Dan Rice, The Clown Who Ran For President

People often describe political candidates as clowns, which is never fair to clowns. Except in the months leading up to the 1868 election, when a clown ran for president.

His name was Dan Rice, and he was no ordinary clown. As biographer David Carlyon called him, he’s “the most famous man you’ve never heard of.” Rice was known all across America, and at one point was earning an impressive $1000 a week.

Harvard Theatre Collection, Dan Rice by Artist unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Harvard Theatre Collection, Dan Rice by Artist unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While you may not know his name, you probably say many of the phrases attributed to him. The term “one-horse show” originated early in Rice’s career, when he could only afford one horse in his show. His competition thought his “one-horse show” would be a sure failure, but Rice proved them wrong and succeeded.

“Jumping on the bandwagon” began when Rice invited future-president Zachary Taylor to campaign on his circus wagon, using its music to attract attention for the candidate. Taylor later made Rice an honorary Colonel.

Before the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus adopted the slogan, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an Arkansas newspaper used it to describe Rice’s show.

Clown Dan Rice from "Dan Rice's Great American Humorist Song Book," 1863

Dan Rice from “Dan Rice’s Great American Humorist Song Book,” 1863

Rice was born in New York City in 1823 as Daniel McLaren. According to The Life of Dan Rice by Maria Ward Brown (1901), his father nicknamed him Dan Rice after a famous Irish clown. As a young man, Rice got his start in the world of entertainment with a show featuring an educated pig. He and a partner sang songs and danced, but people came to see the pig guess people’s ages and nod its head to answer yes-or-no questions.

As Rice’s career progressed, these early experiences would expand greatly. Rice went on to become an accomplished animal trainer, working with horses, cattle, elephants and more. He even became the first to train a rhinoceros to perform in the circus ring.

Going above and beyond clowning, Rice also acted as a strong man, political humorist, songwriter, dancer, social commentator, director and producer. His ability to blend this variety of talents into one show eventually gave birth to vaudeville.

As his fame grew, he sought to add “politician” to his list of titles. The Democratic clown rode his popularity into races for the state senate in Pennsylvania in 1864, and in 1868, the presidency.

On November 13, 1867, the Republican and Democrat paper from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, cast his name into the running with these words:

We hoist to our masthead this week the name of Dan Rice, of Pennsylvania, as our choice for President in 1868. Colonel Rice is so well and favorably known throughout the American continent as a man of unsullied character, sound principles, and strict integrity, that it is unnecessary for us to say more at this time than to announce his name as a candidate for the Presidency in the approaching campaign. As Westmoreland County was the first to nominate that inflexible hero, Andrew Jackson, and that enlightened statesman, James Buchanan, for the Presidency, so is she now the first to herald to the country the name of Col. Dan Rice, a name to which we defy any one to attach a single blot or stigma; a name loved, honored, respected wherever he who bears it is known.”

However, not everyone agreed. A week later, the Somerset Democrat responded:

… Having been first to nominate such men as Jackson and Buchanan is something to boast of, we admit, but it does seem to us that the men who nominate Dan Rice betray a strange liking for educated mules.

… “it will require a vast deal of arguments to convince a high-minded people that it would be either honorable or dignified to choose as their Chief Magistrate a man of whose statesmanship nothing is known and who has amassed wealth by catering to the tastes of the very lowest order of society in the disreputable capacity of a circus clown and showman.”

And again two days later, on November 22:

… We have always believed that statesmanship of the highest order, thorough education in the science of government, and extensive experience in national affairs were essential to qualify a man for the highest office in the gilt of the Republic. We never for a moment thought that the circus was a school for the training for Presidential candidates, either intellectually or morally….”

Rice didn’t appreciate their lack of faith in his ability to lead, so he promptly penned a letter in response:

… Perhaps I may be as you intimate, an educated mule, but no one can accuse me of being so uneducated a jackass as to spitefully kick where no occasion or offense has been given.

I have made my profession honorable, and instead of catering to the tastes of the lowest order of society, as you say, my exhibitions are patronized by the most respectable of all classes, including even yourself when opportunity is offered to deadhead in.

I doubt whether your stupid efforts to incense one whose influence is sought for by your leaders will tend to elevate either your good judgment or even common sense in their estimation, and am more than certain that, unless you make the amends honorable, you may as well hang up your political fiddle on the most convenient willow, for I can and will crush you unless you give me ample evidence of works meet for repentance. You will find that I have at least statesmanship to accomplish this much, and I hope for your sake that you will heed the warning one more easily provoked or less charitable than myself would not extend.

A word to the wise is said to be sufficient, but as you appear to be very far from wise either in your conduct to your brother editors or the public, I have considered it necessary to benefit you with a sufficiency to reach your comprehension.

Yours, etc.,

Dan Rice

As the weeks continued, Rice enjoyed support from many other papers. Below are just a few samples.

From the Nashville Banner, December 8, 1867:

Dan Rice for President! Why not? The ‘amusement people’ are wild with the thought; they swear that they can control millions in his favor, and they want to put him through on the workingman’s ticket next year, with General Carey of Ohio, as the nominee for Vice-President. There’s an idea now! Rice lives in Pennsylvania, on a ‘Sabine Farm’ like a Roman warrior retired from service. He is overflowing with health and patriotism. Providence has blessed his full and ripened years. Success has never deserted him. All his plans and schemes have triumphed. His children have grown up prosperously around him. Naturally he desires to close the scene in the Executive Mansion. And, after all, when he comes to think about it, the transition from a white tent cloth to a White House is not so wondrous. Ask General Grant, who, like Dan Rice, knows something of both, if it is. If Rice runs he will, of course, canvas the country from North to South. He is a good speaker, tells an anecdote admirably, sings a jolly stave, knows the people, human nature, and the ropes. Rice and Carey would be a brilliant combination. …”

From The Champion, December 18, 1867:

He will be a representative proper because he is heart and soul with the people. Because he is not an aspiring politician whose life has been spent in endeavors to gratify an unrighteous and morbid appetite for political aggrandizement. Because he is not bound and committed to any policy-dodging, aristocracy-establishing rings and cliques. … He is an earnest advocate of: Free speech, free press, and free government by a free people.

“And on this platform of principles we endorse and present him as a candidate of the people, earnestly trusting and believing he will receive the nomination, which, if he does, will be equivalent to his election as the next President of the United States.”

Unfortunately for his supporters, Rice eventually saw that he would not receive the nomination and dropped out when that fact became apparent.

That year, Ulysses S. Grant defeated Horatio Seymour to become the 18th President of the United States.

No other clown has run for President since. At least, not literally.