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The P.T. Barnum of the Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton

Political Life


During his legislative career Mr. Barnum made many new friends and pleasant acquaintances, and there were many events great and small which tended to make the session memorable. Barnum was by no means an idle member. On several occasions, indeed, he took a most conspicuous part in debates and in framing legislation. On one occasion, a Representative, who was a lawyer, introduced resolutions to reduce the number of Representatives, urging that the "House" was too large and ponderous a body to work smoothly; that a smaller number of persons could accomplish business more rapidly and completely; and, in fact, that the Connecticut Legislature was so large that the members did not have time to get acquainted with each other before the body adjourned sine die. Barnum replied, that the larger the number of Representatives, the more difficult it would be to tamper with them; and if they all could not become personally acquainted, so much the better, for there would be fewer "rings," and less facilities for forcing improper legislation.

"As the House seems to be thin now, I will move to lay my resolutions on the table," remarked the member; "but I shall call them up when there is a full House."

"According to the gentleman's own theory," Barnum replied, "the smaller the number, the surer are we to arrive at correct conclusions. Now, therefore, is just the time to decide; and I move that the gentleman's resolutions be considered." This proposition was seconded amid a roar of laughter; and the resolutions were almost unanimously voted down, before the member fairly comprehended what was going on. He afterwards acknowledged it as a pretty fair joke, and at any rate as an effective one.

At this time Connecticut had two capitals, Hartford and New Haven. The State House at Hartford was a wretched old building, too small and entirely unfit for the purposes to which it was devoted; and that at New Haven was scarcely better. Barnum made a strong effort to secure the erection of new buildings in both cities, and was made chairman of the committee having the matter in charge. During his investigations he ascertained that Bridgeport, Middletown and Meriden would each be willing to erect a fine new State House at its own cost, for the sake of being made the capital of the State. Thus the jealousy of Hartford and New Haven was greatly aroused, and committees of citizens waited upon Mr. Barnum, beseeching him not to press the matter of removing the capital. In the end nothing definite was done, but years afterward Hartford was made the sole capital and one of the finest public buildings in the world was erected there.

The most notable event of the whole session however occurred near its close, when Barnum introduced a bill to amend the railroad law of the State by inserting in it the following:

"Section 508. No railroad company, which has had a system of commutation fares in force for more than four years, shall abolish, alter, or modify the same, except for the regulation of the price charged for such commutation; and such price shall, in no case, be raised to an extent that shall alter the ratio between such commutation and the rates then charged for way fare, on the railroad of such company."

The New York and New Haven Railroad Company seemed determined to move heaven and earth to prevent the passage of this law. The halls of legislation were thronged with railroad lobbyists, who button-holed nearly every member. Barnum's motives were attacked, and the most foolish slanders were circulated. Not only every legal man in the House was arrayed against him, but occasionally a "country member," who had promised to stick by and aid in checking the cupidity of railroad managers, would drop off, and be found voting on the other side. "I devoted," says Barnum, "many hours, and even days, to explaining the true state of things to the members from the rural regions, and, although the prospect of carrying this great reform looked rather dark, I felt that I had a majority of the honest and disinterested members of the House with me. Finally, Senator Ballard informed me that he had canvassed the Senate, and was convinced that the bill could be carried through that body if I could be equally successful with the House."

The date of the final debate and vote was fixed for the morning of July 13. At that time the excitement was intense. The State House was crowded with railroad lobbyists; for nearly every railroad in the State had made common cause with the New York and New Haven Company, and every Representative was in his seat, excepting the sick man, who had doctored the railroads till he needed doctoring himself. The debate was led off by skirmishers on each side, and was finally closed on the part of the railroads by Mr. Harrison, of New Haven, who was chairman of the railroad committee. Mr. Harrison was a close and forcible debater and a clear-headed lawyer. His speech exhibited considerable thought, and his earnestness and high character as a gentleman of honor carried much weight. Besides, his position as chairman of the committee naturally influenced some votes. He claimed to understand thoroughly the merits of the question, from having, in his capacity as chairman, heard all the testimony and arguments which had come before that committee; and a majority of the committee, after due deliberation, had reported against the proposed bill.

Mr. Barnum arose to close the debate. He endeavored to state briefly the gist of the whole case. "Only a few years before," he said, "the New York and New Haven Company had fixed their own price for commuters' tickets along the whole line of the road, and had thus induced hundreds of New York citizens to remove to Connecticut with their families, and build their houses on heretofore unimproved property, thus vastly increasing the value of the lands, and correspondingly helping our receipts for taxes. He urged that there was a tacit understanding between the railroad and these commuters and the public generally, that such persons as chose thus to remove from a neighboring State, and bring their families and capital within Connecticut's borders, should have the right to pass over the railroad on the terms fixed at the time by the president and directors; 'that any claim that the railroad could not afford to commute at the prices they had themselves established was absurd, from the fact that, even now, if one thousand families who reside in New York, and had never been in our own State, should propose to the railroad to remove these families (embracing in the aggregate five thousand persons) to Connecticut, and build one thousand new houses on the line of the New York and New Haven Railroad, provided the railroad would carry the male head of the family at all times for nothing, the company could well afford to accept the proposition, because they would receive full prices for transporting all other members of these families, at all times, as well as full prices for all their visitors and servants.'

"And now," he said, "what are the facts? Do we desire the railroad to carry even one-fifth of these new-comers for nothing? Do we, indeed, desire to compel them to transport them for any definitely fixed price at all? On the contrary, we find that during the late rebellion, when gold was selling for two dollars and eighty cents per dollar, this company doubled its prices of commutation, and retains the same prices now, although gold is but one-half that amount ($1.40). We don't ask them to go back to their former prices; we don't compel them to rest even here; we simply say, increase your rates, pile up your demands just as high as you desire, only you shall not make fish of one and fowl of another. You have fixed and increased your prices to passengers of all classes just as you liked, and established your own ratio between those who pay by the year and those who pay by the single trip; and now, all we ask is, that you shall not change the ratio. Charge ten dollars per passenger from New York to New Haven, if you have the courage to risk the competition of the steamboats; and whatever percentage you choose to increase the fare of transient passengers, we permit you to increase the rates of commuters in the same ratio.

"The interests of the State, as well as communities, demand this law; for if it is once fixed by statute that the prices of commutation are not to be increased, many persons will leave the localities where extortion is permitted on the railroads, and will settle in our State. But these railroad gentlemen say they have no intention to increase their rates of commutation, and they deprecate what they term 'premature legislation,' and an uncalled-for meddling with their affairs. Mr. Speaker, 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' Men engaged in plots against public interests always ask to be 'let alone.' Jeff Davis only asked to be 'let alone,' when the North was raising great armies to prevent the dissolution of the Union. The people cannot afford to let these railroads alone. This hall, crowded with railroad lobbyists, as the frogs thronged Egypt, is an admonition to all honest legislators that it is unsafe to allow the monopolies the chance to rivet the chains which already fetter the limbs of those whom circumstances place in the power of these companies."

At this point in his speech he was interrupted a messenger, who placed in his hands a dispatch from his son-in-law in New York, marked "Urgent." He opened and read it. It announced that his Museum had been totally destroyed by fire. He laid it upon his desk, and without the slightest change of manner continued his argument, as follows:

"These railroad gentlemen absolutely deny any intention of raising the fares of commuters, and profess to think it very hard that disinterested and conscientious gentlemen like them should be judged by the doings of the Hudson River and Harlem Railroads. But now, Mr. Speaker, I am going to expose the duplicity of these men. I have had detectives on their track, for men who plot against public interest deserve to be watched. I have in my pocket positive proofs that they did, and do, intend to spring their trap upon the unprotected commuters on the New York and New Haven Railroad."

He then drew from his pocket and read two telegrams received that morning, one from New York and the other from Bridgeport, announcing that the New York and New Haven Railroad Directory had held a secret meeting in New York the day before, for the purpose of immediately raising the fares of commuters twenty per cent., so that in case his bill became a law they could get ahead of him. He continued:

"Now, Mr. Speaker, I know that these dispatches are true; my information is from the inside of the camp. I see a director of the New York and New Haven Railroad sitting in this hall; I know that he knows these dispatches are true; and if he will go before the railroad committee and make oath that he don't know that such a meeting took place yesterday, for exactly this purpose, I will forfeit and pay one thousand dollars to the families of poor soldiers in this city. In consideration of this attempt to forestall the action of this Legislature, I offer an amendment to the bill now under consideration, by adding after the word 'ratio' the words 'as it existed on the 1st day of July, 1865.' In this way we shall cut off any action which these sleek gentlemen may have taken yesterday. It is now evident that these railroad gentlemen have set a trap for this Legislature; and I propose that we now spring the trap, and see if we cannot catch these wily railroad directors in it. Mr. Speaker, I move the previous question."

This revelation astounded the opposition, and the "previous question" was ordered. On the final vote the bill was carried through triumphantly, and has ever since remained an important item in the statute-book of the State.

In the spring of 1866 Barnum was re-elected to represent the town of Fairfield in the Legislature. He had not intended to serve again. But one of the directors of the railroad, who had led the opposition to Barnum's new railroad law, had openly boasted about the town that Barnum should not be allowed to hold the office again. It was in response to these boasts that Barnum decided to accept the nomination, and he was handsomely elected.

The leading issue before that Legislature was the election of a United States Senator. Andrew Johnson was then President of the United States, and had begun to break away from the Republican party. One of the Connecticut Senators was following him in this action. The other Senator was now a candidate for re-election. Barnum had been an earnest admirer of him, but now ascertained that he too was siding with Johnson. This caused Barnum to take an active part in opposing him, and the showman-legislator spent many days and nights endeavoring to impress upon his colleagues the importance of defeating this candidate and electing the Hon. O. S. Ferry to the Senatorship.

Excitement ran high. At first Mr. Ferry had only a few votes. But under Barnum's skilful leadership he at last obtained a majority in the party caucus and was accordingly elected.

During that summer Barnum entertained many eminent politicians and other public men at his beautiful residence, Lindencroft. Governor Hawley wanted him to serve as a Commissioner to the Paris Exposition of 1867, but he was unable to do so.

In the spring of 1867 he was nominated for Congress by the Republicans of the Fourth District. In referring to this episode, he afterward remarked: "Politics were always distasteful to me. I possessed, naturally, too much independence of mind, and too strong a determination to do what I believe to be right, regardless of party expediency, to make a lithe and oily politician. To be called on to favor applications from office-seekers, without regard to their merits, and to do the dirty work too often demanded by political parties; to be "all things to all men," though not in the apostolic sense; to shake hands with those whom I despised, and to kiss the dirty babies of those whose votes were courted, were political requirements which I felt I could never acceptably fulfil. Nevertheless, I had become, so far as business was concerned, almost a man of leisure; and some of my warmest personal friends insisted that a nomination to so high and honorable a position as a member of Congress was not to be lightly rejected, and so I consented to run. Fairfield and Litchfield counties composed the district, which, in the preceding Congressional election, in 1865, and just after the close of the war, was Republican. In the year following, however, the district in the State election went Democratic. I had this Democratic majority to contend against in 1867, and as the whole State turned over and elected the Democratic ticket, I lost my election. In the next succeeding Congressional election, in 1869, the Fourth District also elected the only Democratic Congressman chosen from Connecticut that year.

"I was neither disappointed nor cast down by my defeat. The political canvass served the purpose of giving me a new sensation, and introducing me to new phases of human nature--a subject which I had always great delight in studying. The filth and scandal, the slanders and vindictiveness, the plottings and fawnings, the fidelity, meanness and manliness,: which by turns exhibited themselves in the exciting scenes preceding the election, were novel to me, and were so far interesting.

"Shortly after my opponent was nominated I sent him the following letter, which was also published in the Bridgeport Standard:

" 'BRIDGEPORT, Conn., February 21, 1867.
" 'W. H. BARNUM, Esq., Salisbury, Conn.:

" 'Dear Sir: Observing that the Democratic party has nominated you for Congress from this district, I desire to make you a proposition.

" 'The citizens of this portion of our State will be compelled, on the first Monday in April next, to decide whether you or myself shall represent their interests and their principles in the Fortieth Congress of the United States.

" 'The theory of our government is, that the will of the people shall be the law of the land. It is important, therefore, that the people shall vote understandingly, and especially at this important crisis in our national existence. In order that the voters of this district shall fully comprehend the principles by which each of their Congressional candidates is guided, I respectfully invite you to meet me in a serious and candid discussion of the important political issues of the day at various towns in the Fourth Congressional District of Connecticut, on each week-day evening, from the fourth day of March until the thirtieth day of the same month, both inclusive.

" 'If you will consent to thus meet me in a friendly discussion of those subjects, now so near and dear to every American heart, and, I may add, possessing at this time such momentous interest to all civilized nations in the world who are suffering from misrule, I pledge myself to conduct my portion of the debate with perfect fairness, and with all due respect for my opponent, and doubt not you will do the same.

" 'Never, in my judgment, in our past history as a nation, have interests and questions more important appealed to the people for their wise and careful consideration. It is due to the voters of the Fourth Congressional District that they have an early and full opportunity to examine their candidates in regard to these important problems, and I shall esteem it a great privilege if you will accept this proposition.

" 'Please favor me with an early answer, and oblige
" 'Truly yours,
" 'P. T. BARNUM.' "

To this letter Mr. William H. Barnum replied, positively declining to accept his rival's proposition.

When Congress met P. T. Barnum was surprised to see in the newspapers an announcement that the seat of his successful rival was to be contested on the ground of bribery and fraud. " This," he said, "was the first intimation that I had ever received of such an intention, and I was never, at any time before or afterwards, consulted upon the subject. The movement proved to have originated with neighbors and townsmen of the successful candidate, who claimed to be able to prove that he had paid large sums of money to purchase votes. They also claimed that they had proof that men were brought from an adjoining State to vote, and that in the office of the successful candidate naturalization papers were forged to enable foreigners to vote upon them. But, I repeat, I took no part nor lot in the matter, but concluded that if I had been defeated by fraud, mine was the real success.' "

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