150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln publicly declared his love for the song “Dixie.” Having just returned from the recently-captured former Confederate capital of Richmond, he settled back into the White House and soon found himself “treated” to a serenade. These were a common occurrence in 19th Century America, in which groups of people would perform music outside of the homes of people they admired as a show of respect. I put “treated” in quotations because the serenade’s recipient was expected to respond and Lincoln reportedly hated coming up with the necessary little impromptu speeches. According to his contemporary biographer, Joseph Hartwell Barnett, Lincoln once declared (with typical folksiness), “These serenades bother me a good deal, they are so hard to make. I feel very much like the steam doctor, who said he could get along well enough in his way of practice with almost every case, but he was always a little puzzled when it came to mending a broken leg.”
In this case, however, Lincoln had an easy out. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the previous day and Lincoln had reconstruction and reconciliation on his mind. He recognized the value of symbolic olive branches and knew that few symbols carried more weight for white southerners than their de facto wartime anthem, “Dixie.” Thus, Lincoln gave his response:
“FELLOW CITIZENS: I am very greatly rejoiced to find that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people cannot restrain themselves. [Cheers.] I suppose that arrangements are being made for some sort of a formal demonstration, this, or perhaps, to-morrow night. [Cries of `We can’t wait,’ `We want it now,’ &c.] If there should be such a demonstration, I, of course, will be called upon to respond, and I shall have nothing to say if you dribble it all out of me before. [Laughter and applause.] I see you have a band of music with you. [Voices, `We have two or three.’] I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune which I will name. Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.”
Lincoln had made a similar statement while leaving Richmond a few days before, when he reportedly requested “Dixie” be played because “It is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.” In each case, Lincoln clearly saw “Dixie”–a southern anthem written by a northerner and first popularized in the North–as a symbol on which to build a renewed Union.
And yet, it should be noted that this speech was not entirely political. Lincoln enjoyed minstrel songs a great deal and, according to his friend and fellow-lawyer Henry Clay Whitney, loved “Dixie” from the first time he heard it in 1860. The apparent irony of Lincoln enjoying the most racist mainstream genre of music America ever produced is obvious but not surprising. Minstrelsy was enormously popular and its racist elements–typically characterizing African Americans and simple, buffoonish, and conniving–simply reflected the common (if regrettable) attitude of white America at the time. More simply, minstrel songs were generally considered funny and Lincoln had enjoyed jokes and comical songs his entire life. The catchy tune, wistful lyrics, and comic undertones of “Dixie” surely appealed to Lincoln, as they did for most white Americans.
A mere five days later, Lincoln was dead–fallen victim while enjoying another light and comical piece of popular culture, the play Our American Cousin. It’s interesting that among everything else going on in Lincoln’s final busy days, two incidents that have come down to us directly involve his love of comedy and popular culture. This, to me, shows Lincoln’s humanity and personality and gives us a final glimpse of the man before he became a legend.