The libel of PT Barnum (I)

This month, July 2010, is the 200th anniversary of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s birth (July 5, 1810). Americans have grown so used to cant, fraud, dissembling, hoaxes, scams, and excessive self promotions, however,  that the story of the self-proclaimed Prince of Humbugs no longer seems of much interest to anyone. Yes, he made a lot of money. He pioneered the method of taking small amounts of money from a very great number of people; he was the first entertainment magnate. But as Mr. Bernstein (played by Everett Sloane) tells the reporter in Citizen Kane: “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money, if what you want to do is make a lot of money.” He was the first great international impresario; original, clever and fabulously rich. And he did eccentric things with money. But we’re now awash in monied entertainers, whose lives we can follow day-to-day. He had much more to him than his facade of ebullient hucksterism. But as one of his biographers, A.H. Saxon, argues (P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (NY: 1989), pp824), Barnum has himself to blame, having given the world his “Life” at 45 (Life of P.T. Barnum Written by Himself (first published in 1855)) and then spending the next quarter of a century revising and republishing it under different names. In it he burnished an image of the fun-loving, jokester who delighted in fooling others without regret. His political conversion during the years leading to the Civil War and his short political career as a reform-minded Republican state legislator after the war receive the most superficial consideration, and all with the same apparent geniality that he displays in treating all parts of his life.

But Barnum had some depth and at one time he even had firm principles that he was willing to sacrifice himself over. The episode (featured here) in which he demonstrated this aspect of his character happened when he was in his early twenties. But a little bit of background is necessary to explain the crisis that forced his decision.

Barnum was born in the Bethel parish of Danbury, Connecticut. Then it was largely rural, and even now (it is now separately incorporated as a town) it can probably be described as exurban. In the early Republic Connecticut (particularly rural Connecticut) was staunchly high-tone Federalist. The two hot-beds of conservative Federalism in the early days were New York and Massachusetts. New York Federalists were made up of the banking and merchant monied interests, whose circle included Jay, King and Morris, but the leader was Alexander Hamilton (who Republicans never forgave for having tipped off Federalists that the worthless Revolutionary debts were going to be funded by the government, allowing them to snatch them up cheap and to later sell them, to the taxpayers, at close to par). Massachusetts Federalists were philosophically anti-democratic, Anglophilic, and staunchly religious. This group included Timothy Pickering, Fisher Ames, George Cabot and the rest of the Essex Junto, who were vaguely treasonous during the Jefferson administration (promoting the succession of New England from the Union and during the War of 1812, leading up to the notorious Hartford Convention.

Connecticut combined the more unsavory  aspects of both of these strands and blended them to make its own unique, miniature, intolerant, theocratic patriciate. It had an established religion, Congregationalism, the Calvin-inspired relic of the Pilgrims. The Church was state supported:  the Towns levied assessments for their support. And the state was Church supported: the ministers vigorously supported the Federalist; they gave election-day sermons, they scorned any change in the structure of political power, and they operated the gates of church membership (through baptism and communion), which in turn was they gateway to political favor. Orthodoxy was so carefully monitored that even Jonathan Edwards felt the lash of disapproval when the Standing Order clergy objected to his methods and results during the Great Awakening (which actually began in his parish in Massachusetts but quickly spread down the Connecticut River Valley). It did not take Connecticut long to respond: In 1742 it enacted a statute prohibiting clergy from preaching outside their assigned parishes except on the express invitation of the resident minister of the other parish on penalty of loss of the support provided clergy and loss of the right to preach. In the early Republic Yale would assume the role of guardian of religious and political orthodoxy in Connecticut. The Connecticut Courant would become the secular mouth-piece of Connecticut Federalism. There was no opinion too violent or too ridiculous for the Courant to publish, provided it supported Federalist candidates or attacked Republican ones. The Federalists believed that no republic could operate without danger unless it was screwed down tight by the better sort. There was also an ungenerous motive behind this structure: Connecticut had limited economic potential: the flinty, rock- and root-laden “soil” was daily being depleted. Land schemes, from the fraudulent Yazoo promotion, to purchases in Pennsylvania and Ohio, were enticing the industrious farmer out-of-state. Connecticut had no real industry, and it did not have natural ports to compete as a trading center with New York and Boston. So the wealthy and well off saw that they could only lose by any sort of re-shuffling of the power structure, and they aimed to ensure that any scheme in that direction (and surely there must be many, given that the existing structure only allowed admission for the few) was swiftly and brutally squelched.

Two incidents, started by seemingly trivial causes, showed the ability of Connecticut Federalism to rally over any cause and exact vengeance if its power was threatened. The first involved the Connecticut Constitution. Despite the fact that Connecticut today calls a itself the “Constitution State” and despite the fact that Federalism itself formally arose to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Connecticut, unlike any other colony, did not adopt a republican style constitution (or indeed any constitution) during the revolution. Nor did the state do so after the revolution. The fact provided a means by which the few Republicans in the state could ridicule the Federalists and a legitimate (and readily understandable) basis to demand a constitutional convention. Federalists and clergy had no use for any proceeding that might formally regulate power in the state in a rational manner, because likely scrutiny would not reinforce their iron grip on power. Besides, Federalists despised anything that smacked of democracy. They had property qualifications for voting (from long before the revolution) and had no interest in expanding the franchise. So they argued that Connecticut in fact had a constitution. Since there was demonstrably no such thing, they had to contend that the documents that Charles II issued to ratify the existing government of the two plantations that made up Connecticut constituted the Connecticut Constitution. So Connecticut’s republican government was legally organized on documents from a monarch issued before Connecticut was a republic. It was ridiculous. Federalists could not abide the discussion because they had no explanation. What made the argument of the Republicans more galling to them was that nationally Republicans had taunted the Anglophile Federalists with the fact that Great Britain had no written charter of rights (as opposed to the French whose revolutionary government was anathema to Federalists).

On August 29, 1804, a meeting took place in New-Haven at which five justices of the peace among many others voted for a resolution expressing their belief that Connecticut was not governed by a Constitution and therefore a Convention should be called. The timing of this meeting was suspicious to Federalists, coming as it did on the eve of an election in which the highly popular Jefferson would be overwhelmingly returned to office. (Connecticut and Delaware and two electors from Maryland would be the only votes for Jefferson’s opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The electoral vote would be 162-14.) The Connecticut Assembly immediately ordered the men to show cause why they should not be dismissed and appointed David Daggett as manager of the impeachment process.

Daggett was a logical choice. He was nearly 40 at the time and had been reliably, even swiftly, mounting the stairs to promotion that a Federalist lawyer was given. He had been in the Assembly and recently in the Council. Although Federalism had no want of humorless, self-important, pompous true believers, Daggett had a special knack sanctimonious display and he wasn’t afraid to overstate his hand. In 1790 he was the one who “collected” the Sketches of the Life of Joseph Mountain, A Negro, Who was executed at New-Haven on the 20th Day of October, 1790 for a Rape … (New-Haven: [1790]), and wrote it out in the first person, as though it had been dictated by the Negro Mountain right before being hanged for raping a white girl. The book was designed to be a moral lesson of some sort. Daggett never bothered to ask whether any person could believe that the soon to be executed Negro would have written: “My trial was far more favourable than I expected. There was every indulgence granted me which I could have wished; and the court, jurors and spectators appeared very differently from those I have seen a Old-Bailey. The jury had little hesitation; indeed the most compassionate hearer of this cause could have only pronounced me Guilty. I beheld with astonishment the lenity of the Court, and am sure that in a country where such a sacred regard is had to the liberty of the subject, no man’s life can be unjustly taken from him.” Even the dead found everything right with the world of Federal Legalisms, and even Negroes. It is telling, however, that Daggett chose the phrase “liberty of the subject” rather than “citizen.”

At the argument Daggett vaguely hinted that the justices committed treason against the state by their resolution and then described in painful detail the history of the governing bodies of Connecticut. The justices were defended by Pierpont Edwards, U.S. Attorney (appointed by Washington, but now a Republican) and son of Jonathan Edwards, but the fate of the defendants was never in doubt, and they were cashiered.

The second revealing incident took place about two years later. In Litchfield (in the remote northwest) a Republican newspaper man named Selleck Osborn, a transplanted New Yorker who had learned Republican editorial tactics as a journeyman for one of the masters of cut-and-parry, James Cheatham, during the 1800 campaign for Jefferson and Burr, set up shop to print the Witness. He waged a spirited but hopeless fight against Federalist hegemony in the most conservative part of the most conservative state. Within two months of commencing his paper two criminal prosecutions for libel were commenced against him, and he had been attacked with a whip by the son of a Federalist judge. His case brought to national attention the peculiar nature of common law libel proceedings as Connecticut inherited them from Great Britain. The essence was that publication was the only factual issue. Whether the matter was libelous was a legal question decided by the judge. And in Connecticut there were only Federalist judges. The truth of the matter was not a defense under the famous maxim of the British jurist Mansfield that “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” The trial was a foregone conclusion. Osborn was sentenced to one year in jail unless he posted bail. He refused and became a Republican martyr instead. The cry that “Truth is a Libel” became a powerful weapon by Republicans.

One odd fact, notable only in retrospect, was that among the throng of Republicans who feted Osborn on his release from jail was one John C. Calhoun, a young Jeffersonian, who was studying law with Judge Tapping Reeve, a Federalist (by definition), who presided over the Osborn case. The fact that the South Carolinian was studying in Litchfield at all was somewhat surprising, but the fact that he openly opposed his teacher by publicly attending this celebration was even more so.

This brings us back to our story about Barnum. When Barnum was a child, Connecticut still had an established religion. It was not until 1818 that the Constitution State had its first Constitutional Convention. The constitution which was adopted disestablished the Congregational Church. But Barnum was raised orthodox.

“I was brought up to attend church on the Sabbath. Indeed, before I was able to read, I was one of the first scholars in Sunday-school. We had but one church or ‘meeting-house’ in Bethel, (Presbyterian), and here all attended. A difference in creeds and sects was scarcely known in our little country village at the time. … My good mother would teach me my lessons in the New Testament and the Catechism, and my highest aspiration was to get every word so perfectly as to obtain the reward of merit. … During the Rev. Mr. Lowe’s ministrations at Bethel he formed a Bible class, of which I was a member.” (Barnum’s Own Story ed. by Waldo R. Browne (Gloucester, Mass: 1972), pp14-15.)

By Barnum’s account the rest of his youth was spent learning sharp practices in trade, amassing money selling lottery tickets and developing a taste for business risk-taking and speculations. Through it all he claims to have remained morally chaste even during his stints as clerk in New York (business torts excepted):

“My habits generally were not bad. Although constantly engaged in selling liquor to others, I probably never drank a pint of liquor, wine, or cordials, before I was twenty-two years of age. I always attended church regularly, and was never without a Bible in my trunk, which I took frequent occasion to read.” (Browne ed. at 31.)

His grandfather wrote him in Brooklyn and offered to provide a building in Bethel rent free, if Barnum would come back and set up some business. Barnum calculated and then determined to open a retail fruit and confectionary store. He planned meticulously, spent his accumulated capital of $120 for refurbishing and inventory and opened, with much anxiety, on May 5, 1828. Despite his anxiety, the first day was a success — he made $63 and most of his stock was still intact. He soon began diversifying. First he added luxury goods. Then, at the suggestion of his grandfather, he started selling lottery tickets on 10% commission. Investigating this line of business minutely, he discovered how much profit there was. So he demanded a larger commission and added salesmen. He brought to bear imagination and energy in promoting lottery schemes. He used promotional dinners during which large winnings were handed out to a select few. The rest could not wait to buy up the tickets he had on hand. He preyed on people’s superstitions. He used newspapers and pamphlets to announce winnings by his customers (and since he had such a large customer base he would periodically have a large and many small winners). His promotions made him known as the “lucky office.” He received mail orders from around the country. (Browne ed. at 31-37.) “Among my ‘private customers’ were a number of clergymen and deacons; and occasionally some of the weak brothers of the ‘Shakers,’ who came to Bethel to sell garden seeds, bought a few lottery tickets ‘on the sly.'” (Browne ed. at 37.)

By November 1829 Barnum was so successful that he was able to elope with a tailoress he had known for a several years and got married in New York. He was only 19. The prudery of his mother or perhaps the suffocating morality of the church likely caused him to elope. When he returned, although he lived with his wife at her former residence, his mother did not acknowledge the wedding. “She evidently felt chagrined at the clandestine manner of my marriage; but I called on her every day with the same freedom that I had ever done, and within a month she invited me to bring ‘my wife’ and spend the following Sabbath with her.” (Browne ed. at 39.)

That winter he opened another lottery office in Danbury. He now had offices in Bethel and branches in Norwalk, Stamford, Middletown and “a host of small agencies all through the country, for thirty miles around.” By now he had a few large customers taking the great bulk of his tickets and they purchased them on credit. He left this business in the hands of a clerk and launched a speculation in books. He purchased books in New York then travelled around setting up auctions. On two occasions he suffered loss. The first was at Litchfield. Reeve was long dead by then (the school was now presided over by James Gould, a one-time Connecticut Supreme Court justice whose position was eliminated by the 1818 constitution). While there, students stole Barnum’s books! The same thing happened in Newburgh, New York. “I quit the auction business in disgust.” (Browne ed. at 39-40.)

In the July 1831, Barnum now 21, his uncle (and former guardian) Alanson Taylor became a partner with him in a retail store that sold a large assortment of goods, “such as are usually found in a country store, consisting of dry goods, groceries, hardware, crockery, etc., etc.” (Browne ed. at 40.) Barnum had either clerked for, fully ran or established so many of these kinds of establishments that if he only paid the minimum attention to it, there was not the slightest possibility that it could have failed. But on October 17, only three months later, the local newspaper ran the advertisement of the dissolution of Taylor & Barnum, by mutual consent; it was taken over by Barnum alone, who promised to continue selling the items “25 per cent. cheaper than any of his neighbors.” By the time Barnum wrote his autobiography nearly a quarter of a century later, he evidently thought it not in his interest to reveal conflicts, particularly those of a religious nature. Perhaps he viewed it as bad for his mass entertainment enterprise to reveal a decided political or religious opinion. So he attributed the dissolution of the partnership to being made up of people (his uncle and him) who did “not understand the business.” (Browne ed. 40.) This was palpably nonsense. The truth was stranger.

At the beginning of October Barnum had decided to write some communications to the editor of the Danbury paper objecting to the violent religious and political passions that we arising then. The editor refused to publish them. They undoubtedly were critical of the prevailing Presbyterian ascendency and the Federalist office-holders (or neo-Federalists, the party had died an inglorious death). So as Barnum matter-of-factly put it “I accordingly purchased a press and types, and October 19, 1831, I issued the first number of my own paper, The Herald of Freedom.” Having shown no interest in the line of work and having no experience at all, Barnum was starting a party press! Benjamin Franklin had spent his youth working for printers and he was 22 when he started he started a press in partnership with another. Barnum was going to do it by himself! And he was taking up arms against the pietism of his uncle (and mother).

And it was this adventure that Barnum was commencing that produced the episode we are interested in here, which we will take up in the next part of this story.

  1. July 25th, 2010

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