The Self-Made Man: Myth and Reality of an American Phenomenon

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2010

28 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Historical Background
2.1 Characteristics of American Individualism
2.2 Individualism bred by Puritanism

3 Self- made Men of America
3.1 Benjamin Franklin
3.2 Abraham Lincoln
3.3 Andrew Carnegie

4 Social Darwinism and The Gilded Age
4.1 Individualism as Expression of Social Darwinism
4.2 Mythic Individualism

5 Progressivism
5.1 Individualism in Times of Progressivism
5.2 Great Depression
5.3 Henry Ford

6 Paradoxes of Individualism
6.1 Middle- Class Conformity
6.2 Altruism hidden in Individualism

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The idea of the self-made man is inextricably tied up with that of the American dream. The American dream is a sort of national idea which embodies democratic ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity. The gist of the American dream is to give to the citizens of every rank independent of their social status a feeling that they can achieve a higher level of living. This dream appears to offer individuals the exceptional hope of accomplishing success despite of one’s race, religion, or family history. The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence which states that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The set phrase “from rags to riches” expresses the magic formula of success, which could be achieved by an individual who possesses the willpower to work hard and get ahead. The image of America as of a country of unlimited opportunities radically changed the situation which prevailed throughout the European world before the industrial revolution, where social status was based explicit on heredity and not on personal accomplishment. Now the merit of an individual’s achievement could potentially allow strivers to transcend the station to which they were born.

The self-made man is the one who comes from unpromising circumstances, who is not born into privilege and wealth, and yet by his own efforts, by pulling himself up by the bootstraps manages to become a great success in life. Furthermore one can define a self-made man as anyone who attains far greater success than his original circumstances would have ever allowed to. As we can see with the help of numerous examples throughout history, the self-made man often has to overcome great obstacles to achieve his goals. Such people attain their success through education, hard work and sheer willpower. As a rule there is no external help or special relationships that make the crucial difference in the self-made man’s rise, he achieves his goals independent using his talents and skills. Actually the story of the self-made man embodies the goal of every man: to become the captain of his own destiny. Frederick Douglass, who rose from the shackles of slavery to become a respected abolitionist summed up his life experience in his “Self-Made Men” speech, the most popular and sought after lecture of his lifetime:

“Though a man of this class need not claim to be a hero or to be worshipped as such, there is a genuine heroism in his struggle and something of sublimity and glory in his triumph. Every instance of such success is an example and help to humanity. It, better than any mere assertion, gives us assurance of the latent powers of simple and unaided manhood. It dignifies labour, honours, application, lessens pain and depression, dispels gloom from the brow of the destitute and weariness from the heart of him about to faint, and enables man to take hold of the roughest and flintiest hardships incident to he battles of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes and a larger courage.”[1]

So we can say that a story of the self-made man embodies the goal of every man: to become the captain of his own destiny and to overcome the social and financial obstacles on his own using his individuality and human capital as the main tool or weapon. We can see that the phenomenon of self-made man relies on the ideas of individualism in its basic principles and brightest features. The individually created life styles, appreciation of personal achievement, a habit to make the best of given opportunities could be seen as results of living out the idea of individualism in America today.

The attitude to self-made man in social opinion didn’t stay unchanged during the times. The debates about how best the individual may be reconciled with and included in society are closely tied up the development of cultural life and philosophical thought in America. Depending on economic and cultural shifts in the structure of American society self-made men as well as the individualistic views were honoured and promoted or abandoned and discriminated.

For better understanding of self-made man idea it is necessary to distinct between economic or utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism based on the two different sources of self-definition and self-esteem. Self-esteem derived primarily from economic success and social recognition expresses in the best form basics of self-made man concept. With the goal to accumulate a stock of capital in economic and in social terms an individual builds up his own biography with the hard work, perseverance and personal responsibility. The development and growth are key concepts of economic individualism. Such sources of inequality as caste, class or patriarchy attributed to socials structures are the obstacles on the way of individualisation that have to be overcame by a self-made man hero. In autobiographical success-stories with the common narrative pattern one often has to make an experience of injustice and deprivation on his way to a better life. Successors enjoy increased social approval and a rise in the social hierarchy as a reward in the end of their social apprenticeship.

On the contrast, in the expressive individualism is concerned with the search for self-expression. Its major issues are no longer economic success or social recognition but the assertion of cultural difference. An ability of the individual to assert his own uniqueness against the powers of cultural convention and disciplinary regimes is appreciated as a grade of self-realisation. This change in the main sources of self-esteem is to be regarded as the natural outcome of the acute process of individualization and diminishing of cultural hierarchies in the western societies. As soon as individualism came to be the main form of reality in America, it became obvious that the pattern of everyday communications and social environment require from a person to be capable of sustaining both private and public life. (compare Fluck, 2005)

The new concept presents to the world an individualist, who stays in relation to a community and tradition and is concerned about his individual autonomy at the same time. In such a way society, seen as system of labour division and exchange of goods and services, united individual rights and privacy with social cooperation. In a modern philosophy of individualism a human placed in a context of moral and social obligation taken by free choice came on a place of a lone hero and cynic materialist of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The economic and social conditions of new time predetermined the appearance of new self-made man.

In the first part of this essay I will contemplate the historical development of the concept of American individualism through the centuries, which created a contextual background for the establishment of a self-made man idea in the minds of Americans. In addition there will be given the biographical examples of self-made men that became a pattern for all the successors in American history. Furthermore I would like to make an overview of the various aspects of self-made man philosophy, which includes the discussion of its positive and negative sides and its influences on personality and society in general. Finally I will debate the ways of realisation of the self-made man idea nowadays and weigh the existing perspectives in the individualistic and contradictory world of now.

2 Historical Background

2.1 Characteristics of American Individualism

Individualism as the free, unfettered expression and development of the self in political, cultural, and economic social arenas is one of the few consistent American ideals, tracing a bright line through the course of the nation's history. Individual of America is a self-contained actor whose preservation and encouragement were consistent with the needs of society and the community. Emphasizing individual freedom and the pursuit of individual affluence, efforts to live out the American dream became flesh and blood of citizen of United States.

In ‘Acts of Compassion’ Robert Wuthnow depicts three cultural stacks that underpin the American way of life. At first, it is independence to be different, capacity to make the autonomous decisions, which on political level means having a voice to choose the laws and representatives. Struggle for individual success with an unshakeable belief in hard work, developing of personal skills and achieving one’s potential is the second component of individual independence:

“Part of the freedom we enjoy means there is nothing to hold us back but ourselves. Thus, anyone who sets his or her mind to the task and works diligently is likely to succeed.” (Wuthnow, 1991, p.12)

Self-interest, in economic terms expressed in getting the most for one’s money, making wise investments and driving the hardest possible bargains is the third part of individualistic world view. It includes not only such aspects as physical health or material comforts but also implements psychological and emotional self-care.

2.2 Individualism bred by Puritanism

The profile and basic features of modern American individualism initiated by Puritanism were created in the early seventeenth century during a mass migration from Europe to North America and the subsequent establishment of the settlements in the New World. Up to now, Puritanism is still a discernible force for holding out American values and beliefs, and the American dream given birth by individualistic way of life is one of them:

“Individualism was a creative and liberating force because of its power to dissolve tradition and authority and to liberate energies. This element has reached its utmost limit in the United States, which was an off-spring of the Protestant Revolution. The values of man shaped by Protestantism and republicanism, and the pattern of his relations to society are the content of individualism.” (Arieli, 1964, p. 205)

In the early colonial period of USA, there were different kinds of religions followed by people from different European countries. However, Puritanism gradually took the dominant position among them. The settlers established a government in accordance with the ideas of Puritanism and the first colonies were ruled in accordance to the collective values of equality of chance and competition, individual freedom, hard work and self-reliance. The history of the concept of self-made man in America starts in the Colony of New Plymouth, which was established by approximately one hundred separatists, who fled to America looking for religious freedom. Those were the Protestants who constituted a movement within the Church of England calling themselves Puritans. They were prosecuted in England for questioning their religion, defying authority and pronouncing new dogmas. So the Colony of New Plymouth became the new homeland for migrants, who reformed the traditional protestant doctrine. They were determined to leave England and to go to the New World with the aim to establish a pure society, “the City upon a Hill”, in their own words in accordance with the ideals of new doctrine. The basic national qualities and characteristics of American people were to a great extent predetermined already during the establishment of those puritan settlements and spreading out of the puritan individualistic learning.

Puritanism was a religious movement dedicated to living a New Testament life, which at first line implemented direct approach to God, without any intermediary. Puritanism maintained the idea that man has the right and freedom to choose the proper way, proper place, and proper time to pray to God and no theocratic social organization has the right to interfere with. They concerned much about man’s responsibility for his own moral conduct, and showed great respect for hard work, thrift and perseverance. In such a way the individual freedom and self-reliance were emphasized and maintained in the very beginning of the American history.

According to Puritans for each individual, the only absolute authority over him is the God and as a consequence all men become equal before God. So according to the puritan ethic every man should enjoy equal obligation and the same chance. This postulate is closely tied up with one of the most important values of American individualism, which attaches great importance to equality of chance and competition.

The new puritan doctrine taught each person to think of themselves as of a significant, but sinful unit to whom God had given a particular place and duty. The moral nuclear of Puritan doctrine, same to the later concept of Individualism was the concrete human individual, deserving of reward or punishment, able to make decisions and to consider the consequences of his actions. Protestant Ethic emphasized faith, works, duty and doctrine and rejected ritual and ancient regulation found by Catholics (compare Brown, 1984, S. 94). The religious belief of Puritans combined with a pragmatic way of doing and thinking influenced to a great extent the character and mind of U.S. citizens. Puritanism declared the necessity and duty to work, worshiped manual labour and taught people to forego present pleasure for future reward. The habits of discipline and saving as well as philosophy of self-reliance and respect of individual achievement reared by Puritanism produced the moral basis needed for Individualism. Puritanism confirmed the narrowness and hardness of earthly existence, it encouraged people to be striving, moving, and making.

The most interesting aspect of the puritan ethic is the role given to economic life. The living just above the subsistence level was a hard reality in most of the young puritan colonies, so the economic feasibility was crucial in the decision-making process. ‘Never waste precious time’ was one of the basic rules in the background of the puritan ethic, which turned into ‘Time is money’ in the modern USA. Nevertheless duty to work and economic life itself were seen as disciplinarian part of the doctrine rather than as cooperation through science to provide equitable satisfaction of human needs.

From the economic point of view Puritanism has much in common with laissez-faire capitalism. The laissez-faire philosophy of a free society envisions a radical breakdown of all privileges, the equalisation of opportunities, and the liberation of human energies for the mutual maximum benefit of all its members. Puritanism maintains that an individual could seek private gain and serve the country and the will of God at the same time. This democratic adjustment is rooted in the life style of the puritan settlers in the early colonial period Puritanism’s stress on duty and works relies on the theory of predestination, which says that the fate of each individual is predestined before his creation. Though an individual can do nothing to alter the will of God, still he could pursue the “calling” that was given to him from his birth. During his life term he could get the possible signs to show that he is living out his calling in a proper way. In this relation good works were accounted as one of these signs or, in other words, as an expression of love of God, and material success as evidence of moral superiority.

The life long striving and efforts which one made to pursue the higher calling were appreciated and considered as the evidence of godliness. In such a way the values of puritan society, which worshiped trying on one’s own to achieve personal ambition became the backbone of the American life style. The possibilities of becoming rich in America seemed unlimited in the broader economic sense as well as in the territorial. Wealth and productivity were increasing at a rapid tempo and American prosperity and success accentuated the individualist program, which became the fundamental way of life for the colonists.

3 Self- made Men of America

3.1 Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is often called the first self-made man of USA. His life gives the biographical pattern from which all other self-made men stories have been cut. The hard work, ambition, self-discipline and thrift were the bricks of a philosophy he preached and the rhetoric of his life. His everyday life from the adolescence was organised in a way to maximize productivity and to approximate success step by step. Franklin was the 15th of 17 children born to father Josiah Franklin, a candle maker. Granted only two years of formal schooling, Franklin supplemented his knowledge by self-education. Young Benjamin struck out on his own as he was seventeen and travelled to Philadelphia on his own. Started as a printer's helper, Franklin soon began getting the contract to do government jobs. He created an enormously successful printing business and in 1729 he became an owner of a newspaper, the ‘Pennsylvania Gazette’.

During the 1720s and 1730s, Franklin starts to engage himself socially, working for public good. He organized the ‘Junto’, a young working-man's group dedicated to self- and-civic improvement, and joined the Masons. Among the chief accomplishments of Franklin in this era was helping to launch the Library Company in 1731. In 1736, he organized Philadelphia's Union Fire Company, the first in the city. In 1743, he helped to launch the American Philosophical Society, which was the first learned society in America.

By 1749 he retired from business and started concentrating on science, experiments, and inventions. His observations, including his kite experiment in 1752, which verified the nature of electricity, brought Franklin international fame. Among the inventions made by Benjamin Franklin are the lightning rod, the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove and bifocal glasses.

He served his country, state, and city as a councilman, postmaster, recruiter of the Pennsylvania militia, Speaker of the Pennsylvania State House, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, ambassador to France and Founding Father. In 1785 he became the President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania and one of his last public acts was writing an anti-slavery treatise in 1789. Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. His personal memoirs were published after his death as ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’.

Franklin coined a few tens of popular sayings, including "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise" and "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes", that express the philosophy of diligence and self-reliance. Franklin is credited as being foundational to the roots of American values and character. He is seen a conjunction of the practical and democratic Puritan values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the spiritual Renaissance.


[1] The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress. "Self-Made Men." Address before the Students of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle. First delivered in 1859.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The Self-Made Man: Myth and Reality of an American Phenomenon
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Auslandswissenschaft)
Hauptseminar: “Who are the Americans? Politics, Business and Culture from New York to California”
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Diplom-Sozialwissenschaftlerin Kira Kogan (Author), 2010, The Self-Made Man: Myth and Reality of an American Phenomenon, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 11/10/2015

    I hope you can send me some ebooks, or websites to help me in my research

  • guest on 11/10/2015

    I am so surprised to find so many answers to the questions I had in mind I'm a post graduate student and dissertation is entitled the self-made man notion and the third world countries I want to know if this principle exists elsewhere in the world.
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