The expansion of white male suffrage in the 1830s led to an expansive strategy of political imagery that co-opted hatchets, axes, and log cabins as empathetic symbols that could be understood by anyone. The exclusive use of such symbols masked the difficult and contentious positions of rival candidates and partisans who, with a wink and a nod, universally embraced the rough-hewn values of the American frontier.
The Log Cabin Campaign
The Whig campaign of 1840 against incumbent President Martin Van Buren established a pattern of predetermined imagery, from which later campaigns have seldom deviated. The Whigs adopted the symbols of the log cabin and hard cider to promote the candidacy of General William Henry Harrison. An outpouring of everyday ceramics with designs of log cabins and canes with miniature hard cider barrels for heads soon followed. Whig glassware, spoons, covered dishes, and children’s tea sets all declared for log cabins.
Use of the axe as a political symbol dates to the era of Congressman Davy Crockett (1786–1836). Like his fellow Whigs, Crockett recognized the political value of assuming a self-effacing personality. His partisans played along. The Young Men’s Whig Association of Philadelphia, for example, presented Crockett with this ceremonial silver, mahogany, and ivory-tipped hatchet in 1835. One side of its head is engraved, “Crockett.” The other side is engraved with his motto, “Go Ahead.”
By her own account, temperance reformer Carry A. Nation used rocks, a sledgehammer borrowed from a blacksmith, and a bar room billiard ball to destroy five Kansas saloons—before she took up a hatchet to destroy a Wichita, Kansas, saloon on December 27, 1900. Saloons were illegal under Kansas state law, but tolerated by officials. Explaining her choice of weapon, Nation recalled that the state’s “liquor interests” had nothing to fear from the usual temperance advocates, “but they were not prepared for a furious woman and a hatchet.” Her saloon smashings became known as “hatchetations”—a play on words coined by the publicity-savvy Nation.
A Topeka, Kansas, druggist supplied Nation with little pewter hatchets to sell to cover her legal fines and travel expenses. Nation found that the public clamored for her hatchet souvenirs and readily grasped the meaning of them.
Though distancing themselves from Carry A. Nation’s “hatchetations,” the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and other organizations could hardly ignore the hatchet as a symbol of teetotaling activism and popular engagement. Somewhat at odds with this message, the hatchet’s head is decorated with the emblem of a box turtle, an icon of dryly unexcitable endurance.