbia! details the varied ways musical expression frequently adapted to a rapidly changing political environment. In Lohman’s handling, music emerges as a powerful political tool, encouraging scholars to think more broadly about music as both a voice of political protest and medium through which political legitimacy could be established. Accompanied by a companion website, which includes audio recordings as well as additional images and lyrics of the music contained within the book, Hail Columbia! presents a robust rendition of the early American political scene worth a listen.
Lohman organizes Hail Columbia! chronologically, surveying music’s varied political uses from the end of the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812. Her first two chapters examine music’s development as a “tool of propaganda” wielded by both the Federalist and Republican parties to gain political control. In chapter one, Lohman meticulously traces how Federalist songwriters urged ratification of the Constitution by using “carefully crafted intertextual references and reworkings of relevant musical models” (36). In this soundscape, familiar tunes, such as “Yankee Doodle” and London’s “I’m Old Mad Tom,” were reworked to portray regulators as “uneducated, irreverent miscreants” (25). This transatlantic borrowing further intensified in the years following the Constitution’s ratification. As Lohman’s second chapter reveals, Republican music makers inspired by the French Revolution adopted a cosmopolitan soundscape to critique the perceived elitism of the Federalist party. It was not uncommon to find songs from both Britain and France reprinted and adapted for Republican purposes. Indeed, tunes like “Ça Ira” proved particularly popular among Republican Bostonians who appropriated the song during a 1792 Civic Feast “as a sonic denunciation of monarchy and aristocracy” (70).
These partisan aural conflicts deepened at the turn of the century, as Lohman’s third and fourth chapters reveal. In song, Federalist supporters denounced Republicans as anti-patriotic in their bid to establish a strong federal military. Republicans answered such musical motifs by singing the praises of Thomas Jefferson, often using the same songs deployed by Federalists in the years before. Once Jefferson was elected president, Federalists attempted to regain control over their partisan narrative by derisively adopting African American characters to critique Jefferson’s interracial relationship with Sally Hemings in songs like “Poor Negro Hoe Tobacco-Hill” published in Joseph Dennie’s Port Folio. It was only with the War of 1812—the subject of Lohman’s final two chapters—that these musical riffs started to shift. Abandoning the sectional skirmishes that had shaped the musical political scene in the preceding years, songwriters embraced a more national message instead. Although still decrying the naval depredations and economic devastation that the war with England entailed, this musical propaganda “appeared to transcend party,” supporting instead a musical nationalism that “stressed uplifting narratives of national development” (236).
In this way, Hail Columbia! offers a well-informed study of the early American political scene through the unique framework of sound. Joining scholars such as Mark Smith, Joanna Brooks, John Ogasapian, Oscar Sonneck, Richard Crawford, and Nicholas Tawa, Lohman challenges the often too prevalent perspective that music, because of its ephemerality, cannot support a sustained study for serious scholars of early American history. Her rich archive of tunes, lyrics, and songs demonstrates otherwise: political music not only circulated widely in print, it also made its way into communal and private performances, at festivals and celebratory dinners, and in the parlors of citizens seeking to express, refute, or encounter differing political views. Nor was such music mere “doggerel,” as Lohman points out in her conclusion, for it “drew the attention of presidents and a first lady, prompted literary praise and criticism, and was treated as a form of political capital that could be exchanged for various forms of political patronage” (276).
The musical narrative Lohman tells about partisan strife will be familiar to historians of the early American period, thanks to the work of scholars such as Gordon Wood, Christopher Looby, and Sarah Knott. Yet Lohman’s unique retelling through the period’s rich musical expression proves to be a welcome addition for those scholars interested in how early Americans deployed “techniques of rhetoric, narrative, and symbolism” to achieve political ends. “Music,” as Lohman succinctly writes, helps “construct powerful narratives about the nation’s history, values, and institutions, often using the hyperbolic discourse of the time to combine fact and fiction into compelling and engaging accounts of national development” (275).
Indeed, Hail Columbia! is strongest when Lohman offers critical insights into music’s distinct function in this time. Musical tunes retained a cultural resonance that songwriters often exploited by changing the lyrics as they did with “Yankee Doodle” and “The President’s March.” They could manipulate melodies to add rhythmic stress, through “rhyme scheme, tone, vocabulary,” to express “a political view in words” (197). Lyrics could be “penned quickly and…sung on the spot in a tavern, home, or political meeting and discarded” (111), but they could also be collected into homemade anthologies as a reminder of a political party’s successes and failures, as Thomas Jefferson and others did. For these reasons, among others, music for Americans proved more democratic than other forms of political propaganda. Well before the penny press made print accessible to many, the average American—“teens, farmers, seamen, and soldiers”—were taking to music to express their views of “continued partisan and sectional conflict” (236).
Lohman’s book ultimately offers readers a useful and extensively researched overview of the musical culture produced during the United States’ often divisive early political history. Painstakingly tracing music’s circulation through regional, national, and cosmopolitan contexts, Hail Columbia! demonstrates the complex networks through which music was composed, disseminated, and consumed as political propaganda informing the early American political scene.