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Log Cabins and the White House    

Log cabinA reproduction of the kind of one-room log-cabin in which President Abraham Lincoln was born - at the Lincoln birthplace national historic site. The original cabin disappeared centuries ago.
         Bill Clinton's father - a man the former president never knew - was a truck driver who gave his son nothing but his nationality and his family name. Bill spent his early years in a small wooden one-story house in the small town of Hope, Arkansas, the kind of house in which millions of ordinary working class Americans still live. In a sense, it is the nearest one can get today to the fabled "log cabin" in which so many American heroes are fabled to have been brought up.
    Among other recent presidents, both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, but not Donald Trump nor George W Bush,  were men who made their way up to the presidency from fairly simple origins. Reagan became known first as a minor Hollywood star; his screen image, as a tough cowboy, at home in the saddle and in log cabins, undoubtedly helped him in his original struggle for the Republican nomination and the presidency.
    Since the start of the nineteenth century, candidates for the American presidency have taken pride in demonstrating their humble roots; the image of the "log cabin" became symbolic of humble proletarian origins, at a time when the United States were beginning to move west and occupy new territory, and home-built log cabins were the only form of housing available for the pioneering homesteaders.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln.
    Yet the only American president who could truthfully claim to have been born in a log cabin was Abraham Lincoln, who was born in just such a building on a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. 
    The story of Abraham Lincoln's childhood is one of the great classics of the American Dream; Lincoln spent his childhood years in a variety of log cabins, as his father moved from place to place, advancing slowly westwards. In the winter of 1816-17, the Lincolns lived in a "half-faced camp", a log cabin which was totally open on one side, in an "unbroken forest" in the heart of almost uninhabited Indiana.

    While quite a few other American presidents have come up from humble roots, some others whose roots were somewhat more privileged have willingly disguised the fact.
    The classic example was William Harrison, who was elected president in 1840. Harrison campaigned for the presidency using a specially-written theme tune called the Log Cabin March; indeed, his whole campaign was won with the slogan "log cabin and hard cider".... but the tune and slogan were just marketing gambits, neither of which had anything to do with reality! Harrison, whose father was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, came from a prosperous New England family, and was bought up in a palatial home in Virginia.
    Ironically, Harrison's attempts to portray himself as a tough man of the people got him nowhere; standing with neither hat nor coat during his inauguration ceremony on a bitter winter's day in 1841, he caught pneumonia and died a month later.
    In more recent times, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic president from 1977 to 1981, was also portrayed as a "country boy", and was popularly known as the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. The fact that he was actually the owner of a very large and prosperous farm and a string of family businesses, rather than a simple homesteader, was often conveniently forgotten by those who wanted the president to seem like a simple man with simple roots.
    Then in the year 2000, the man who was chosen as the 43rd American president was not someone who had come from nowhere and made it to the top by his own skills and determination, but a man from a very privileged background. George Bush Jr. came from an illustrious family background, being the son of President George Bush Sr., and grandson of a US senator..... the US equivalent of royalty.

    Naturally, there are many people in America who yearn nostalgically for a return to old ways; but  in today's mediatized world, where image is everything, and money buys the time and the TV and social media ads without which images cannot be built, it is hard to imagine the clock being put back. Besides, although many poor Americans still live in small wooden houses, few of those who do go on to become politicians. The age of the log-cabin-raised president is definitely over. 


bitter: very cold - convenient: useful - gambit: strategy - homesteader: person establishing a new home or firm in new virgin territory - log: cut trunk or large branch of a tree -   saddle: seat on the back of a horse - skills: abilities - string: chain, group - take pride in: be proud of - theme tune: anthem - willingly: happily - yearn: hope.

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Log cabins and the White House

Worksheet : 

Words and endings -

Complete the missing endings where necessary in these extracts from the article: take care, some endings are grammatical, others just test your spelling or your vocabulary.
Since the start of the ninet______ century, candidates for the American presid______ have tak______ pride in demons______ their humble roots; the image of the "log cabin" became symb______ of humble prolet______ origins, at a time when the United States were begi______ to move west and occup______ new terr______, and home-buil______ log cabins were the only form of hous______ avail______ for the pioneering______ homesteaders.
    The story of Abraham Lincoln's child______ is one of the great classics of the American Dream; Lincoln spen______ his child______ years in a vari______ of log cabins, as his father moved from place to place, advan______ slowly west______. In the winter of 1816-17, the Lincolns lived in a "half-faced camp", a log cabin which was tota______ open on one side, in an "unbr______ forest" in the heart of almost uninh______ Indiana.


Ideas for teachers :

Language points :

Points to watch in this article include notably relative clauses particularly those introduced by a preposition (in which...) or by those (those who...) . Note the uses of neither and both. Also note two common idioms, to be born with a silver spoon in one's mouth, and to put the clock back.  Can students suggest what these expressions mean ?

After students have read this article, ask them to talk (or write) about each of the seven presidents mentioned in the article, or to choose one of the presidents mentioned, and write a paragraph about him - if necessary using information from the Internet.


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Advanced level English resource

Level - Difficult
IELTS Level :  6.5 - 8
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
46 - Difficult

Grade level: 13.7

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Fully updated 2020 from an article originally published in 2000 in Spectrum, the advanced level English newsmagazine.
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