Editor’s note: We are pleased to republish Frederick Douglass’s speech, “Self-Made Men,” which he composed in the late 1850s and delivered many times in his later years of life. We’ve retained the original spelling and punctuation throughout. We’ve also added illuminating footnotes, courtesy of Timothy Sandefur, author of “Frederick Douglass’s Vision of Manhood” (published in this same issue of The Objective Standard) and the new biography Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2018).
The subject announced for this evening’s entertainment is not new. Man in one form or another, has been a frequent and fruitful subject for the press, the pulpit and the platform. This subject has come up for consideration under a variety of attractive titles, such as “Great Men,” “Representative Men,” “Peculiar Men,” “Scientific Men,” “Literary Men,” “Successful Men,” “Men of Genius,” and “Men of the World”; but under whatever name or designation, the vital point of interest in the discussion has ever been the same, and that is, manhood itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.
The tendency to the universal, in such discussion, is altogether natural and all controlling: for when we consider what man, as a whole, is; what he has been; what he aspires to be, and what, by a wise and vigorous cultivation of his faculties, he may yet become, we see that it leads irresistibly to this broad view of him as a subject of thought and inquiry.
The saying of the poet that “The proper study of mankind is man,”1 and which has been the starting point of so many lectures, essays and speeches, holds its place, like all other great utterances, because it contains a great truth and a truth alike for every age and generation of men. It is always new and can never grow old. It is neither dimmed by time nor tarnished by repetition; for man, both in respect of himself and of his species, is now, and evermore will be, the center of unsatisfied human curiosity.
The pleasure we derive from any department of knowledge is largely due to the glimpse which it gives us of our own nature. We may travel far over land and sea, brave all climates, dare all dangers, endure all hardships, try all latitudes and longitudes; we may penetrate the earth, sound the ocean’s depths and sweep the hollow sky with our glasses, in the pursuit of other knowledge; we may contemplate the glorious landscape gemmed by forest, lake and river and dotted with peaceful homes and quiet herds; we may whirl away to the great cities, all aglow with life and enterprise; we may mingle with the imposing assemblages of wealth and power; we may visit the halls where Art works her miracles in music, speech and color, and where Science unbars the gates to higher planes of civilization; but no matter how radiant the colors, how enchanting the melody, how gorgeous and splendid the pageant: man himself, with eyes turned inward upon his own wondrous attributes and powers surpasses them all. A single human soul standing here upon the margin we call time, overlooking, in the vastness of its range, the solemn past which can neither be re-called nor re-modeled, ever chafing against finite limitations, entangled with interminable contradictions, eagerly seeking to scan the invisible past and pierce the clouds and darkness of the ever mysterious future, has attractions for thought and study, more numerous and powerful than all other objects beneath the sky. To human thought and inquiry, he is broader than all visible worlds, loftier than all heights and deeper than all depths. Were I called upon to point out the broadest and most permanent distinction between mankind and other animals, it would be this; their earnest desire for the fullest knowledge of human nature on all its many sides. The importance of this knowledge is immeasurable, and by no other is human life so affected and colored. Nothing can bring to man so much of happiness or so much of misery as man himself. Today he exalts himself to heaven by his virtues and achievements; to-morrow he smites with sadness and pain, by his crimes and follies. But whether exalted or debased, charitable or wicked; whether saint or villain, priest or prize fighter; if only he be great in his line, he is an unfailing source of interest, as one of a common brotherhood; for the best man finds in his breast the evidence of kinship with the worst, and the worst with the best. Confront us with either extreme and you will rivet our attention and fix us in earnest contemplation, for our chief desire is to know what there is in man and to know him at all extremes and ends and opposites, and for this knowledge, or for the want of it, we will follow him from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them.
As this subject can never become old, so it can never be exhausted. Man is too closely related to the Infinite to be divided, weighed, measured and reduced to fixed standards, and thus adjusted to finite comprehension. No two of anything are exactly alike, and what is true of man in one generation may lack some degree of truth in another, but his distinctive qualities as man, are inherent and remain forever. Progressive in his nature, he defies the power of progress to overtake him to make known, definitely, the limits of his marvelous powers and possibilities.
From man comes all that we know or can imagine of heaven and earth, of time and eternity. He is the prolific constituter of manners, morals, religions and governments. He spins them out as the spider spins his web, and they are coarse or fine, kind or cruel, according to the degree of intelligence reached by him at the period of their establishment. He compels us to contemplate his past with wonder and to survey his future with much the same feelings as those with which Columbus is supposed to have gazed westward over the sea. It is the faith of the race that in man there exists far outlying continents of power, thought and feeling, which remain to be discovered, explored, cultivated, made practical and glorified.
Mr. Emerson has declared that it is natural to believe in great men.2 Whether this is a fact, or not, we do believe in them and worship them. The Visible God of the New Testament is revealed to us as a man of like passions with ourselves.3 We seek out our wisest and best man, the man who, by eloquence or the sword compels us to believe him such, and make him our leader, prophet, preacher and law giver. We do this, not because he is essentially different from us, but because of his identity with us. He is our best representative and reflects, on a colossal scale, the scale to which we would aspire, our highest aims, objects, powers and possibilities.
This natural reverence for all that is great in man, and this tendency to deify and worship him, though natural and the source of man’s elevation, has not always shown itself wise but has often shown itself far otherwise than wise. It has often given us a wicked ruler for a righteous one, a false prophet for a true one, a corrupt preacher for a pure one, a man of war for a man of peace, and a distorted and vengeful image of God for an image of justice and mercy.
But it is not my purpose to attempt here any comprehensive and exhaustive theory or philosophy or the nature of manhood in all the range I have indicated. I am here to speak to you of a peculiar type of manhood under the title of Self-Made Men.
That there is, in more respects than one, something like a solecism in this title, I freely admit. Properly speaking, there are in the world 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. It must in truth be said, though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth of wealth and originality, can lift a man into absolute Independence of his fellowmen, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation. The brotherhood and inter-dependence of mankind are guarded and defended at all points. I believe in individuality, but individuals are, to the mass, like waves to the ocean. The highest order of genius is as dependent as is the lowest. It, like the loftiest waves of the sea, derives its power and greatness from the grandeur and vastness of the ocean of which it forms a part. We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea. To do something well does not necessarily imply the ability to do everything else equally well. If you can do in one direction that which I cannot do, I may in another direction, be able to do that which you cannot do. Thus the balance of power is kept comparatively even, and a self-acting brotherhood and inter-dependence is maintained.
Nevertheless, the title of my lecture is eminently descriptive of a class and is, moreover, a fit and convenient one for my purpose, in illustrating the idea which I have in view. In the order of discussion I shall adopt the style of an old-fashioned preacher and have a “firstly,” a “secondly,” a “thirdly,” a “fourthly” and, possibly, a “conclusion.”
My first is, “Who are self-made men?” My second is, “What is the true theory of their success?” My third is, “The advantages which self-made men derive from the manners and institutions of their surroundings,” and my fourth is, “The grounds of the criticism to which they are, as a class, especially exposed.”
On the first point I may say that, by the term “self-made men,” I mean especially what, to the popular mind, the term itself imports. 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 of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. In fact they are the men who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up, not only without the voluntary assistance or friendly co-operation of society, but often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard and keep them down. 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. They are in a peculiar sense, indebted to themselves for themselves. If they have traveled far, they have made the road on which they have travelled. If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder. From the depths of poverty such as these have often come. From the heartless pavements of large and crowded cities; barefooted, homeless, and friendless, they have come. From hunger, rags and destitution, they have come; motherless and fatherless, they have come, and may come. Flung overboard in the midnight storm on the broad and tempest-tossed ocean of life; left without ropes, planks, oars or life-preservers, they have bravely buffeted the frowning billows and have risen in safety and life where others, supplied with the best appliances for safety and success, have fainted, despaired and gone down forever.
Such men as these, whether found in one position or another, whether in the college or in the factory; whether professors or plowmen; whether Caucasian or Indian; whether Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African, are self-made men and are entitled to a certain measure of respect for their success and for proving to the world the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or color.
Though a man of this class need not claim to be a hero or to be worshiped as such, there is genuine heroism in his struggle and something of sublimity and glory in his triumph. Every instance of such success is an example and a help to humanity. It, better than any mere assertion, gives us assurance of the latent powers and resources of simple and unaided manhood. It dignifies labor, honors 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 the battle of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes and a larger courage.
But I come at once to the second part of my subject, which respects the Theory of Self-Made Men.
“Upon what meat doth this, our Caesar, feed, he hath grown so great?”4 How happens it that the cottager is often found equal to the lord, and that, in the race of life, the sons of the poor often get even with, and surpass even, the sons of the rich? How happens it from the field often come statesmen equal to those from the college? I am sorry to say that, upon this interesting point, I can promise nothing absolute nor anything which will be entirely satisfactory and conclusive. Burns says:
“I see how folks live that hae riches,
But surely poor folks maun be witches.”5
The various conditions of men and the different uses they make of their powers and opportunities in life, are full of puzzling contrasts and contradictions. Here, as elsewhere, it is easy to dogmatize, but it is not so easy to define, explain and demonstrate. The natural laws for the government, well-being and progress of mankind, seem to be equal and are equal; but the subjects of these laws everywhere abound in inequalities, discords and contrasts. We cannot have fruit without flowers, but we often have flowers without fruit. The promise of youth often breaks down in manhood, and real excellence often comes unheralded and from unexpected quarters.
The scene presented from this view is as a thousand arrows shot from the same point and aimed at the same object. United in aim, they are divided in flight. Some fly too high, others too low. Some go to the right, others to the left. Some fly too far and others, not far enough, and only a few hit the mark. Such is life. United in the quiver, they are divided in the air. Matched when dormant, they are unmatched in action.
When we attempt to account for greatness we never get nearer to the truth than did the greatest of poets and philosophers when he classified the conditions of greatness: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”6 We may take our choice of these three separate explanations and make which of them we please, most prominent in our discussion. Much can certainly be said of superior mental endowments, and I should on some accounts, lean strongly to that theory, but for numerous examples which seem, and do, contradict it, and but for the depressing tendency such a theory must have on humanity generally.
This theory has truth in it, but it is not the whole truth. Men of very ordinary faculties have, nevertheless, made a very respectable way in the world and have sometimes presented even brilliant examples of success. On the other hand, what is called genius is often found by the wayside, a miserable wreck; the more deplorable and shocking because from the height from which it has fallen and the loss and ruin involved in the fall. There is, perhaps, a compensation in disappointment and in the contradiction of means to ends and promise to performance. These imply a constant effort on the part of nature to hold the balance between all her children and to bring success within the reach of the humblest as well as of the most exalted.
From apparently the basest metals we have the finest toned bells, and we are taught respect from simple manhood when we see how, from the various dregs of society, there come men who may well be regarded as the pride and as the watch towers of the race.
Steel is improved by laying on damp ground, and the rusty razor gets a keener edge after giving its dross to the dirt in which it has been allowed to lie neglected and forgotten.7 In like manner, too, humanity, though it lay among the pots, covered with the dust of neglect and poverty, may still retain the divine impulse and the element of improvement and progress. It is natural to revolt at squalor, but we may well relax our lip of scorn and contempt when we stand among the lowly and despised, for out of the rags of the meanest cradle there may come a great man and this is a treasure richer than all the wealth of the Orient.
I do not think much of the accident or good luck theory of self-made men. It is worth but little attention and has no practical value. An apple carelessly flung into a crowd may hit one person, or it may hit another, or it may hit nobody. The probabilities are precisely the same in this accident theory of self-made men. It divorces a man from his own achievements, contemplates him as a being of chance and leaves him without will, motive, ambition and aspiration. Yet the accident theory is among the most popular theories of individual success. It has about it the air of mystery which the multitudes so well like, and withal, it does something to mar the complacency of the successful.
It is one of the easiest and commonest things in the world for a successful man to be followed in his career through life and to have constantly pointed out this or that particular stroke of good fortune which fixed his destiny and made him successful. If not ourselves great, we like to explain why others are so. We are stingy in our praise to merit, but generous in our praise to chance. Besides, a man feels himself measurably great when he can point out the precise moment and circumstance which made his neighbor great. He easily fancies that the slight difference between himself and his friend is simply one of luck. It was his friend who was lucky but it might easily have been himself. Then too, the next best thing to success is a valid apology for non-success. Detraction is, to many, a delicious morsel. The excellence which it loudly denies to others it silently claims for itself. It possesses the means of covering the small with the glory of the great. It adds to failure that which it takes from success and shortens the distance between those in front and those in the rear. Even here there is an upward tendency worthy of notice and respect. The kitchen is ever the critic of the parlor.8 The talk of those below is of those above. We imitate those we revere and admire.
But the main objection to this very comfortable theory is that, like most other theories, it is made to explain too much. While it ascribes success to chance and friendly circumstances, it is apt to take no cognizance of the very different uses to which different men put their circumstances and their chances.
Fortune may crowd a man’s life with fortunate circumstances and happy opportunities, but they will, as we all know, avail him nothing unless he makes a wise and vigorous use of them. It does not matter that the wind is fair and the tide at its flood, if the mariner refuses to weigh his anchor and spread his canvas to the breeze. The golden harvest is ripe in vain if the farmer refuses to reap. Opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at its flood, leads on to fortune”;9 but it must be taken at its flood.
Within this realm of man’s being, as elsewhere, Science is diffusing its broad, beneficent light. As this light increases, dependence upon chance or luck is destined to vanish and the wisdom of adapting means to ends, to become more manifest.
It was once more common than it is now, to hear men religiously ascribing their good or ill fortune directly to supernatural intervention. Success and failure, wealth and poverty, intelligence and ignorance, liberty and slavery, happiness and misery, were all bestowed or inflicted upon individual men by a divine hand and for all-wise purposes. Man was, by such reasoners, made a very insignificant agent in his own affairs. It was all the Lord’s doings and marvelous to human eyes. Of course along with this superstition came the fortune teller, the pretender to divination and the miracle working priest who could save from famine by praying easier than by under-draining and deep plowing.
In such matter a wise man has little use for altars or oracle. He knows that the laws of God are perfect and unchangeable. He knows that health is maintained by right living; that disease is cured by the right use of remedies; that bread is produced by tilling the soil; that knowledge is obtained by study; that wealth is secured by saving and that battles are won by fighting. To him, the lazy man is the unlucky man and the man of luck is the man of work.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”10
When we find a man who has ascended heights beyond ourselves; who has a broader range of vision than we and a sky with more stars in it in than we have in ours, we may know that he has worked harder, better and more wisely than we. He was awake while we slept. He was busy while we were idle and was wisely improving his time and talents while we were wasting ours. Paul Dunbar, the colored poet, has well said:
“There are no beaten paths to glory’s height,
There are no rules to compass greatness known;
Each for himself must cleave a path alone,
And press his own way forward in the fight.
Smooth is the way to ease and calm delight,
And soft the road Sloth chooseth for her own;
But he who craves the flow’r of life full-blown
Must struggle up in all his armor dight.
What tho’ the burden bear him sorely down,
And crush to dust the mountain of his pride.
Oh! then with strong heart let him still abide
For rugged is the roadway to renown.
Nor may he hope to gain the envied crown
Till he hath thrust the looming rocks aside.”11
I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor either physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man may, at times, gets something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. A man that lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening.
Faith, in the absence of work, seems to be worth little, if anything. The preacher who finds it easier to pray for knowledge than to tax his brain with study and application will find his congregation growing beautifully less and his flock looking elsewhere for their spiritual and mental food. In the old slave times colored ministers were somewhat remarkable for the fervor with which they prayed for knowledge, but it did not appear that they were remarkable for any wonderful success. In fact, they who prayed loudest seemed to get least. They thought if they opened their mouths they would be filled. The result was an abundance of sound with a great destitution of sense.
Not only in man’s experience, but also in nature do we find exemplified the truth upon which I have been insisting. My father worketh, said the Savior, and I also work.12 In every view which we obtain of the perfections of the universe; whether we look to the bright stars in the peaceful blue dome above us, or to the long shore line of the ocean, where land and water maintain eternal conflict; the lesson taught is the same; that of endless action and reaction. Those beautifully rounded pebbles which you gather on the sand and which you hold in your hand and marvel at their exceeding smoothness, were chiseled into their varied and graceful forms by the ceaseless action of countless waves. Nature is herself a great worker and never tolerates, without certain rebuke, any contradiction to her wise example. Inaction is followed by stagnation. Stagnation is followed by pestilence and pestilence is followed by death. General Butler, busy with his broom, could sweep yellow fever out of New Orleans,13 but this dread destroyer returned when the General and his broom were withdrawn, and the people, neglecting sanitary wisdom, went on ascribing to Divinity what was simply due to dirt.
From these remarks it will be evident that, allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker. Everyone may avail himself of this marvelous power, if he will. There is no royal road to perfection. Certainly no one must wait for some kind of friend to put a springing board under his feet, upon which he may easily bound from the first round of the ladder onward and upward to its highest round. If he waits for this, he may wait long, and perhaps forever. He who does not think himself worth saving from poverty and ignorance by his own efforts, will hardly be thought worth the efforts of anybody else.
The lesson taught at this point by human experience is simply this, that the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just and beneficent. I know of no other rule which can be substituted for it without bringing social chaos. Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within.14
I have been asked “How will this theory affect the negro?” and “What shall be done in his case?” My general answer is “Give the negro fair play and let him alone. If he lives, well. If he dies, equally well. If he cannot stand up, let him fall down.”
The apple must have strength and vitality enough in itself to hold on, or it will fall to the ground where it belongs.15 The strongest influence prevails and should prevail. If the vital relation of the fruit is severed, it is folly to tie the stem to the branch or the branch to the tree or to shelter the fruit from the wind. So, too, there is no wisdom in lifting from the earth a head which must only fall the more heavily when the help is withdrawn. Do right, though the heavens fall; but they will not fall.
I have said “Give the negro fair play and let him alone.” I meant all that I said and a good deal more than some understand by fair play. It is not fair play to start the negro out in life, from nothing and with nothing, while others start with the advantage of a thousand years behind them. He should be measured, not by the heights others have obtained, but from the depths from which he has come. For any adjustment of the seals of comparison, fair play demands that to the barbarism from which the negro started shall be added two hundred years heavy with human bondage. Should the American people put a school house in every valley of the South and a church on every hill side and supply the one with teachers and the other with preachers, for a hundred years to come, they would not then have given fair play to the negro.
The nearest approach to justice to the negro for the past is to do him justice in the present. Throw open to him the doors of the schools, the factories, the workshops, and of all mechanical industries. For his own welfare, give him a chance to do whatever he can do well. If he fails then, let him fail! I can, however, assure you that he will not fail. Already has he proven it. As a soldier he proved it. He has since proved it by industry and sobriety and by the acquisition of knowledge and property. He is almost the only successful tiller of the soil of the South, and is fast becoming the owner of land formerly owned by his old master and by the old master class. In a thousand instances has he verified my theory of self-made men. He well performed the task of making bricks without straw: now give him straw. Give him all the facilities for honest and successful livelihood, and in all honorable avocations receive him as a man among men.
I have by implication admitted that work alone is not the only explanation of self-made men, or of the secret of success. Industry, to be sure, is the superficial and visible cause of success, but what is the cause of industry? In the answer to this question one element is easily pointed out, and that element is necessity. Thackeray very wisely remarks that “All men are about as lazy as they can afford to be.”16 Men cannot be depended upon to work when they are asked to work for nothing. They are not only as lazy as they can afford to be, but I have found many who were a great deal more so. We all hate the task master, but all men, however industrious, are either lured or lashed through the world, and we should be a lazy, good-for-nothing set, if we were not so lured and lashed.
Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but the mainspring of exertion. The presence of some urgent, pinching, imperious necessity, will often not only sting a man into marvellous exertion, but into a sense of the possession, within himself, of powers and resources which else had slumbered on through a long life, unknown to himself and never suspected by others. A man never knows the strength of his grip till life and limb depend upon it. Something is likely to be done when something must be done.
If you wish to make your son helpless, you need not cripple him with bullet or bludgeon, but simply place him beyond the reach of necessity and surround him with ease and luxury. This experiment has often been tried and has seldom failed. As a general rule, where circumstances do most for men, there man will do least for himself; and where man does least, he himself is least. His doing or not doing makes or unmakes him.
Under the palm tree of Africa man finds, without effort, food, raiment and shelter. For him, there, Nature has done all and he has done nothing. The result is that the glory of Africa is in her palms—and not in her men.
In your search after manhood go not to those delightful latitudes where “summer is blossoming all the year long,” but rather to the hardy North, to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, to the coldest and flintiest parts of New England, where men work gardens with gunpowder, blast rocks to find places to plant potatoes; where, for six months of the year, the earth is covered with snow and ice. Go to the states which Daniel Webster thought good enough to emigrate from, and there you will find the highest type of American physical and intellectual manhood.
Happily for mankind, labor not only supplies the good things for which it is exerted, but it increases its own resources and improves, sharpens and strengthens its own instruments.
The primary condition upon which men have and retain power and skill is exertion. Nature has no use for unused power. She abhors a vacuum. She permits no preemption without occupation. Every organ of body and mind has its use and improves by use. “Better to wear out than to rust out,” is sound philosophy as well as common sense.17 The eye of the watch-maker is severely taxed by the intense light and effort necessary in order to see minute objects, yet it remains clear and keen long after those of other men have failed. I was told at the Remington Rifle Works, by the workmen there employed who have to straighten the rifle barrels by flashing intense light through them, that, by this practice, severe as it seems, their eyes were made stronger.
But what the hands find to do must be done in earnest. Nature tolerates no halfness. He who wants hard hands must not, at sight of the first blister, fling away the spade, the rake, the broad ax or the hoe; for the blister is a primary condition to the needed hardness. To abandon work is not only to throw away the means of success, but it is also to part with the ability to work. To be able to walk well, one must walk on, and to work with ease and effect, one must work on.
Thus the law of labor is self-acting, beneficent and perfect; increasing skill and ability according to exertion. Faithful, earnest and protracted industry gives strength to the mind and facility to the hand. Within certain limits, the more that a man does, the more he can do.
Few men ever reach, in any one direction, the limits of their possibilities. As in commerce, so here, the relation of supply to demand rules. Our mechanical and intellectual forces increase or decrease according to the demands made upon them. He who uses most will have most to use. This is the philosophy of the parable of the ten talents. It applies here as elsewhere. “To him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.”18
Exertion of muscle or mind, for pleasure and amusement alone, cannot bring anything like the good results of earnest labor. Such exertion lacks the element attached to duty. To play perfectly upon any complicated instrument, one must play long, laboriously and with earnest purpose. Though it be an amusement at first, it must be labor at the end, if any proficiency is reached. If one plays for one’s own pleasure alone, the performance will give little pleasure to any one else and will finally become a rather hard and dry pleasure to one’s self.
In this respect one cannot receive much more than one gives. Men may cheat their neighbors and may cheat themselves but they cannot cheat nature. She will only pay the wages one honestly earns.
In the idea of exertion, of course fortitude and perseverance are included. We have all met a class of men, very remarkable for their activity, and who yet make but little headway in life; men who, in their noisy and impulsive pursuit of knowledge, never get beyond the outer bark of an idea, from a lack of patience and perseverance to dig to the core; men who begin everything and complete nothing; who see, but do not perceive; who read, but forget what they read, and are as if they had not read; who travel but go nowhere in particular, and have nothing of value to impart when they return. Such men may have greatness thrust upon them but they never achieve greatness.
As the gold in the mountain is concealed in huge and flinty rocks, so the most valuable ideas and inventions are often enveloped in doubt and uncertainty. The printing press, the sewing machine, the railroad, the telegraph and the locomotive, are all simple enough now, but who can measure the patience, the persistence, the fortitude, the wearing labor and the brain sweat, which produced these wonderful and indispensable additions to our modern civilization.
My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this: that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success. But in thus awarding praise to industry, as the main agency in the production and culture of self-made men, I do not exclude other factors of the problem. I only make them subordinate. Other agencies co-operate, but this is the principal one and the one without which all others would fail.
Indolence and failure can give a thousand excuses for themselves. How often do we hear men say, “If I had the head of this one, or the hands of that one; the health of this one, or the strength of that one; the chances of this or of that one, I might have been this, that, or the other”; and much more of the same sort.
Sound bodily health and mental faculties unimpaired are very desirable, if not absolutely indispensable. But a man need not be a physical giant or an intellectual prodigy, in order to make a tolerable way in the world. The health and strength of the soul is of far more importance than is that of the body, even when viewed as a means of mundane results. The soul is the main thing. Man can do a great many things; some easily and some with difficulty, but he cannot build a sound ship with rotten timber. Her model may be faultless; her spars may be the finest and her canvas the whitest and the flags of all nations may be displaced at her masthead, but she will go down in the first storm. So it is with the soul. Whatever its assumptions, if it be lacking in the principles of honor, integrity and affection, it, too, will go down in the first storm. And when the soul is lost, all is lost. All human experience proves over and over again, that any success which comes through meanness, trickery, fraud and dishonor, is but emptiness and will only be a torment to its possessor.
Let not the morally strong, though physically weak abandon the struggle of life. For such happily, there is both place and chance in the world. The highest services to man and the richest rewards to the worker are not conditioned entirely upon physical power. The higher the plane of civilization, the more abundant the opportunities of the weak and the infirm. Society and civilization move according to celestial order. “Not that which is spiritual is first, but that which is natural. After that, that which is spiritual.”19 The order of progress, is, first, barbarism; afterward, civilization. Barbarism represents physical force. Civilization represents spiritual power. The primary condition, that of barbarism, knows no other law than that of force; not right, but might. In this condition of society, or rather of no society, the man of mind is pushed aside by the man of muscle. A Kit Carson,20 far out on the borders of civilization, dexterously handling his bowie knife, rifle and bludgeon, easily gets himself taken for a hero; but the waves of science and civilization rolling out over the Western prairies, soon leave him no room for his barbarous accomplishment. Kit is shorn of his glory. A higher type of manhood is required.
When ferocious beasts and savage inhabitants have been dispersed and the rudeness of nature has been subdued, we welcome milder methods and gentler instrumentalities for the service of mankind. Here the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but the prize is brought within the reach of those who are neither swift nor strong. None need despair. There is room and work for all: for the weak as well as the strong. Activity is the law for all and its rewards are open to all. Vast acquirements and splendid achievements stand to the credit of men of feeble frames and slender constitutions. Channing was physically weak.21 Milton was blind.22 Montgomery was small and effeminate.23 But those men were more to the world than a thousand Samsons.24 Mrs. Stowe would be nothing among the grizzly bears of the Rocky mountains.25 We should not be likely to ask for her help at a barn raising, or a ship launch; but when a great national evil was to be removed; when a nation’s heart was to be touched; when a whole country was to be redeemed and regenerated and millions of slaves converted into free men, the civilized world knew no earthly power equal to hers.
But another element of the secret of success demands a word. That element is order, systematic endeavor. We succeed, not alone by the laborious exertion of our faculties, be they small or great, but by the regular, thoughtful and systematic exercise of them. Order, the first law of heaven, is itself a power. The battle is nearly lost when your lines are in disorder. Regular, orderly and systematic effort which moves without friction and needless loss of time or power; which has a place for everything and everything in its place; which knows just where to begin, how to proceed and where to end, though marked by no extraordinary outlay of energy or activity, will work wonders, not only in the matter of accomplishment, but also in the increase of the ability of the individual. It will make the weak man strong and the strong man stronger; the simple man wise and the wise man, wiser, and will insure success by the power and influence that belong to habit.
On the other hand, no matter what gifts and what aptitudes a man may possess; no matter though his mind be of the highest order and fitted for the noblest achievements; yet, without this systematic effort, his genius will only serve as a fire of shavings, soon in blaze and soon out.
Spontaneity has a special charm, and the fitful outcroppings of genius are, in speech or action, delightful; but the success attained by these is neither solid nor lasting. A man who, for nearly forty years, was the foremost orator in New England,26 was asked by me, if his speeches were extemporaneous? They flowed so smoothly that I had my doubts about it. He answered, “No, I carefully think out and write my speeches, before I utter them.” When such a man rises to speak, he knows what he is going to say. When he speaks, he knows what he is saying. When he retires from the platform, he knows what he has said.
There is still another element essential to success, and that is, a commanding object and a sense of its importance. The vigor of the action depends upon the power of the motive. The wheels of the locomotive lie idle upon the rail until they feel the impelling force of the steam; but when that is applied, the whole ponderous train is set in motion. But energy ought not to be wasted. A man may dispose of his life as Paddy did of his powder,—aim at nothing, and hit it every time.27
If each man in the world did his share of honest work, we should have no need of a millennium. The world would teem with abundance, and the temptation to evil in a thousand directions, would disappear. But work is not often undertaken for its own sake. The worker is conscious of an object worthy of effort, and works for that object; not for what he is to it, but for what it is to him. All are not moved by the same objects. Happiness is the object of some. Wealth and fame are the objects of others. But wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of men, and thus, to them, these are not motive-impelling objects. Happily, however, personal, family and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations to earnest endeavor, if we would but respond to their influence.
I do not desire my lecture to become a sermon; but, were this allowable, I would rebuke the growing tendency to sport and pleasure. The time, money and strength devoted to these phantoms, would banish darkness and hunger from every hearthstone in our land. Multitudes, unconscious of any controlling object in life, flit, like birds, from point to point; now here, now there; and so accomplish nothing, either here or there.
“For pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed!
Or like the snow-falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts forever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.”28
They know most of pleasure who seek it least, and they least who seek it most. The cushion is soft to him who sits on it but seldom. The men behind the chairs at Saratoga and Newport,29 get better dinners than the men in them. We cannot serve two masters. When here, we cannot be there. If we accept ease, we must part with appetite. A pound of feathers is as heavy as a pound of iron,—and about as hard, if you sit on it long enough. Music is delightful, but too much of it wounds the ear like the filing of a saw. The lounge, to the lazy, becomes like flint; and to him, the most savory dishes lose their flavor.
“It’s true, they need na starve or sweat,
Thro’ winter’s cauld or simmer’s heat;
But human bodies are sic fools,
For all their colleges an’ schools,
That when na real ills perplex them,
They mak enow, themselves to vex them.”30
But the industrious man does find real pleasure. He finds it in qualities and quantities to which the baffled pleasure seeker is a perpetual stranger. He finds it in the house well built, in the farm well tilled, in the books well kept, in the page well written, in the thought well expressed, in all the improved conditions of life around him and in whatsoever useful work may, for the moment, engage his time and energies.
I will give you, in one simple statement, my idea, my observation and my experience of the chief agent in the success of self-made men. It is not luck, nor is it great mental endowments, but it is well directed, honest toil. “Toil and Trust!” was the motto of John Quincy Adams, and his Presidency of the Republic proved its wisdom as well as its truth. Great in his opportunities, great in his mental endowments and great in his relationships, he was still greater in persevering and indefatigable industry.
Examples of successful self-culture and self-help under great difficulties and discouragements, are abundant, and they vindicate the theory of success thus feebly and with homely common sense, presented. For example: Hugh Miller,31 whose lamented death mantled the mountains and valleys of his native land with a broad shadow of sorrow, scarcely yet lifted, was a grand example of the success of persistent devotion, under great difficulties, to work and to the acquisition of knowledge. In a country justly distinguished for its schools and colleges, he, like Robert Burns, Scotia’s [Scotland’s] matchless son of song, was the true child of science, as Burns was of song. He was his own college. The earth was his school and the rocks were his school master. Outside of all the learned institutions of his country, and while employed with his chisel and hammer, as a stone mason, this man literally killed two birds with one stone; for he earned his daily bread and at the same time made himself an eminent geologist, and gave to the world books which are found in all public libraries and which are full of inspiration to the truth seeker.
Not unlike the case of Hugh Miller, is that of our own Elihu Burritt.32 The true heart warms with admiration for the energy and perseverance displayed in this man’s pursuit of knowledge. We call him “The learned blacksmith,” and the distinction was fairly earned and fitly worn. Over the polished anvil and glowing forge; amidst the smoke, dust and din of the blacksmith’s shop; amidst the blazing fires and hissing sparks, and while hammering the red-hot steel, this brave son of toil is said to have mastered twenty different languages, living and dead.
It is surprising with what small means, in the field of earnest effort, great results have been achieved. That neither costly apparatus nor packed libraries are necessarily required by the earnest student in self-culture, was demonstrated in a remarkable manner by Louis Kossuth.33 That illustrious patriot, scholar and statesman, came to our country from the far east of Europe, a complete master of the English language. He spoke our difficult tongue with an eloquence as stately and grand as that of the best American orators. When asked how he obtained this mastery of language so foreign to him, he told us that his school house was an Austrian prison, and his school books, the Bible, Shakespeare, and an old English dictionary.
Side by side with the great Hungarian, let me name the King of American self-made men; the man who rose highest and will be remembered longest as the most popular and beloved President since Washington—Abraham Lincoln. This man came to us, not from the schools or from the mansions of ease and luxury, but from the back woods. He mastered his grammar by the light of a pine wood torch. The fortitude and industry which could split rails by day, and learn grammar at night at the hearthstone of a log hut and by the unsteady glare of a pine wood knot, prepared this man for a service to his country and to mankind, which only the most exalted could have performed.
The examples thus far given, belong to the Caucasian race; but to the African race, as well, we are indebted for examples equally worthy and inspiring. Benjamin Banneker, a man of African descent, born and reared in the state of Maryland, and a contemporary with the great men of the revolution, is worthy to be mentioned with the highest of his class. He was a slave, withheld from all those inspiring motives which freedom, honor and distinction furnish to exertion; and yet this man secured an English education; became a learned mathematician, was an excellent surveyor, assisted to lay out the city of Washington, and compelled honorable recognition from some of the most distinguished scholars and statesmen of that early day of the Republic.
The intellect of the negro was then, as now, the subject of learned inquiry. Mr. Jefferson, among other statesmen and philosophers, while he considered slavery an evil, entertained a rather low estimate of the negro’s mental ability. He thought that the negro might become learned in music and in language, but that mathematics were quite out of the question with him.
In this debate Benjamin Banneker came upon the scene and materially assisted in lifting his race to a higher consideration than that in which it has been previously held. Banneker was not only proficient as a writer, but, like Jefferson, he was a philosopher. Hearing of Mr. Jefferson’s opinion of negro intellect, he took no offense but calmly addressed that statesman a letter and a copy of an almanac for which he had made the astronomical calculations. The reply of Mr. Jefferson is the highest praise I wish to bestow upon this black self-made man. It is brief and I take great pleasure in presenting it.
I thank you sincerely for your letter and the almanac it contains. Nobody more than I do, wishes to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given our black brethren talents equal to those of other colors of men, and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing mainly to the degrading conditions of their existence in Africa and America. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur Cordozett, Secretary of the Academy of Science at Paris, and a member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it a document of which your whole race had a right, for their justification against the doubts entertained of them.
I am, with great esteem, sir,
Your most obedient servant,
This was the impression made by an intelligent negro upon the father of American Democracy, in the earlier and better years of the Republic. I wish that it were possible to make a similar impression upon the children of the American Democracy of this generation. Jefferson was not ashamed to call the black man his brother and to address him as a gentleman.
I am sorry that Banneker was not entirely black, because in the United States, the slightest infusion of Teutonic blood is thought to be sufficient to account for any considerable degree of intelligence found under any possible color of the skin.34
But Banneker is not the only colored example that I can give. While I turn with honest pride to Banneker, who lived a hundred years ago, and invoked his aid to roll back the tide of disparagement and contempt which pride and prejudice have poured out against the colored race, I can also cite examples of like energy in our own day.
William Dietz, a black man of Albany, New York, with whom I was personally acquainted and of whom I can speak from actual knowledge, is one such. This man by industry, fidelity and general aptitude for business affairs, rose from the humble calling of house servant in the Dudley family of that city, to become the sole manager of the family estate valued at three millions of dollars.
It is customary to assert that the negro never invented anything, and that, if he were today struck out of life, there would, in twenty years, be nothing left to tell of his existence. Well, this black man; for he was positively and perfectly black; not partially, but wholly black; a man whom, a few years ago, some of our learned ethnologists would have read out of the human family and whom a certain Chief Justice would have turned out of court as a creature having no rights which white men are bound to respect,35 was one of the very best draftsmen and designers in the state of New York. Mr. Dietz was not only an architect, but he was also an inventor. In this he was a direct contradiction to the maligners of his race. The noble railroad bridge now spanning the Hudson river at Albany, was, in all essential features, designed by William Dietz. The main objection against a bridge across that highway of commerce had been that of its interferences with navigation. Of all the designs presented, that of Dietz was the least objectionable on that score, and was, in its essential features, accepted. Mr. Dietz also devised a plan for an elevated railway to be built in Broadway, New York. The great objection to a railway in that famous thoroughfare was then, as now, that of the noise, dust, smoke, obstruction and danger to life and limb, thereby involved. Dietz undertook to remove all these objections by suggesting an elevated railway, the plan of which was, at the time, published in the Scientific American and highly commended by the editor of that journal. The then readers of the Scientific American read this account of the inventions of William Dietz, but did not know, as I did, that Mr. Dietz was a black man. There was nothing in his name or in his works to suggest the American idea of color.
Among my dark examples I can name no man with more satisfaction than I can Toussaint L’Overture, the hero of Santo Domingo. Though born a slave and held a slave till he was fifteen years of age; though, like Banneker, he was black and showed no trace of Caucasian admixture, history hands him down to us as a brave and generous soldier, a wise and powerful statesman, an ardent patriot and a successful liberator of his people and his country.
The contemporaries of this Haitian chief paint him as without a single moral blemish; while friends and foes alike, accord him the highest ability. In his eulogies no modern hero has been more fortunate than Toussaint L’Overture. History, poetry and eloquence have vied with each other to do him reverence. Wordsworth and Whittier have, in characteristic verse, encircled his brow with a halo of fadeless glory,36 while Phillips has borne him among the gods in something like Elijah’s chariot of fire.37
The testimony of these and a thousand others who have come up from depths of society, confirms the theory that industry is the most potent factor in the success of self-made men, and thus raises the dignity of labor; for whatever may be one’s natural gifts, success, as I have said, is due mainly to this great means, open and free to all.
A word now upon the third point suggested at the beginning of this paper; namely, The friendly relation and influence of American ideas and institutions to this class of men.
America is said, and not without reason, to be preeminently the home and patron of self-made men. Here, all doors fly open to them. They may aspire to any position. Courts, Senates and Cabinets, spread rich carpets for their feet, and they stand among our foremost men in every honorable service. Many causes have made it easy, here, for this class to rise and flourish, and first among these causes is the general respectability of labor. Search where you will, there is no country on the globe where labor is so respected and the laborer so honored, as in this country. The conditions in which American society originated; the free spirit which framed its independence and created its government based upon the will of the people, exalted both labor and laborer. The strife between capital and labor is, here, comparatively equal. The one is not the haughty and powerful master and the other the weak and abject slave as is the case in some parts of Europe. Here, the man of toil is not bowed, but erect and strong. He feels that capital is not more indispensable than labor, and he can therefore meet the capitalist as the representative of an equal power.
Of course these remarks are not intended to apply to the states where slavery has but recently existed. That system was the extreme degradation of labor, and though happily now abolished its consequences still linger and may not disappear for a century. To-day, in the presence of the capitalist, the Southern black laborer stands abashed, confused and intimidated. He is compelled to beg his fellow worm to give him leave to toil. Labor can never be respected where the laborer is despised. This is today, the great trouble at the South. The land owners still resent emancipation and oppose the elevation of labor. They have yet to learn that a condition of affairs well suited to a time of slavery may not be well suited to a time of freedom. They will one day learn that large farms and ignorant laborers are as little suited to the South as to the North.38
But the respectability of labor is not, as already intimated, the only or the most powerful cause of the facility with which men rise from humble conditions to affluence and importance in the United States. A more subtle and powerful influence is exerted by the fact that the principle of measuring and valuing men according to their respective merits and without regard to their antecedents, is better established and more generally enforced here than in any other country. In Europe, greatness is often thrust upon men. They are made legislators by birth.
“A king can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke and a’that.”39
But here, wealth and greatness are forced by no such capricious and arbitrary power. Equality of rights brings equality of positions and dignities. Here society very properly saves itself the trouble of looking up a man’s kinfolks in order to determine his grade in life and the measure of respect due him. It cares very little who was his father or grandfather. The boast of the Jews, “We have Abraham for our father,”40 has no practical significance here. He who demands consideration on the strength of a reputation of a dead father, is, properly enough, rewarded with derision. We have no reverence to throw away in this wise.
As a people, we have only a decent respect for our seniors. We cannot be beguiled into accepting empty-headed sons for full-headed fathers. As some one has said, we dispense with the smoke when the candle is out. In popular phrase we exhort every man as he comes upon the stage of active life, “Now do your level best!” “Help yourself!” “Put your shoulder to the wheel!” “Make your own record!” “Paddle your own canoe!” “Be the architect of your own fortune!”
The sons of illustrious men are put upon trial like the sons of common people. They must prove themselves real Clays, Websters and Lincolns, if they would attract to themselves the cordial respect and admiration generally awarded to their brilliant fathers. There is, here, no law of entail or primogeniture.
Our great men drop out from their various groups and circles of greatness as bright meteors vanish from the blue overhanging sky bearing away their own silvery light and leaving the places where they once shone so brightly, robed in darkness till relighted in turn by the glory of succeeding ones.
I would not assume that we are entirely devoid of affection for families and for great names. We have this feeling, but it is a feeling qualified and limited by the popular thought; a thought which springs from the heart of free institutions and is destined to grow stronger the longer these institutions shall endure. George Washington, Jr., or Andrew Jackson, Jr., stand no better of being future Presidents than do the sons of Smith or Jones, or the sons of anybody else.
We are in this, as Edmund Quincy41 once said of the rapping spirits,42 willing to have done with people when they are done with us. We reject living pretenders if they come only in the old clothes of the dead.
We have as a people no past and very little present, but a boundless and glorious future. With us, it is not so much what has been, or what is now, but what is to be in the good time coming. Our mottoes are “Look ahead!” and “Go ahead!”, and especially the latter. Our moral atmosphere is full of the inspiration of hope and courage. Every man has his chance. If he cannot be President he can, at least, be prosperous. In this respect, America is not only the exception to the general rule, but the social wonder of the world. Europe, with her divine-right governments and ultra-montane doctrines; with her sharply defined and firmly fixed classes; each class content if it can hold its own against the others, inspires little of individual hope or courage. Men, on all sides, endeavor to continue from youth to old age in their several callings and to abide in their several stations. They seldom hope for anything more or better than this. Once in a while, it is true, men of extraordinary energy and industry, like the Honorable John Bright and the Honorable Lord Brougham,43 (men whose capacity and disposition for work always left their associates little or nothing to do) rise even in England. Such men would rise to distinction anywhere. They do not disprove the general rule, but confirm it.
What is, in this respect, difficult and uncommon in the Old World, is quite easy and common in the New. To the people of Europe, this eager, ever moving mass which we call American society and in which life is not only a race, but a battle, and everybody trying to get just a little ahead of everybody else, looks very much like anarchy.
The remark is often made abroad that there is no space for repose in America. We are said to be like the troubled sea, and in some sense this is true. If it is a fact it is also one not without its compensation. If we resemble the sea in its troubles, we also resemble the sea in its power and grandeur, and in the equalities of its particles.
It is said, that in the course of centuries, I dare not say how many, all the oceans of this great globe go through the purifying process of filtration. All their parts are at work and their relations are ever changing. They are, in obedience to ever varying atmospheric forces, lifted from their lowly condition and borne away by gentle winds or furious storms to far off islands, capes and continents; visiting in their course, mountain, valley and plain; thus fulfilling a beneficent mission and leaving the grateful earth refreshed, enriched, invigorated, beautiful and blooming. Each pearly drop has its fair chance to rise and contribute its share to the health and happiness of the world.
Such, in some sort, is a true picture of the restless activity and ever-changing relations of American society. Like the sea, we are constantly rising above, and returning to, the common level. A small son follows a great father, and a poor son, a rich father. To my mind we have no reason to hear that either wealth, knowledge or power will be here monopolized by the few as against the many.
These causes which make America the home and foster-mother of self-made men, combined with universal suffrage, will, I hope, preserve us from this danger. With equal suffrage in our hands, we are beyond the power of families, nationalities or races.
Then, too, our national genius welcomes humanity from every quarter and grants to all an equal chance in the race of life.
“We ask not for his lineage,
We ask not for his name;
If manliness be in his heart,
He noble birth may claim.
We ask not from what land he came,
Nor where his youth was nursed;
If pure the stream, it matters not
The spot from whence it burst.”44
Under the shadow of a great name, Louis Napoleon could strike down the liberties of France and erect the throne of a despot; but among a people so jealous of liberty as to revolt at the idea of electing, for a third term, one of our best Presidents, no such experiment as Napoleon’s could ever be attempted here.45
We are sometimes dazzled by the gilded show of aristocratic and monarchical institutions, and run wild to see a prince. We are willing that the nations which enjoy these superstitions and follies shall enjoy them in peace. But, for ourselves, we want none of them and will have none of them and can have none of them while the spirit of liberty and equality animates the Republic.
A word in conclusion, as to the criticism and embarrassments to which self-made men are exposed, even in this highly favored country. A traveler through the monarchies of Europe is annoyed at every turn by a demand for his passport.46 Our government has imposed no such burden, either upon the traveler or upon itself. But citizens and private individuals, in their relation to each other and the world, demand of every one the equivalent of a passport to recognition, in the possession of some quality or acquirement which shall commend its possessor to favor. We believe in making ourselves pretty well acquainted with the character, business and history of all comers. We say to all such, “Stand and deliver!”47 And to this demand self-made men are especially subject.
There is a small class of very small men who turn their backs upon any one who presumes to be anybody, independent of Harvard, Yale, Princeton or other similar institutions of learning. These individuals cannot believe that any good can come out of Nazareth.48 With them, the diploma is more than the man. To that moral energy upon which depends the lifting of humanity, which is the world’s true advancement, these are utter strangers. To them, the world is never indebted for progress, and they may safely be left to the gentle oblivion which will surely overtake them.
By these remarks, however, there is meant no disparagement of learning. With all my admiration for self-made men, I am far from considering them the best made men. Their symmetry is often marred by the effects of their extra exertion. The hot rays of the sun and the long and rugged road over which they have been compelled to travel, have left their marks, sometimes quite visibly and unpleasantly, upon them.
While the world values skill and power, it values beauty and polish, as well. It was not alone the hard good sense and honest heart of Horace Greeley, the self-made man, that made the New York Tribune; but likewise the brilliant and thoroughly educated men silently associated with him.49
There never was a self-made man, however well-educated, who, with the same exertion, would not have been better educated by the aid of schools and colleges. The charge is made and well sustained, that self-made men are not generally over modest or self-forgetful men. It was said of Horace Greeley, that he was a self-made man and worshipped his maker. Perhaps the strong resistance which such men meet in maintaining their claim, may account for much of their self-assertion.
The country knows by heart, and from his own lips, the story of Andrew Jackson. In many cases, the very energies employed, the obstacles overcome, the heights attained and the broad contrasts at every step forced upon the attention, tend to incite and strengthen egotism. A man indebted for himself to himself, may naturally think well of himself.
But this is apt to be far overdone. That a man has been able to make his own way in the world, is an humble fact as well as an honorable one. It is, however, possible to state a very humble fact in a very haughty manner, and self-made men are, as a class, much addicted to this habit. By this peculiarity they make themselves much less agreeable to society than they would otherwise be.
One other criticism upon these men is often very properly made. Having never enjoyed the benefits of schools, colleges and other like institutions of learning, they display for them a contempt which is quite ridiculous and which also makes them appear so. A man may know much about educating himself, and but little about the proper means for educating others. A self-made man is also liable to be full of contrarieties. He may be large, but at the same time, awkward; swift, but ungraceful; a man of power, but deficient in the polish and amiable proportions of the affluent and regularly educated man. I think that, generally, self-made men answer more or less closely to this description.
From practical benefit we are often about as much indebted to our enemies, as to our friends; as much to the men who hiss, as to those who applaud; for it may be with men as some one has said about tea; that if you wish to get its strength, you must put it into hot water. Criticism took Theodore Parker50 from a village pulpit and gave him a whole country for a platform and the whole nation for an audience. England laughed at American authorship and we sent her Emerson and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From its destitution of trees, Scotland was once a by-word; now it is a garden of beauty. Five generations ago, Britain was ashamed to write books in her own tongue. Now her language is spoken in all quarters of the globe. The Jim Crow Minstrels have, in many cases, led the negro to the study of music; while the doubt cast upon the negro’s tongue has sent him to the lexicon and grammar and to the study of Greek orators and orations.
Thus detraction paves the way for the very perfections which it doubts and denies.
Ladies and gentlemen: Accept my thanks for your patient attention. I will detain you no longer. If, by statement, argument, sentiment or example, I have awakened in any, a sense of the dignity of labor or the value of manhood, or have stirred in any mind, a courageous resolution to make one more effort towards self-improvement and higher usefulness, I have not spoken altogether in vain, and your patience is justified.
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1. Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man,” in Essay on Man and Other Poems (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994), 53.
2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Uses of Great Men,” in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (London: MacMillan, 1883), vol. 4, 257.
3. Douglass sounded this theme in many of his talks. In an 1861 “Lecture on Pictures,” after comparing Protestant and Catholic views toward religious art, he concluded, “Man everywhere worships man, and in the last analysis worships himself. He finds in himself the qualities he finds divine and reverently bows before them. This is the best he can do. The God of the merciful and just man is merciful and just despite the church creed. . . . The church that we build unto the Lord, we build unto ourselves.” John Stauffer et al., Picturing Frederick Douglass (New York: Liveright, 2015), 134–35. A devoted Christian early in life—he taught a Sunday school even while enslaved and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church soon after escaping in the 1830s. He became disillusioned with the Christian churches for failing to take leadership of the antislavery movement. Later in life he largely abandoned religion, though he never became an outright atheist. Frederic May Holland, Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1891), 337–38.
4. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, sc. ii.
5. This quotation is from Robert Burns’s poem “The Twa Dogs: A Tale,” in which two dogs—Caesar, raised in privilege; and Luath, “a ploughman’s collie”—discuss the benefits and disadvantages of their upbringing. The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, edited by Robert Willmott (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1872), 1.
6. William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act II, sc. v.
7. A common misconception in the nineteenth century held that a razor would become sharper by itself if left alone for a day or two.
8. “Kitchen” and “parlor” were common nineteenth-century shorthand for lower class and upper class, respectively; compare Upstairs/Downstairs. There was a racial element to this as well, as black Americans were typically not allowed in the parlor of a white home but were required to remain in the kitchen. The poet Langston Hughes used this symbol to powerful effect in his poem “I, Too”: “I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes.”
9. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, sc. iii.
10. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, sc. ii.
11. Paul Laurence Dunbar, “The Path,” in The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922), 21. Douglass was a friend and mentor to Dunbar, whom he met in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In an elegy after Douglass’s death, Dunbar said of the abolitionist, “He dared the lightning in the lightning’s track / And answered thunder with his thunder back.” Dunbar, “The Path,” 7.
12. A paraphrase of John 5:17.
13. Union General Benjamin F. Butler commanded the troops that occupied New Orleans beginning in 1862. He adopted a strict sanitation regimen that put a stop to the city’s annual outbreaks of yellow fever.
14. This was a regular theme of Douglass’s writing and speaking. His personal motto, adopted from Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” was, “Who would be free must himself strike the blow.” Self-assertion, Douglass insisted, was the absolutely essential ingredient to improvement of the world.
15. Douglass emphasized this point as early as 1865, in his speech “What the Black Man Wants” (John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan IV, eds., Frederick Douglass Papers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991) vol. 4, 68–69. “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us,” he said. “I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs . . . ! If the negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice . . . the fault will not be yours, it will be his who made the negro. . . . Let him live or die by that. If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live.”
16. Thackeray often invoked this idea; the purported quotation may be a paraphrase of a passage from chapter 7 of The Adventures of Philip, in which the title character reflects that “Man was made to labour and to be lazy”—he labors while he is hungry, then “gorges to repletion” and “sleeps, perhaps, to excess.”
17. An old English proverb, a parody of which is voiced by the lazy Falstaff in William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, Act I, sc. ii (“I were better to be eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion.”)
18. Matthew 25:29.
19. A paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15:46.
20. Kit Carson (1809–1868) was a pioneer, soldier, and trailblazer whose exploits in the West became legendary.
21. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842) was a New England reformer and preacher who opposed Calvinism and became an abolitionist.
22. John Milton (1608–1674) was an anti-monarchist who supported Cromwell in the English Civil War. He went blind in his forties and dictated his most famous poems, including the epic “Paradise Lost.”
23. James Montgomery (1771–1854) was a British poet and abolitionist.
24. The biblical Samson was a man of legendary strength, described in the book of Judges (chapters 13–16).
25. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
 Wendell Phillips (1811–1894) was generally regarded as the greatest abolitionist orator, with the possible exception of Douglass himself. Douglass befriended Phillips early in his career when they worked together as part of William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery group, headquartered in Massachusetts. Douglass, however, broke with the Garrisonians when Douglass came to reject their opposition to the Constitution.
27. Ethnic humor was commonplace in nineteenth-century oratory. Often, as in this case, it was more of a lighthearted reference to foolishness generically than an attempt to insult or to ascribe such traits to a particular ethnic group (in this case, the Irish).
28. Robert Burns, Tam O’ Shanter: A Tale (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1810), 4.
29. The wealthiest communities of the era.
30. Burns, “The Twa Dogs,” Poetical Works, 1.
31. Hugh Miller (1802–1856), Scottish geologist and writer, was largely self-taught.
32. Elihu Burritt (1810–1879) was an author, an antislavery activist, and a diplomat in the Lincoln administration.
33. Louis Kossuth (1802–1894) was a Hungarian statesman and writer greatly admired among Americans in the nineteenth century. His bust is displayed in the U.S. Capitol building.
34. Douglass, whose father was white, often heard it said of him that the only reason he had accomplished much was that he had some white blood.
35. A reference to Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which held that the authors of the Constitution believed black Americans had “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
36. William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet to L’Ouverture: “There’s not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget thee; thou hast great allies; / Thy friends are exultations, agonies, / And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.” Whittier, a friend of Douglass’s, and highly regarded as the greatest abolitionist poet, wrote a lengthy poem promising to L’Ouverture that “men shall learn to speak of thee / As one of earth’s great spirits, born / In servitude, and nursed in scorn, / Casting aside the weary weight / And fetters of its low estate, / In that strong majesty of soul / Which knows no color, time, or clime.”
37. Wendell Phillips delivered a lecture on L’Ouverture at New York’s Cooper Institute in 1860—only days before Abraham Lincoln delivered a lecture there that launched his presidential campaign—in which he lauded L’Ouverture as a greater freedom fighter than Washington. In 2 Kings 2, the prophet Elijah rides to heaven in a chariot of fire.
38. Southern states pursued a variety of means to practically reinstate slavery, most notably peonage laws, which allowed whites—often on the flimsiest evidence—to have free black men arrested and sentenced to labor. Such laws often prohibited blacks from leaving the community without permission from whites. Sharecropping arrangements in which black farmers were paid, not with cash, but with scrip redeemable only at a store operated by the landowner, also kept black farmers in conditions virtually indistinguishable from slavery. And southern states mounted a growing campaign to deprive black schools of resources and to nullify voting rights for black voters.
39. Burns, “A Man’s A Man for A’ That,” Poetical Works, 323.
40. Matthew 3:9.
41. Edmund Quincy (1808–1877) was a writer and abolitionist.
42. As part of the spiritualism fad that swept Europe and America during the nineteenth century, people would seek to communicate with the dead at seances during which the spirits would answer questions by knocking, or “rapping,” on a table in response to yes or no questions. In one notorious case, the three Fox sisters of New York were discovered to have produced the knocking noises by cracking the joints in their toes or knees.
43. Famous British antislavery leaders.
44. From “The Questioner: A Chant,” by Robert Nicoll, Poems by Robert Nicoll (Providence, RI: George Whitney, 1853), 192.
45. A reference to Ulysses Grant, who so seriously considered running for a third term that an effort was begun to pass a constitutional amendment limiting the president to two.
46. Douglass himself traveled to Europe, first in 1845 and again in 1859. On the second occasion, he was denied a passport by the U.S. State Department on the grounds that, under the Dred Scott opinion, he was not a citizen of the United States. He wrote to the French ambassador in London and requested a pass from him, which was granted. See Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates, (New York: Library of America, 1994), 762.
47. The romantic literature of the time typically put this phrase into the mouths of highwaymen, robbers, or sentries.
48. A reference to John 1:46.
49. Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was founding editor of the Tribune, served in Congress, and contemplated running for the presidency. He was probably the most powerful media figure of his day.
50. Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was a Unitarian preacher and abolitionist best remembered today for his saying, later adapted by Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.