The following is a guest post from retired Music Cataloger Sharon McKinley.
The Library of Congress recently made the James Buchanan and Harriet Lane Johnston Papers available online. It’s a fascinating treasure-trove of documents, including a wonderful series of letters between Buchanan and his niece and ward Harriet Lane (later Johnston), who served as the life-long bachelor’s First Lady during his White House tenure. Alas, I could find no songs featuring the First Lady, but Buchanan had several tunes and songs named for him or his Lancaster, PA estate, Wheatland.
Buchanan was an unpopular and ineffective president, and failed to deal with the growing slavery issues dividing the country. But he had been in the national limelight for many years, including stints as Secretary of State and as Minister to Great Britain and Russia, as well as serving in both houses of Congress. By 1856, he was a well-known political figure. His route to the presidency was convoluted, but there were many who showed their support by creating—or purchasing and performing—campaign songs about him, as well as celebratory works after his election.
Presidential music goes back as far as the Presidency itself. Access to sheet music was limited at first, and the average person is unlikely to have purchased it. But by the mid-19th century, American music publishing had grown exponentially, and had become both more sophisticated and more available and affordable for the rising middle class. Pianos were appearing in many homes. Publications with catchy covers like the one on our featured song, “A National Feeling Song,” were attractive purchases. Our song is a pithy paean to Buchanan’s bravery, and would have caught the notice of many, and perhaps even helped influence the popular vote in the 1856 election.
As pianos became more common in middle-class homes, a plethora of songs and piano music was produced, much of it by women. Since they were likely to be the pianists and singers in their households, women had the skills to produce commercially viable compositions. And what better subject than the President of the United States? Several of our Buchanan pieces bear this out. “Welcome Buchanan,” by Kate Luby, came out in 1857, after the election had been won. It’s short, but to the point. As a bonus, it includes a wonderful keepsake portrait of the new president.
Buchanan and his estate also inspired several pieces of dance music. There are a polka, a galop, and two schottisches! The “Wheatland March” was written by 14-year-old Ida Reeder in 1852, when Buchanan ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her tender age was an important selling point, and was touted right on the first page.
There are many other presidential works in the Music Division’s collections. Try searching for your favorite president!
The recent blog post on the Buchanan/Johnston Papers
Photographs of James Buchanan from the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog