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People & Events: Stephen Foster Backs Buchanan

As Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan battled Republican John C. Frémont in the bitter presidential race of 1856, an unlikely ally came to Buchanan's aid -- songwriter Stephen Foster, one of America's favorite composers. Foster had already written such popular hits as "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night," and "Camptown Races." Now, he put his songwriting talents to use as musical director of Pittsburgh's Buchanan Glee Club.

Given Foster's political and familial history, his support of Buchanan seems like a natural. Stephen's father, William Barclay Foster, won election to the Pennsylvania legislature and the mayoralty of Allegheny, a Pittsburgh suburb, on the Democratic ticket. His loyalty to the party provided a steady stream of patronage jobs for himself and his son Henry. Stephen's sister Ann Eliza further cemented the connection to James Buchanan by marrying his only brother, the Rev. Edward Buchanan.

Foster's support for the Democrats extended beyond feelings of party and familial loyalty. Though not the most political member of his family, Stephen opposed the tactics of Republican abolitionists. The Democratic platform he allied himself with, which supported popular sovereignty, states' rights, and the Fugitive Slave Act, solidly supported pro-slavery positions. Scholars today disagree about how to characterize Stephen Foster's views on abolition, though like many Northerners and Democrats he may have opposed slavery but still believed African Americans to be an inferior race.

More than the issues, though, it was the Republicans' rallies and sloganeering that Foster found distasteful. What he objected to most of all was the political use of non-voters, which at the time included everyone in the population except white men. Stephen wrote a political song that satirized a Republican rally as a gathering of everyone who could not vote, including "raccoons and oxen" and "women and boys." An early version of the song, which Stephen drafted in his sketchbook, included "niggers and ruffians/raccoons and fools."

At the first meeting of the Buchanan Glee Club, on August 6th, 1856, Stephen was not the only Foster present. His older brother Morrison, an ardent Democrat who had, in fact, recruited his brother to the cause, was elected the group's treasurer. According to one participant's recollection, the Glee Club also included a "bodyguard" of between 50 and 100 men. An incident occurring shortly after the formation of the Glee Club shows why such a vanguard might be necessary.

During a public march, Glee Club members stopped in the street in front of the home of some friends to sing a few songs, including at least one of Foster's. When a passerby insisted on singing out of turn, a scuffle ensued. It quickly developed into a full-scale riot, thanks to members of the Pittsburgh Fire Department. Ardent Republicans with a known disposition for brawling, the firemen attacked the Glee Club with unrestrained fury. Foster and some other men escaped, thanks to their loyal bodyguard.

If Foster failed to hold his own in political street fights, he unleashed his fury in pro-Buchanan -- and anti-Frémont -- ditties that were notable for their scathing tone if not for their musical complexity. "The White House Chair" implored voters to hold the Union together by voting Buchanan and the Democrats, whose "creed is broad and fair." "The Abolition Show" (originally titled "The Great Baby Show") attacked Frémont's pro-abolition position, ridiculed blacks, and attempted to link the Republicans to the violence in the Kansas border wars.

When the votes were counted, James Buchanan had won, although the Buchanan Glee Club probably had a limited effect on the outcome. As his candidate settled into the White House, Stephen Foster was a man on the brink of a long downhill slide. The Buchanan songs represented two-thirds of Foster's musical output for the year, and none of his songs from 1856 would be remembered for long.

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