Celebrity Conquers America


George III, who came to the throne in 1760, had other things going for him besides his title. He was the first British monarch in forty-six years to speak English fluently; his predecessors George I and George II had been German princes called to Britain to maintain the Protestant succession. George Ill’s tutor had raised him to be a patriot king who played an active role in his people’s fortunes, rebuking greedy and squabbling politicians. In the colonies it was hoped that the new King George would countermand specific policies that beleaguered the Americans. A gilded equestrian statue of the royal hero-to-be was erected at Bowling Green, in Manhattan. When these expectations, always unrealistic, were frustrated, the Revolution ensued, and the statue was pulled down and melted into bullets.

George Whitefield’s celebrity had a stronger basis. Whitefield was an English evangelist, a co-leader, with John Wesley, of a decades-long mid-century revival. When Whitefield’s doctrines and emotional style of preaching proved too hot for the established churches, he took I himself into the open air, where he sometimes addressed crowds of twenty thousand. Audiences of miners washed the coal dust from their faces wirh the tears thev shed. Whitefield preached throughout England and Scotland, and between 1739 to 1770 he made seven extensive tours of the colonies, from New Hampshire to Georgia, dying in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In the early days of the Revolution, when an American army passed through Newburyport to invade Canada, its soldiers would not leave until they had opened Whitefield’s grave and made relics of his burial garments.

Barnum was the archetypal impresario of the career of others. His first great attraction, Joice Heth, was a fraud.

The widest celebrity of all was enjoyed by the hero of the Revolution, George Washington. He annexed the adulation that had been directed at his royal namesake, and he refused to become a king himself, which made the adulation all the stronger. Washington Irving gave a comic description of this passing of the celebrity torch in his story “Rip Van Winkle.” When Rip, who has gone to sleep before the Revolution, returns to his hometown, he finds his favorite snug tavern replaced by a bustling hotel. Only the “ruby face” of the figure on the signboard remains the same—and its scepter has been painted out and replaced by a sword. Washington Irving was one of hundreds of American children named for the hero. In 1811 a Russian diplomat noted that “every American considers it a sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his house, just as we have images of God’s saints.”

One notable fact about early American celebrity was how much effort it took. George III enjoyed all the panoply of monarchy, augmented by the fevered political speculations of an intensely political age. Whitefield was an indefatigable orator. In his prime he preached forty to sixty hours each week; in the last years of his life, when he was slowed down by exhaustion and asthma, he cut his schedule to one sermon every weekday and three on Sundays. George Washington was on permanent and peripatetic display for almost a quarter of a century. As Commander in Chief he was seen by thousands of soldiers; as President he visited every state and held weekly open houses; in his years of “retirement” at Mount Vernon, he was besieged by guests, invited and uninvited. One laconic entry in his journal in the late 1790s notes that for the first time in twenty years, he and Martha dined alone.

Celebrities had to work so hard because communication and transportation were primitive, and when this is the case, ubiquity is almost impossible. The one medium of modern mass communication that existed in the eighteenth century was the printing press, which worked overtime, churning out handbills, books, and newspapers. But printed illustrations were generally fanciful, and skilled painters could reach only a portion of the population. Getting around in the flesh was equally difficult. A trip as short as New York to Albany took three days by coach or three days up the Hudson River, if the winds were favorable.

Another noteworthy aspect of eighteenth-century celebrity is that the feelings it evoked were simultaneously intense and limited. Washington led men in battle; Whitefield led them to salvation. These men held life, or afterlife, in their hands. But beyond these salient facts, relatively little was known of them. Mason Locke (a.k.a. Parson) Weems tried to fill in the gaps in Washington’s private life by telling such stories as that of the cherry tree. But Weems managed this only by making up many of his stories and publishing them after Washington’s death, when they could not be contradicted. There were also many matters that Weems neither bothered nor dared to address. Americans did not care what Washington ate or drank. They did not learn that he had had a youthful crush on his neighbor’s wife until late in the nineteenth century, when a few stray letters were discovered (Washington’s old flame had burned the rest). Americans knew fewer details about the father of their country than they know about the average network news anchor today.