For Lincoln and Liberty Too: The Hutchinson Family Singers and Social Reform on the eve of the Civil War

The Hutchinson Family Singers were influential and popular with both the public and critics.

In the years leading up to the Civil War there were a number of reform movements which were stirring throughout the country. Abolitionism was the most notable and vociferous, but by no means the only one. Moreover, many of those who advocated the immediate abolition of slavery were often involved in other movements, social, political or spiritual.

It may come as a surprise to some that the early Republican Party had a very strong Socialist tinge to it. The early Utopian colonies that popped up around the early Republic often combined a communitarian economic program with religious beliefs, racial equality and sexual equality. After the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe failed to overthrow the old monarchies, many Socialist revolutionaries in the Old World fled to the America to begin their lives anew. Here in the U.S. they found congenial company among these native reform movements and particularly among Abolitionist and Free Soil groups. In fact, Socialism, in various forms, was very much a mainstream movement in the North. The leading newspaper leading up to the Civil War, The New York Tribune, was unabashedly Socialist in its editorial orientation; up until 1862, Karl Marx was a regular correspondent for the paper and his columns were widely read by political reformers, Lincoln included.

Other reform movements traveled hand in hand with Abolitionism as well, foremost among them Spiritualism. Formally begun in upstate New York in the 1840’s it quickly spread throughout the US and even too Europe. Begun by the Fox sisters, whose house had begun to experience poltergeist like phenomena, their method of communicating with the alleged spirits soon became all the rage. Their novel method of divination, however, did not arise in a vacuum; the region from whence they came was called the “Burnt Over District” because so many radical religious and political reform movements originated there and spread outward from there, much like wildfire. Moreover, the oldest of the Fox sisters, Leah, was already a devotee of the visionary writer and reformer, Andrew Jackson Davis, whose writings were certainly familiar to Abraham Lincoln.

Women speaking in public, much less leading a movement, were something virtually unheard of before the Fox sisters and their success spurred other women so inclined to also enter the public forum. That early Feminism should march hand in hand with Spiritualism, therefore, should come as much of a surprise and the two movements had quite a few joint adherents, some quite influential politically.  Often those active in those movements were also militant Abolitionists.

Enter the Hutchinson Family Singers of Vermont. Although virtually forgotten today, they were tremendously popular in the decades before the war—although certainly not in the South. The Hutchinsons were the equivalent of The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and the early Bob Dylan all rolled into one. (If you are too young to know who those singers are, go to You Tube and get educated.)

The Hutchinsons were unabashedly in favor of Abolitionism but were also adherents of Spiritualism, worker’s rights and were also supportive of Feminism. About 1858, sister Abby Hutchinson was invited by Susan B. Anthony to attend a Women’s Rights Anniversary to be held in Mozart Hall in New York City, the Carnegie Hall of the pre-war era. It is uncertain whether Abby was well enough to perform, but some of the family certainly did, singing a ditty called, “Right Over Wrong.” The Hutchinsons also wrote at least one song in favor of Spiritualism as well.

In 1859, John Brown capped his career as a militant Abolitionist with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Less well known is the fact that John Hutchison had friends who helped plan and finance the raid, and that he knew John Brown personally.

It is not known whether Lincoln actually heard the Hutchinson Family Singers perform but is almost certain he met one or another of the family, either during one of their concert tours to Washington, DC, when he was in Congress, or during one of their Midwestern tours. As popular as they were, and given their political orientation, Lincoln would undoubtedly have been aware of them. Their most notable achievement was during the Election campaign of 1860 when they wrote and performed “For Lincoln and Liberty Too.” Some historians claim that this militant and still performed song was what gave Lincoln the edge in the four way election of 1860. While that assertion may be hard to prove, the song certainly motivated many people to go out and vote for Lincoln who may otherwise have stayed home

WIDE AWAKE SONGSTER BY JOHN HUTCHINSONThe Hutchinsons worked very hard for the Lincoln Campaign. John Hutchinson compiled two campaign songbooks the Connecticut Wide-Awake Songster and Hutchinsons Republican Songster for the Campaign of 1860. After the election, when Lincoln was journeying to Washington, he had a layover in Jersey City and it so happened that John Hutchinson’s troupe was there; they gave an impromptu performance from their hotel balcony to the President elect, repurposing their song “Right Over Wrong” for the occasion.

The Hutchinson’s political influence did not stop with Lincoln’s election; when war came, as many knew it would, the Hutchinsons performed patriotic concerts which bolstered the morale of the North. Some of their songs had a definite religious tinge to the political message, such as “Good Times Coming:”

Behold the day of promise comes, full of inspiration
The blessed day by prophets sung for the healing of the nation
Old midnight errors flee away, they soon will all be gone
While heavenly angels seem to say the good time’s coming on

Music may not win any wars, but it has the power to persuade and during 1860 and after, during the war, the Hutchinson Family Singers certainly persuaded many.

For more about Lincoln’s connection with Spiritualism, see Chapters 14 & 15 of The Paranormal Presidency.

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The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln documents the Sixteenth President’s beliefs and practices with regard to paranormal phenomena, as well as contemporary attitudes towards Spiritualism and other supernatural belief systems.