Why Our Founding Fathers Hated Log Cabins

As it turns out, the iconic American log cabin was widely hated during its time, so much so that even our Founding Fathers could not help themselves from dissing them.

  • Most Americans relied on log cabins for shelters as they ventured out west.
    Photo by Pixabay/Free-Photos
  • “The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History” by Andrew Belonsky is a humorous history behind one of America’s most recognizable icons.
    Photo courtesy of Countryman Press

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.

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