Above: They Might Be Giants do “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”
By Joel Francis
The eve of Election Day means the airways will soon no longer be clogged with campaign ads, and liberal songwriters can stop suing conservative politicians for hijacking using their music.
Music has a long relationship with politics, but the idea of the modern campaign song started with 1840s “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The song, written by an Ohio jeweler, celebrated Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison’s role in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe. The Whigs’ election themes were timeless: War hero Harrison was just the man (of the people) to stand up to incumbent president democrat Martin Van Buren – an East Coast-elite, Washington insider! – who’d lived on the public dole too long.
The Battle of Tippecanoe occurred when some states were literally battlegrounds. As governor of the new Indiana Territory, Harrison negotiated the title to Indian lands in hopes enough whites would settle into the area to qualify it for statehood. These negotiations culminated at the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809.
Outraged, Shawnee leader Tecumseh preached resistance to the treaty and tried to get Harrison to nullify the agreement. Harrison, whose father-in-law was a congressman who held a healthy second job as developer and seller of many of the lands claimed in the treaty, was unmoved. On Nov. 8, 1811, Harrison led stationed troops at Tippecanoe in an attempt to intimidate the insurgent Indians. Undaunted, the natives charged Harrison’s encampment, but were beaten back. After they were forced to abandon their settlement, Harrison’s troops burned the Indian town to the ground.
Tecumseh, who was visiting the South at the time, continued to secretly build an army and wage war against the United States. He aligned with the British during the War of 1812. Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario near Detroit, when his tribal army was overtaken by Harrison’s troops.
It’s hard to believe these events would inspire a song more than a generation after the fact, especially since the 1840 election was essentially a rematch Van Buren and Harrison’s 1836 contest. That election was the only time a major party placed more than one candidate on the ballot. Although Harrison led the ticket in most states, the plan was to deny Van Buren the popular vote and let the Whig-controlled House decide the election. The plan backfired when Van Buren squeaked out barely 51 percent of the vote.
The lyrics of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” mention hard cider and log cabins, a reference to Harrison’s home whiskey distillery during his decade of retirement in Ohio. Tyler is Harrison’s running mate, John Tyler, who later served as 10th president of the United States. Little Van, the used-up man, is, of course, Martin Van Buren.
At just 90 seconds, the song is basically an extended jingle, but it’s a catchy and effective one. The repetition and echo of the lyrics not only reinforce its message, but lodge the melody in your head. It’s not hard to imagine Whigs tauntingly whistling this tune for months after the election.
Van Buren’s camp countered with a song of their own. Set to the tune of “Rockabye Baby,” this is the second of its three verses:
Rockabye, baby, when you awake
You will discover Tip is a fake.
Far from the battle, war cry and drum
He sits in his cabin a’drinking bad rum.
The song failed to motivate voters, however, and Harrison carried 19 states and 53 percent of the vote for the win. Van Buren only carried seven states; Missouri, the western-most state in the union, was one of them.
Harrison only served 32 days in office, but the impact of his song lives on today.