Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Spike Jones
The best offense is a good fart joke.
Ask him about: firearms as percussion instruments
In 1942, New York radio DJ Martin Block sold war bonds on air – to an audience that was under wartime food and gasoline rationing – on the promise that he’d give a free record to any listener who bought a $50 bond. Every time the pledge total went up another $2,500 Block played the single in question on-air, to cheers and peals of laughter.
The song was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and Block sold $60,000 of bonds inside a week.
Because you can argue, you can petition; you can organize demonstrations and engage in politics; but sometimes the most effective piece of international policy dialogue is a Bronx cheer.
Have a drink with: The Electoral College
Neither elected, nor a college. Discuss.
Ask them about: Any December plans?
Most people hadn’t though much of the Electoral College before the contested Bush-Gore election in 2000, and many assumed that up to that point in American history it had mostly been a smooth, rubber-stamp affair. In truth, before 2000, seventeen elections ended in Presidents elected without a majority of the popular vote, and some scholars have figured out that minor vote shifts – a matter of 75,000 votes or fewer – could have changed the result in half of the elections for which data is available. (see detail here and here)*
So what did the founders mean when they set up this odd institution to elect the President? The Electoral College emerged from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which the founders were justifiably pissed off at having to spend their entire summer indoors in Philadelphia.
After long weeks of gridlock and argument over the structure of the Congress for our not-yet-unwrapped nation, there was no break in the fighting between small states and large. The Virginia Plan based the structure of Congress on state population, while the New Jersey Plan insisted each state have equal representation in the legislature. The Connecticut Plan won the day with the suggestion that one house be based on population and the other on equal allocation across states.
Then someone broke the news that they had to figure out how to elect the President, and it was late August by this point. Everyone could agree on one thing: we don’t want to repeat THAT whole mess again, plus we are running out of states after which to name proposals. Can we make the president thing easier? Yes.
Have a drink with: The American Voter
On Tuesdays we wear white.
Ask her about: Her “citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens.”*
In case you need some historical comfort for your Election Day habits:
Compulsively clicking “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight? We get it. P.T. Barnum got it, too, which is why he offered a daily “Presidential Test Vote” at his American Museum (open to women as well as men!) and fed results to the daily papers:
“Women as well as Men vote at BARNUM’S MUSEUM All this week. Now is the time, Ladies, to show your preference. The vote will be taken, and the curiosities and entertainments of the museum increased in proportion.”
(While at the Museum, you could conveniently escape your polling anxiety with “Two LIVING ANACONDAS, a LIVING SKELETON, the DWARF LADY, a MODEL of the MALAKOFF, &c.”)
Have a drink with: New Haven Puritans
Judge swung his fist down, plunk plunk…
Ask them about: Anything but Quakers.
It’s election season, which means we are faced with ample opportunity to confront our worst tendencies and unresolved problems as a society, along with the inevitable call to harken back to a better, simpler, more moral time in American history.
Just so we’re clear, though, that time was not the 17th century.
Consider The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity, a fascinating collection of thirty-three cases heard before the Puritan courts of the 17th century New Haven Colony and superbly edited by Connecticut superior court judge Jon Blue. We can learn a few things from this book:
- Do not let a few instances of good justice wallpaper over a majority approach that marginalizes citizens and preserves a fear-based status quo.
- Don’t serve sailors booze by the quart.
Have a drink with: Your Friendly Postwar Congressional Republicans
Reducing sauces AND the national debt…
Ask them about: Recipes for your Labor Day cookout
In 1962, then-Congressman Gerald Ford lent his name to The Republican Congressional Cook Book, a collection of recipes and peppy political axe-grinding given to constituents.
“It is our hope that as you read this Cookbook and use its recipes,” the book begins, “you will enjoy cooking, which is one of the few things not yet regulated by the Federal government.” Ha!
Have a drink with: William Randolph Hearst
“…an especially dangerous specimen of the class.”
Ask him: How’d you like Citizen Kane?
Kentucky’s William Goebel, who has the unfortunate distinction of being America’s only governor to be assassinated in office, was shot by an unknown gunman in January 1900 during the recount of his own contested election. The author and satirist Ambrose Bierce tactlessly commented in the New York Evening Journal:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
Bierce was at the time a columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and neither was his employer was any fan of President McKinley’s; one of the Hearst papers famously ran an anonymous column in 1901 urging that “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”
Suffice it to say that when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in September 1901, folks remembered what they’d read in the paper.
Have a drink with: John C. Calhoun
The “cast-iron man,” nullifier, racist.
Ask him about: getting into college
Yale University recently announced that it would retain the name of 19th century politician and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun on one of its twelve undergraduate residential colleges. The decision has been broadly condemned: on Twitter, #FormerlyKnownAsCalhoun quickly topped the trends list, and singer Janelle Monae used Yale’s Spring Fling stage to lead protest chants, calling Calhoun a “white supremacist.”
In a note to the Yale community, university president Peter Salovey justified the decision with the statement that removing Calhoun’s name “obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”
But was John Calhoun history’s intolerant yet benign uncle, whom we harmlessly leave at the dinner table to rant, and should we care that his name’s on an Ivy League building?
Have a drink with: The Twelfth Amendment
Ask it about: Can it get us tickets to Hamilton?
Last week former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a public letter explaining his considered refusal to declare candidacy in the presidential election. Bloomberg described the election thus far as “doubling down on dysfunction,” and you can’t exactly blame him for that since the delegate situation is a mess, conservatives are allegedly calling for a convention brawl, the Simpsons predicted President Trump back in 2000, and third-party candidacy is suddenly a hot topic).
Bloomberg, though, tucked a little something else in there:
“In a three-way race, it’s unlikely any candidate would win a majority of electoral votes, and then the power to choose the president would be taken out of the hands of the American people and thrown to Congress.”
This is not made up. It’s the Twelfth Amendment, and I can explain it to you. With musicals!