Jefferson and Liberty

Words by Robert Treat Paine, Jr.; tune "The Gobby-O," 1801

Given that this song was written following the election between Jefferson and Adams, what do you think the "Reign of Terror" in the first stanza refers to? The Alien and Sedition Acts.

What ethnic tradition does this tune sound like (try humming the tune without the words to see if it reminds you of a particular kind of music)? It is an Irish tune, one that was well known at the time. What message was the songwriter sending by setting his lyrics to an Irish tune? It honored immigrants who were being targeted by the Federalist Naturalization and Alien Acts.

How does the meaning of the song change if it is sung to a different tune, for example, "Greensleeves"? Why might some people choose to sing the song to the English tune "Greensleeves" instead of to an Irish tune?

What territory did the United States claim when this song was written? What would change by the time Jefferson's term was over eight years later? The Louisiana Purchase extended the US far beyond the Mississippi. When would Florida and Maine become states? 1845, 1820.

What words do they use to describe the prosperity that they expected from Jefferson's presidency? What planks of the Republican campaign platform promised this prosperity? How does liberty figure in prosperity?

In what ways would citizens today agree with the 1800 vision of prosperity? Of liberty? How would they differ?


"Jefferson and Liberty" performed by Oscar Brand on Election Songs of the United States, Folkways [0280], © 1960. Available on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube.

Oscar Brand (1920–2016) was a folk singer, composer, actor, curator, archivist, and radio host. According to the Fifty-Fifth Annual Peabody Awards Program Guide, “In December 1995, Oscar Brand celebrated his 50th anniversary as host of the Folksong Festival on WNYC, New York's municipal radio station. In that half century, Mr. Brand has personally championed folk music and has provided a platform for its most important and influential proponents. The artists featured by Oscar Brand include Woody Guthrie, The Weavers…and Huddie Ledbetter. In the McCarthy 1950s, many performers blacklisted as communists by commercial broadcasters found their only radio airplay with the courageous Mr. Brand.”

View the music and lyrics for "Jefferson and Liberty."

The summer of 1800 saw the first partisan battle for president with Thomas Jefferson running against the incumbent, John Adams. Debates in the press sometimes took the form of songs including "name calling and defamatory misrepresentation." The Federalists, led by Hamilton and Adams, represented the conservative interests of the rising mercantile class, while Jefferson and Madison were spokesmen for the Republicans who opposed the Federalists on a wide range of issues. This song was penned as a victory song, rejoicing in the change of administration. The text was first published January 24, 1801, in the Aurora under the title "A Patriotic Song, for the Glorious Fourth of March, 1801."

The "reign of terror" in the first stanza refers to treatment of newspapers and immigrants under the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Republicans viewed these acts as intending to obstruct the political activities of the Republican Party and squelch criticism of the Adams administration, which was counter to the Bill of Rights.

Setting the text to the Irish tune, "The Gobby-O," Paine made the aural connection between the repression of Irish immigrants, who were targeted by the Alien and Sedition Acts, and this song. This Irish tune was widely popular with American musicians.

Cartoon comparing Jefferson and Washington

[Washington and Jefferson] Look on This Picture, and On This, attributed to Robert Field

 

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