American History02 May 2008 02:18 am
When it comes to a savage understanding of the value of a buck, there are few who rival the great P. T. Barnum, freak show impresario extraordinaire and famed author of the Art of Money Getting (a title, it must be said, much alike to the hand that penned it: sublimely artful in its unvarnished artlessness). And while nearly all dinner-table wiseacres the world over know that Barnum once quipped that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” the self-same parlor pundits rarely cite the showman’s lifelong commitment to the pressing social and political issues of his day. The Huckster’s penchant for pulling off grand hoaxes, parading human grotesqueries, and pushing the latest innovations that the bread and circus had on offer was inextricably conjoined to his work undertaken on behalf of the betterment of his fellow man. If the “man-monkey,” a microcephalic black dwarf by the name of William Henry Johnson, was his Chang, the Moral Lecture Room was his Eng.
Barnum fought much of his life against the tyrannical rule of demon alcohol. In one of the many adventures he shared with “General” Tom Thumb during their three-year European tour, Barnum became an avowed teetotaler and fervent promoter of the cause. (He was less successful in his attempt to purchase the childhood home of Shakespeare.) Upon returning to the United States, the showman built the largest, most modern theater in New York city, using funds earned from his wildly popular American concert series featuring the singer Jenny Lind (a.k.a. “The Swedish Nightingale”); evidently Barnum believed that he could bring respectability to theater and artistry to Temperance in one fell swoop. The first play performed in the new Moral Lecture Room—so-called in order to avoid the iniquitous and deeply immoral implications raised by the word “theater”—was a standard anti-liquor melodrama called The Drunkard. Barnum ran many such plays in his Lecture Room over the years. He also became a popular Temperance speaker himself (for profit, of course, always for a profit) and devoted many exhibits in his American Museum to the virtues of Temperance.
Barnum took up the sword in one other great crusade: abolition. While it is initially counterintuitive to consider a keeper of “human zoos” a great champion of human dignity, Barnum’s anti-slavery position is perhaps best seen in the light of his intimate associations with those misfortunate enough to be marginalized as freaks: Their interest in profits were as great as his, and surely, for Barnum, such an interest was the defining mark of humanity. The minstrel shows put on in the Moral Lecture Room were some of the most satirical of the day, and he often staged overtly abolitionist plays such as the dramatic treatment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As the conflict between the States came to a head, Barnum became an active member of the largely anti-slavery Republican Party and met with President Lincoln at the White House in 1862 (the giantess Anna Swann in tow). During the course of the Civil War, Barnum put on many pro-Union dramas and filled his museum with pro-Union propaganda; he was identified with the Union cause so closely, in fact, that a Confederate arsonist burned down the building in 1864.
After the war and before the traveling circus venture that was to become the “Greatest Show on Earth” and is still seen today, Barnum managed to find time to get elected to the Connecticut Legislature and serve as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He argued eloquently for Connecticut’s ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, saying, “A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit!” Off the record, after his speech, he is rumored to have offered his Congressional colleagues a once in lifetime opportunity to see MeShong, the World’s Tallest Living Immortal Hotentot.