"Harnessing Harmony": History Colloquium with Kinder Postdoc Billy Coleman


Among many other salient points, one thing that recent protests surrounding the national anthem have shown us is the degree to which patriotic music is by no means an ideologically neutral form of cultural production. As Kinder Postdoctoral Fellow Billy Coleman argued in introducing his current book project during a September 23 colloquium, the political utility and heft of the American songbook in fact traces back to the early Republic, when music was firmly embedded into the narrative of the development of cultural and political life in the United States. Scholarly approaches to understanding music’s significance to this development, Prof. Coleman went on to explain, have traditionally and admirably minimized a top-down power dynamic and instead focused on the ways in which song often gave political voice to marginalized peoples. While acknowledging the wealth of important information un-earthed by this line of inquiry, Prof. Coleman noted how one collateral effect of this approach is that it tends to understate how reckoning with the function of music in the early-to-mid nineteenth century also requires acknowledging the significance of a conservative, Federalist counter-narrative.

In teasing out this counter-narrative, he looked at a pair of letters John Adams wrote (one to Abigail and one to Charles Adams) lamenting the momentum gathering in Congress in support of the Jay Treaty. Crafting an argument derived from Pope, Adams told his son and wife how he longed to wield music’s persuasive power over congressional debates about the Treaty, not to enflame partisan passions but instead, and in true Federalist fashion, to encourage moderation and to rally the people behind the wisdom of the nation’s learned leaders. Fully on display here, Prof. Coleman further noted, is how figures like Adams, who were distrustful of popular democracy, saw music not so much as a way to forge a mutual bond between elitism and populism but rather as a means of exerting some degree of elite social and political control over the masses—a vehicle for tamping down radical ideas and re-routing democracy onto a more conservative path to moral improvement. In fielding questions about his research after the talk, Prof. Coleman added that the inverse of this equation likewise proved true later in the nineteenth century, when utopian radicals themselves turned to song to present their causes in a more palatable, because tempered, light.