- Historic Sites
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
The United States had ten presidential elections before it had a campaign biography, but since 182 i no significant candidate has tried lor the nation’s major office without the aid of a book setting forth his IiIe story. The tradition was begun by supporters ol Andrew Jackson, as was fitting lor the first contender to appeal to the people at large. Old Hickory received the greatest electoral vote, but since there was no majority, a congressional poll gave the election to John Ouincy Adams.
In 1828, however, Jackson was swept into power by a popular vote, influenced, at least to some degree, by the refurbished biography written by Senator John Henry Eaton of Tennessee. History has remembered Eaton only as the husband of the notorious Peggy O’Neale, whose social status nearly broke up the Jackson Cabinet. He deserves to be known as the father of the campaign biography.
As time passed and more and more campaign biographies were published, their mannerisms hardened into a definite genre. Certain conventions turned up early and reappeared every lour years. Hyperbole surrounds the central character, who is treated at one and the same time as an uncommon hero and as a man of the people. This ambiguity is made to seem straight-forward and simple by showing the hero’s rise from lowly status to fame, in the manner of Horatio Alger stories.
For this reason, and because the story has to be told in the simplest manner to make the widest appeal, these lives are always written in clear chronological order, with no employment of such sophisticated mannerisms as the flash back. When the end is reached, it is marked by an obvious conclusion summarizing the character of the man and all of his accomplishments to date.
Like Eaton, most later biographers begin with a chapter devoted to family, parentage, birth, and education. It is the best of all possible introductions, at once homely and hopeful. Often it allows the candidate to be given a nickname, a device first used by Eaton in an anecdote about “Old Hickory.” This gambit was so successful that his opponent in the 1832 election had to be called “Harry” in a biography whose use ol the nickname was introduced by the grandiloquent statement: “Much as we admire Henry Clay the Orator, Henry Clay the Statesman, Henry Clay the distinguished and commanding Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay the Minister Plenipotentiary, Henry Clay the Secretary of State, Henry Clay the grave anil able Senator, Henry Clay the favorite of the people, yet do we love far more to dwell upon ‘the orphan-boy” following the plough in the slashes of Hanover, anil occasionally trudging his way, with a grist of corn, to a distant mill, to provide bread for a widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters.”
Adversity in childhood did not win the presidency for Clay but it has generally been considered a good opening note. Poverty on the farm is preferred to that in the city, for as one author said: ”…if any one wished to know the lull meaning of the word country…he need do no more than ascend the hill on which Horace Greeley saw the light, and look around.” Moreover, in the mid-Nineteenth Century, when romanticism was rampant, it was commonly pointed out that the candidate had been ennobled by his dose contact with nature. Thus we learn that the “wild and romantic gorge” where Buchanan was born hail “all those elements of grandeur and sublimity which serve to inspire in youthful minds noble aspirations and exalted patriotism.” But for all this, the point is usually made, as it was of Harding, that “the child grew up as he should—to be just a boy, not a prodigy, but humanly normal.”
The run-of-the-mill nature of the youth’s upbringing is made notable by the device of an implied contrast between his childish exploits and the sturdy but commonplace qualities of his ancestors. The boys’ special talents are various: Zachary Taylor was a fine lad to have around during an Indian foray; “Cal” Coolidge managed to extract more syrup from maple trees than other youngsters; and four-year-old Horace Greeley read adult books “right-side up, up-side down, or sidewise.’ Of course, no matter how extraordinary the lad, and how ordinary his parents and grandparents, they always give him fine moral training and he lastingly admires them. When a candidate like William Henry Harrison is embarrassed by distinguished forebears, the biographer can get around the self-made man issue by stating that this sort of ancestry “stimulates his mind to be worthy of such a parentage, and urges him to attempt a career as bright and glorious.”
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.”
And then there is always the shade of our first President to be called forth. Paradoxically, just after a war, when the impulse toward the army hero is strong, writers even make civilians look like generals, as did the biographer who so ingeniously argued: “Had Mr. Clay entered the military profession, upon the breaking out of hostilities between this country and Great Britain, in 1812, he would have been one of the most distinguished generals and warriors of the age.” And, as of Clay, it is always pointed out that if a candidate has not seen service during the war, it is only because, contrary to his desires, his talents were more needed elsewhere.
The majority of presidential aspirants, of course, have political careers before they try for the highest office. The statesmanship of such men is stressed in biographies that soon turn into simplified and biased political histories of America during the preceding twenty years or so. In such accounts party connections are strongly emphasized. Sometimes, indeed, they are treated as reverently as a church affiliation, so that we know Little Matt is a man of good beliefs because “Mr. Van Buren the elder lived a Democrat and died in the same faith.”
But since the political history of America is pockmarked by scandals, compromises, and unpopular stands, the biographer often employs remarkable ellipses and equivocations to avoid committing his man on public issues. So it is that Pierce’s stand on the issues of the Compromise of 1850 is described as “distinct and bold,” as anyone should know, for “his views on these measures were expressed in a private letter to a distinguished Senator under date of May 9, 1850.” Further than that no author could hope to go in the way of obscuring his hero’s position while seeming to make it clear, but that far nearly every biographer goes.
When the issues are not too disputatious, the writer is able to save himself a lot of work by fleshing out his book with lengthy quotations lifted from the Congressional Record or its predecessor, the Globe . And, of course, the authors frequently resort to such padding as a tabulation of convention votes or, if his candidate is an army man, to lengthy reprints of military dispatches, as well as to brief sketches of vice-presidential candidates, and a compilation of miscellaneous material called a “citizen’s handbook.”