The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)

Problems and Promises of the Self-Made Myth

Jim Cullen

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 2)

A self-made man means one who has rendered himself accomplished, eminent, rich, or great by his own unaided efforts.

—John Frost, Self-Made Men of America (1848)

These have not been good days for the self-made man. The very phraseology offends: in an age when even corporate titans ritualistically affirm the value of teamwork, “self-made” sounds unseemly. “What’s wrong with the ‘self-made’ theory? Everything,” says Mike Myatt, a prominent CEO consultant, in a 2011 article in Forbes, a publication where one might expect to see such a figure affirmed. “If your pride, ego, arrogance, insecurity, or ignorance keeps you from recognizing the contributions of others, then it’s time for a wake-up call,” he admonishes.1 In the 2012 book The Self-Made Myth, authors Brian Miller and Mike Lapham define the phrase as “the false assertion that individual and business success are entirely the result of the hard work, creativity, and sacrifice of the individual with little outside assistance.”2

Such objections do not even begin to broach the difficulties of a phrase like “self-made man” in a postfeminist era, when any generic citation of “man” is at best a faux pas. Given the institutional, much less biological, realities that govern our lives, the very idea of the self-made man sounds like a contradiction in terms. No man is “unaided” because every man is some mother’s son.

And yet, for all these objections, the underlying values that have always girded our notion of the self-made man are not quite dead. The valences of the concept, which include taking charge of one’s destiny, resonate across the political spectrum, from the “taking responsibility” rhetoric of social conservatives to New Age exhortations of life coaches. On the left in particular, using the word “victim” to describe a person who has experienced misfortune has become politically incorrect; instead, one speaks of such people as “survivors,” a term that carries with it connotations of asserting at least some degree of self-mastery. Feminist mythology, from Sojourner Truth to Oprah Winfrey, is saturated with tales of women who invented or reinvented themselves through sheer force of will. If these are not actually self-made women, they certainly come close to capturing the essence of what has made the self-made man so appealing.

Moreover, notwithstanding the criticism it gets, there remain precincts in American life where the idea of the self-made man still looms large in unvarnished form. It is alive and well in Silicon Valley, for example, where the gold rush dream of the killer app lives on in the mythologies of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Meanwhile, more than a half-century after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, libertarian-minded devotees of Ayn Rand traverse the corridors of power in Washington; one just ran for vice-president of the United States and is seen by some as presidential timber in 2016. Another widely cited candidate, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, though not (as is commonly thought) named after her, nevertheless considers himself a fan.3

There are also indications that the idea of the self-made man has some vitality outside elite circles. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts became the darling of twenty-first century progressives in 2012 by elegantly distilling the logic of the left in her successful U.S. Senate campaign. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” she said in her stump speech. “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.” But when President Barack Obama used similar language—“Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that”—Republicans pounced on the grammatical ambiguity in “you didn’t build that” to suggest that the President was disparaging the self-made small business owner. (Obama supporters asserted the “that” in question referred to the infrastructure that supported such enterprises, not the businesses themselves.4)

Yet all these examples of what might be termed the “classic” self-made man have limited resonance. Jobs’s success was built on an autocratic style that recent eulogies have only partially obscured; Gates’s Microsoft empire has long been dogged by murmurs of co-optation of others’ ideas; Zuckerberg’s background as the son of a Westchester dentist is not exactly the stuff of the rugged individualist. (That all three were college dropouts is a pale modern equivalent.) Libertarians of the Rand stripe are avowedly a minority party; their self-worth depends upon it, notwithstanding recent laments that the tent under which they take their stand is not pitched widely enough. Obama had a rough week last summer, but he won re-election handily.

Perhaps nowhere is the traditional concept of the self-made man in less repute than the modern Academy—or would be, if anyone were paying attention. It has been decades since the subject was given much in the way of sustained scholarly attention. It last had its heyday in the mid-twentieth century, a time when intellectuals could speak of abstractions like “the American mind” untroubled by the coming wave of particularity that would follow in the wake of the modern civil rights and women’s movements.5 So it was that Irvin Wyllie, a chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, would pen The Self-Made Man in America in 1954. University of Chicago professor John Cawelti followed with Apostles of the Self-Made Man in 1965. Other important books included Richard Weiss’s thematically similar The American Myth of Success (1969), Richard Huber’s The American Idea of Success (1971), and Kenneth Lynn’s The Dream of Success (1972).6 To put the matter in twenty-first century terms, this was the era of Mad Men, when it seemed plausible that characters like the fictive Don Draper of the much-admired cable television series could fashion a new identity amid the chaos of the Korean War and invent a whole new mystique for themselves on Madison Avenue.

Tellingly, however, none of these scholars accepted the concept at face value or believed it had much relevance in modern life. Cawelti complained, in pale Marxist shades through which much academic discourse in the last third of the twentieth century was filtered, that the concept distracted Americans from engaging in collective efforts for social reform. Those outside academe who tried to engage the idea unselfconsciously strained credibility. Business writer Isadore Barmash’s The Self-Made Man (1969), which profiled a set of largely forgettable business executives in the heyday of corporate conglomerates, reads like a cheap suit.7

The self-made man was subjected to remarkably little formal scrutiny in the decades that followed. Huber’s American Dream of Success, reissued in 1987, is among the few still in print that comes up on—hardly the last word in research, but a reasonable index of cultural currency. Variations on, or aspects of, the idea achieved some circulation, among them books like Sacvan Bercovitch’s classic Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) or Daniel Walker Howe’s Making the American Self (1995). But they were also restricted to specific phases of U.S. history. This was also true of Daniel Rodgers’s The Work Ethic in Industrial America (1978); as its very title suggests, the self-made man was a secondary theme (and came out of a labor history tradition focusing on working-class solidarity rather than the upwardly mobile individualist).8

Clay Sets the Mold

The lack of focus on the self-made man in recent times is remarkable when one considers how intensely, and how long, it has functioned as a central trope of the American experience. Though he was not actually the first to use the term, it has long been agreed that it was first popularized by U.S. Senator Henry Clay in an oft-cited 1832 speech.9 “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,” Clay said. A tireless supporter of industrial capitalism (even in terrain as unlikely as his native state), Clay was deeply admired by Abraham Lincoln, who was also born in Kentucky and described him as “my beau ideal of a statesman.”10

Clay died in 1852, but his pet phrase flourished in his wake. Lincoln, of course, became the quintessential example of the self-made man, even though there is no record he ever used the term. But others did, both in his name and more generally. Theater critic and essayist Charles Seymour published Self-Made Men, a collection of sixty profiles, in 1858. The following year, Frederick Douglass gave a speech with the same title that he delivered, in varied permutations, for the next third of a century. In 1872, Harriet Beecher Stowe published The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-Made Men, consisting chiefly of antislavery activists and Civil War heroes (Lincoln surfaces repeatedly, both as the subject of a profile and as a point of reference). In 1897, the newly ex-president Grover Cleveland published The Self-Made Man in American Life.11

In the coming century, the concept lodged into the marrow of American culture: Jay Gatsby, Charles Foster Kane, Willy Loman. Their creators may not have used the term to describe these unforgettable fictive characters, but the generations of audiences who were riveted by them never had any doubt what they, and their successes and failures, represented. It is all the more ironic that the self-made man largely fell off the national radar after the 1960s when one considers how crucial self-making, and the rejection of institutional authority, have been to all social movements that followed the counterculture. On this point, if nothing else, the Woodstock hippie and Wall Street banker agreed. And yet the idea had become sufficiently tenuous that historian and journalist Garry Wills subtitled his 1969 biography of Richard Nixon “the crisis of the self-made man,” noting that the liberals whom the tirelessly ambitious Nixon had spent much of his career finessing (and, counter-intuitively, emulating) “had spent too much time laughing at the self-made man for them to welcome [Horatio] Alger back in his familiar guise.”12

To a great degree, the effacement of the idea of the self-made man in common parlance reflects a shared understanding—or, more accurately, a shared misunderstanding—on the part of defenders and critics alike. This involved smearing the concept into a single archetype: the businessman. Today, even those who invoke the self-made man in politics almost always credential themselves as self-made in the realm of commerce (standard operating procedure for Republican politicians in particular, whose private sector credentials are often flimsy, since they have typically spent much of their careers in government service). Rare is the figure—Howe among them—who recognized this had not always been so. “Few expressions in our language have shriveled as badly as the term ‘self-made man,’” he noted in his chapter pairing Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in Making the American Self. “Among intellectuals at least, it is widely regarded as the platitudinous expression of an obsolete individualism. Once upon a time, however, the self-made man represented a heroic ideal.”13

Indeed, even a brief immersion in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, or nineteenth-century U.S. sources suggests that the conception of the self-made man was a good deal broader than business or politics. Yes, of course, John D. Rockefeller was considered an exemplar of the self-made man. But so was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Benjamin Franklin is widely considered the patron saint of American capitalism, but he was also celebrated by his contemporaries as a self-made scientist, diplomat, and writer. Self-made men came from other realms as well, among them the military (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, George Patton) and the arts (Walt Whitman to Walt Disney).

Actually, as virtually all historians of the topic have noted, the origins of the self-made man in English North America are fundamentally religious. In the colonial era, the concept was, paradoxically, a godly imperative that emerged from the dialectics of Protestant Christianity. Reformation-era denominations in England marked their distance from corrupt Roman Catholic practices by emphasizing a personal relationship with God. While Calvinist sects rejected notions of free will that were later central to the conception of the self-made man, the primacy they placed on the individual conscience in seeking to discern the will of God proved pivotal in the emergence of what would become an increasingly secular vision of the self in which moral considerations would linger. Such dynamics can be well illustrated in the career of Roger Williams, the essence of the theological individualist and a man widely regarded as the founding father of religious liberty in America. They can also be discerned in the philosophy of important evangelists like William Penn and Jonathan Edwards. But it was not until the early decades of the nineteenth century, with the explosion in numbers of Methodists and Baptists, and the rise of evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney, that the pursuit of spiritual happiness became a choice individual souls were considered fully empowered to make.

Religious versions of the self-made man would remain important into the eighteenth century. But the late colonial period and early republic were dominated by a different model: the yeoman farmer. After chaotic beginnings in seventeenth-century Virginia, the archetype of the self-made farmer took on a pastoral hue in the writings of immigrant agrarian Hector St. John Crevecoeur in his 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer. Such accents were also important in the rhetoric and behavior of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson long before they became president. Though neither really fit the paradigm of the self-made man themselves, both men saw it as their jobs to champion the values and aspirations of yeomen, famously described by Jefferson as those “whose breasts [God] has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”14 Such agrarian populism became more overt, even aggressive, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. It grew increasingly truculent in the later nineteenth century, when the rise of industrial capitalism threatened the autonomy of farmers whose autonomy was yoked to the distant railroad or bank, captured most vividly in the romantic rhetoric of Populists such as William Jennings Bryan.

Long before then, however, a latent model of an urban tradesman/professional self-made man had already emerged. It was politically codified by Jackson’s great antagonist, Clay, and reached its apotheosis in Lincoln. The success of such people cleared a space in which millions of ordinary Americans could imagine new destinies for themselves. Some of these people, like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, flaunted their ordinariness even as their singular talents allowed them to write themselves into history. Others, like the powerfully inspiring Frederick Douglass, dramatized the way self-made manhood became an act of will—and the basis of a remunerative career. If a slave could do it, any man could.

It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the link between the self-made man and economic success became primary. Crucial figures here stretch from Andrew Carnegie (archetype of the self-made man as immigrant) to Thomas Edison (the scientist as entrepreneur) and Henry Ford (whose rustic sensibilities made him a somewhat ironic godfather of consumer capitalism).

From the standpoint of subsequent history, the ascent of the businessman as the apogee of the self-made man created two problems, however. The first, as already indicated, is that it obscured the existence and even legitimacy of previous and competing versions. The other is that even within the realm of commerce, the popular image of the self-made man as capitalist obscured significant changes in the nature of U.S. capitalism itself in the last 250 years. These strands are worth untangling.

Diversity, Capitalist Style

The roots of American capitalism are, of course, agricultural, abetted by the quickening participation of colonial farmers into a system of global trade in which commodity crops like tobacco were exported in exchange for foreign finished goods and imported labor, often that of slaves, convicts, or indentured servants. That is not the preferred way of remembering the colonial farmer; the self-sufficient yeoman has always dominated the national imagination. Though he is not typically remembered on such a basis, this was an important part of Washington’s self-identity and the basis of a fortune that came from far-sighted independence from mono-crop cultivation and British finance.15

By the late eighteenth century, a competing notion of the self-made man as capitalist emerged, of which Franklin was widely—and properly—viewed as emblematic. This was a form of capitalism that was mercantile: pre-industrial, but nonagrarian, wealth creation—the self-made man as craftsman, merchant, and eventually manufacturer, albeit manufacturer of the small-scale sort. Such a vision was powerful and durable, so much so that it persisted long after it had effectively become obsolete. As many scholars of novelist Horatio Alger have noted, his books for boys peddled an early nineteenth-century mercantile vision in an era that had long since been overtaken by late-nineteenth-century industrial capitalism.16

Indeed, it is this phase—the phase of the industry titan, stretching from Cornelius Vanderbilt through Henry Ford—which more than any other survives in the American imagination. This was the self-made man as master of mass production: steel, oil, cars. Though sometimes a subject of scorn, even hatred in their day, on the whole such figures fascinated Americans, who sought to emulate them—again, long after capitalism had moved on to a new phase. They (exceptions like the self-avowed scoundrel railroad magnate Jim Fisk notwithstanding) sought to present themselves as exemplars of the common man in their industrious work habits and professed solicitude for working people, typically expressed through well-publicized acts of charity. Nobody did more to promulgate this vision of the self-made man than Carnegie, whose 1920 autobiography became the template for the immigrant success story.17

The next phase, stretching between the 1920s and the 1970s, posed more of a problem for the myth of the self-made man. This was the age of managerial capitalism, in which values like planning, collaboration, and coordination were central. In such an environment, the valorization of the quintessential self-made man was the corporate executive. Perhaps the most vivid examples of the archetype were the so-called movie moguls, with names like Fox and Warner, who created—but, more decisively in terms of their legacies, managed—enterprises with which they were able to generate a mystique of creativity. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished 1940 novel The Last Tycoon, inspired by the career of cinema legend Irving Thalberg, vividly evokes this particular variation on the self-made man.

The closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a new valorization of the individual entrepreneur, from Sam Walton to Warren Buffett, tirelessly upheld by boosters as role models worthy of emulation. To a great extent this postindustrial phase of U.S. capitalism depended on services and consumption rather than production, with particular emphasis on lifestyle, reflecting the increasing preoccupation with self-presentation in American life. (Buffett’s plebian persona is the exception that proves the rule.) Because of the increasing sophistication of the marketplace, the self-made archetype partially abandoned the autodidactic model of earlier times and avowedly embraced formal education as a means of upward mobility, though dropout mavericks of the Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg stripe continued that tradition.

One reason such people were celebrated is that they worked against a broader context of financial capitalism that depended on speculation—a practice that has always been marked by ambivalence at best. Americans from at least the time of Jefferson have professed sincere hatred of bankers and their ilk. Industrialists like Carnegie went to great pains to contrast themselves with such people. “Speculation is a parasite feeding upon values, creating none,” he asserted, a sentiment that comes up repeatedly in his memoir.18 Alexander Hamilton and J. P. Morgan have always had their admirers, but there is really no one today who can compare with them. And yet our economy seems more dependent on them than ever, perhaps one more reason why self-made mythology seems either nostalgic or in evident eclipse. Hence the many observations after his death in 2011 that Steve Jobs actually invented something that made people’s lives better, rather than simply moving money around.

Modern Old-Fashioned Self-Made Men

I have made some effort to delineate phases in the economic model of the self-made man as part of a larger point that even this perceived dominant variation of the myth was itself subject to shifting currents and emphases and often marked by cultural lag. But again, my larger point is that just as multiple versions of the self-made man jostled within the realm of commerce, multiple versions jostled outside it as well. At any given moment, an economic version, a political version, and a cultural version, among many others, were available and competing for allegiance in a U.S. population whose attention was united by little else. At the very moment Bill Gates was upheld as an embodiment of the self-made Silicon Valley myth of entrepreneurial pluck, Bruce Springsteen was celebrated for tapping its cultural power, and the evangelical minister Joel Osteen was preaching an ethos of self-help in a burgeoning religious media empire. It is now considered impolitic for these people to place too much stress on their individualism, given that all their enterprises have a deeply social dimension, one reason why the self-made rhetoric tends to be more oblique than direct, at least in terms of what they say about themselves. But their perceived appeal rests in no small measure in a sense of self-reliance.

It is also a fact that none of these men began with nothing. Gates came from a background that was thoroughly bourgeois; Springsteen’s evocatively named hometown of Freehold was more suburb than ghetto; Osteen inherited the pastorate whose size he trebled. Actually, very few of the figures typically upheld as self-made men came from authentically modest backgrounds, assuming such a standard can be codified. Lincoln may well be unique in origins that were literally dirt poor, but his itinerant childhood, which included moves to Indiana and Illinois, resulted from the efforts of a land-hungry father whose mobility took the form of a quest for a real estate title. True self-made men are typically too busy to spend a lot of time fashioning their own legends, and even when they aren’t, they lack rhetorical skills to purvey them compellingly (that’s what ghostwriters are for).

Such figures were nevertheless seen, not altogether wrongly, as people who realized objectives that initially seemed unlikely and that are attributed to their unique talents. Actually, there has been some effort to reposition the meaning of the self-made man to capture this sense of merit. So it is, for example, that in a 2008 post for their “Art of Manliness” blog, the husband and wife team of Kate and Brett McKay, backing away from an explicit rags-to-riches trope, assert that “a self-made man is anyone who attains far greater success than his original circumstances would have indicated was possible.”19 Whether or not such an attempt will allow the idea to take a new, less gendered, lease on life remains to be seen.

Assuming it does, there remains one element of the equation that has been consistently underestimated in the calculus of the self-made man: luck. Luck is sometimes mentioned as a factor in the fortunes of the self-made, though almost always as a secondary consideration. Almost never in American life has success been considered entirely arbitrary; the implications of such an idea have always been too troubling to fully embrace, even among ivory tower academicians who can ill afford to forfeit degrees of authority to profess their creeds. So it is that we go on believing amid our avowals of doubt and reason.

So much so that we honor some self-made men independent of their moral worth. For every Carnegie or Rockefeller who invoked divine sanction and accepted sacred obligations, there were scoundrels like Fisk who were accepted, even celebrated, for their rascality. Vito Corleone, Tupac Shakur, Tony Soprano: the pantheon of self-made men has a full gallery of rogues, real and imagined (even if there was always some form of code of honor among such thieves, very often one of race or ethnicity that served as a foil for the template for the white, Anglo-Saxon foundation of U.S. self-made mythology).

There’s another dimension in the master narrative of the self-made man that we also are apt to overlook: over the course of the twentieth century, the measures of success steadily shifted from outward achievement to inner satisfaction. For much of the last century this has been the dominant strand in the discourse, one that can be traced through a series of subcultural movements that have come to be collectively known as “New Thought.”20 Particularly important was the new phenomenon of the celebrity, embodied by figures that ranged from Douglas Fairbanks to Clint Eastwood, who defined the parameters of what came to be known as “the good life.” There was tension, even paradox, built into a conception of an authentic self that was often commercially purveyed. As a result, a partial rebellion against this model in the iconoclastic self-made men erupted in the Beat era and the counterculture of the 1960s, both of which rejected the avowedly economic conception of the self-made man as hopelessly atavistic. The intentions of these iconoclasts notwithstanding, they failed to alter many of its underlying premises.

Indeed, for all their variety, the various iterations of the self-made man finally rested on a core premise that laced through them all. That premise is agency: the self-made man was seen as the master of his own fate. Other societies had made similar claims—indeed, all societies, from Confucian China to Imperial Britain had self-made men—but no society had ever been quite so insistent on the breadth of its relevance as the United States.21 As noted at the outset, the contemporary liberal intelligensia has difficulty taking this idea at face value. And yet, in part because we are uncomfortably aware of the degree to which our lives are determined by factors beyond our control, a presumption, if not an obsession, with agency lingers even as it has receded from the foreground of public discourse, apparent everywhere from the colleges we attend to the beverages we order at our local Starbucks.

This seems like a good moment to bring back people who have been missing since the start of this discussion: women. In an important sense, the agency of men was understood, even defined, when juxtaposed by the lack of agency of women. Of course, men’s agency was almost always shaped by dictates of race, class, age, and health, among other factors, but in an important sense, manliness correlated to the degree a man could call himself the master of his fate. Women, by contrast, were understood in terms of the way their lives were tethered to others, male and female. Sometimes this tethering was understood as chosen; sometimes it was imposed. Either way, it was understood as natural, a gendered default setting.

And yet from the very beginnings of American history, there have been women who for various reasons found themselves in situations of perceived self-making. The wealthy widows of colonial Virginia, empowered by their inherited fortunes, are one example (though one that also illustrates the way their autonomy was still circumscribed by the imperatives of marriage). Anne Hutchinson, articulating a libertarian theological vision as challenging as that of Roger Williams, was another. The fictive Scarlett O’Hara, determined to maintain her family farm in the face of Yankee conquest, carried the torch of Jeffersonian yeomanry into the post-Civil War era. Madame C. J. Walker, an African American entrepreneur who built a cosmetics empire, became one of the great success stories of American business at the turn of the twentieth century. These people are important and deserve fuller treatment than I can afford to give here. But any complete story of the self-made man must include both the women whose lives were subsumed into those of men as well as those who managed to succeed on presumably male terms as well as their own.

It is one thing to reconstruct a fading story. It is another to have a good reason for doing so. One may plausibly wonder if such recovery is all that useful, given the sometimes unsavory implications of the self-made man mythology, like its tendency to inhibit, if not actually prevent, a collective and plural approach toward solving communal problems and an impulse to blame victims for their own misfortunes. Yet a broader look at the historical record also shows that self-made men have been among the nation’s most imaginative and stalwart social reformers in terms of creating or protecting opportunity. After all, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation with a very conscious understanding that he was securing future generations of white, self-made men who would not need to own slaves to get ahead, as well as creating the possibility for upward mobility for black ones. On the eve of his death, he contemplated suffrage for African Americans—political agency as a basis for other kinds of agency.22 One reason modern-day conservatives are so enamored of Martin Luther King’s famous invocation to ignore the skin color of children and focus instead on “the content of their character” stems from the implicit endorsement in the phrase for individual merit as a legitimate basis for success, something the committed proponent of Affirmative Action holds fast and dear amid the calculations and optics of race, even as the meaning of a word like merit has become hopelessly muddled.23 A clear-eyed look at both the advantages as well as the drawbacks of the self-made man mythology may become a useful instrument for charting a course for ourselves and the nation at large.

Like it or not, that myth is part of our heritage. Like a child that must come to terms with a family history in order to move beyond it, we would do well to recognize how dependent we can be on a mythology, even in the very act of rejecting it. Conversely, a modicum of faith in myths can provide a sense of purpose that sparks innovation and a salutary sense of confidence that generates self-fulfilling prophecies.

The real concern comes when self-making becomes conflated with self-gratification. This anxiety is centuries old and one reason why so much of the literature of the self-made man is rooted in religious discourse. The moral dimension of the equation evaporated in the last century, in large measure because it had been deemed unrealistic. Yet what might be more unrealistic is a notion that one can proceed without it. Given the prevalence of past and present societies in which individual citizens are expected to orient their lives around something other than the self, it is an open, and increasingly pressing, question how long the United States can maintain a sense of cohesion and purpose around the self-made man in an economic formulation untethered to a notion of a greater good. Maybe it is an idea that can be born again—or, perhaps more accurately, reborn again—which is perhaps an Eastern way of thinking about a deeply Western concept.


  1. Mike Myatt, “Self-Made Man—No Such Thing,” Forbes (15 November 2011): <>.
  2. Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth and the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012) 2.
  3. Jane Mayer, “Ayn Rand Joins the Ticket,” The New Yorker (11 August 2012): <>; Senator Paul—in fact born Randal Paul, his wife effectively renamed him “Rand”—discusses misconceptions about his identity in a YouTube video: <>.
  4. Mark Trumbull, “Elizabeth Warren: What Will Obama’s ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Ally Say to DNC,” The Christian Science Monitor (31 July 2012): <>.
  5. See, for example, Henry Steele Commanger, The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since 1880 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959). Commanger typified his generation of so-called “consensus” historians at mid century.
  6. Irvin G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches (1954; New York: Free, 1966); John Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); Richard Weiss, The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale (1969; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988); Richard M. Huber, The American Idea of Success (1971; Wainscott: Pushcart, 1987); Kenneth S. Lynn, The Dream of Success: A Study of the Modern American Imagination (New York: Greenwood, 1972).
  7. Isadore Barmash, The Self-Made Man: Success & Stress—American Style (New York: Macmillan, 1969).
  8. Sacvan Berkovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975); Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Daniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrializing America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
  9. In a February 10, 2010, post for the blog “this day in quotes,” blogger SubtropicBob notes that the phrase “self-made man” was deployed to describe Founding Father Roger Sherman in an 1828 tribute. Whether this was in fact the first use of the term or if it goes back even further, the fact remains that it was Henry Clay who was widely associated with it, for the good reason that his entire political career was grounded in the values of entrepreneurial capitalism. See <>.
  10. Henry Clay, “In Defense of the American System,” speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, February 2, 3, and 6, 1832: <>; Abraham Lincoln, First Debate with Stephen A. Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858, in The Collected Words of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953): <;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;
  11. Charles C. B. Seymour, Self-Made Men (New York: Harper, 1858); Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-Made Men (Hartford: Worthington, Dustin, 1872). The text of Frederick Douglass’s speech, first given in 1859 and published in 1872, is available at <>, among other sites.
  12. Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1969; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002) 579.
  13. Howe 136.
  14. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merill Petersen (New York: Penguin, 1977) 216–17.
  15. On Washington’s practices and self-image as a planter, see Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003). See especially chapter 4.
  16. See Weiss, chapter 2; Huber, 43–50; and Rodgers, 140–42, part of a larger chapter on children’s literature and the work ethic.
  17. For a discussion of Fisk as a self-avowed scoundrel, see W. A. Swanberg, Jim Fisk: The Career of an Improbable Rascal (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959); a good new edition of Carnegie’s memoir is The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, with an introduction by Vartan Gregorian (1920; New York: PublicAffairs, 2011).
  18. Carnegie 154. “Stock gambling and honorable business are incompatible,” he later says (172), offering J. P. Morgan as an example of a legitimate man of finance.
  19. Brett McKay and Kate McKay, “25 of the Greatest Self-Made Men in History,” The Art of Manliness (December 2008): <>.
  20. The tenets of New Thought are referred to in a number of the works cited in note 6, but it is discussed perhaps most systematically in Weiss’s The American Myth of Success. See especially chapters 5 and 6.
  21. E. Anthony Rotundo traces the emergence of what he calls “self-made manhood” in the late eighteenth century, which grew increasingly dominant by the mid-nineteenth century before morphing in a more expressive direction in the twentieth. See American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
  22. See Lincoln’s last public address in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: <;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;
    >. Noting that many of his fellow Americans opposed allowing black men to vote, Lincon said, “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers,” the first time any such statement had been made by a U.S. president.
  23. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (1986; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 219.

Jim Cullen is Chair of the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York. His books include The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (2003) and Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions (2013).

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