Category Archives: lesser matters

The log cabin ate my homework

WHH

With apologies to Daniel Feller.

This is an essay about when and why many historians came to believe that, in the presidential election of 1840, Whigs said that their candidate, William Henry Harrison, lived in a log cabin.

The received history turns out, in this instance, to be incorrect. The Whigs did not say Harrison lived in a log cabin, so the fact that such an error occurred and indeed endured for so long (it is repeated to this day) makes for an illustrative story.

Early- and mid-20th century scholars writing about the Jacksonian era made a collective methodological misstep on this discrete question. The historians placed their faith in easily accessed reminiscences written decades after the fact instead of in more elusive yet more credible primary sources from 1840 itself.

It might be expected in the ordinary course of events that later writers would have set the record straight. Alas, presidential elections from long ago form a curious topical case, serially invoked yet seldom investigated. The locus classicus on the “log cabin and hard cider campaign” was published in 1957. And, notwithstanding Gail Collins’ deft and discerning extended essay on Harrison from 2012, the standard full-length biography of the ninth president dates from 1939.

In other words, the log cabin error was brought about originally by commission, and has remained in place ever since due to simple omission. The resulting irony, wherein 21st century writers adopt an authoritative tone of voice to lament how badly misinformed voters were in 1840, is rich, but it’s also instructive and cautionary. The secondary literature failed these writers. Perhaps it’s failing us too, on other topics and in other ways we don’t yet suspect.  Continue reading

Notes

This is an essay, etc. Phrasing inspired by James Shapiro’s Contested Will: “This is a book about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn’t write them, who did.”

Garrison and slaveholding gentry of Charleston, South Carolina, agreed on anti-anti-slavery bona fides of both Van Buren and Harrison. On Garrison, see the Liberator, February 7, March 13, April 3, April 24, and September 18, 1840. Choosing between the major candidates was for Garrison equivalent to making a choice “between rottenness and corruption, the plague and leprosy, Satan and Beelzebub.” On Charleston meeting, see Niles’ Register, May 30, 1840 (vol. 58), 200: “[W]e rejoice that both the candidates for the presidency are foes to the abolitionists.” Continue reading