Donald Trump’s real predecessor in American history
was not P.T. Barnum, as some have suggested, but someone
in the same line of work who also lived in the mid-19th
century, and became a household word.
Dan Rice was born Daniel Maclaren in New York City in
1823. He became one of the earliest American clowns, and
through a series of entertainment jobs created the first true
American circus. He is considered the father not only of the
circus, but of vaudeville. He was the first U.S. megastar of
pop culture, and prior to the U.S. Civil War was probably the
most well-known person in the country. Mark Twain and
Walt Whitman were among his biggest fans. He created
“the greatest show on earth” before his later rival P.T.
Barnum got into the circus business. He is considered the
model for the iconic figure of Uncle Sam. Photographs of
Rice how him to be the spitting image of the early Uncle
Sam cartoons. By 1867, he was so famous that he ran for
president. The 1872 Democratic nomination went to his
friend Horace Greeley.
(Coincidentally, Greeley had lived as a young man in Erie, PA
where he held his first job as a reporter. Dan Rice, years later,
settled his circus in its winter quarters in Girard, a suburb of
Erie where “Dan Rice Days” are still observed every year.)
In many ways, Dan Rice created modern public relations as
well. An inveterate self-promoter, his personality reached into
numerous aspects of early American life. In fashion, he
popularized “French cuffs” in the U.S. He was not only a clown
and circus impresario, he was an actor, director, strong man,
animal trainer, professional dancer and song writer. He is the
origin of several phrases which survive to this day, including
“one horse show,” “Hey, Rube!” and the political term “getting
on the bandwagon” (the latter from his invitation to 1848
presidential candidate Zachary Taylor to appear on one of
his circus wagons).
Rice ran for U.S congress, senate and finally president ---
although he withdrew from each of these races before the
voting began. In 1867, when he ran for president, he was only
44 years old, but he was at the height of his fame. By the late
1870s, changes in the traveling circus, led by Barnum and
others, caused a decline in Rice’s fortune and popularity.
He died in New Jersey in 1900, virtually penniless and
Dan Rice was not only the first great American cultural
promoter and innovator, but a man of remarkable talents.
He was, in fact, the first true American pop culture celebrity
who became eventually involved, albeit unsuccessfully, in
politics. There have been figures like him ever since, not
only from entertainment, but from sports, films, business
and other walks of U.S. life.
Donald Trump is the latest version of this pop culture
phenomenon. Most, like Dan Rice, flare into fame and then
end up forgotten. A few, most notably Ronald Reagan,
emerge from pop culture into significant success and impact
in American politics.
It will be interesting to observe in the coming months which
will be the outcome for Donald Trump.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.