Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum was not only a show business producer and early mass marketeer but also a politician. He was elected to two terms in the Connecticut state legislature (1865 and 1866) representing the town of Fairfield as a member of the Republican Party. A decade later, he was elected by acclamation as mayor of Bridgeport, CT. His political career was very different from the candidate he is being compared to this 2016 Presidential season.
At the end of the Civil War, Barnum ran for the state legislature expressly to ratify the 14th Amendment to the USA Constitution and extend Connecticut state voting rights to African-American men as he stated in his speech to the legislature on May 26, 1865:
Mr. Speaker: I am no politician, I came to this Legislature simply because I wished to have the honor of voting for the two constitutional amendments–one for driving slavery entirely out of the country; the other to allow men of education and good moral character to vote, regardless of the color of their skins. To give my voice for these two philanthropic, just, and Christian measures is all the glory I ask legislativewise. I care nothing whatever for any sect or party under heaven, as such. I have no axes to grind, no logs to roll, no favors to ask. All I desire is to do what is right, and prevent what is wrong. I believe in no “expediency” that is not predicated of justice, for in all things–politics, as well as everything else — “I know that honesty is the best policy.” A retributive Providence will unerringly and speedily search out all wrong doing; hence, right is always the best in the long run. Certainly, in the light of the great American spirit of liberty and equal rights which is sweeping over this country, and making the thrones of tyrants totter in the old world, no party can afford to carry slavery, either of body or of mind. Take down the blinds from his intellect, and let in the light of education and Christian culture. When this is done you have developed a man. Give him the responsibility of a man and the self-respect of a man, by granting him the right of suffrage. Let universal education, and the universal franchise be the motto of free America, and the toiling millions of Europe, who are watching you with such intense interest, will hail us as their saviors. Let us loyally sink “party” on this question, and go for “God and our Country.” Let no man attach an eternal stigma to his name by shutting his eyes to the great lesson of the hour, and voting against permitting the people to express their opinion on this important subject. Let us unanimously grant this truly democratic boon. Then, when our laws of franchise are settled on a just basis, let future parties divide where they honestly differ on State or national questions which do not trench upon the claims of manhood or American citizenship.
Barnum was also instrumental during that session in keeping the “railroad ring” from selecting the Speaker of the Connecticut House and appointing the head of the railroad commission, fighting against Commodore Vanderbilt who had raised the price of tickets on the Hudson River and Harlem railroads from 200 – 400% and was about to do the same with the New York and New Haven road in which he was also a major stockholder. The fight lasted all through the legislative session and was so bitter that the railroad interests’ main proponent on the commission took to his bed “sick” ten days before the close of session and stayed there until the legislature adjourned.
“Through Barnum’s efforts a law was passed that no person in the employ of any railroad in the State, should serve as railroad commissioner.”
“In March, 1875, the nomination for Mayor of Bridgeport was offered Barnum, but he refused it, until assured that the nomination was intended as a compliment, and that both parties would sustain it.” The city of Bridgeport usually voted Democratic but Barnum ran on the Republican ticket and was easily elected. He campaigned against public intoxication, closed the bars on Sunday, and crusaded to lower utility rates, improve water supplies, and eliminate the city’s houses of prostitution.
During 1875, he was also on the lecture circuit with a talk titled “The World and How to Live in It,” that he gave 30 times around the eastern United States and traveled to Niagara Falls and Akron, OH to visit his Hippodrome which was on tour as far east as Thomaston, Maine and west to Leavenworth, Kansas that season.
When he was 81, he grew ill. At his request, the New York Evening Sun newspaper published his obituary in advance so he could enjoy it. Two weeks later, April 7, 1891, PT Barnum was dead.
There seems to have been a lot more to Phineas Taylor Barnum than we usually remember.