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Campaign Songs as Propaganda:
Free Trade vs. Protectionism — In Whose Interest?
by Tara L. Dirst
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Objectives:
  • Students will analyze campaign messages about tariffs in a nineteenth-century campaign song.
  • Students will identify the intended audience of the message.
  • Students will discuss strategies for courting the other political party's voting bloc.

Student Preparation:

Students must read the appropriate textbook section that deals with the McKinley tariff of 1890, or the fights over tariff protection during the late 19th century. In particular they should note the textbook's explanation for what kind of people did and did not support tariffs and why.

Materials Needed:

Example textbooks:

Danzer, Gerald, et al. The Americans. "Politics in the Gilded Age." Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2003. 473-477.

Activity (25 minutes):

Hand out copies of the lyrics to the song "McKinley Protection." An audio recording of the song is available online, if you have Internet access in the classroom. (To save the audio, right click here and click on 'Save Target As...') .

Break the students into groups of 4 and have them read the lyrics to the song. Hand out the song analysis worksheet and have the groups answer the questions. One copy per group should be turned in at the end of class to be graded.

Class Discussion (20 minutes):

Ask the questions on the sheet and ask the students to give their answers. Elicit a discussion on the analysis questions (at the end of the worksheet):

Explain the rationale for this song. Why was it written? Who is it trying to appeal to? Would the arguments have been believable to the intended audience? How does its message work with the textbook's explanation of who supported tariffs and who did not? What does this tell us about the language and arguments used by political parties? Who is not mentioned in song?

Conclusion (5 minutes):

Can you think of any examples today where arguments are used by one party to try to attract the voters of another party? Are the arguments believable? Why would people believe a party's rhetoric about serving specific interests, even if the party platform and policies are completely contradictory?

Evaluation:

Have the students turn in their group sheets and use the song-analysis evaluation sheet to grade the answers.

Extra Credit Assignment (optional):

Have the students look for examples of contemporary political parties using this type of strategy in advertisements or in news reports. Have them bring in the article or a description of the advertisement with a paragraph explaining how the party is catering their message to the traditional voting bloc of the competing party.

Notes for the Instructor:

  • Time required for this lesson: one 50-minute class period

State Standards Addressed:

14.C.5 Analyze the consequences of participation and non-participation in the electoral process (e.g., women's suffrage, voter registration, effects of media).

14.D.4 Analyze roles and influences of individuals, groups and media in shaping current debates on state and national policies.

Additional Resources:

  • A map of the Congressional vote on the McKinley tariff of 1890 is available online. This could be used as a way to analyze geographic influences on party alignment and support for the tariff, as well as party voting trends.

References Used:

"Coxey's Army." The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. 245.

We would like to thank The Dirksen Congressional Center for their generous support in the creation of this lesson plan.

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