Coon Song (I), The
DESCRIPTION: "As I walked out last Saturday night... I saw an old coon wag his teail. "Said I, Old coon, how're you today? Said he, Hurray for Henry Clay." "But since I heard of Henry Clay, the Tyler grippe has passed away. "I'll cast my vote for Henry Clay."
EARLIEST DATE: 1950 (Boswell/Wolfe), but surely dating to the election of 1844
KEYWORDS: political animal nonballad
1777 - Birth of Henry Clay in Hannover County, Virginia -- a region known as "The Slashes," hence the song title "The Mill-Boy [=miller-boy] of the Slashes"
1824 - Clay's first campaign for President (in the first election where popular votes are recorded, Andrew Jackson is the clear winner in the voting, but no one wins in the Electoral College. John Quincy Adams is elected president by the House of Representatives, due mostly to backing from Clay)
1832 - Clay's second campaign for President. He is defeated by Andrew Jackson
1840 - election of the Whig William Henry Harrison, who dies shortly after his inauguration and is succeeded by Vice President John Tyler
1844 - Clay's third campaign for President, producing both ""The Mill-Boy of the Slashes," with its erroneous reference to Van Buren (who failed to earn the Democratic nomination) and "Old Hal o' the West." Clay is defeated by James K. Polk.
1852 - Death of Henry Clay
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Boswell/Wolfe 49, pp. 85-86, "The Coon Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "Henry Clay Songs" (subject) and notes there
NOTES [678 words]: Wolfe, in editing Boswell/Wolfe, was unable to locate a songster version of this, but it seems highly likely that it dates from the election of 1844. This is based on the reference to the "Tyler grippe." The Whigs in 1840 had decided not to nominate Henry Clay as their presidential candidate; although he had run as early as 1824 (DeGregorio, p. 97), he was, by 1840, a two-time loser. They instead chose William Henry Harrison, who had won fame (not entirely deserved) during the War of 1812 -- a result which infuriated Clay so much that he went on a drinking-and-cursing spree (Schlesinger, p. 290). In a typical ticket-balancing move, the Whigs chose John Tyler as Harrison's running mate.
Harrison ran against incumbent Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson's hand-picked successor who had easily won in 1836 (DeGregorio, pp. 128-129).
Harrison was "born a Virginia aristocrat, [but he] watched without protest his transmutation into a plain man of the people, while his spacious house in Ohio was reshaped into a humble log cabin" (Schlesinger, p. 292).
There followed the "log cabin and hard cider" or "Tippicanoe and Tyler Too" campaign of 1840 -- for many years regarded as the most irrelevant and most vapid of all time. (Jameson, p. 294, declares it was "without precedent or successor. This was, of course, before Willie Horton and the campaigns of the late twentieth century.) The country was still suffering the after-effects of the Panic of 1837 (DeGregorio, p. 143), and incumbent Martin van Buren was widely disliked (although the Panic, insofar as it could be blamed on anyone, was the fault of Andrew Jackson). Harrison won easily, taking 53% of the popular vote and 234 electoral votes to Martin van Buren's 60 (DeGregorio, p. 144).
But Harrison was an old man (born 1773, making him the oldest man elected president to that time; DeGregorio, p. 145). And he was a windbag. He gave a long inaugural address in a cold rain, came down with pneumonia, and died on April 4, 1841.
This left an interesting problem. Although the constitution provides for the Vice President to succeed if the President dies, it hadn't happened before. There were some attempts to shunt Tyler aside -- or at least have him declared "acting President" rather than the real thing (DeGregorio, p. 156). He finally became President -- but Vice Presidents had never been expected to succeed, and many of them were troublesome characters (Aaron Burr, anyone?). Tyler wasn't that bad -- but he had been a Democrat (Jameson, p. 667), and as President, he supported many Democratic causes. The furious Whigs regarded him as a traitor and never even considered re-nominating him. After leaving offive, he was "Quite literally a man without a party" (DeGregorio, p. 158). When he died in 1862, it was as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives (DeGregorio, p. 158).
So both sides had to pick a candidate for the election of 1844. There was significant support among Democrats for ex-president Van Buren, who also had an excellent "machine" -- but also many enemies. And an ambitious ex-governor of Tennessee was campaigning hard to be Vice President (Siegenthaler, p. 74). This was James K. Polk. On the first presidential convention ballot, Van Buren led, followed by Lewis Cass; Polk did not earn a single vote (Siegenthaler, p. 83). Indeed, he didn't earn a vote until the eighth ballot (Siegenthaler, p. 84). But he had prepared his groundwork carefully, and when the delegates saw that Van Buren and Cass were in a deadlock, the turned en masse to Polk on the ninth ballot. He became the first "dark horse" nominee in Presidential history (DeGregorio , p. 167; Schlesinger , pp. 436-437; Siegenthaler, p. 84)
The Whigs again nominated Clay (their pattern, one might sarcastically say, was to alternate between Clay and successful generals, and with Harrison dead and the Mexican War not yet fought, they didn't have any generals available). Despite this song, Polk won -- and started the Mexican War that produced the last successful Which candidate, Zachary Taylor. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.6
- DeGregorio: William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents, fourth edition, Barricade Books, 1993
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Schlesinger: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson, Little Brown, 1945
- Siegenthaler: John Seigenthaler, James K. Polk [a volume in the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.], Times Books, 2003
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