Profound Questions: What's Up With Log Cabins?
Originally published February 12, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
Two hundred and one years after Abraham Lincoln's birth, the scene has changed a bit. Rising from a gurgling spring at the foot of a wooded hill are 56 steps -- one for each year of his life -- elevating visitors to a Greek temple. Hodgenville is not the hot spot for Zeus-worshipping Kentuckians. The temple holds not a body, nor a statue, nor a gift counter. It enshrines a building.
The log cabin inside is old and weathered. If you look closely, you see the logs are numbered -- Ikea-like reminders of the time when the house was torn down, moved between state fairs and rebuilt. And if you have a carbon dating kit handy, you can confirm that Lincoln apparently was born in a cabin at least 30 years younger than Abraham Lincoln. Chalk it up to the magic of that stovepipe hat, or understand that authenticity does not matter: the temple is as much a monument to the cabin as to the man. It's an American icon, a standard of moral fiber. We have chosen to make a building virtuous.
Extremely virtuous! William Henry Harrison entered the world in style at a James River plantation house with brick walls three feet thick. Berkeley, which still stands today, was nice enough to have been visited by all eight of Harrison's predecessors, with grounds large enough to one day host the Union army (and its commander in-chief). The cabins in Harrison's life were a temporary inconvenience -- a Studio 6, with better towels -- when he settled on a new Ohio farm later in life.
Martin Van Buren entered the world surrounded by drunk Dutchmen in his father's Kinderhook tavern. That humble spread is now marked by a fine metal sign on someone's front yard. Through hard work and fastidious discipline he bootstrapped his way to an education, the largest potato farm in town, and also the refined taste to go with it (i.e., a flush toilet).
In 1840, when politics were pure and beautiful and not at all personal and malicious like today, Van Buren's people wanted Harrison to look like a withered hayseed, happy to drink himself to death in a log cabin. The Whigs borrowed a page from Van Buren -- the Donna Brazile who organized Andrew Jackson's cult of personality -- and went with it. Calculating that drunk hayseeds were the NASCAR dads of the mid-19th century, they made log cabins the symbol of Harrison's humility, honesty and endurance on every piece of campaign swag; hard cider was dished out at campaign events. The silver-spoon Virginian became the champion of the common man, and the greasy-spoon New Yorker stayed a snob. Cabin fever had set in.
But in many ways, that fever broke long ago. Cabins served as a badge of authenticity for generations, a campaign tool before you could just toss on the cap of a sports team you don't really follow. But in 2010, the Legend of Franklin Pierce doesn't dawdle over the birth cabin on the New Hampshire rock farm (though farming crappy soil is a fine, character-building New England tradition); it tries instead to link his alcoholism with the very pleasant tavern his dad opened a few years later. James Buchanan had an actual frontier birth -- Cove Gap, Pa., was a trading post on the edge of nowhere in 1791, and the granite pyramid marking the cabin site might be the fanciest addition to the town since then. But enthusiasm for his loggy origins has been dampened by the "worst president ever" meme.
Whatever street cred most presidents got from living nowhere near a paved street has long since evaporated. The romance of the log cabin, as it survives today, rests almost exclusively on our 16th president. What makes Lincoln's logs special?
Not noble poverty. The Lincolns were not actually poor. Cabins were not the doublewides of the 1800s, but a logistical necessity in pre-Home Depot world. If you had land in frontier Kentucky (or Indiana, or Illinois) you were doing something right, and Thomas Lincoln had some land.
Not hardship. No life without toilet paper is comfortable, but if squalor makes the man, Andrew Johnson would be on the penny. He was born in Raleigh in a loft above the kitchen where his mother worked, his father died when he was young, and he was apprenticed to a tailor to help make ends meet. He ran away, was on the lam for two years, then collected his family and took them to eastern Tennessee on a one-horse cart. All before he was 20. That's Dickensian, but AJ never captured the national imagination.
The difference is results. Getting to the White House takes salesmanship: an assemblage of half-truths and exaggerations meant to crop and frame a man's character just so. Cabins were just part of that pitch. But accomplish great things, and the narrative becomes the truth. The virtues of cabin living didn't contribute to Lincoln's greatness; Lincoln's greatness elevated the building.
Consider: There was once a fine and bearded man born to a hardscrabble, log-cabin existence. Through great effort he became a remarkable lawyer and thinker; his great skill as an orator boosted him to public life; he served in Congress as a proud Republican and did his best through times of war to preserve the Union. His presidency was tragically ended by an assassin. He was James A. Garfield of Ohio, and he thought Lincoln a "second-rate Illinois lawyer." A good man, but never a great one.
There is no Greek temple outside Cleveland.