The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History (Countryman Press, 2018) by Andrew Belonsky covers the good, bad, and downright ugly history behind one of the most American icons, the log cabin. Broken into three sections, he discusses the history, myths, and modern day impact of the log cabin, weaving in humor and a dissection of the American character founded in the foundation of log cabins. In the following excerpt, he explains the grim beginnings of log cabins, so widely hated that even our Founding Fathers had something to say about them.
If there’s one constant in this ever-changing world, it’s this: haters gonna hate. It’s true today, and it was true in 1783, at the end of the Revolution. Sure, the Founding Fathers talked a big game about equality, but they and their one-percent peers also believed only landowning, educated white men should write the rules. Everyone else should just follow. Alexander Hamilton makes for a great Broadway muse, but the late Treasury Secretary also said that government must be run by “landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions,” the class who knew better than the ignorant, “turbulent” common folk who “seldom judge or determine right...Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second.”
You can therefore bet your bottom dollar that the elitist Founding Fathers were pretty highfalutin about the common people they claimed to represent, especially those unwashed masses in the log cabin. The Founding Fathers and their friends didn’t think the cabin dweller was a heroic pioneer. On the contrary. He was an imbecilic yokel in the “backcountry,” a quagmire where people deviated from Christianity and common sense. He was a white savage and a deviant. He was a low-class, no-good squatter. He just did his thing, with no regard for law or reason or society at large. And his digs were just as crummy: they were the “rudiments” of a house, one typically preceded by words like “miserable,” “wretched,” and “grotesque.” Benjamin Franklin described cabin dwellers in 1766 as basically itinerant “hunters who added little value to humanity.” And later, in 1780, the so called “Prophet of Tolerance” told his grandson that there are “two sorts of people”: “Those who are well dress’d and live comfortably in good houses, whose conversation is sensible and instructive, and who are respected for their virtue.” And then there are the others: “The other sort are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious, and live in miserable cabins.” These degenerates spent their formative years “idle” and “wicked,” “and now they suffer.” And Franklin was one of the nice ones.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a lesser-known Declaration of Independence signatory who also served as surgeon general for the Continental Army, was far more biting in 1787, when he wrote that the first squatter is “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts...His first object is to build a small cabbin of rough logs for himself and his family.” But, despite this apparent domesticity, this man is still shiftless and anti-social, brazenly rejecting civilization and order: “He cannot bear to surrender up a single natural right for all the benefits of government, and therefore he abandons his little settlement, and seeks a retreat in the woods” whenever new neighbors move in. Such folk, with manners “nearly related to the Indians,” were so uncivilized, said Rush, that they teetered dangerously close to being anti-Christian: “It has been remarked, that the flight of this class of people is always increased by the preaching of the gospel. This will not surprise us when we consider how opposite its precepts are to their licentious manner of living.”
Dr. Rush wasn’t alone in seeing sulfur and brimstone where there was log and daub. Reverend Charles Woodmason was repulsed by log cabin-living Carolinians, fuming in 1766, “The people around, of abandon’d morals, and profligate principles—Rude—Ignorant— Void of Manners, Education or Good Breeding—No genteel or Polite Person among them.” Another minister, aforementioned Yale president Dwight, was so overwrought that he warned log cabins could pervert a man’s mortal soul. “The habitation has not a little influence on the mode of the living; and the mode of living sensibly affects the taste, the manners, and even the morals, of the inhabitants,” he wrote of “log-houses” in 1798, in the midst of the Second Great Awakening. He continued, “If a poor man builds a poor house, without any design, or hope, of possessing a better, he will either originally, or within a short time, conform his aims, and expectations, to the style of his house...The thoughts, and conduct of the family will be reduced to a humble level, and a general aspect of lowliness, and littleness, will be seen on whatever they contrive, or do.” “They appear not merely contented and unambitious, but unacquainted with the objects which excite ambition,” Dwight wrote of back-settlers in upstate New York. “Life to them does not glide; it is stagnant.”
And, yes, even Thomas Jefferson, the “Man of the People” who preferred ploughmen to professors (“State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”), even he took part in denigrating the off-the-grid yokel and their “pens”: “The poorest people build huts of logs, laid horizontally in pens [emphasis mine],” the architect-statesman wrote in 1801. And its inhabitants were equally animalistic. Actually, scratch that: They were less than animals. They were rubbish. Writing about his plan to recruit teachers for universal education, Jefferson dismissed wide swaths of the American public: “The best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense.” There were a few diamonds in the rough backwoods, but the rest, the run-off, muck-level people, were interchangeable expendables. They were merely squatters, bums who sat on land, doing little to better themselves or society.
But trash or not, these people weren’t completely worthless. They paved the way for the forthcoming squadron of immigrant settlers, productive farmers whose cabins are given a free pass for their crude attempts at civilization. They are accepted as a stepping stone, but nothing else. According to German historian Gottfried Achenwall’s retelling of Franklin’s explanation, the process goes like this: The icky hunter finds a tract of unclaimed land, builds a “cabin,” and “lays out now a small garden and field, as much as he needs for himself and his family.” After accomplishing this elementary cultivation, he then ekes out a miserable existence until the masses come calling, eager to gentrify the land in civilization’s image. “Some years after this first cultivation, poor Scots or Irish come, who seek a place to settle. This they find in this half-improved condition... [The first inhabitant’s] place was only temporary, and he moves further on, builds himself a new cabin, and cultivates another piece of land.” Dr. Rush seconded this emotion, noting, “The small improvements he leaves behind him, generally make it an object of immediate demand to a second species of settler,” that is, the more desirable tenants—“men of some property”—who clear greater amounts of underbrush and generally tidy the place up, prepping for civilization proper. And the first step to that end is replacing the squatter’s cabin: “The first object of this [new] settler is to build an addition to his Cabbin,” that is, building a proper house around the bark-covered monstrosity. And even Dwight, the Bible-thumping Yale president who disparaged the remote cabin’s squatter as “idle” and “shiftless” and as incapable of living in “regular society,” confessed: “The business of these persons is no other than to cut down trees, build log-houses, lay open forested grounds to cultivation, and prepare the way for those who come after them.” And so the dejected, disrespected squatter is forced to move on, like when poor Bushwick residents are pushed out by hipsters and Whole Foods, forced to find cheaper, more isolated lands. His patch of freedom has been gentrified.
There were a number of reasons why early Americans hated the log cabin so hard. One was, of course, run-of-the-mill classism. Looking down on the disorderly cabin allowed the prim, proper elite to feel superior. The cabin acted as an architectural scarlet letter, as a convenient visual indication of who’s in and who’s out. Log cabins “were outward signs of inferior character; they were unpolished, unambitious, and simple.” And, not to mention, “vulgar.” Harvard-based minister Thaddeus Mason Harris was absolutely sickened by the “rough and savage manners” of Virginia’s “degrading” and “ignorant” settlers, the polar opposite of the more “intelligent, industrious and thriving” folk over in Ohio. “[There] the buildings are neat,” Mason wrote in 1803, contrasting them with the “miserable cabins” of Virginia’s “back-skirts.” #hater.
This status-focused distaste for the cabin and its inhabitants is indicative of our nation’s complicated relationship with the poor: They stand in stark contrast to the American ideal, the myth of opportunity and hard work, thereby eliciting revulsion, but at the same time this well of cheap, “ignorant” labor provides a perverted ego boost, a hardy “at least I’m better than them.” Consider, for instance, the poor-shaming in an 1810 letter sent by Scottish-American poet Alexander Wilson. Referring to the “grotesque cabin” and its inhabitants, those “immediate successors of savages,” Wilson scoffs: “Nothing adds more to the savage grandeur and the picturesque effect of the scenery along the Ohio, than these miserable huts of human beings lurking at the bottom of a gigantic growth of timber.” The sarcasm is strong with this one: “It is truly amusing to observe how dear and how familiar habit has rendered those privations, which must have been first the offspring of necessity.” Wilson’s sneers against the log cabin are no different from contemporary Americans who smack-talk trailer parks and the so-called “trash” who live within. Log cabins, now an American icon, were the double-wide trailers of those early days.
But, as ever, there’s more to the story behind all this anti-log-cabin antipathy, something deeper and more complicated than just station and class: post-colonial self-consciousness.
As spectacular as the American Revolution was—a collection of colonies winning a ballsy war against an established empire really is incredible—it was no magic wand, and early Americans still had a lot going on in those years. There were still political tensions over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There was the threat of Spanish incursion, a need for infrastructure to support an ever-expanding population—roughly a quarter of Americans left the centralized eastern seaboard after the revolution, dispatching to new outposts in the lush Western Reserve, Maine’s ever-fresh Northern woods, and the rolling Southern hills—and then there was that vexing matter of creating a viable economy in a competitive international market, a task that first required resolving 80 dollars million in debt and, you know, creating a currency. And, as if that wasn’t stressful enough, the colonies-cum-states were undergoing a serious identity crisis, wondering en masse, “Who are we? What are we about?”
Where once there were British outposts, there now stood independent states united in a radically uncharted course. They wanted to create something new, sure, but their cultural norms and expectations were still firmly influenced by their British roots, especially among the elite powers-that-be who still used Europe as a litmus test, a test that ranked the log cabin as decidedly basic. The new nation’s very raison d’être dismissed the classist Kingdom as archaic, yet so many still sought to emulate it, creating a cognitive dissonance in which “the Old World [is] both a negative and positive point of reference.” America’s ruling class thus needed to strike a balance between their idealized “refined society” with the “vulgar populist and provincial values” of the common man.
But classism, post-colonialism, materialism, and all those other isms aside, the single most important reason late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Americans didn’t revere the log cabin was because it wasn’t meant to be revered. To be revered it would have to remain, and no one wanted the log cabin to remain. The log cabin was by-and-large an interstitial abode meant to be abandoned when better accommodations could be afforded. The structure would then be dismantled for firewood, converted into a barn or corncrib, or simply left to rot. The cabin of this era was a blight. Dr. Rush noted that the log cabin “generally lasts the lifetime of the first settler…and hence, they have a saying, that ‘a son should always begin his improvements where his father left off,’ that is by building a large and convenient stone house.” It was something replaced, not something to be cherished.
Log structures were, as Dwight said in 1798, “universally intended to be a temporary habitation, a mere retreat from the weather, till the proprietor shall be able to build a better.” He went on, echoing de Crèvecoeur’s comments on “progressive steps,” “Such a building [is] a comfortable shelter for the family at the present time…as a step, and a short one, towards their future convenience, and prosperity.” Even the Swedes and Finns who first brought the log cabin to the New World had loftier architectural ambitions. “Respectable families [once] lived in low loghouses,” Swedish pastor Israel Acrelius said in 1750, “Now they erect painted houses of stone and brick in the country.”
And botanist Kalm referenced wealthy Swede Andrew Rambo living in a two-story stone house during a 1748 journey through Pennsylvania. The log cabin was fine as a launching pad for a new life, but it was expected to be replaced by what people called an “end house” as soon as humanly possible. And, if it couldn’t be, the least you could do was cover the logs with clapboard and plaster the interior, to give the structure a more finished appearance. Though Dwight says the earliest cabins “increase [lands’] cheerfulness” for the prospect of cultivation and improvement, the idea of permanence instantly renders them grotesque: “[When] designed for a lasting residence, the cheerfulness vanishes at once.”
This doesn’t mean all log structures were temporary. Some thrifty settlers brought their cabins along when they moved, deconstructing and reconstructing them as they migrated west. And we’ll see others used the squatter’s cabin as the base for a better house, laying wood floors and building a more commodious abode around it. Yet others added their discarded cabins to their property’s holdings, as seen in a June 1, 1767, Pennsylvania Gazette real estate listing for four hundred acres of Virginian land that included the original “log dwelling house.” The family, one can assume, had made it big.
At this point in history, the log cabin’s just a bug-ridden hovel of a strange, possibly anti-Christian nomad, and its odds of becoming an icon are looking pretty slim. It may have been an indispensable hero in the nation’s birth, but it was unsung indeed. Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that the log cabin deified in our national myth was once denigrated and disrespected like trailers are today? Of course, Jefferson, Franklin, and their friends had no idea that cabins would birth some of this nation’s greatest leaders (and, as we’ll see, some not-so-great ones, too). Even less did these elitists know that the log cabin’s public image was about to be flipped on its roof, and that it would be done by that realm of the rich and cultured, the arts.
One short but telling story of the cabin’s exclusionary stigma, and the compulsion to escape it, comes from an 1817 diary entry from Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Having recently moved to and built a log cabin in Palmyra, New York, Smith was invited for tea at a wealthier woman’s house, a neat and relatively great home. Things started off well enough: The women, mostly wives of wealthy merchants, as well as a pastor’s wife, exchanged personal stories and pleasantries, and Lucy appeared to be making friends. But the situation soon took a nasty turn when one of the women, awkwardly trying to praise their guest, took aim at Lucy’s lowly abode: “Well I declare [Lucy] ought not to live in that log house of hers any longer; she deserves a better fate and I say she must have a new house.” Lucy Smith laid into the women. Their lifestyles were built on the backs of the poor, she said: “[Our home] has not been obtained at the expense of the comfort of any human being”—and she reminded the minister’s wife about her hubby’s gambling habit. Nevertheless, Lucy self-consciously noted in her diary immediately after that she and her family were still “[making] preparations for a building a house.” And they were: The family was hard at work on a fine house to keep up with the rhetorical Joneses, a race that eventually landed them in debt, costing them everything.
Illustrious frontiersman Daniel Boone found fame and respect after John Filson cast him as the hero in his 1784 work The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, sure, but this unlikely folk hero’s and his neighbor’s houses were nonetheless described as “not extraordinary good houses, as usual in a newly settled country.”
Reprinted with permission from The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History (2018), by Andrew Belonsky and published by Countryman Press.
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