Barnum, Jefferson and the Beautiful Ugly Arc of Progress

I fell in love with PT Barnum in the third grade.  I was also besotted with Thomas Jefferson.  Yea, I was a weird kid.  My heroes were a carnival barker and a writer.

Watching the new movie The Greatest Showman, on the big screen last week, rekindled my passion for Phineas Taylor Barnum.  The movie was amazing; I went back a second time.  Barnum’s actual life was more complex, and less noble, than the singing Hugh Jackman version.

In real life PT Barnum launched his entertainment career by purchasing Joice Heth, a blind slave, touting her as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Barnum put her on display in New York where visitors lined up to gawk at her withered body and hear her tales of “dear little George.”

There’s no way to sugar coat it.  Barnum was a racist and a sexist.  He exploited the less fortunate.  My other hero, Thomas Jefferson was no better.  He owned slaves, lots of them.  Yet Jefferson also wrote the words “all men are created equal.”

Human advancement is never as pretty or clean as we’d like it to be.

When Jefferson put forth the idea that we the people had the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in 1776, he didn’t mean all the people.  It took almost 100 years for “we the people” to include black men, who weren’t able to vote until 1870.  Women didn’t become part of “we the people” until 1920.

But if Jefferson hadn’t put forth the idea that he and his white male cohorts had inalienable rights, the rest of us would not have been able to follow.

Again, human progress is messy business.

It’s easy to judge harshly when we look backwards with today’s understanding and mores.  But how many of us are creating anything as breakthrough as the Declaration of Independence or the Greatest Show on Earth?

Jefferson’s ideas were radical, and he risked his life for them.  PT Barnum was a radical too.  He brought people who had once been shamed out of the shadows.  He gave people a reason to laugh.

Barnum introduced the public to wild animals like camels, elephants, lions and tigers, amazing creatures people never would have seen in their ordinary lives.  In 1882 Barnum purchased a gargantuan 6-ton African elephant named Jumbo and toured across the US.  Flash forward 100 plus years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was criticized for their treatment of animals, elephants in particular. The circus eventually folded because people no longer wanted to see wild animals in unnatural harmful conditions.  Yet many of us, including me, discovered our love for elephants watching the circus.

Maya Angelou famously said, “I did then what I knew how to do, now that I know better, I do better.”

Heroes are never flawless.  They do the best they can in the times they’re placed. When someone introduces a bold innovative idea, they rarely perfect it on the first round.  That’s not their job.  That’s our job.

Progress isn’t a nice clean awakening.  Progress is the result of bold ideas; then repeated exposure gives the rest of us the chance to mold the ideas into something even better.

PT Barnum said, “Fortune favors the brave.”  We don’t need to wait for the perfect hero.  We don’t need to perfect ourselves; and we don’t need to perfect our big ideas before we put them out there.  We simply need to be brave enough to move things forward.