Saturday, June 2, 2012

June 2, 1835 – P. T. Barnum Begins Political Career

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut.  From an early age, he showed skill in bookkeeping and thinking of ways to avoid hard labor.  He was son of Philo Barnum, who ran an inn and store, and grandson of Phineas Taylor, who taught him a lesson about reputation when he gave his namesake a five-acre piece of land known as “Ivy Island.”  The young Barnum was proud to be “the richest child in town,” and his grandfather told everyone he met about the great fortune the boy held, even though P. T. had never seen it.  Finally, at age 12, he ventured with his father’s hired man to see his great landholding, which turned out to be a barren, almost inaccessible lowland bog.  His grandfather’s decade-long practical joke paid off with years of laughter, and Barnum had learned that titles must match the subject matter.

 Barnum grew and opened his own store, book auction, and real estate brokerage, but he profited mainly from state lottery sales as people vied for tickets to win a great prize, often cash.  He became skillful in haggling and making great promises, and he worked to follow through on his promises out of his moral code and understanding of repeat business.  In 1829, Barnum began his own weekly newspaper known as The Herald of Freedom and wrote against Connecticut’s blue laws, which he felt instituted too much control over the population (in addition to biting into his profits as his shop could not be open on Sundays and sales on lotteries were limited).  A feud with staunch Calvinists led to Barnum being convicted of libel through his paper, and he spent two months in jail.  When he was released, he had become locally famous as a great liberal leader.

In 1834, Connecticut’s state legislature banned new lotteries, establishing a punishment of 90-day imprisonment and $300 fine merely for advertising.  Barnum’s shop, which had often profited up to $2000 a day from lottery sales, became reduced, and he considered selling it and going to New York City to start a fresh business.  However, he ultimately decided to give up business and rather work to overthrow what he felt was legalized tyranny of the few.  While most politicians were either lawyers or famous citizens who entered politics after established themselves as war heroes or leading businessmen, young Barnum started with only his personal savings and his knowledge of spinning a deal.  He struggled initially but was able to find minor city government positions and a standing in the Democratic Party, coming into connection with his third cousin William Barnum, whose family controlled the growing industrial power in the Barnum Richardson Company.  P. T. made a name for himself campaigning for approval of the Mexican War on grounds of expansion and national security, but he went beyond approved party speech by adding that he wished it had not come to war, even though it was a boon for Connecticut’s arms manufacturers.

Increasingly, Barnum became fed up with party politics and prejudices of the day.  He quit the Democrats over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and joined the Republican Party that formed that year.  While the Republicans were a minority in Connecticut as the Democratic and American (“Know Nothing”) parties held power through much of the 1850s, by the 1859, the Republicans gained great standing, and Barnum was on top.  He had used his skills in showmanship to win over the thoughts of locals and affirm them with skill in debate.  Most notably, Barnum helped stage satirical blackface shows displaying the humanity of slaves as well as productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, rewritten to the happy ending of all slaves being freed.  He later spoke out in support of the Thirteenth Amendment, "A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit."

After supporting former Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln in his presidential bid in 1860, Barnum hoped for a cabinet position as a former Democratic New Englander like Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, but positions were granted to men such as Simon Cameron, who served only one year before resigning amid corruption scandals.  Barnum, who had issue enough with politicians making promises they did not keep, was outraged by Cameron, who once said, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.”  Using his position in Connecticut, which had become a valuable munitions-producing region for the Union, Barnum began to root out any sign of corruption, opposing the spread of Cameron’s "Pennsylvania idea" of political dominance through bribery and threats of industrial regulation.

After the war in 1867, he ran opposed to his cousin William Barnum for the Fourth Congressional District.  William refused P. T.’s invitation to an open debate in which he wrote, “It is due to the voters of the Fourth Congressional District that they have an early and full opportunity to examine their candidates in regard to these important problems”, and instead used his industrial connections to secure the election.  When Barnum read in the newspaper about allegations of bribery and fraud in the election, he wrote, “I was never, at any time before or afterwards, consulted upon the subject. The movement proved to have originated with neighbors and townsmen of the successful candidate, who claimed to be able to prove that he had paid large sums of money to purchase votes. They also claimed that they had proof that men were brought from an adjoining State to vote, and that in the office of the successful candidate naturalization papers were forged to enable foreigners to vote upon them. But, I repeat, I took no part nor lot in the matter, but concluded that if I had been defeated by fraud, mine was the real success.”  He demanded an investigation into the matter, some of the first precursors of the coming Progressive Movement calling for an end to political corruption.  Using his own resources in investigation and provoking near-riots from the people of Connecticut (akin to those seen in New York City over Tammany Hall a few years later), Barnum had his cousin dismissed from Congress.

Taking his seat as representative in Washington, Barnum was disgusted at the corruption among the Radical Republicans who had overtaken Congress, even working to impeach President Andrew Johnson.  He began a campaign of “debunking” corrupt politicians, speaking at trials, and revealing "the tricks of the trade."  Although all of his attempts at bills were destroyed by party politics, his term made him wildly popular among American citizens, who pressed President U.S. Grant to clean up the corruption of Reconstruction.  Campaign reform laws were passed, numerous leaders taken out of office, and Barnum gained control of the Republican Party and continued as a representative.  Many suggested he run for president himself, but Barnum found he preferred working behind the scene to find good men for the job and even said, “"politics were always distasteful to me.”

Barnum continued as the “Watchman of Washington” until a stroke during a speech disabled him in 1890.  He died one year later, leaving behind a legacy of reform through the Barnum Act of 1878 and being the foremost to fight against what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age.”  While never a wealthy man himself, Barnum led others in creating endowments for "profitable philanthropy”, summarizing a philosophy that “if by improving and beautifying our nation and adding to the pleasure and prosperity of our neighbors, we can do so at a profit, the incentive to 'good works' will be twice as strong as if it were otherwise."


In reality, P. T. Barnum went to New York and searched for business opportunities, which he eventually found as a showman with his first act: octogenarian slave Joice Heath whom he claimed was George Washington’s 160-year-old nurse.  While he came to immense fame and wealth with his traveling acts and museums, he also admitted his early hoaxes and began a campaign of disproving other hoaxers such as spirit-photographers and mediums.  He is falsely credited with the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” instead saying, “There’s a customer born every minute,” and believing audiences should always receive their money’s worth.

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