Self-made man

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A "self-made man" (later expanded to include "self-made women") is a classic phrase first coined on February 2, 1832 by United States senator Henry Clay who referred to the self-made man in the United States senate, to describe individuals in the manufacturing sector whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, has been described as the greatest exemplar of the self-made man. Inspired by Franklin's autobiography, Frederick Douglass developed the concept of the self-made man in a series of lectures that spanned decades starting in 1859. Originally, the term referred to an individual who arises from a poor or otherwise disadvantaged background to eminence in financial, political or other areas by nurturing qualities, such as perseverance, hard work, and ingenuity, as opposed to achieving these goals through inherited fortune, family connections, or other privileges. By the mid-1950s, success in the United States generally implied "business success."

The biographical history of the United States contains many figures who overcame obstacles, such as, extreme poverty through will power and a sense of purpose. Significant historical figures described as self-made men include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay Frick, E.H. Harriman, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Henry Wilson, Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, Rufus Choate, P. T. Barnum, Booker T. Washington, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

According to the June 27, 2017 "World Ultra Wealth Report", from 1997 through 2017 self-made individuals, mainly men, have "largely driven" global "wealth creation". The report noted that while there are an increasing number of women who are designated as high net worth, most inherited their wealth and only a small percentage sourced their wealth as self-made.

In the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, the idea of the self-made man, as an essential, archetypal figure that continues to loom large in America as a cultural ideal for some, has also been referred to as a myth, or even a cult by others.


Benjamin Franklin. c. 1785. Oil by Duplessis

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, has been described as "undoubtedly the original self-made man."[1] and the greatest exemplar of the "self-made man".[2] Both the American Dream and the self-made man concepts are inextricably linked and are rooted in American history. Franklin's autobiography was described by the editor of the 1916 edition, as the "most remarkable of all the remarkable histories of our self-made men".[2] His autobiography, which was dedicated to his son William Franklin, with the first chapter based on a 1771 letter to William[3], was used as illustrative of the journey of the self-made man in the eighteenth century in America. Franklin's introduced the archetypal self-made man through his own life story in which in spite of all odds he overcame his low and humble origins and inherited social position—his father was candle-maker—to re-invent himself through self-improvement based on a set of strong moral values such as "industry, economy, and perseverance"[2]:143 thereby attaining "eminence" in the classic rags to riches narrative. Franklin's maxims as published in his Autobiography provide others, specifically his own son, with strategies for attaining status in the United States, described as a "land of unequaled opportunity" in the last quarter of the 18th century.[3][2]:143

In his 1954 book entitled The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches, Irvin G. Wyllie described how on February 2, 1832 Henry Clay had "coined the phrase 'self-made men'" during his speech to the United States Senate.[4]:344–345[5][6] Clay used the classic phrase to describe the "autonomy of our manufacturers ... in behalf of a paternalistic tariff" and the "irony has persisted throughout the history of the idea of self-help".[5] [7]:100

The essential doctrine behind the self-made man is that success lies within the person himself and not with outside conditions. Wyllie investigated intellectual history, "not the history of a great abstraction but the saga of an idea that had power among the people." To Wyllie, success in the United States by the mid-1950s, generally implied "business success."[5][4]

Franklin and Frederick Douglass,[8][9] describe the "self-made man in similar language: "Being possessionless and unencumbered by authority is the necessary beginning state for the potential self-made man. One cannot be “made” by the help of a father, teacher, mentor, etc…, but must rise by one’s own grit, determination, discipline, and opportunism. The irony is that they have made themselves free from bounds and possessions, in a sense impoverished, so that they can then begin to acquire power and wealth on their own. The key is to acquire those possessions and power without help. The goal, then, is not to become famous or wealthy in the literal sense, but to participate in something precise and mythical."[10]

Frederick Douglass, photographed between 1850 and 1860.

Frederick Douglass developed the concepts in a series of lectures "Self-Made Men" from 1859 onward, for example 1895,[11]:549-50 which were published and archived in "The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress". In his 1872 lecture[12] Douglass noted that there were "no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist...Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered."[12] However, he then provided one of his most detailed descriptions of the self-made man,[12]

Self-made men are the men who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps of favoring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position and have learned from themselves the best uses to which life can be put in this world, and in the exercises of these uses to build up worthy character. They are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results....They are the men who, in a world of schools, academies, colleges and other institutions of learning, are often compelled by unfriendly circumstances to acquire their education elsewhere and, amidst unfavorable conditions, to hew out for themselves a way to success, and thus to become the architects of their own good fortunes....From the depths of poverty such as these have often come. ...From hunger, rags and destitution, they have come..."

— Frederick Douglass. 1872. "Self-Made Men" (full-text)

Self-made men

F. W. Pine wrote in his introduction of the 1916 publication of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, that Franklin's biography provided the "most remarkable of all the remarkable histories of our self-made men" with Franklin as the greatest exemplar of the "self-made man".[2]

"Franklin is a good type of our American manhood. Although not the wealthiest or the most powerful, he is undoubtedly, in the versatility of his genius and achievements, the greatest of our self-made men. The simple yet graphic story in the Autobiography of his steady rise from humble boyhood in a tallow-chandler shop, by industry, economy, and perseverance in self-improvement, to eminence, is the most remarkable of all the remarkable histories of our self-made men. It is in itself a wonderful illustration of the results possible to be attained in a land of unequaled opportunity by following Franklin's maxims."

— Frank Woodworth Pine 1916

Abraham Lincoln,[13], Frederick Douglass, P. T. Barnum, Booker T. Washington, and Andrew Carnegie have also been described as self-made men.[10]:8 Both Carnegie and Lee Iacocca acknowledge that their own autobiographies were influenced by Franklin's.[10]:8 In theirs, both Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan described their own origins as somewhat disadvantaged to reflect the narrative of self-made men.[10]:8 Blumenthal began his 2016 biography of Lincoln—A Self-Made Man—with with the phrase, "I used to be a slave", referring to Lincoln's claim in 1856 that his "domineering and uneducated father" "exploited" young Lincoln by "renting" him out to "rural neighbors in Indiana." Following his escape from servitude, Lincoln re-invented himself.[14] Lincoln was inspired by Franklin's Autobiography.[15]:29–31, 38–43

In a 1893 article in a railway magazine, Eugene V. Debs offered Andrew Johnson (1808 – 1875), the 17th President of the United States, Henry Wilson (1812–1875) was the 18th Vice President of the United States (1873–75), Daniel Webster(1782 – 1852) who served twice as United States Secretary of State, Edward Everett, and Rufus Choate as exemplary nineteenth-century self-made men. Debs contrasted the successful self-made men to those whose "illiteracy, stupidity, lack of ambition, forever keeps them at the bottom...[who] prefer pool to school, and choose to hammer coal and shovel it into a fire-box rather than employ their leisure in learning what they must know if they expect to rise." He calls on them to "resolve upon a change of habits — renounce follies and vices, obtain elementary books and study."[16]:267-217

In John G. Cawelti's 1965 book entitled Apostles of the self-made man, he listed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horatio Alger, and John Dewey as individuals "who either played a major role in shaping the success ideal or were associate with it in the public mind."[17]:1209[18]

Frank Giuffrida's parents were Sicilian immigrants who lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He began to work before he completed high school to run the family butcher shop when his father died. He opened the Hilltop Steakhouse after he sold the family store. His innovative strategy was to offer large size portions in a large scale restaurant spaces, making up for the extra cost of generous portions by the economy of scale.[1] According to the New York Times, the "Hilltop exceeded $27 million gross" in 1987.[19]

In the field of modern art, Arshile Gorky has been described as a self-made man who rose from "a dark, rich peasant culture" to prominence among "New York modern artists" through his "self-taught erudition and aggressive principles."[20] In the restaurant business Frank Giuffrida, the owner and manager of the Hilltop Steakhouse which opened in Saugus 1961 and became the biggest restaurant in the United States by the 1980s, is described as self-made man in the Slate article.[1][21]

In literature and popular culture

Ragged Dick (1868)

Horatio Alger Jr.'s six-volume Ragged Dick Series which began with the first full-length novel, Ragged Dick published in May 1868, a Bildungsroman "whose name became synonymous with the rags-to-riches narrative", where young Dick eventually became the successful and distinguished Richard Hunter.[1][22][23][24][1]

The Great Gatsby (1925)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's magnum opus The Great Gatsby, describes the downfall of the "archetypal, if somewhat misguided"[25] "socially ambitious self-made man" Jay Gatsby who rose from "an obscure and impoverished Midwestern childhood to become a wealthy and sought-after center of Long Island society".[26] Gatsby contrasts with Ben Franklin and the characters in Horatio Alger Jr. novels, as successful self-made men. His story serves as a cautionary tale regarding the American Dream where "an unhappy fate is inevitable for the poor and striving individual, and the rich are allowed to continue without penalty their careless treatment of others' lives."[26][27]

Ultra high-net-worth individuals

According to the June 27, 2017 "World Ultra Wealth Report", from 1997 through 2017, "wealth creation" has been "driven largely by self-made individuals", mainly men.[28]:27 According to the report, ultra high-net-worth individuals (UHNWI), those who have a net worth of at least US$30 million, were "predominantly self-made" having "earned their fortunes". Two-thirds of the UHNWI sourced "their wealth from their own efforts" such as "fruitful business ventures or successful investments."[28]:29 The number of UHNW individuals globally grew 3.5% to 226,450 individuals. Their combined total wealth increased by 1.5% to $27 trillion.[28] Of the 226,450 UHNWIs, 66% were self-made; of the 7,200 UHNW millennials (born between 1980-1995) 66% were self-made; of the 28,985 UHNW women 45% were self-made; of the 33,290 UHNWI from emerging Asia (Asia excluding Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong) 68% were self-made; and of the 34,961 UHNW Ivy League individuals, 75% were self-made.[28]:33 In 2016, slightly over 35% of UHNW holdings were in the form of "liquid assets (primarily cash)" which totalled $9.6trn.[28]:33

Cultural history

In his 2000 book entitled Creating the Modern Man, cultural historian, Tom Pendergast, traced the way in which the concept of the self-made man was referenced in men's magazines from 1900 through 1950.[29]:10 Pendergast divided masculinity into only two periods: Victorian which was "based on property-ownership and family" and "post-Victorian" which was "based on a cult of personality, self-improvement, and narcissism".[30] He described the "ideal Victorian man" as a "property owning man of character who believed in honesty, integrity, self-restraint, and duty to God, country, and family".[29]:10 The post-Victorian image of the self-made man was crucial to Pendergast's study. He revealed how through magazines men "were encouraged to form their identities around an ideology of hard work."[29]:10

In September 2011, Elizabeth Warren challenged the concept of the self-made man in a video that went viral,[31] with 1,086,323 views.[32]

" There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody...You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did....Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

— Elizabeth Warren Massachusetts Senate candidate (2011)

List of self-made men


  1. ^ a b c d e Swansburg, John (September 29, 2014). "The Self-Made Man: The story of America's most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth". Slate. Retrieved November 12, 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Pine, Frank Woodworth, ed. (1916). "Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin". Illustrated by E. Boyd Smith. Henry Holt and Company via Gutenberg Press. 
  3. ^ a b Franklin, Benjamin, Benjamin Franklin, his autobiography, The Harvard classics. 1909–14, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, retrieved 5 July 2006 – via 
  4. ^ a b Ward, John William (September 1, 1955). "Review of "The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches" (1954)". Journal of American History. 42 (2). doi:10.2307/1897672. Clay used the classic phrase to describe the autonomy of our manufacturers ... in behalf of a paternalistic tariff and the irony has persisted throughout the history of the idea of self-help. The essential doctrine behind the self-made man is that success lies within the person himself and not with outside conditions. Wyllie investigated intellectual history, "not the history of a great abstraction but the saga of an idea that had power among the people. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review
  5. ^ a b c Wyllie, Irvin G. (1954). The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. p. 210. 
  6. ^ Wyllie, Irvin G. (1966). The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches. Free Press. 
  7. ^ Clay, Henry (February 2, 1832). Wolfe, Wendy, ed. The American System (PDF) (Speech). United States Senate. The Senate (1789-1989) Classic Speeches (1830-1993) Bicentennial Edition. Washington, D.C. Retrieved November 14, 2017. ..."charge brought against the manufacturing system, as favoring the growth of aristocracy. If it were true, would gentlemen prefer ·supporting foreign accumulations of wealth, by that description of industry, rather than their own country? But is it correct? The joint stock companies of the North, as I understand them, are nothing more than associations, sometimes of hundreds, by means of which the small earnings of many are brought into a common stock; and the associates, obtaining corporate privileges, are enabled to prosecute, under one superintending head, their business to better advantage. Nothing can be more essentially democratic, or better devised to counterpoise the influence of individual wealth. In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor. Comparisons are odious, and, but in defence, would not be made by me. But is there more tendency to aristocracy in a manufactory, supporting hundreds of freemen, or in a cotton plantation, with its not less numerous slaves, sustaining, perhaps, only two white families-that of the master and the overseer? 
  8. ^ Douglass, Frederick (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 
  9. ^ Douglass, Frederick (1855). My Bondage and My Freedom. 
  10. ^ a b c d Dixon, Charles Robert (2011). All about the Benjamins: the Nineteenth Century Character Assassination of Benjamin Franklin (PDF) (Thesis). Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama. p. 222. 
  11. ^ "Self-Made Men: Address before the Students of the Indian Industrial School". The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress: Speech, Article, and Book File. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Library of Congress. 1895. Self-made men […] are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.  Folder 1 of 16 (Series: Speech, Article, and Book File---B: Frederick Douglass, Undated)
  12. ^ a b c "Self-Made Men". The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress: Speech, Article, and Book File. Monadnock. 1872. 
  13. ^ Blumenthal, Sidney (May 2016). A Self-Made Man:The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Volume I, 1809 – 1849. Simon & Schuster. p. 576. ISBN 9781476777269. 
  14. ^ Hahn, Steven (May 13, 2016). "'A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849,' by Sidney Blumenthal". Retrieved November 13, 2017. 
  15. ^ Donald, David Herbert (2016) [1995]. Lincoln. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1439126283. 
  16. ^ Debs, Eugene V. (April 1893). "Self-Made Men". Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen's Magazine. Unsigned editorial. 17 (4). Retrieved November 14, 2017. The term “self-made men” is seemingly paradoxical — since men who rise from obscurity to eminence in any of the walks of life, must have been assisted by agencies quite independent of themselves  
  17. ^ Salzman, Jack (ed.). American Studies: An Annotated Bibliography. 2. Cawelti focused] on "different definitions of success", "how interpretations of the self-made man changed". He used 3 main sources for the self-improvement theme: 1) individual figures: "Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horatio Alger, John Dewey, who either played a major role in shaping the success ideal or were associate with it in the public mind", 2) "success manuals" from the "late 18th century to 1900" and 3)"self-made man as central character in fictional narratives." Cawelti explored "the characteristic complex of ideas about the self-made man "that reveal connections between social conditions and the divergent notions of success" from American Studies: An Annotated Bibliography, Volume 2 edited by Jack Salzman 
  18. ^ Cawelti, John G. (1988) [1965]. Apostles of the self-made man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 279. ISBN 9780226098708. 
  19. ^ Miller, Bryan (April 6, 1988). "Oh, to Dine in Saugus, Mass". Retrieved November 12, 2017. 
  20. ^ Schjeldahl, Peter (2003). "Self-Made Man: How Arshile Gorky changed art". The New Yorker. Retrieved November 12, 2017. 
  21. ^ Stein, Charles (September 4, 1987). "How the Hilltop became the biggest restaurant in the US". Boston Globe. 
  22. ^ Alger, Horatio Jr. (2008) [1868]. Hildegard Hoeller, ed. Ragged Dick. Norton Critical Editions. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-92589-0. 
  23. ^ Nackenoff, Carol (1997). "The Horatio Alger Myth". In Gerster, Patrick; Cords, Nicholas. Myth America: A Historical Anthology. 2. St. James, NY: Brandywine Press. ISBN 1-881089-97-5. 
  24. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary; Bales, Jack (1981). Horatio Alger Jr.: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-1387-8. 
  25. ^ Decker, Jeffrey Louis (1994). "Gatsby's Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties". Novel: A Forum on Fiction. 28 (1). Duke University Press: 52–71. doi:10.2307/1345913. Retrieved November 13, 2017. 
  26. ^ a b Karolides, Nicholas J.; Bald, Margaret; Sova, Dawn B. (2011). 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature (Second ed.). Checkmark Books. p. 499. ISBN 978-0-8160-8232-2. 
  27. ^ Hoover, Bob (10 May 2013). "'The Great Gatsby' still challenges myth of American Dream". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  28. ^ a b c d e "The World Ultra Wealth Report 2017". Exclusive UHNWI Analysis (5 ed.). June 27, 2017. Retrieved November 12, 2017. 
  29. ^ a b c Pendergast, Tom (2000). Creating the modern man: American magazines and consumer culture, 1900–1950. Columbia, Missouri and London, UK:: University of Missouri Press. p. 289. ISBN 9780826212801. 
  30. ^ Corrales, Barbara Smith (January 2003). "a review of Tom Pendergast's 'Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950'". Journal of History. Retrieved November 12, 2017. 
  31. ^ Miller, Zeke (September 21, 2011). "Here's The Viral Video Of Elizabeth Warren Going After GOP On 'Class Warfare' Charge". Business Insider. Retrieved November 12, 2017. 
  32. ^ Elizabeth Warren (September 18, 2011). Elizabeth Warren on Debt Crisis, Fair Taxation (video). YouTube. Event occurs at 2.05 minutes. Retrieved November 12, 2017.  LiveSmartVideos
  33. ^ Cooper, James F. (nd). "Henry K. Frick and the Virtue of Art". Newington-Cropsey Foundation Cultural Center. Retrieved November 14, 2017. He had just become a self-made millionaire supplying coke to the growing steel industry. Andrew Carnegie, the great steel magnate, called Henry Clay Frick, the most intelligent man he ever met..."a thinking machine... 
  34. ^ Barmash, Isadore (1969). The Self-Made Man: Success and Stress-American Style. Washington, DC: Beard Books. ISBN 9781587981586. The era of the terrible tyrant, the one-man show, who started a business with one machine, a battered table and a broken chair is gone... 

See also

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