1840 and The Lie That Changed America

Americans are, sadly, all too accustomed to lying presidents. Donald Trump tells a fib almost every time he opens his mouth. Bill Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky; Richard Nixon lied about Watergate; and the entire Dubya Bush administration made up weapons of mass destruction. Yet as notable as these untruths were, none were as impactful or as blindly accepted as one told during the presidential campaign of 1840, the so-called Log Cabin Campaign.

The phrase “the log cabin campaign” may rekindle a long dormant memory from elementary school, remembered solely for its folksy novelty. Others may even recall that it refers to the contest between incumbent democrat Martin van Buren and upstart Whig William Henry Harrison. And those with great anamnesis know that the term comes from wealthy, mansion-dwelling Harrison’s claim that he lived in a log cabin, a lie that both helped Harrison win the White House and a lie changed American culture forever.

To be fair, wealthy, mansion-dwelling William Henry Harrison didn’t start the lie that he lived in a log cabin. The fib began as the opposition’s smear, in the Democrat-aligned Baltimore Republican, on December 11, 1839: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” The idea was that voters would think Harrison was an ignorant yokel unworthy of the White House. And there was a time when this would have worked: the log cabin was disdained for decades before the Romantic Era gave it a lovely rose-tint. (Find out more in my book, The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History.) But times had changed: the log cabin had taken on admirable qualities in the preceding years, and so too had the voting American. Where once voting rights were restricted to white, land-owning men, western expansion had expanded enfranchisement, too. Now almost all white men could vote, even the dirt poor, even those who lived in log cabins — and there were millions upon millions of them, and they were rootin-tootin’ angry about the classist smear. “[This insult] is something which has gone to the very heart of the farmers and working men of this land. The days of the Revolution have returned,” noted the partisan but right-on-the-money Washington Whig. And other newspapers fanned the flames, too: “The poverty of General Harrison, however he may be reproached with it by his opponents, is the result of his honesty,” read the Baltimore Chronicle mere days after the Republicans’ attack; and the Delaware State Journal soon remarked, “After having spent many a year of toil and danger for the defence [sic] of this land against foreign and savage foes, and having sat down in poverty in his cabin, General.” The Whigs would use this anger to their advantage, building the log cabin lie into a badge of honor, and turning a dud of a candidate into a homegrown hero.

You see, while Harrison had held half-a-dozen political positions, including a U.S. Senator and congressman, he was not a political stallion. Quite the opposite: anti-ideological, Harrison was shocking apolitical, and, even more challenging for his party, he had retired over a decade earlier. The Whigs had dusted him off simply because they had no other acceptable candidate, and many weren’t happy about it: Stalwart politico George Seward remarked after Harrison’s nomination, “The feeling among the Whig masses was one of depression… [Harrison’s] strength lay in the fact that he was the most unobjectionable and therefore the most suitable candidate.” That said, the original plan was to ignore Harrison’s stale political background and instead present him as a war hero for his role in the War of 1812. But this log cabin thing changed the game, and it gave Whig party leader Thomas Elder an idea.

“[Elder] noted the slur on Gen. Harrison by the Baltimore paper, and thought we ought to make use of it: build a cabin, or something of that kind, which would appeal to the eye of the multitude,” Whig insider and journalist Richard Smith Elliott later wrote. “[Elder] well knew that passion and prejudice, properly aroused and directed, would do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest.” Elder knew that the new generation of voters preferred rustic roots to Ivory Towers, that they wanted a president who spoke and looked like them, so that’s what the Whigs gave them, both in terms of their candidate and as a party. Tapping into the populist spirit at large, the Whigs organized grand parades featuring horse-drawn log cabins, they backed log cabin raisings, log cabin-hosted dance parties and log cabin-themed party conventions, a then-innovative endeavor that brought politics to the people and the people to the politics.

Meanwhile, reams of “log cabin” newspapers were put out politically-loyal publishers, chief among them the seminal journalist Horace Greeley, whose New York-based Log Cabin regaled a base of 40,000 with laudatory op-eds declaring Harrison a “brave defender of his Country” and besmirching his enemies as “vile” and “unscrupulous.” And entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the craze further inflamed matters by etching, imprinting and stamping log cabins on every product imaginable — from simple wooden tokens to fine china, from combs to silver sets, all in the name of Harrison and the men he allegedly represented. “Every banner and device and emblem spoke out in rebuke” against the Democrats, journalist Anthony Banning Norton wrote at the time. “The log cabins spoke in language not to be misunderstood.” Material consumption was now a political act: another innovation that would eventually become political routine, as seen in certain red trucker hats.

As for Harrison himself, he initially remained on the sidelines, leaving the lie-building to political operatives and activists, the Elders and Greeleys of the political world. Presidential candidates didn’t make many public appearances in those days, and that was especially true for Harrison, an ideologically empty candidate incapable of speaking on most of the issues. But he was such a rare presence on the trail that the Democratic cartoons portrayed him as mute and impotent, referring to him derisively as “General Mum” or “Granny Harrison,” leaving him little choice but to step into the spotlight. So, on June 5, 1840, in Columbus, Ohio, Harrison got into the act: “The unlucky wight [sic] who put me in a log cabin” was “nearer the truth than he probably supposed… It is true that a part of my dwelling is a log cabin.” Yes, it was true that the fine 16—room mansion in which Harrison and his wife lived had at one point been a log cabin, but that was long ago, and they added three rooms and clapboarded over the logs before moving in, eventually attaching another 12 in the years ahead, well before the 1840 election. Yet there was Harrison, claiming his biography was humbler than it was, and it worked: he won the election with 52.9% of the vote, all thanks to that log cabin lie.

Clearly most voters didn’t know the truth about Harrison’s wealth and mansion, but it’s worth noting that even those who knew didn’t care: One woman visiting his Ohio home told the Rochester Democrat, “General Harrison came from his Log Cabin… Indeed, to see him actually called from his home in the forest, where he dwells in such quietness and peace, to receive his plaudits of the people . . . seemed to me one of the most glorious, ennobling scenes.” Only later did she clarify, “The house is large and the logs covered and painted white.” Voters like her so desperately wanted to believe that an average American like Harrison could win the august White House, that someone like them could wield the presidency’s awesome power, that they willingly overlooked the facts, launching a phony into the highest office in the land. Harrison of course didn’t get a chance to enjoy his victory. He caught pneumonia during his inauguration and died 31 days into his term. But his legacy lived on, and on and on.

The years ahead saw presidential candidates of means play up rural backgrounds that were just as mythical as Harrison’s log cabin: Franklin Pierce had biographer Nathaniel Hawthorne downplay his New England upbringing and stress the ways his early political work imbued him with a love of all things rustic— “Without loving New England less, he loved the broad area of the country more; Abraham Lincoln was already living in a stately home when he ran as the rail splitter in 1860; and though James Buchanan was indeed born in a log cabin, as his campaign biography attested — “The log-cabin-boy, born in a wild and rocky gorge of the Allegheny Mountains [became] the architect of his own fortune.” — he wasn’t brought up in one. He lived in a larger, proper house bought by his wealthy merchant father.

The log cabin and its rural accoutrement remained potent political symbols well into the 20th century, too: wealthy oilman Bob Kerr hinged his 1952 presidential campaign on his log cabin upbringing in Oklahoma, and Bill Clinton half-joked in 2012 that former DNC chairman Bob Strauss “used to say that every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.” It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.

And even when there’s no log cabins to draw on, almost all presidential candidates play up about childhood struggles, real or imagined. Just look at last year’s presidential race. Yes, Hillary Clinton often brought up her father’s “small” drapery business and her and Bill’s post-Lewinsky straits, but the biggest, most outlandish whoppers came from the nation’s biggest liar: Donald Trump, the rich kid from Queens his son dubbed the “blue-collar billionaire” and who would finagle voters by saying things like, “It has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.” Trump neglected to mention his father also co-signed on multi-million dollar loans and that he also had access to millions of other dollars in trusts. But even if he had mentioned it, his supporters clearly wouldn’t have cared. He may not have looked like them, but he spoke like them, especially when he said things like “I grew up on construction sites. … I got to know the construction workers, the sheet rockers and the plumbers and the electrician and all of ’em. I worked with them. They were friends of mine. And frankly, I like them better than the rich people.” The man who spent decades chasing celebrity now acted like he was most at home down on the farm. And it was all thanks to the precedent set by William Henry Harrison and that log cabin-shaped lie.

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