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They All Were Born In Log Cabins
Aspirants for the White House begin humbly and rise fast in the typical campaign biography
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
Whatever the status of the candidate’s family, it has to have a long American heritage; if the Constitution does not require this, the people do. So readers are told that “Harrison was born of the blood, and bred in the school, of the patriots of the Revolution,” enough to redeem him for having eminent ancestors. When a candidate’s grandparents were immigrants, it can be observed, as it was of Willkie’s, that they fled to the United States to escape autocracy. Perhaps the most troubled of all biographers was Frémont’s, who found his subject possessed of a French father. But he soon made the best of the situation by declaring that “although of French extraction, upon the paternal side, he cannot trace his descent from Bourbon, Capet, or Carlovingian kings.”
Upon occasion the biographer finds it wise to emphasize both European and American ancestry, as another way of extracting value from several sides of the subject, in keeping with the technique of appealing to all people. So Garfield’s ancestry is first traced back to the Puritans, but since few of their descendants were around to vote in 1880, and as there were a lot of immigrant Germans in the United States by that time, a biography was issued in German and its readers were informed that Garfield spoke the language so fluently that “no stranger would doubt his being a pure-blooded German.” But the best and the safest thing to do is to develop the point made by the writer who simply declared: “The story of Hoover is essentially the story of America.”
Next to ancestral Americanism, a country upbringing, a widowed mother, and dependent younger brothers and sisters, nothing is so desirable as birth in a log cabin. Indeed, such a birthplace subsumes the first two qualifications for the presidency. For a long time after the campaign of 1840, when old Tippecanoe Harrison was swept into office as the simple “log-cabin candidate,” a man could hardly hope for the White House unless he had first been close to a log cabin.
Buchanan, Lincoln, and Garfield were among the boys actually reared in log cabins, but a lot of other candidates did what they could to identify themselves with such dwellings. Daniel Webster, hankering after the presidency and not even winning a nomination, admitted ruefully: “It did not happen to me to be born in a log cabin, but my elder brothers and sisters were born in a log cabin and raised amid the snowdrifts of New Hampshire.” Despite the New England snows he summoned up as a compensation, Webster, a politician with older siblings, a mother who was not widowed, and a birthplace not built of logs, obviously sensed that his career could not extend beyond the Senate.
Horace Greeley’s biographer was smarter. Admitting that his candidate also had the misfortune not to be born in a log cabin, the writer at least made it clear that Greeley’s birthplace was “small and unpainted.” Moreover, he implied that Greeley’s schoolhouse was built of logs. Hayes had even better luck. Though his first home was built of brick, his parents had the foresight to add a log extension to their substantial house.
Even so late as 1924 a log cabin was a valuable asset, as Coolidge’s biographer indicated by stating “this is another story of the Log Cabin to the White House.” Then, in an outburst of specious honesty, he admitted of his hero, “while he may not have been born in a log cabin it must not be forgotten that the civilization of his day had advanced. Relatively the termini have been as far apart.”
Once family, birthplace, and childhood are out of the way, the biographer is ready to concentrate upon his subject’s education. If there is too much of it and at institutions too elegant to be thought democratic, the whole matter may be glossed over. This is the technique of Horatio Seymour’s biographer, who brings his hero to the age of 31 in two pages of a 292-page life. But when faced by a candidate like Garfield, once a college president, the biographer emphasizes learning and extols his hero for fixing his mind on objects higher “than those which command the ambition of most of that large class of men who are known as ‘self-made.’”
On the other hand, Al Smith is praised for having gone to the “University of Hard Knocks” and for possessing a “clear mind unencumbered by mere vocabulary and mere excess baggage.” As in all other aspects of a candidate’s life, the treatment is based squarely on the principle that whatever is, is right.
The course of the candidate’s adult life is followed in the same fashion. The occupation he chooses is presented as the best one to prepare him for the presidency; what he does in that occupation is shown to be just the right thing to do, for that time and for all time. Military careers often give the biographers a little trouble because of the belief that Americans fear the man on horseback. Yet, of the 33 men who have reached the White House, ten have been generals, and five others have held lesser military rank. Nevertheless, every time a general runs for office his biographer finds a need to indicate, as Harrison’s did, that he is basically a man of peace, “a brave soldier, without being a violent man.”