Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788-1865

Following the creation of the United States, profound disagreements remained over how to secure the survival of the republic and unite its diverse population. In this pathbreaking account, Billy Coleman uses the history of American music to illuminate the relationship between elite power and the people from the early national period to the Civil War. Based on deep archival research in sources such as music periodicals, songbooks, and manuals for musical instruction, Coleman argues that a particular ideal of musical power provided conservative elites with an attractive road map for producing the harmonious union they desired. He reassesses the logic behind the decision to compose popular patriotic anthems like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” reconsiders the purpose of early American campaign songs, and brings to life a host of often forgotten but fascinating musical organizations and individuals. The result is not only a striking interpretation of music in American political life but also a fresh understanding of conflicts that continue to animate American democracy.

“Coleman captivates the musical spirit of American political culture from the early republic era onwards, showing how political musical traditions grew, developed a level of social significance in the antebellum period, and helped establish individual cultural identities by the Civil War…It is an authoritative and accessible study into how meaning can be expressed through musical melodies and song singing, revealing how cultural identity has proved just as critical as political viewpoints in shaping American society.” —American Nineteenth Century History

“In engaging style, this book significantly advances our understanding of the intersection of music and political culture in the early republic.” —Catherine Kelly, author of Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America

“Coleman provides us with a unique lens to view the early interaction between politics and music. His clear prose and creative use of sources make this a welcome contribution to the scholarship on American politics and culture.” —Christian McWhirter, Lincoln Historian at Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum


University of North Carolina Press, June 2020


Billy Coleman is a Postdoctoral Fellow of Political History at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy and Faculty Director of the Kinder Institute Residential College