AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas
The “woke” radicals have not yet gotten around to targeting the iconic, symbolic personage of the American government — Uncle Sam — but should they eventually do so, they would surely delude themselves into finding ample justification. The story of how Uncle Sam happened is very much a story of the spirit, patriotism, enterprise, and, yes, the zaniness of an American culture that they despise but the rest of us know has transformed history and brought so much good to the world.
According to Smithsonian Magazine and most other sources, the visual model for Uncle Sam was very probably one of the most fascinating and important early American public figures. Yet today, he is almost forgotten except for that iconic “Uncle Sam” image.
The concept of “Uncle Sam” actually dates from the War of 1812 era when a man named Sam Wilson supplied meat to U.S. troops, stamping his produce “U.S.” As the story goes when a soldier was asked who “U.S.” was, he answered, “Uncle Sam,” and the name stuck in popular usage. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that the name got a popular visual image from famed 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast drawing his widely circulated cartoons featuring Uncle Sam.
The model for Nast’s image was a man named Dan Rice.
He was one of those extraordinary personalities that would emerge in the early and mid-19th century — an era notable for innovation of all kinds. The Industrial Revolution that took hold in Europe and the U.S. reshaped and reformed human civilization as inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators gave the world the steam engine for ships and the locomotives that almost overnight expanded mass mobility and transportation. Not long after came the invention of photography, the telegraph, motion pictures, the typewriter, and the telephone that made “mass” communication possible for the first time. American democratic capitalism produced new mass cultural, political, and entertainment activities.
Dan Rice was part of this great saga of enterprise and invention, but unlike others, such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, today he is among those who are forgotten. (I recently wrote on this site about Peter Cooper as an example of this historic memory loss.)
The story of Dan Rice, born Daniel Maclaren, begins in New York City in 1823. After working in various entertainment jobs, he became a famous clown who created the first modern American circus. He is now considered not only the father of the U.S. circus but also of American vaudeville, a format he pioneered. Before the Civil War, and just after it, he was probably the most well-known celebrity in the country.
His circus was proclaimed “the greatest show on earth” before his eventual rival, P.T. Barnum got into the circus business. Young Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were among his biggest fans. By 1867, he was so famous; he announced he would run for president.
Dan Rice was indeed the first U.S. pop culture megastar.
He also helped invent modern public relations. A compulsive self-promoter, his public persona reached deeply into early American life. He popularized “French cuffs” in the U.S. He was a circus impresario, actor, director, animal trainer, expert horseman, dancer, and songwriter. He originated several idiomatic phrases which are still in use, 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 eventually became involved in politics himself, announcing candidacies for U.S. Congress, Senate, and President — although he withdrew from each of these races before the voting began.
And as befitting man who founded the circus, modern public relations, and vaudeville, Dan Rice looked the part. And so it was that Dan Rice’s trademark goatee, top hat, and patriotic costumes caught Thomas Nast’s eye for his cartoons. Nast’s image was reinforced in 1917 in a famous World War I Army volunteer poster, and the Dan Rice-as-Uncle Sam image is still universally used today.
Sadly, the end of Rice’s life story is similar to many of those who achieved great fame and celebrity a century later. By the late 1870s, changes in the traveling circus, led by Barnum and others, caused a decline in Rice’s fortune and popularity. He had to close his circus and its long-time headquarters in a suburb of Erie, PA. He stopped performing and retired. He died in New Jersey in 1900, virtually penniless and forgotten.
Perhaps Dan Rice is the first cautionary tale of modern American celebrity, a phenomenon he did so much to create. Still, his story of brilliant talent, cultural innovation, and singular fame is all but lost in the American memory–except for the famous poster which has made his image immortal.