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The not-so glamorous origins of American celebrity politics

“In America,” the filmmaker Francois Truffaut once wrote, “politics always overlaps show business, as show business overlaps advertising.” The truth of Truffaut’s statement was on full display last month during the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

The Democrats predictably drew a series of A-list celebrities to their cause, including Sarah Silverman, Meryl Streep, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Star power at the Republican convention was noticeably diminished, but this year, of course, the reality show tycoon Donald Trump took center stage.  The fact that his daughter Ivanka invited Twitter followers to “Shop Ivanka’s Look” after her RNC speech tells us how keen an observer Truffaut was.

The merger of politics and entertainment in the 2016 presidential campaign may strike observers as garishly postmodern, something only a novelist such as Don DeLillo could imagine, but its roots stretch back to the vibrant political world of Jacksonian democracy.

America’s founders were keenly interested in the pursuit of fame, what Alexander Hamilton once called the “ruling passion of the noblest minds.” However what we consider celebrity politics originated in the turbulent popular culture of the 1830s and 40s as audiences began to turn their most admired entertainers into heroes of the new democracy.

Born in Philadelphia in 1806, the actor Edwin Forrest was one of the nation’s earliest stars, and in the fluid class structure of early American theater, he entertained everyone from presidents and authors to teamsters and mechanics. Working-class audiences prized Forrest’s highly expressive style of acting, especially when he appeared in action-adventure roles that depicted him as a charismatic, hyper-masculine patriot. Imagine Mel Gibson staging a live performance of Braveheart, and you have some sense of Forrest’s grip on the thousands of Americans who crowded into theaters to see him.

Like many of his Hollywood descendants, Forrest had a larger than life personality that excited sensational gossip and storytelling. His highly publicized divorce trial, with its violent outbreaks and lurid accusations of adultery, engrossed newspaper readers across the country.

The actor’s pugnacious Americanism made him an especially potent figure among young urbanites. In 1849, his bitter rival, the British actor James Macready, appeared in a production of Macbeth at New York’s elite Astor Place opera house, only blocks away from where Forrest was starring in a production of the same play.Ten thousand Forrest supporters rioted in protest. The riot killed twenty-two people and was an early sign of how deeply entrenched entertainment could become in nativism and political allegiance.

Forrest counted Andrew Jackson as both a friend and mentor, and throughout his career, he fiercely defended the tenets of democratic nationalism. The actor’s popularity and zeal for reform led many Democrats to see him as a potential congressional candidate. Though he never ran for office, Forrest frequently spoke at party celebrations and functions. His July 4, 1838 oration to the Democratic Republican Committee of New York remains a classic expression of the period’s egalitarian fervor.

Forrest was the most visibly partisan of a new generation of entertainers who developed a strong interest in reform. Among his contemporaries were the Hutchinson Family singers, a favorite among abolitionists. Traveling with Frederick Douglass, this group of nine brothers and sisters performed at numerous anti-slavery rallies and advocated for women’s rights. While the Hutchinsons targeted specific issues, Forrest focused on the Democratic Party. Anticipating the work of hundreds of Hollywood stars, he pioneered the practice of helping fund party politics. In 1856, he gave $250 to help settle the debts incurred by James Buchanan’s presidential campaign, a sum worth over $7500 today.

Born a generation later than Forrest, the circus clown Dan Rice took celebrity politics in a wildly different direction when he ran for president in 1868. Rice had an insatiable need to inject himself into public consciousness and eagerly aligned himself with the leading politicians of his age. Leaving home at the age of fourteen, he traveled the country as a carnival showman before becoming the star and owner of several highly successful circus companies.

Edwin_Forrest_as_Spartacus
“Edwin Forrest as Spartacus,” NYPL Digital Gallery by “Sarony” photo studio. Published before 1923 and public domain in the US via Wikimedia Commons.

As David Carlyon describes it in Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of, the circus clown became interested in politics after meeting General Zachary Taylor during the 1848 presidential race. With typical bravado, Rice liked to boast that Taylor campaigned from his bandwagon during circus parades and that the general had given him the title “Colonel” in gratitude for the endorsement. Billing himself “Colonel Dan Rice,” he performed in a red, white, and blue outfit, complete with striped leggings, star-spangled tunic, and shiny top hat. Carlyon points out that, with his goatee, the circus clown bore a striking resemblance to the figure we would come to know as Uncle Sam.

In much the same way that comedians talk politics on late-night TV, Rice often mixed political songs and commentary into his ring master routine. In 1857, the Democrat celebrated James Buchanan’s inauguration by writing and performing a lengthy comic song about the new president’s cabinet to 20,000 people in Washington. An avowed racist, Rice originally backed the confederate states during the Civil War, and he delighted southern audiences with a comic pro-slavery version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Labeled “the secession showman,” Rice tried to rehabilitate his reputation by promoting himself as the committed benefactor of Union army veterans. With little regard for consistency, he donated money to the families of soldiers and encouraged the rumor that he had single-handedly outfitted an entire regiment. In 1865, he erected a $5000 granite monument to the fallen soldiers of Erie County in front of his Pennsylvania estate. Although easily dismissed as a publicity stunt, the event earned Rice a cover story in Harper’s Weekly.

After several disappointing state campaigns, Rice briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1868, drawing significant backing from newspapers and veterans’ organizations. Supporters formed Dan Rice clubs across the midwest, and the New York papers touted “the Colonel” as being as viable a candidate as the editor Horace Greeley and the general George McClellan. Many newspapers, of course, were appalled by the excitement over Rice’s candidacy. One editor argued that it was humiliating to think that an office once occupied by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison could fall to a man who had worn the “caps and bells of Master Merryman in a traveling circus.”

Strangely enough, plenty of supporters promoted Rice’s selflessness and patriotism. A letter to Rhode Island’s Newport Daily News argued that like the Roman general Cincinnatus, Rice “would leave the retirement in which he hoped to spend the rest of his life and go forth to the Capitol to straighten the affairs of the nation and relieve the country from the turmoil, anxiety, and strife which are distracting to it.” The message seemed to be that only an entertainer of Rice’s wealth and stature could fix the mess in Washington, DC.

Although Rice’s campaign fizzled out after a few months, he and his supporters developed a rationale for his candidacy that is still used today. Rice’s celebrity, they argued, would help him transcend the self-interest of more traditional candidates.

If Forrest represents one stream of celebrity politics, the star as party activist, Rice represents another: the star who hopes to turn his or her popularity into elected office. These streams would grow in size and strength over the next 150 years. Forrest precedes a whole legion of celebrities, from John Wayne and Barbra Streisand to Chuck Norris and Whoopi Goldberg, who have been steadfast, reliable advocates for the Republican or Democratic parties.

And while it may recall the presidential campaigns of fellow comics Dick Gregory and Stephen Colbert, Rice’s candidacy is perhaps most significant in anticipating the populist appeal of celebrity candidates. In Rice we have a precursor to figures such as Jesse Venturo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump, each of whom has invoked his fame as the answer to a broken system.

Our popular culture is larger and more varied than our forebears could have imagined. But what survives from the mid-nineteenth century is the deeply personal importance that audiences place on famous men and women. Reviewing that history helps us see that celebrity politics has less to do with the stars themselves than it does the people who admire them, the fans who find more power and agency in their show business heroes than they do in their own lives. In a spectacle-driven democracy, what could feel more cathartic than snubbing political insiders for the stars that inspire and embolden us? We care about them, so surely they care about us.

Featured image credit: 1880RNC – 1880 Republican National Convention by C. D. Mosher. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Gina Swifte

    Surprised that there was no mention of Ronald Reagan – the actor who did make it to the White House. Any particular reason for not mentioning him?

  2. David Haven Blake

    Reagan is such an interesting and complex case, Gina. He was first a Democrat and then became a hardcore Republican. His initial appeal, as a political figure, was as an uncompromising conservative, though in the end he drew significant bipartisan support. There’s a whole chapter on Reagan’s political evolution, and his debt to the advertising agency BBDO, in Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics. You’ll find plenty more to the story there.

  3. thecelebritynetworth

    I did not see Ronald Reagan mentioned in the article

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