A clown ran for public office – and no, that’s not the beginning of a joke. On Sept. 15, 1864, America’s most famous circus clown, Dan Rice, accepted the Democratic nomination for the Pennsylvania State Senate. And it was just his first foray into politics: Even while continuing his career as a clown, a state convention later considered him as a candidate for Congress, and, in 1867, he made a brief but legitimate run for president.
While the idea of a clown running for office sounds like a gimmick, in the 1860s it was taken seriously — because circus itself was taken seriously, as adult fare. Long before it was relegated to children’s entertainment, early circus in this country combined what appealed to grown-up tastes: sex, violence, political commentary and, in a horse-based culture, top-notch horsemanship. George Washington attended the first circus in 1793 in Philadelphia not for family-friendly amusement — a notion that didn’t emerge until the 1880s — but as a horseman keen to see animals and humans working together at a peak level.
Sex and violence enhanced the appeal. Like later burlesque comedians, talking clowns told dirty jokes in a titillating whirl of the scantily clad: Circus acrobats and riders showed more skin — or flesh-colored fabric that seemed to be skin — than could be seen anywhere else in public life.
Walt Whitman approved. Reviewing a circus in 1856 in Brooklyn, he wrote: “It can do no harm to boys to see a set of limbs display all their agility.” (In a favorite mind-plus-body theme, Whitman added: “A circus performer is the other half of a college professor. The perfect Man has more than the professor’s brain, and a good deal of the performer’s legs.”) Meanwhile, fights were a daily occurrence, drawing attention the way fights at soccer matches do now. Violence was so common that Rice’s journal from 1856 noted the rare days when no fight occurred.
And while nostalgia portrays early circus as small and quaint, antebellum tents were some of the largest structures on the continent, seating thousands, while over the winter, circuses played major city theaters.
Dan Rice stood in the center of this lively public arena. Born in New York City in 1823, he burst onto the circus scene in the 1840s with a lightning-quick wit and sharp topical instincts that made him a national favorite. Proclaiming himself “the Great American Humorist,” he combined ad-libs, jokes ancient and new, sexual allusions, comic and sentimental songs, clever parodies of Shakespeare and quips on current events. (He did little physical comedy, which was the specialty of knockabout clowns and acrobats.)
Scholars believe that Mark Twain, who later adopted that Great American Humorist label, used Rice as his model for the clown described in “Huckleberry Finn,” “carrying on so it most killed the people,” as “quick as a wink with the funniest things a body ever said.” Though obscure when he died in 1900, Rice had probably been seen by more Americans than any other public figure. Nor was renown restricted to the United States: Imitators in England and Germany appropriated his famous name in their own acts.
As the country tumbled toward war, Rice expanded his “hits on the times.” Instead of Bozo, think Jon Stewart or Rush Limbaugh. Or Robin Williams, who shared the same quick wit, verbal virtuosity, and sharp political humor. (In fact, Williams toyed with the idea of playing Rice in a movie.) Rice’s expanded approach extended to his costumes, as he alternated between traditional clown garb decorated in stripes and stars, and a new look of tailcoat, vest, and pants, the Great American Humorist as respectable gentleman, a man with serious opinions on the events of the day.
Once the Civil War erupted, Rice pushed directly into politics, a Peace Democrat condemning Abraham Lincoln and “Black Republicans” from the circus ring. By 1864, it was a natural step for the Democrats of Erie, Pa.., near his winter quarters in Girard, to choose the nationally prominent “Col. Dan Rice” as their candidate for the state senate. (The title was self-granted, matching the times’ martial mood.)
Writing from his tour on Sept. 15 to accept the nomination, Rice denied that he worshipped “at the shrine of any political dogma,” but did declare that his “proclivities were formerly with the Whigs.” He condemned Lincoln for violating the Constitution and creating an imperial presidency. Rice wrote: “When I see the great principles of personal liberty and the rights of property being cloven down by the men now running the machine of Government, ‘the ancient landmarks’ of the Constitution ‘which our fathers set’ removed, I feel like crying, in the language of the Holy Writ, ‘cursed be he that removeth them.’”
Historians, adopting the later family-friendly image of circus, assumed that a clown’s campaign for office had to be a publicity stunt. But Rice’s nomination was no joke. Chicago newspapers took it seriously: On Sept. 23, the Republican Tribune opened a two-day attack in its headline, “Dan Rice and Disloyalty.” It complained that Rice filled “his ring talk with disloyal utterances and flings at Lincoln and the war. A trimmer so cautious as this personage who once, it is said, actually gave a performance under the confederate flag, should understand that this style of thing will not pay in loyal communities.” (The “Confederate flag” jab was political spin, because Rice presented his circus in New Orleans when Louisiana seceded.)
Next the Tribune claimed that no one laughed at Rice’s “quips and pasquinades persistently leveled at the President, the war, the government, and the anti-slavery sentiment of the north.” That Rice could make these jokes and still attract customers is another indication that late into 1864, discontent about the war remained strong. The Tribune, in an allusion to Southern sympathizers known as Copperheads, concluded by urging the press on his route to guard that his jokes did not “resemble a certain kind of soda — ‘drawn from copper.’” (Rice, visiting his friend Morrison Foster, Stephen Foster’s brother, apparently met the notorious Copperhead Clement Vallandigham there.)
Even as criticism of abolitionists continued, the crucible of war was burning away belief that the nation’s “peculiar institution” of slavery was acceptable. And as the country changed, so did Rice. In a July 4 speech in Elmira, N.Y., he had declared that blacks “are God’s creatures, and shouldn’t belong to Jeff. Davis, or any other man,” for they “were not made for southern planters to vote on, nor northern fanatics to dote on.” He added a folksy variation on Lincoln’s theme of equality: “Let every tub stand on its own bottom.”
Rice ran an abbreviated campaign. He was still a businessman with a show to troupe. He also knew he faced an uphill battle, running against a Republican incumbent, Morrow Lowry, in a heavily Republican district. Whatever advantage his national renown gave him was offset by the leading families of Girard, who harbored the distaste of small-town gentry for “the show business.” That distaste increased when Rice married into one of those families against their objections, to a woman the same age as his daughters
Despite such handicaps, in November Rice ran ahead of the Democratic ticket. He attracted 40 percent of the district’s vote, while the presidential candidate Gen. George McClellan got only 36 percent.
Later, like others who had criticized the war, Rice sought to shore up his reputation for patriotism. In 1865 in Girard he erected what was said to be the first Civil War monument, with a ceremony featured on the front page of the Nov. 25 Harper’s Weekly.
He also began peddling a claim that he’d been Abraham Lincoln’s pal, dropping by the White House to cheer up war-weary Abe and advise him on the mood of the country. Blatantly false, the tale thrived thanks to Rice’s national stature and the postwar urge to paper over the bitter divide of the war. The Lincoln fiction survived intact into the 20th century, as a bit of trivia about the president, because it fit a new sentimentality about clowns as sweetly innocuous. It was easier to believe in a clown consoling Lincoln than one attacking him as a tyrant.
Another claim, though one that Rice didn’t make himself, said he’d been the model for Uncle Sam. At first glance it’s unlikely. Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who completed the evolution of that image to the icon we know today, was a fervent Republican who wouldn’t have knowingly based anything on a fervent Democrat like Rice. But it wouldn’t have been unusual to be unconsciously influenced by one of the most famous Americans of the era. In any case Nast drew a cartoon that echoed Rice perfectly, combining the famous clown’s democratic irreverence, his trademark goatee, the top hat he often wore, and a mash-up of his two primary costumes, a clown’s stars and stripes and the fancy wardrobe of a middle-class gentleman. If anyone could be said to have been the model for Uncle Sam, it was Dan Rice, circus clown and political candidate.
Sources: David Carlyon, “Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of “ and Carlyon, “Twain’s ‘Stretcher’: The Circus Shapes Huckleberry Finn,” South Atlantic Review, 72.4 (Fall 2007); Dan Rice, “Fourth of July Oration,” “Dan Rice’s Songs, Sentiments, Jests, and Stories”; Walter A. McDougall, “Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era: 1829-1877.”
David Carlyon is the author of “Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of.”