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Reading 3: Log Cabin Politics

For a time, being born in a log cabin was almost essential for presidential candidates. It all began with the campaign of 1839, which pitted the incumbent Democrat, Martin Van Buren, against the Whig candidate, retired General William Henry Harrison. It was one of those campaigns in which the incumbent could do no right. The Panic of 1837 had caused widespread unemployment; banks had closed their doors or had refused to pay out gold and silver. Van Buren believed it was unconstitutional for the government to intervene.

Nearly any half-way respectable Whig could have been elected and General Harrison was. Harrison had appeal as a folksy midwesterner who had 30 years before led a troop of 1,000 soldiers against an uprising of Indians near the Tippecanoe River in Indiana Territory. His running mate was John Tyler, former governor of Virginia.

There were many who opposed Harrison, finding him too old at 67 and less than a great thinker. Newspaperman John de Ziska ridiculed Harrison in an article in a Baltimore newspaper, writing, "Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension on him and...he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of the fire and study moral philosophy!"

Harrison had lived in a log cabin--of sorts. When he was first married he bought a farm along the Ohio River that had a four-room frame house built around a log cabin. Harrison and his wife lived in the house a short time before he began his long career as army officer, congressman, senator, governor of Indiana, and minister to Colombia. Upon retirement, Harrison returned to the farm and enlarged the house by adding 12 rooms and completely refurbishing the original structure with clapboard to match the additional two wings. As for drinking hard cider, Harrison, like most Ohioans, probably did enjoy cider made from apples in his own orchard.

Intended as a slur, Ziska's article simply enhanced Harrison's reputation. Astute Whigs reshaped the unkind words into a winning campaign song and slogan.

They say he lived in a log cabin
And lived on hard cider, too.
Well, what if he did, I'm certain
He's the hero of Tippecanoe.

People liked "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!" and they connected log-cabin life with virtue. Most westerners of the time had been born in a log cabin or were still living in one. Even people in the eastern cities had ancestors who lived in log cabins. These people believed that the log cabin stood for something. It represented self-sufficient, hard-working pioneer families who could overcome adversity and improve their lot and that of their children. So deeply did the log cabin as symbol of virtue become embedded in the national folklore that, for the next half century, it was believed that youth spent in a log cabin produced clear-headed, independent thinkers who were beholden to no one. "Honest Abe" Lincoln is a prime example.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What is the origin of the log cabin as a symbol?

2. Does General Harrison deserve to be associated with the self-sufficient, hard-working pioneer families that lived in log cabins? Why or why not?

3. How do various commonplace items, such as log cabins, come to represent larger ideas?

4. What other objects (or people or animals) besides log cabins have been used for political symbols? (Consider national symbols or symbols adopted by specific candidates, campaigns, or causes.) What qualities, character traits, or ideas are these symbols intended to represent? Do these symbols help or hinder understanding of the issues involved? Research the origin of a symbol besides the log cabin.

5. Are all symbols positive?

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