P. T. Barnum had a difficult childhood, and he and his father, Philo, a tailor, worked for the Hallett family and Barnum fell in love with the daughter of their boss, Charity. Although she is sent to finish her studies, Barnum assures her that she will not be separated. The two continue to keep in touch through the letters and reunite after they both reach maturity, eventually getting married and raising their two daughters in New York.
They lead a humble life in New York, but even if Charity is happy, Barnum longs for more. Barnum loses his job after the company he is working on is forced to go bankrupt. By making a risky bet with himself, he makes a loan to the bank, fooling him with a false pledge. He uses the money to buy a museum in Manhattan where various wax models are exposed.
At first, sales are modest, and at the suggestion of his children to present something “alive”, he looks for some “strange” performers at his museum. This attracts a massive audience, despite protests and negative reviews, which makes Barnum renaming the museum to “The Barnum Circus”. Seeking ways to increase his popularity among those in the upper class of society, he meets with playwright Phillip Carlyle and convinces him to join his performances. Carlyle is delighted by Anne Wheeler, an African-American artist, but she hides her feelings for her.