Solidarity Forever! Solidarity Never! Labor History Through Song

When labor organizes, it sings. Music has been an integral part of the workers’ struggle since its early days in the Nineteenth Century. The history of organized labor through song is a long story. True to labor’s international ethos, ours is a tale which spans various nations, generations, and language communities. We have a massive corpus of material to sift through in order to take the pulse of the topic at hand. Indeed, making our task hairier still, labor’s is a story whose definite start is hard to ascertain and whose end is nowhere in sight.

In order to respect the essay format, we will strictly hold to some parameters. They are these: We will maintain a general chronological flow whilst using one main song, with some ancillary helpers, to illustrate a various work-related theme as we plod along. In doing so we will maintain both the narrative pace and topical diversity of our story. At the same time, we will ascertain common trends down through the years of struggle.

Further study recommends the 2019 texts by Steven Greenhouse, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, and James Sullivan, Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in Protest Songs.

Timeliness

Workplace organizing is back in the news. From the “Fight for $15” movement in America, to France’s Yellow Vest unrest, to Singapore’s protesting bus drivers, the working man is on the march once more. Even monolithic WalMart and sacrosanct Google, implacable foes of unions, have lately felt the pressure of labor. And with the fallout of the late Coronavirus shutdowns, some American economists are predicting a shockingly high 30% unemployment rate.

With this labor revival – I blush with pride from my pedagogical perch – the vanguard has been led largely by teachers. My profession has been shamefully eager, historically, to cooperate with a wide variety of schemes ginned up by every backroom Yaleie and stockjobbing finance bro who toddles along.

Ranging from a mass phrenology photographic campaign in the last century, to loansharking three generations of 18-year-olds and counting, no debasement, no sellout, has been too humiliating for my once-sublime profession. But, moryah, Saul can be Paul as soon as anyone. Even in labor-hostile America, scholars are fast repairing their deserved infamy. Teachers have hit the picket lines from Wisconsin to West Virginia, and from New York to California these last few years.

To Sing

Men sing from passion, or at least they ought. They sing in war “by the rocket’s red glare,” and they sing for women with “their technicolor cheeks.” Overcome by urban steel, men sing in cities “where seven million are screaming for space,” and humbled by nature, men sing with “sunshine on [their] shoulders.” Men sing because they love, and because they care, and because they are alive.

Of course, the obverse is just as true. That Christians in the so-called First World sing of a Sunday with all the gusto of a late-’80s Soviet Party Congress is one of the ominous portents for Western spirituality.

History does not hesitate to support my melodic social observation. Men sing because they care, and they’ve been at it since day one. In the great Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th Centuries, all factions busied themselves between bouts of rioting in scribbling out hymnody. The same was certainly true during the Reformation; Protestants explored the vernacular and Catholics doubled-down on chant. And whilst Tories belted out God Save the King, Enlightenment republicans answered with God Save Great Thomas Paine. Trench-up, and Home Office-down, Axis and Allies vied with each other through two world wars to out-sing the foe, this time with the timely aid of radiophone and loudspeaker.

And so, with labor. It’s a struggle that has all the hope and frustration, all the tease and triumph, of love and war and God. Thus, labor is a cause to which songsters have just as soon thrown in their pens and talents and throats for.

Limitations and Failures

At this early hour in our essay, historical impartiality requires that I address a topic which perhaps has occurred to fair-minded readers: What about anti-labor songs? In a fact that is as damning as it is absolute, there actually is no corollary corpus of anti-union songs. Nothing at’ll, so far as I’ve been able to find. There are examples of states co-opting various musical styles for their ends, particularly rock in Europe and country music in America. But as far as organic specimens go, we search in vain.

Never, after an afternoon of beating the skulls of miners or longshoremen, did the police of William Martin Murphy or Allan Pinkerton strike up a chorus of celebration and steeled resolve. They were the baddies, after all. Much less have the spoilers of our day sung, those more recent bureaucrats who delivered the Traffic Controllers’ pink slips in 1981, or General Motors’ ones in 2009, or Ikeas’ today.

An Overview

As mentioned above, labor history is a vast subject. Our main selections in this essay and the topics they raise are as follows. We start with the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution. We witness the transformation of a historic loafing worker into a mythological reformer through songs like, The Triumph of General Ludd.

Then we look at the musical celebration of labor itself through Greenland Whale Fishery, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and The Fireman’s Song. Next we have There Is Power In The Union, where we consider labor’s tensions with religion. In Banks of Marble we look at transatlantic connections between labor struggles on different continents. Which Side Are You On? gives us an insight into masculine archetypes in workers’ music. And in Solidarity Forever we dissect a fine specimen of hope, reinvention, and continuity in song. The Internationale and the Left’s decision – and ultimate split – in 1917 follows.

We then see the use of existing hymnody by the Catholic Worker Movement. In The Ballad of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire we feel the perennial anxiety of workplace safety, and the biting regret of warnings not heeded. Rounding out our time together and bringing our exploration up to the present day, we have David Rovics’ piece Living On the Streets of LA. It shines a light on the trials of atomized and indigent workers in the modern gig economy. In addition to these main pieces, about a dozen auxiliary works will illuminate our analysis.

From Marx to Uber, but with fall more soul and pizzazz than either Nineteenth Century theoreticians or Twenty-First Century apps conjure, we will sing our way through the basics of labor history.

General Ludd

Many moons before former DNC candidate Andrew Yang alerted us to the dangers of automation, workers were wary of their bosses’ late penchant for machines.

In the throes of the First Industrial Revolution some of Britain’s weavers began destroying the new mechanical looms which were occupying ever-more floor space. The contraptions were able year by year to do the specialized work which men developed over a lifetime. Playing out the future in their heads, the men of Nottingham reasoned that workingmen would soon or late be replaced altogether. These wary weavers formed loose associations of economically astute hooligans, and by 1812 they signed their corporate missives “Ned Ludd.”

The actual Ludd is said to have been a lazy or impassioned youth – the sources differ, though teens have been known to be both b’times – who, a generation before the Luddites arose, destroyed his father’s looms. Historians disagree, but he was probably grounded. The noun became an adjective, and England’s Luddites give us a fine jumping off point in our labor saga.

Folk memory is a slippery thing, and proverbially one man’s hero is another man’s villain. Like other far-sung foes of the Crown before him, like Robin Hood and Roddy McCorley, like Jamie MacPherson and Ned Kelly, the historicity of Ludd takes a backseat to common memory. How Ned Ludd morphed from a moody, loafing youth into an anti-automation hero is the stuff of another essay. What matters is that in peoples’ minds he did, and that those people decided to sing about it.

As early as 1850, Ludd was canonized by a street balladeer in The Triumph of General Ludd. Here he is imagined as a full-blown, doctrinaire revolutionary. We sing, “Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice/ Nor e’er their assistance withdraw/ Till full-fashioned work at the old-fashioned price/ Is established by custom and law.” In a song that was given a studio recording by Chumbawamba (“I Get Knocked Down”) in the late 1980s, Triumph continues with Ned’s manifesto, “Then the trade when this arduous contest is o’er/ Shall raise in full splendor its head/ And colting and cutting and swearing no more/ Shall deprive all his workers of bread.”

Robert Calvert’s 1985 Ned Ludd says, “They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy/ That all he could do was wreck and destroy/ And he turned to his workmates and said,” with Unabomber echoes, we note, “Death to Machines!/ They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.”

Continuing the common memory of Ludd in Britain, General Ludd from the UK band Seize the Day says, “Cause ‘en if we don’t break ’em [i.e., machines], our lives they will take ’em/ Our croft, our cottage, our village as well/ No freedom or laughter for those who come after/ But a servant and master in a factory hell.” Giving a full-blown first-person narrative, the song goes on, “So the door was kicked in, and the frames were all broken/ And the owner was woken and raised the alarm/ And the yeomen came riding, but we were in hiding/ The people providing, to keep us from harm.”

Steeleye Span deserves many honorable mentions for their innovative career, not the least for making a 16-minute epic on everybody’s favorite frame-breakers.

Celebration

A little later on I will address the Church’s musical consideration labor in the May 1st commemoration of St. Joseph the Worker. As Joseph Piper reminds us in his fine essay on leisure, all liturgy is celebratory. Thus, we can say labor is sublimated and celebrated in the Church’s ceremonies. However, grace builds on nature, and there is in labor folk a more basic element of rejoicing which we now turn to.

In work’s daily trials, and flow, and mundane happenings, men have sung. The Creamery Song, Greenland Whale Fishery, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and the Fireman’s Song are our examples.

In The Creamery Song our familiar morning routines are considered. It says, “Paddy Stokes was the first in at daybreak/ The boiler to stoke and ignite/ There was plenty of steam, the machinery sang/ A day’s work in the dairy began.” But mornings are deadly for distraction, and many an idle minute’s been spent on another cigarette or another cup of coffee. “Then the farmer arrived in his pony and car/ And while waiting they’d have an aul spar/ They’d talk of the games and the state of the land/ Then they’d swing the tanks up on the stand.”

All the energy and physicality of industrialization is captured by Gordon Lightfoot in Canadian Railroad Trilogy. It says, “Look away, said they, across this mighty land/ From the eastern shore to the western strand/ Bring in the workers and bring up the rails/ We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails/ Open ‘er heart let the life blood flow/ Gotta get on our way ’cause we’re movin’ too slow!”

A particular type of man all of us have likely worked for is comically memorialized in Greenland Whale Fishery. The whalers deploy in the verse, “The harpoon struck and the line paid out/ With a single flourish of her tail/ She capsized our boat and we lost five men/ And we did not catch that whale, brave boys.” Tragedy has struck, yes, but it’s not where you might think. The song goes on, “The losin’ of those five jolly men/ It grieved our captain sore/ But the losin’ of that sperm whale fish/ Now it grieved him ten times more, brave boys/ Now it grieved him ten times more.”

Not to rag too heavy on on bosses, but in Ian Campbell’s Fireman’s Song the coal stoker-narrator good-naturedly notes, “The driver sits there like a god/ A decent mate but an idle sod/ Though I’ll be shovelling on me knees/ Still he’ll sit there at his ease.” But no matter. This job has given me physical fitness and dexterity, if nothing else. “The pick and shovel are tools of me trade/ And two strong arms to swing the blade/ Hands with palms as hard as leather/ And nimble feet as light as a feather.”

Going forward, it is important to remember that the element which gives labor organizing its artistic energy is because labor itself is worth celebrating.

Wobblies

No treatment of workers’ history, much less labor music, is complete sans mention of the I.W.W. Their motto was their philosophy. “One big union,” they said, and they meant it. Well did these “Wobblies,” as I.W.W. members were called in the slang of the time, know how to fight fire with fire.

The International Workers of the World was formed in 1905. What differentiated it from contemporary movements like the Knights of Labor or the American Federation of Labor was its belief in a united working class, not one segmented by trade. The dynamic of wage-earners organized across professions would allow for “sympathetic strikes.”

With this tool, if a lone factory went on strike, nearby sympathetic strikes could magnify its power. Should management hire scabs to replace the factory workers, for example, sympathetic action called for other sectors to make that bosses’ life hell.

A sympathetic strike would oblige the truckers which supplied the original factory, the operators of the power plant which kept the factory’s lights on, the groundskeepers who plowed the snow and cleaned the gutters, and so forth and so on, to join the factory hands and bring, not just one location, but potentially an entire town, city, or region, to a standstill.

A couple of years ago I greatly expanded The Ballad of James Larkin. Originally written by Donagh McDonald, son of the poet and 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh (“I See His Blood Upon the Rose”), the ‘60s Ballad beat contemporary historians to the punch in linking the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 to the Easter Rising of 1916.

As regards a sympathetic strike, my expansion goes, “Then Larkin left us, he’d gone to England/ A Fiery Cross for some sympathy/ From Southampton and from London/ Labor joined hands across the sea.” Presaging the chronic weakness of 20th Century labor leadership, the stanza continues, “But union bosses were worse than useless/ And there’d be no general strike/ With ‘friends’ like this, you’d not need foemen/ Dublin’s heroes pushed on alone.”

Joe Hill and Religious Tunes

Joe Hill, originally an immigrant from Sweden, and himself the subject of no shortage of musical memorials in the wake of his famed (and framed) execution in Utah in 1915, was especially adept at co-opting religious hymns for organizing purposes. During Hill’s I.W.W. junkets through the American West, local capitalists routinely hired Salvation Army bands to play music over the speeches of Wobbly organizers like Joe Hill. There was no electronic amplification in those days, none within the budget of traveling Wobblies, at least. The appearance of a brass band playing There Is Power in the Blood or Onward, Christian Soldiers would be enough to put the kibosh on the most earnest speechifying.

Making lemonade of his lemons, Hill set his prolific compositions to tunes commonly used by churches. We recall that religious observance was much higher a century ago, and thus many tunes were generally known by the public. One example of Hill’s use of a religious anthem is The Preacher and The Slave. It employs the tune of In The Sweet By-And-By, and the song directly aims its barbs at the General Booth’s “Sally Army” interrupters. Hill’s song croons, “The Starvation [sic] Army, they play/ And they sing and they clap and they pray/ ‘Til they get all your coin on the drum/ Then they tell you that you’re on the bum.” Preacher is also notable for containing Hill’s famous expression, “Pie in the sky.” Like the memory of Hill himself, the expression would live on long after its initial appearance.

“Pie in the sky,” wasn’t a baseless phrase. Besides some papal encyclicals and the efforts of the Catholic Worker Movement, popular and institutional Christianity was silent on the labor topic. Any Protestant who brought up organizing a century past was also likely to be as soon fuzzy on doctrine, and thus suspect by the pious.

Culpable of guilt by association, observant upper- and middle-class Catholics joined Protestants in an ecumenical wariness of labor issues. However, the majority of American Catholics were poor, and their support of unions brought them into regular conflict with religious leaders.

As for the Orthodox response to the labor topic, of course there were not enough of them in the West to generate a conversation in that quarter. And indeed, set upon by Modernity far more abruptly than the Western Church, Eastern Christians still are nowhere nearer in 2020 to forming a labor theology than they were in Hill’s day.

Another example of the co-opting of pious tunes for labor purposes is Because All Men Are Brothers. With lyrics which would surely startle Johann Sebastian Bach, who notably used the setting for his St. Matthew’s Passion, labor’s rewriting states, “Let every voice be thunder, let every heart beat strong/ Until all tyrants perish our work shall not be done/ Let not our memories fail us, the lost years shall be found/ Let slavery’s chains be broken the whole wide world around.”

Also, from the prolific pen of Joe Hill is the 1913 piece There Is Power In The Union. Ripped from the formerly pious background of its original setting, There Is Power defiantly barks, “If you like sluggers to beat off your head/ Then don’t organize, and unions despise/ If you want nothing before you are dead/ Shake hands with your boss and look wise.”

Occasionally immigrants embody the ethos of a country better than natives. If Europe took our Henry James a century past, they at least had the good manners to trade their talented Joe Hill.

The Gospel of Christ Meets the Gospel of Labor

In juxtaposition to the antipathy or hostility towards labor from bourgeois Christians, the Catholic Worker Movement sought to bridge the gap between secular labor and the Christian tradition. Their Catholic spiritual tradition was an old hand in the ideological use of music.

Founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in 1933, the CWM sought to make the Church a dynamic social force once again. On the back foot since the French Revolution, it was time to be proactive. As Dan McKannan writes in a contemporary Movement publication, “The Catholic Worker [community] is the place in which the American Catholic Church as a whole meets the American Left as a whole.”

Towards that end, I’ve stumbled across a contemporary mini-retreat inspired by Dorothy Day’s life which is suggested by the Movement. The recollection concludes with I Bind My Heart This Tide, a hymn from the turn of the last century. It contains these verses, “I bind my soul this day/ To the neighbor far away/ And the stranger near at hand/ In this town, and in this land.” With a distinct flavor of St. Patrick’s Lorica, it continues, “I bind my heart in thrall/ To the God, the Lord of all/ To God, the poor one’s friend/ And the Christ whom he did send.” It’s a fitting hymn for a day dedicated to the spirituality of one such as Day, herself an Oblate of St. Benedict and those religious’ commitment to “ora et labora.”

The response of the pious from the 19th Century through the foundation of the Catholic Worker Movement gave fuel to the secular Left’s claim that religion was in the keep of the ruling class. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engles succinctly wrote in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, “Communism abolishes all religion.” However, the plucky Catholic Worker Movement had enough sense to snatch the brand from the fire. Seeing labor quickly spinning off into the worldly, secular arena, they used songs too.

Unlike the I.W.W., the CWM tended to use existing Christian hymns to express their social gospel, a message which saw the Corporal and Spiritual Works as concrete marching orders as adamantine as Marx’s Ten Planks. Much like the inclusion of the Memorial feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the CWM uses existing hymns to sanctify the daily concerns of working men with religious iconography. For their efforts Catholics today still grouse about Dorothey Day being a “communist.” No good deed goes unpunished.

Liturgical Music

Much in the vein of the CWM, the institutional Church appointed May 1st the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. It was a commemoration which had been knocking around since the 19th Century under different titles and ranks. That St. Joseph kept a second liturgical day on the Postconcilior calendar, when many saints lost the one they had, is a testimony to the gravity of the labor issue on the mind of the Church.

On both Joseph’s March 19th major celebration, when his historic and celestial assistance is remembered, and his minor honor on May 1st, when his silent laborings are recalled, the hymn Te Ioseph Celebrant is sung at Vespers. We mightn’t associate Latin liturgical hymnody with folk music, but really it is. It is no harder to sing than any folk piece, and a damn sight easier than many contemporary songs in those horrid missalettes.

When churchmen cease dumbing down the liturgical life of the faithful, once again the Volk can sing the decidedly folk piece Te Ioseph Celebrant. It honors the spiritual ends of labor with the stanza, “Death brings to other saints their rest/ Through toil they win the victor’s place/ Thou happier, like the Angels blest/ Alive, hast seen God face to face.”

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “Protectors of our Industries,” an illustration from Puck Magazine, February, 1883.

Paddy’s Lament: The Irish And Their Music In The American Civil War

Introduction

In this essay we will look at songs concerning the Irish in the American Civil War, in order to come to a deeper grasp of this community in that war. By doing so, we will explore the interaction of the Irish with other minority groups caught up in the conflict, and their common lot with the larger Anglo culture.

We will examine period pieces and modern compositions related to the Irish. These songs are “The Opinions of Paddy Magee,” “We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam,” “Irish Volunteer,” “Kelly’s Irish Brigade,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” “Two Brothers Masterson,” “Boys That Wore the Green,” “Paddy’s Lamentation,” the equally doleful “Mick Ryan’s Lament,” and “Modern Army O.” Passing references will be made to “I Goes to Fight Mit Sigel” and “List of Generals.”

The Civil War produced a great many musical pieces. I chose the ones in this essay that especially invite distinct topical consideration. Briefly, “We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam” looks at Irish soldiers from the North. It also allows us to delve into George McClellan’s persistent popularity with his units, both ethnic and otherwise, throughout the course of the conflict. “Kelly’s Irish Brigade,” examines Irish southerners. In “Two Brothers Masterson” we look at the tensions that immigrants had with Africans. The role Germans and natives played in the war and its music is also considered.

The song “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” permits us to see connections with political movements back in Ireland. “The Irish Volunteer” demonstrates an eagerness to adopt native concerns and politics by new arrivals. “The Boys Who Wore the Green” is a look into the unit and cultural diversity, and chaos, which the 19th-century citizen-soldier model of military organization allowed for. “Paddy’s Lamentation” gives us insight into the disillusion which mid-war Irish were feeling, along with the rest of America.

Finally, “Modern Army O” and “Mick Ryan’s Lament” take us to the postwar world of an America eager to get back to normal. There is, of course, overlap in some of the themes chosen here, and each verse carries much historical meaning. Therefore, these works of popular art allow us to take a survey of topics related to Irishmen in the definitive American experience, the Civil War.

Gratitude and Patriotism

At the top of our list is “The Opinions of Paddy Magee.” The song addresses the proximate reason many Irish came to America in the mid-19th-century: the Great Hunger of 1845-49.

Along with other Anglosphere lands (Britain, of course, but also Canada and Australia) – starving Celts arrived in these United States by the hundreds of thousands at that time. Immediately they were recipients of native hostility.

The 1860s conflict gave refugees like “Opinions’” fictional narrator Paddy a chance to route the libel of divided loyalties, and show his gratitude towards his adopted home. During the real-life outbreak of war, the Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, could not hang flags fast enough from his parishes. With memories of the popular “Know Nothing” Party and the horrific anti-Catholic Philadelphia riots of 1844 not far from mind, our soldier-singer declares:

Whin Ireland was needing, and famine was feeding
And thousands were dying for something to ate,
‘Twas America’s daughters that sent over the waters
The ships that were loaded with corn and whate.
And Irishmen, sure, will forever remember
The vessels that carried the flag of the free.
And the land that befriended, they’ll die to defend it
And that’s the opinions of Paddy Magee.

According to the song, the Civil War allowed these new Americans to repay charity given them a generation before.

Pay

Next at bat we have a pair of songs, “We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam” and “The Irish Brigade.” With these pieces we confront the basic question of why Irish immigrants participated so robustly on both sides of the conflict? The Crisis of 1860 and the war it precipitated were many miles removed from the concerns and culture of the Irish.

Whatever theoretical appeal Constitutional liberties like freedom of religion held for Hiberians, the welcome they actually received was not a warm one. Anti-Irish animosity became so desperate that famously during the Mexican War (1846-48) an entire brigade of the Federal army deserted over to the Mexican side!

Like German immigrants two generations later, Irish support for the Union was not a given. One pedestrian, though evergreen, reason immigrants fought in large numbers was for money. The famous $13 per month which Union privates received, even the Confederate’s $11 per month, a holdover from the prewar pay scale, was head and shoulders better than the unstable morsels which urban day laborers took in, to say nothing of the tempestuous lives of rural farmers.

In “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam,” a Union piece, it contains the line, “Not long ago I came here from the bogs of sweet Kilarney. I used to cry out, ‘Soap Fat!’ because that was my trade, sir; ‘til I ‘listed as corporal in Corcoran’s brigade, sir.” Many of the Irish immigrants of the 1860s had come from rural stock. They had few marketable skills in the crowded cities of the north. If the army didn’t allow for a better life, it at least provided a less indigent one.

Geopolitics:Cotton

It is unwise to consider the Civil War in a vacuum. As comfortable as it is to study as such, as our definitive event, we must recall what Walter McDougal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute says. The War of the Rebellion was not an insular oddity, but, “part of the deepest rhythms of world history.” The trends of centralization, servile abolition, and a “shrinking” technological world were forces America participated in along with the rest of the world.

Both “We’ll Fight” and “Opinions” additionally invite the humble listener into the world of international politics. British support for the Confederacy is warned off with the line, “If John Bull should interfere, he’ll suffer for it truly, for the Irish boys in action will give him balley hooley.” We also hear, “John Bull, ye ould divil. Ye’d better keep civil!”

Through mid-war there was a chance of Britain supporting the Confederacy. This would have possible military advantages, and definite financial advantages. For a country heretofore not permitted to raise funds on the international markets and from major banks, legal recognition amongst the world community was a must.

The hungry textile mills of Europe lustfully weighed on the minds of British MPs as they considered the U.K.’s official reaction to the North American bloodletting. With the nearsightedness characteristic of speculation, the southern economy was a one-trick, cotton pony by the start of the war in 1861. “Guns for Cotton” was the dear hope of Confederate statesmen. Until the Crown could develop its cotton market in India, which eventually came on line by mid-war, this was an equation British statesmen were inclined to consider.

European powers, and others besides, needed cotton from the South for their mills. This commercial concern weighed heavily against ethical reservation concerning slavery. “Scott’s Anaconda,” the blockading of the entire Confederate coastline by the Lincoln administration, put a wrench in the French supply chain for the entirety of the war.

The “Famine du Coton” in Alsace, Normandy, and Brittany matched the supply hardships experienced by the English. The financial angle could have put European powers in the Confederate corner, and this was possibility enough for our Irish songsters to put John Bull – and by extension, Marianne – on alert.

Geopolitics: The Trent Affair

The possibility of English support for the Confederacy was made likelier still with international guffaws by Union leaders. For example, the Trent Affair in November 1861 was when Union sailors boarded British ships to arrest two Confederate agents under the laws of war.

The Lincoln administration was adamantine that the Confederacy was not a nation. Thus, according to their own logic, southern agents were not subject to the rule of international law. The only conclusion left, then, was that Union sailors trespassed on British property, and kidnapped British guests.

Earnestly for them in the moment, and amusingly for us 150 years later, Northern attorneys engaged in great rhetorical gymnastics trying to justify their Administration’s position, while also fending off charges of criminality. This incident, combined with William Seward’s subsequent bluster in the press, brought the relationship between the U.K. and U.S. the closest to war since 1812.

Geopolitics: Slavery

Slavery is a topic which does not enter into any of the immigrant-related songs chosen for this essay, north or south. In fact, even in general works from the war period, forced servitude is only mentioned obliquely. Examples of this include, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Marching Through Georgia,” both Union songs; and “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and Albert Pike’s reworking of “Dixie,” for Confederate examples.

As a slave power, nearly alone in the Western world besides Brazil and Cuba, the Confederate States of America (CSA) did not do themselves any favors when appealing to European nations for legal recognition, much less material assistance. France and Britain were the two biggest candidates for Confederate support. France had abolished slavery in 1794 (albeit briefly resurrected by Napoleon) and the United Kingdom in 1833. In the age of 19th-century mores, whatever the temptation of cotton, the CSA’s “peculiar institution” worked against their international interests.

Irish Confederate Units

The odds against the Confederate cause from the start tended to lend its partisans to associate their enterprise with grand moral and political motives, and historical precedents. “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” attempts to weave the Confederate struggle and its Hibernian involvement into the larger saga of Irish liberation.

When nowhere near technical brigade size, the southern narrator sings, “[Northerners] have called us rebels and traitors, but themselves were called that name of late.” While the song immediately goes on to reference the Rebellion of 1798, we also intuit the songster’s general scorn for Yankees.

Like the British in the American Revolution, an event which was within reaching memory at the time of our topic, invading Yankees were occupying another country as far as southerners were concerned. This certainly is a parallel not lost on the narrator of “Kelly’s Irish Brigade.” He sings, “They dare not call us invaders. ‘Tis but states’ rights and liberty we ask. And Missouri we’ll ever defend her. No matter how hard the task.”

Larger Struggles

We next have “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” This song allows us to connect the Irish struggle in the Civil War with another fight in another land. It speaks with the voice of an imprisoned Union soldier trying to keep up his spirits despite his condition. As he says, “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching. Cheer up, comrades, they will come!” Just wait, just hope, we’ll be free in time.

Most people today would not associate “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” with the Civil War. The tune was co-opted and popularized a few years after Appomattox for the Irish nationalist cause. Rebranded as “God Save Ireland,” it commemorates the Manchester Martyrs. The Martyrs were three Fenians hanged by the Crown in 1867. The retooled “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” now “God Save Ireland,” became the de facto anthem of Irish Republicans through the War of Independence (1919-21).

Rather than a forlorn, pining captive, though, “God Save Ireland” has its prisoner-singer defiant ‘til the end. One stanza reads, “They met him [the hangman] face to face, with the courage of their race. And they went with souls undaunted to their doom.” When we recall Cathal Brugha’s famous use of “God Save Ireland,” we must remember its connection to an earlier generation and an earlier war.

The Fenians

We turn now to the influences of the Fenians on the Civil War. The Fenian Brotherhood was a group founded simultaneously in America and Ireland in 1858 (on St. Patrick’s Day, of course). The Civil War promised a ready means for these secret revolutionaries to build and drill a corps of fighters to ship back home.

One of the stranger aspects of Celtic participation in the War of the Rebellion, as the United States government still calls the 1860s bloodletting, is that a people dominated by an outside power, as Ireland was by the British, would enthusiastically enlist in significant numbers on the side of a power trying to squash the self-determination of another group of people, the American southerners. This is a curious dynamic we’ll see later with the post-war Irish participation in the western Indian Wars.

In his infamous summons of 75,000 men, a move which initially worsened the Crisis, President Lincoln plainly said his intention was, “To suppress said combinations.” However, practical considerations overruled die-hard revolutionary ideology. The majority of immigrants lived in Northern cities like Boston and New York, as opposed to southern ports like Charlestown and New Orleans.

Additionally, the Union’s chances of victory were more secure from the start. While it took at least two years to come to full strength, once the Federal government brought its organizational and industrial might to bear, their ability to train and arm mass bodies of men recommended Fenian support for the Union. The conflict would provide free quality training which Irish revolutionaries could deploy back in Ireland.

In On Deciding to Fight for the Union, Union Irish Brigade leader, Thomas Francis Meagher said, “We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material support of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.”

This decision can be directly tied to individuals who helped raise Irish units. Meagher (pronounced “mar”) was involved in the Young Irelander uprising of 1848, that “Year of Revolutions.” Transported to Australia after his conviction of treason, Meagher escaped and made his way via Brazil to America.

Another revolutionary was Michael Corcoran. In addition to a revolutionary pedigree as rich as Meagher’s, Corcoran made a name for himself when he was court-martialed for not leading the largely-Irish 69th New York Militia on parade when the Prince of Wales visited America in 1860. The charges were dropped upon the eruption of hostilities. However, “The Boys Who Wore the Green” saucily remembers, “Colonel Corcoran led the 69th on that eventful day [i.e., Bull Run], I wish the Prince of Wales were there to see him in the fray.”

Meagher and Corcoran organized and drilled an expanded 69th New York following the Confederate firing on Ft. Sumpter in April 1861. The unit was altogether green. However, several soldiers had seen service in recent European wars. These included ten officers lately in the service of Pope Pius IX’s own “St. Patrick’s Brigade,” in the Papal States’ luckless fight against Garibaldi.

Narratives

When, how, and why minority groups align their interests and narratives with related groups is a topic well worth its own treatment. By “narrative” I mean a group’s own reading of its revolutionary history, especially in light of similar struggles elsewhere.

Such is also the forging of the Irish nationalist “apostolic succession” narrative. This narrative attempts to link Ireland’s own desperate rebel history. It also includes foreign efforts for the Liberal cause in its understanding. The Fenian narrative in this case includes friendly connections with America’s Revolutionary experiment.

The ancient clan system in Ireland was smashed with the Tudor conquest. The 1745 Battle of Culloden in neighboring Scotland brought this truth home. Suddenly the passing of the clan system went from a suspected abstraction to a bloody, grim reality. Celtic nationalists ultimately retrenched and settled upon the most cutting-edge political philosophy of the day to rally around: republicanism.

America’s two wars with Britain, as well as the explosion of the French Revolution on the Continent, gave added inspiration to independence-minded Hiberians for their own liberty. However ill-served rebels like Robert Emmet were by the republican National Assembly, the international republican experience provided garrisoned Ireland an example to imitate.

Indeed, during the heady days before his imprisonment for sedition in 1848, Thomas Meagher advocated physical force republicanism against the pacifistic position of Daniel O’Connell’s supporters. He specifically used the American example as justification. Ireland’s revolutionary past merged with the American saga as theoretical examples which expats like Corcoran and Meagher were keen to develop and fuse for the ends of their Irish story.

Other Ethnic Groups

Next, we consider the role of race, the Irish, and the Civil War. In introducing this theme, we recall that Irishmen were not the only subgroup to be caught up in the majority-Anglo Civil War. Indians, blacks, and Germans all richly participated as well.

Native Americans, however, come from a vastly different musical tradition than the various European ethnicities which participated in the war (including the majority Anglo one). Additionally, they made a different use of martial music. Thus, we have no corpus of native Civil War music.

Another possible field of study is German participation in the war. They were closer to the Irish military and musical experiences. The Germans were also a community numerically as robust as the Irish. However, the language barrier meant that few period songs were written, and less survive for our perusal.

There is one delightful exception to this Saxon dearth: “I Goes To Fight Mit Sigel.” Reasonably concerned with his martial alcohol access, our patriot-narrator explains, “Dere’s only von ting vot I fear, Ven pattling for de Eagle. I vont get not no lager bier, Ven I goes to fight mit Sigel!”

Franz Sigel’s command of the largely-German XI of the Army of the Potomac is also noted, along with Irish commanders, in the 1864 song “List of General.”

African-American Interactions

When it comes to Irish interactions with African-Americans, “Two Brothers Masterson” does not blush. The 19th-century was not a politically correct era. Perhaps this allows us a truer picture of the times. “Masterson” is set to the tune of the “Croppy Boy,” and it follows an equally doleful trajectory.
At this point you ought to be noticing a cross-over of music in the later development folk. Both America and Ireland equally influenced the other’s music.

Twice in “Masterson” we note the unhappy interaction of American blacks and Irish. The singer states, “With savage blacks [the brothers] did not agree.” When put upon to help hang his sibling, Patrick refuses. Sensing a need, a nearby, “wild black sergeant proposed to do the deed.”

This artistic animosity can be traced to the actual competition both groups faced for northern jobs during this period. Indeed, we remember that during the New York draft riots in 1863 African-Americans were especially targeted by the rioters, and a great many of those rioters came from the Irish community centered around New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen district.

Chaos

In “The Boys That Wore the Green” we get a taste of the chaos of those early days of the Rebellion. The song memorializes the motley units which found themselves at the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861. The peacocking and bluster which both sides liberally engaged in, from well before Lincoln’s election the previous autumn, quickly drained away as the grim reality of protracted battle loomed.

After a solid start on the morning of July 21st, the Rebels rallied and broke the Union ranks. It’s a debacle commemorated in the fourth stanza of “Boys.” The singer talks about the capture and recapture of the 69th’s battle flag, declaring, “The colors of the 69th, I say it without shame, Were taken in the struggle to swell the victor’s fame.” Politely omitted is the fact that Michael Corcoran was wounded and also captured in the battle. He was paroled and went on to organize Corcoran’s Legion, another majority-Irish unit.

The rearguard fight the Irish Brigade made at Bull Run with the 11th New York Zouaves is mentioned in the fifth stanza. It states, “In that hour of peril, the flying mass to screen, Stood the gallant New York firemen, with the boys that wore the green.”

After several verses lauding the mutual assistance each unit gave the other during the Civil War’s seminal battle, the song finishes, “Farewell, my gallant countrymen, who fell that fatal day. Farewell, ye noble firemen, now mouldering in the clay. Whilst blooms the leafy shamrock, whilst runs the old machine, Your deeds will live bold Red Shirts, and Boys that Wore the Green!” And indeed, each unit had cause to be nostalgic. By mid-war both, due to attrition and maturation, regiments were drastically different from their early-war selves.

Militia Model

At Bull Run, the citizen-solider model favored in America well into the 20th Century was sorely tried. If the Confederate national army wasn’t itself in its birth pangs on “that eventful day,” however, things would have been worse for the north. The rebel inability to consolidate and counter-attack is the biggest “what if” of the entire conflict.

The organizational militia model in force, during those well-sung early days of the fight, allowed for a small perpetual corps of men, mostly alumni of the military academies, to be the nucleus around which a much larger mass of militia could form. Those militia units were called in the Federal parlance of the time, “Volunteers.” True to their forebears in the American Revolution, these Volunteers were led by officers chosen either for quality, charisma, or graft.

While the militia system provided against an ancient Cesarean takeover, or a modern Military Industrial Complex, it made for chronically messy military starts. The United States would know this well into the 20th-century. In any case, the behavior of the 69th at Bull Run was something the men could be proud of.

It was a legacy they would have an opportunity to build upon, a year and a half later at Antietam. As the late Connecticut author, Thomas Craughwell, wrote, “The Irish Brigade turned the tide at Antietam. By driving off the Confederates, it all but ensured a Union victory. The Irish had been building a reputation as tenacious fighters; at Antietam they cinched it.”

Unit Diversity

Not all of early-war messiness was bad or incompetent. It occasionally allowed for local flare. Ethnic regiments such as Irish, German, and Indian units are examples of this diversity. Likewise was the “Zouave” phenomena. Inspired by French soldiers, these light infantry units were recruited from the fire brigades of New York City by the early-martyred Elmer Ellsworth.

Clothed in their distinctive red and blue embroidered uniform, the 11th New York was one early group to buttress the defenses of Washington, following weeks of anxious waiting and rumors, during the Secession Crisis in the spring of 1861. Both their unusual accoutrements and their baptism of fire at Bull Run guaranteed the mutual affection of both regiments in “The Boys Who Wore the Green.”

Little Mac

Lastly, “The Boys Who Wore the Green,” along with “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam” and “List of Generals,” raises the specter of “Little Mac.” George McClellan was the Army of the Potomac’s sometimes-commander. Notoriously reluctant to engage with a southern opponent who was two or three times his size, Abraham Lincoln once humorously said, McClellan had a case of, “the slows.”

Nevertheless, “Little Mac,” as his troops affectionately called him, was an excellent organizer. Units always had the supplies they requested, and after defeats like the Second Bull Run, McClellan was able to rebuild the army and boost its confidence.

While their affection wasn’t able to take Little Mac to the White House in 1864, it was able to live on in songs with verses like, “Once again, the stars and stripes, Will to the breeze be swellin’. If Uncle Abe will give us back Our darlin’ boy McClellan;” and, “Of one more [general] I’ll be telling, and who should be restored straightway. To put an end to this rebellion: Little Mac, he knows the way!”

Burnout

The gay, baggy pants and striped shirts of the Zouaves went by the wayside in “Paddy’s Lamentation.” Thanks to Sinead O’Connor, this is the only piece in our Civil War selection with popular play. The song describes the wariness Irishmen were feeling by mid-war.

This song also reflects the greater mood of America. Similar to the narrator of “Masterson,” our pleading singer advises, “To America I’ll have ye’s not be going. There is nothing here but war, where the murderin’ cannons roar. And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin.” Like many ethnic songs, “Paddy’s Lamentation” has “Easter eggs” in it which betray its North American composition. “Dear old Dublin” was far removed for most 19th-century Irish immigrants. Hiberians who came to America, mostly came from the west of Ireland.

In any case, all the men who were inclined to go in for Meagher’s transatlantic revolutionary schemes had done so by the war’s second year. After that, the motives were less idealistic. Cap-stoning this sentiment was the death of Michael Corcoran in 1863 in a riding accident in Fairfax, Virginia.

As Craughwell writes, “[Corcoran’s] death came as a shock to the Irish Brigade, whose men had loved and revered Corcoran since 1860 when he refused to march the 69th Regiment in a parade honoring the Prince of Wales.” Either money or the force of law stocked the ranks of the Irish Brigade after the initial idealism died down.

Manifest Destiny Resumed

Finally, we close with two postwar pieces: “Mick Ryan’s Lament” and “Regular Army O.” The one doleful, the other comical, both songs take us from the eastern seaboard to the Wild West, with the downsized U.S. military. With the Rebellion over, the American government returned to its pre-war hobby: westward expansion. Our refugee-cum-trooper, Mick Ryan, sings, “I swear I did not see the irony,

“When I rode with the Seventh Cavalry. I thought that we fought for the land of the free, When we rode from Fort Lincoln that morning.” In other words, the expat from Erin was used in his turn to dispossess Indians from their homes. This ultimately led to his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, commanded by former Civil War hero, George Armstrong Custer.

In “Modern Army O,” we’re introduced to a man who, making no idealistic motivational pretense, “had the choice of going to the army or to jail.” Compelled to endure longer and longer marches on less and less grub, our modern soldier throws off the whole army and skedaddles to Mexico.

In both songs we are confronted with one of the curses of war: addiction to fighting. As long-standing the battlegrounds of today attest, places like Somalia, Afghanistan, or Syria, after a while a country’s young men have no stock and trade but war.

That was the condition many veterans found themselves in, in 1865. Decidedly less ideological or reverential than earlier pieces, the song shows an increased assimilation of Irishmen by the later part of the 19th-century, due in part to their military service. As Craughwell writes, “The courage and sacrifice of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War helped diminish prevalent anti-Irish prejudice in America.”

Conclusion

Our selections have featured both early-war, red-blooded martial anthems, burned-out ballads from later in the conflict, and ironic and irreverent postwar choices.

The songs were written from historic moments of patriotism, and contemporary meditations on the hardships of history. They permit us to dive into aspects of the American Civil War which standard study does not allow for. We come closer to our subject. We laugh and cry and bleed and gripe along with the soldiers, who fought the war – and we sing with them, too.

John Coleman is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “July 27, 1861: New York’s 69th (Irish) Regiment return from 1st Battle of Bull Run” by Louis Lang, and painted in 1862-1863.

All About Presidential Primaries

For good or ill we are in an election year and a major one at that. All the seats in the House are up for grabs, one-third of Senate offices are in contest, and of course so is the Presidency. No sooner has one election gone, then another is in the offing. And while “blackout periods” (legal restrictions on advertising before election day) may shield our mental space for a few precious days, we are helpless otherwise.

Besides, even the murkiest of blackout periods don’t stop radio showmen, television talking-heads, or (horrors!) YouTube comments from jabbering on. Even the heartiest news hounds weary of election updates by September. Come October, the best of us look like deer at the end of the rut, scrolling away at our news feeds in a bleary daze.

Luckily, I’ve caught you before the thing gets going in earnest; when we’re spry and sprite, and when we still have mental hard-drive space to learn a thing or two.

For all the minutiae – and drama – the press serves up in great doses, it is easy to be ignorant of the actual mechanics of our electoral process. What exactly is the path from idea to execution? How does one go from mucking around a run for office, chewing it over in one’s mind and with one’s friends around the water cooler, to formally applying as a candidate, to ultimately ending up on a party’s ticket?

Definitions

At this time last year, when your minds and mine were far from this election, there were over 600 registered candidates running for the Presidency. Over 600 people embarked on the preliminary steps of a process we will now explore. How those hundreds of souls are whittled down to one candidate is done through the primary process. It is a system we find ourselves in at this moment.

As we set out on this exploration, we must make a distinction early on between caucuses and primaries. For stylistic reasons, I’ve chosen to use “primary” for both actual primaries and the rarer caucuses, unless otherwise noted. Both meetings are part of the opening steps in choosing a party’s candidate for the general election. Both are inter-party elections held to choose delegates from the state parties to participate in the national conventions held the summer preceding the November election.

The name-difference, firstly, designates who is funding those meetings. Caucuses are private gatherings which are run and paid for directly by the private political parties (n.b., both the GOP and the DNC are, after all, private associations). Caucuses are altogether in-house affairs. On the other hand, primaries are organized and paid for by the states. Besides funding, the name-difference indicates a difference in voting styles.

Caucuses use open ballots, everyone knows who voted for whom. They’re closer to open meetings than anything, and they try to arrive at a consensus. Primaries use secret ballots of the sort we’re familiar with in the general November election, with the winner usually receiving all that state’s delegates in the summer.

The overall trend since the 19th-Century, and especially since the 1970s, has been towards the primary system. Various dynamics come into play behind this trend. The most outstanding argument includes the perception that primaries are more open and democratic. The merits of this supposed openness is something we’ll look at later. (Not all that glitters, is gold.) In any case the purpose of the primaries is to choose delegates, who themselves will choose their party’s national presidential candidate.

Early History

How did the primary system arise? After all, political parties were not a planned feature of our government. Indeed, during the Revolution, the subsequent six-year rule of the Articles of Confederation, and during the final system developed at the Constitutional Convention, parties (or factions, as they were called then), were gravely cautioned against.

With the heavy examples of Rome and England during their civil wars, and the persistent machinations of factions in Medieval republics – think Romeo and Juliet’s Verona – weighing on their minds, the Founding Fathers were greatly set against such combinations.

Alexander Hamilton, oddly enough, given his later support of the Federalist party, warned in a tract, “There is no political truth better established by experience nor more to be deprecated in itself, than that this most dangerous spirit [of political parties] is apt to rage with greatest violence, in governments of the popular kind, and is at once their most common and their most fatal disease.”

The most revered statement in all of American political religion is Washington’s “Farewell Address.” It was once an oration commonly memorized by America’s schoolchildren. In it the outgoing president cautioned (in the best tradition of 18th-Century run-on sentences), “[Political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

There were a number of Constitutional measures in place to squelch “partyism,” such as, the appointment of a presidential runner-up at be Vice President. Yet even the warning given at Washington’s 1796 retirement – or rather, his re-retirement, the general having first demurred further public life in 1783 at the disbanding of the Continental Army – the young nation was drifting towards a seemingly factionalism. It is a drive that seems to be irrepressible in men.

During the debates revolving around the ratification of the Constitution, two groups formed to voice their opposition to, or favor for the new national government. In after-years these groups metastasized. By the turn of the century, the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, as the parties came to be known, were well on their way to becoming as entrenched as their Tory and Whig predecessors were during colonial days. Indeed, by the time the 19th-Century was well underway, America not only had parties in abstract, it actually had a “Whig” party!

Later History

Whatever the Framers’ thoughts on the matter, political groups were here to stay. Indeed, Washington himself threw in the oppositionist towel in 1798, saying, “You could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a professed Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country.”

Even Cinncinatus became a partyist. From those early groups, the caucus system developed. How it did so and how it eventually morphed into our present primary gauntlet is something we will look at now.

With or without parties there developed a need to select and publicize candidates up for office. Washington’s decision to bow out of a third term in the 1796 election created chaotic conditions for the new nation. In those days, before the passage of the 12th Amendment, every state Elector cast two votes for the two men thought best to be president.

With something of the logic of Europe’s parliamentary system, neither of these ballots was designated over the other. The man with the most votes in this semi-blind election became President; the runner up became the Vice President.

Because of this, because a large pool of candidates lowers the percentage one needs to win (i.e., if two men run, you need 51%; if three run, 34%, and so forth), the new American parties backed any number of candidates for President, hoping to get a majority in an over-saturated field. To our modern eyes this system becomes murkier when we remember that candidates at the turn of the 18th-Century, and indeed until the eve of the Civil War, did not actually campaign themselves.

With the fumes of the Framers’ wariness of ambition still lingering well into the following century, candidates sent their supporters out on the campaign trail to kiss babies and press the flesh, but they themselves did not budge from home.

The embryo of our present system goes back to those heady days of the 1796 and 1800 elections. In 1800 both Democratic-Republicans and Federalists held their first political caucuses. In the public, official arena those messy events spurred to passage of the 12th Amendment specifying the purpose of the Electors’ two votes.

It reads in part, “The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President.”

We will move into the modern era and delineate the technical organization of the primaries. However, one last historical note ought to be mentioned. The caucus system by the mid-19th-Century would largely remain the same for the next 100 years. In the middle of that stretch, however, there occurred an electoral feature which is at once an element of our primary process today, and yet one whose historical impact likely is never to be matched. I speak of the split ticket of 1860.

In the run-up to the vote that year, the Democratic Party broke into three groups. Regionalism, slavery, tariffs, Federal power, and a host of topics, festering since before the Constitutional Convention came to a head in the 1860 election.

In this fateful contest, caucus candidates mounted their high horses. The typical bowing-out of contenders did not happen. Steven Douglas received the support of northern Democrats. John C. Breckinridge enjoyed the patronage of the southern wing of his party. More confusing still, Tennessee’s John Bell led a rump of the DNC, to work with remnants of the Whig Party, to form the Constitutional Union Party. The group was a desperate attempt to head off a war and largely represented western voters.

Whatever is to be said of the split ticketers, of their philosophical consistency and doggedness, a split ticket dooms a party to failure. This is what happened in 1860. Because the DNC was split, the insurgent Republican Party won the Presidency. With Abraham Lincoln set to come into office in March of the following year, South Carolina seceded in December 1860. The fallout from the caucuses of 1860 triggered an avalanche of events culminating in a civil war.

Schedule

By the time of the primaries, with many candidates campaigning for over a year before this actual first stage of the Presidential election process, the Iowa Caucus, begins. Preference, ease, tradition, and vanity contribute to the eclectic schedule of party meetings, every fourth spring.

At present, the schedule of the major gatherings is in Iowa on February 3. Note well that while primaries dominate nowadays, like a vestigial organ, the caucus format still officially kicks off the election cycle. New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina follow later that month. The far-famed “Super Tuesday” follows on March 3, with 16 states and related entities, such as American Samoa – alone in the caucus format since Iowa – and “Democrats abroad” choosing their selections.

By the close of March, over half of the primary selection events are over. Humble Connecticut, the land of steady habits indeed, prudently falls in the middle of the primary/caucus season. On April 28th, it joins five other Northeastern states for meetings, primaries all. This participatory gauntlet concludes on June 6th with the Virgin Islands holding their last primary, in this case for the Democratic Party.

Beyond the “Big Two”

Lest they be omitted, we remember that there are not two but five political parties recognized by the Federal Elections Commission, the regulatory agency which monitors national election financing. Beside the “big two” so often mentioned, in descending order based on the number of their members the other groups are the Libertarian, Green, and Constitution parties.

Primaries are fearfully expensive things to organize. According to the group Open Primaries, an association advocating primary reform, this stretch of the electoral cycle costs nearly half a billion dollars. This is a burden unsustainable by orders of magnitude for third parties. Thus, the Green and Constitution parties skip right over the primary season and designate their candidate at their summertime conventions. The plucky Green Party will mount a modest total of four state gatherings this year, primaries all.

Straw Polls

For the truest of political junkies, those who cannot wait until the primaries to get their electoral “fix,” there are straw polls. These unofficial queries are conducted by any number of private associations and they often precede the actual primaries by several months.

The most revered of these queries was the Iowa Straw Poll (of happy memory). An heir in its way to the ‘70s democratic fervor which has so influenced the primaries as we know them, the Iowa poll was held by the GOP six months before the Iowa Caucus. The Poll was of mixed accuracy and intent. Over the six times it was held, it successfully chose the correct GOP nominee only three times, and that’s leaving aside the open question of whether the Poll was supposed to choose a mere winner in Iowa or the ultimate GOP nominee

Though a child of the ‘70s, the Iowa Straw Poll channeled something of a 19th-Century democratic hoedown. The Poll, whatever its inaccuracy, also served the role of part-fundraiser and part-summer barbeque. Quaint but inaccurate, the Iowa Straw Poll was discontinued in 2011. Brisket-loving politicos rallied to their state’s dear bellwether, however, and since 2015 the Iowa State Fair Straw Poll has been dishing out inaccurate electoral auguries.

Iowa

Unlike the majority of preliminary meetings Iowa has chosen the keep the minority caucus system. 1916 was the last time the state held a primary. Citing costs, they went back to the caucus system the following year.

They’ve kept it that way since. In response to upheavals during the 1968 cycle, the Democratic Party decided to spread out their nominating process over a longer period of time, and this explains the early February (and some years late-January) date. In 1972 the DNC held their first winter caucus. The Republican Party followed suit four years later, pulling the opening of their process to the same early date since.

Iowa’s system is anomalous. Not only does it still maintain a caucus format (a minority amongst the 50 states), it also does so in the dead of winter (when poor weather might deter voters and the aged from venturing out). The state’s demographics are peculiar too. Iowans are not especially representative of the larger American voter pool, being overwhelmingly white and rural. And those white and rural voters are few in number. With only six votes in the Electoral College, the winter meetings are about the only time national candidates pay attention to “the corn state.”

However, elections can be tied to hallowed custom. America’s agrarian days explain the tradition of our November election placement. It was chosen as a convenient post-harvest, pre-sowing month to travel in. Religious concerns lie behind like the choice of second Tuesday election. Such a day avoided both Sunday travel in pre-automobile America and the Catholic All Saints’ holiday.

Even recent customs such as the ubiquitous “I voted” sticker, popular since its introduction in the ‘80s, are firmly kneaded into the county’s electoral customs. With the overall trend towards earlier and earlier primaries, Iowa has staked its claim on democratic ritual. They will not budge on their February date.

Tradition aside, however, the main argument for Iowa keeping their caucus and their early date is that it allows otherwise unknown contenders to elbow their way into the fray. The greatest example of this is Jimmy Carter. Taking advantage of the post-’68 McGovern reforms and liberalization of campaign finance, Carter’s team aggressively pounded the pavement to get their candidate into the media’s spotlight and onto people’s radars.

It worked; and candidates have been trying to get that same edge ever since. As of last November, Democratic candidates visited Iowa more than 800 times. Donald Trump, who developed such a taste for rallies in 2016 that he has not stopped holding them in the intervening four years, visited Iowa last June as part of a state GOP fundraiser.

Super Tuesday And The Rest

Following the Iowa and New Hampshire gatherings, the next milestone on the journey to the White House is “Super Tuesday.” On that day, in early March, upwards of one-third of Americans are represented at the party polls. This year, California joins the 2016 shift of Texas to Super Tuesday. Both states have large populations, and large Hispanic populations at that.

The justification of their moves lies in the greater racial diversity they bring to the primary season. The late relocations of the Golden and Lone Star states add even more energy to Super Tuesday. Of course, high-minded motives of diversity aside, we mustn’t pretend that old fashioned vanity is innocent from the trend of state parties towards earlier and earlier starts in their nominating processes.

Platforms

When the primary season winds down this spring, what can we expect to see at the party conventions come summer? When the 3,769 Democratic delegates meet this July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and when the 2,551 Republican representatives meet this August in Charlotte, North Carolina, they will be charged not only with choosing their nominee but also their party platform. What will the parties decide on? Standing at the cusp of this election year, primaries help shape the talking points of both parties for their official codification, come the summer conventions. Let us turn now to the platforms of the major candidates.

Donald Trump will doubtless take the Republican nomination. Six states’ GOPs – Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, South Carolina, and Virginia – are confident enough in this that they have saved themselves logistical troubles and canceled their primaries altogether. While the party’s Presidential nominee is a done deal for Republicans, this year’s primaries still allow the political faithful the opportunity to develop their platform.

While the choice of the RNC’s candidate is open and shut this time around that does not mean President Trump is without challengers to his incumbency. Serving within the Republican Party, the same role that third parties do in the general election, three men are indeed running for the GOP nomination.

Former Massachusetts governor, Bill Weld, one-term “Tea Party” congressman, Joe Walsh, and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford all hope to inject various issues into platform discussions, which otherwise would go silent. Longest of long-shots all, these men will be successful, if they influence this August’s GOP convention. And like many a politician of many a stripe, defeat – even obviously and overwhelming defeat – always can prime the pump for the next run!

As for the Democratic Party, the winnowing has yet to begin in earnest. Yes, some have already dropped out, like former Montana governor, Steve Bullock, retired admiral, Joe Sestak, and California’s Attorney, General Kamala Harris; but some have also entered the race like Michael Bloomberg. There have been over 20 DNC candidates who were running at one time or another this cycle. At present there are 15 candidates, who have registered with the Federal Elections Commission on the DNC ticket.

The sheer volume of contenders this time around combines with the fact that some have been campaigning for a year already. Besides the 15, we often hear about, 270 other people are also running for the Democratic ticket. This mass promises to inject a number of new topics and positions into this campaign.

Due to the clear divide between career politicians, such as, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg, and relative neophytes, like Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang, the DNC may be challenged by a similar split, which the Republicans experienced in 2016. Back then, the old guard were pitted against the “black horse” of the Trump campaign.

This was an upset which some in the GOP have not been quick in forgetting. A number of erratic decisions in the Trump administration, such as the DACA tug-of-war and the lack of control the President exercises over his advisers, are explainable in light of this in-house disquiet.

Amongst the Democrats, the split is between careerist candidates who boast of their experience in office against populist newcomers, promising more radical policies. “Lifers” like confident Joe Biden, who claims more qualifications than Henry Kissinger (a telling comparison), go toe-to-toe with populares, like newcomer, Andrew Yang, who promise more radical policies, such as, Universal Basic Income.

At this early stage of the race it seems that domestic topics will be of decidedly more interest to American voters than foreign policy. The student debt crisis, the massive disruption to come from looming automation and digitalization, and endless saga of American health care financing, all promise to hold more attention than they did during either the Bush or Obama days. These are concerns of average Americans.

But those average Americans aside, despite charges of undue Russian election interference and corruption in the Ukraine, despite some down and out neoconservatives still wraithing about Washington since the Bush II days, there is a pronounced disinterest in the Trump administration to become intrusively involved in overseas affairs in the manner of the previous two presidents (i.e., wars and coups). Whether one calls it “America first” or “isolationism,” the incumbent administration holds a lot of sway, when it comes to deciding the pressing topics of an election. It’s the home team advantage.

Conventions

The party primaries lead to the conventions. By the time they are held the summer prior to an election, most of the candidates have dropped out. Amongst those who remain, it’s usually obvious who will take the ticket. However, if they’ve the will – and the funding – some campaigns doggedly go to the bitter end.

With the horrible consequence of the 1860 split-ticket rattling around literate candidates’ heads, some candidates go to the bitter end in earnest, and more “play chicken,” backing down at the last minute. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” split in the 1912 election, is another memorable election in this regard. Woodrow Wilson, like Lincoln before him, came to power because of disunity within the other party. Of course, countless historical ramifications stem from Wilson’s subsequent victory.

Ross Perot’s 1992 break with the GOP, which paved the way for two-termer Bill Clinton to win the day, is the most recent example of a party split. The stand, which Ron Paul’s and Bernie Sanders’ supporters have made in recent years, had some of us wondering, if we’d not see the split-ticket dynamic once again.

In any case, and ordinarily speaking, as happens informally during the primary season, and so formally at the conventions – at the close of each round of voting, losing campaigners choose which remaining candidate receives their delegates. For example, say that I win Connecticut’s primary but don’t have the steam to get the nomination. I can choose to give those 10 Connecticut GOP delegates to whatever candidate remains in the running.

The conventions come down to an equation of “delegate math,” when all is said and done. This is not dissimilar to the Electoral College set up; the delegate system operates on a state-by-state basis. Democratic delegates are doled out proportionally while Republicans follow a method truer to the College: the winner of a state primary takes all the delegation of that state.

Superdelegates

We now come to the definition of, and distinction between, delegates and superdelegates during the election cycle. Delegates, regular pledged delegates, are sent by the state parties – the same ones who organized the spring primaries – to the summer meetings. While there, they vote according to the previous choice of their state meeting.

Strictly speaking, though, there is nothing, not even the social opprobrium of being a “faithless elector,” as in the general election, which mandates that pledged delegates must actually vote according to the previous decision at the primary. As such, there is more elbow room, more jostling, than one might imagine at the summer conventions.

Beyond – and we may say, above – these regular delegates are the much-mentioned “superdelegates.” Properly called “unpledged delegates,” superdelegates have no expectations whatsoever to vote according to state conventions. They are free agents recruited from the most loyal party members. Various office holders, such as, the President, Governors, and Speaker of the House are eligible, as are members of the parties’ national committees – the “C” in DNC, for example – are superdelegates.

Now what sort of person do you suppose is going to fill such a role? Lifers, that’s who; not populists, not faddists, not single-issue sorts, not an enthusiastic clique.

The present system continues to evolve following a general prejudice towards greater participation. However, for party bosses this participation opens the door to populists; that is, candidates who appeal to the “little guy,” the “average” American, and who hold themselves as champions against a ruling elite. Superdelegates are a conservative reaction, an elitist reaction, to the recent history of primaries.

The DNC was walloped in both the 1972 and 1980 elections. The leaders of the party felt that things had become uncontrollable. In the rush to democratize and open up their nominating system, after the disaster of 1968, the proper vetting process was ignored, they felt, and they subsequently lost. In those elections, the DNC nominated George McGovern, in hindsight too liberal, and Jimmy Carter, whom a more entrenched Ronald Reagan was able to paint as a babe in the woods.

These were candidates who had great appeal to the party faithful, but who did not resonate with the general American population. In response to these developments, unpledged delegates were instituted by the DNC during the 1984 cycle. (Much good it did them. They lost in that year).

Who are the superdelegates? Many have held or presently hold office. Jim Carter, a hero in our primary story, fellow Southerner Bill Clinton, Dick Durbin, and Connecticut’s Elizabeth Etsy are superdelegates. Oddly enough, so are candidates Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, and Joe Biden. Superdelegates are stalwarts of the organization. In the event of a dark horse candidate, the superdelegates, proverbial old men in back smoking rooms, swing into action behind their choice.

Of the two major parties, superdelegates play a more crucial role in amongst Democrats. Indeed, the results of the 2016 election bear witness to this. In Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both the GOP and the DNC had insurgent candidates that year. Both men were not favored by their party establishment. However, only the DNC was successful in squelching their black horse Sanders (at least for another four years). This was because of the heft of their superdelegates.

And while incumbents may call the debate topics, they don’t always call the election. Only 16 out of 43 Presidents have won a second consecutive term. Far more than being dead ritual or boilerplate, the primaries are primary.

John Coleman is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “Election Day,” by John Louis Krimmel, painted in 1815.