About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Battle for the Big Top: P. T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual author lecture with Les Standiford, about his new book, Battle for the Big Top, which tells the story of the men who created the American circus.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

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On Thursday, June 24, at noon, Patrick K. O’Donnell will discuss The Indispensables, his new book about the diverse soldier-mariners from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who rowed Washington’s troops across the Delaware and formed the origins of the U.S. Navy.

And on Tuesday, June 29, at noon, we will bring you John Ferling, author of Winning Independence, which describes the events of the underexplored, but decisive, years of the second half of the Revolutionary War.

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Pennsylvania Avenue is famous for its parades and marches, but for years one parade was especially notable. In spring, the circus came to town, and the costumed performers and elephants marched down the avenue to announce their arrival. People from office buildings—including the National Archives Building—would come out to watch and perhaps relive childhood memories.

Within the National Archives holdings are documentary connections to circuses over many decades of our history. Circus owners and performers appear in census records; business disputes are recorded in court case files; photographs show Presidents and their families attending the circus or greeting performers.

At one time the federal government even ran a circus—the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project had a Circus Unit. And so we have photographs and administrative files of the project.

In Battle of the Big Top, Les Standiford spins out the tale of the three “circus kings”—James Bailey, P.T. Barnum, and John Ringling—who vied for control of the American circus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Les Standiford is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including The Man Who Invented Christmas, which was a New York Times “Editors' Choice” and later became a feature film. He is a professor of English and founding director of the creative writing program at Florida International University and holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. He attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and Columbia School of Law and is a former screenwriting fellow and graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

Our moderator for today’s conversation is James W. Hall. Hall is a critic, a poet, and the author of 21 critically acclaimed novels. For many years he taught alongside Standiford in the creative writing program at Florida International University.

Now let’s hear from Les Standiford and James Hall. Thank you for joining us.