Douglass as Self-Made Man by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

In the speech Self-Made Men,Frederick Douglass gives his definition of a self-made man. Douglass rejects the idea of a self-made man by claiming that “properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men.”[1] He believes that “no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.”[2] Despite the fact that Douglass himself does not believe in the term of “self-made man,” the personal history of Douglass indeed illustrates what means to be a self-made man. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, Douglass is a self-made man who demonstrates his life as a journey in which he creates his own character out of nothingness. (Figure 1. Frederick Douglass (Photo from ))

Born into slavery and without the care of parents, Douglass is the only person who determines his own identity. In the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, James Matlack points out that “most autobiographies open with a birth date and a description of the author’s parentage. Douglass can supply neither.”[3] As Douglass mentionin his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass begins his story from slavery and never knew who his father was.[4] Douglass saw his mother only a few times in the middle of the night. When he was seven, his mother died, and he describes it as making him feel like it was the death of a stranger.[5]Douglass’s childhood and background make his identity and future as a piece of unknown blank paper. Douglass, “must forge his own character and sense of himself.”[6] He is the only person who is able to change his own fate.

Like Franklin, who was an indentured slave to his brother and suffered “harsh and tyrannical treatment”[7] working in his brother’s printing press that is described by David Waldstreicher in Runaway America, Douglass was beaten by his master Mr. Covey, who gave him “a very severe whipping,” which cut his back causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on his flesh.[8] Although they were living under oppression, Franklin and Douglass both highly valued education. They used all kinds of methods to create opportunities for self-improvement. In The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth, John Swansburg highlights that Franklin saved his money and invested them in books to “feed his hungry mind.”[9] In similar ways, Douglass demonstrates there is no limitation that can prevent him from obtaining knowledge.

When Douglass was eight years old in Baltimore, he began to learn his A B C’s (alphabet) from Mrs. Auld. [10] However, this opportunity was prohibited by her husband, who claimed that “a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”[11] Even though Douglass was denied obtaining an education, he did not allow the condition to limit himself. Over the next seven years, Douglass used any possible resources that he was able to find to educate himself. “He stole bread and traded it for bits of knowledge from white street urchins. He picked up letters of the alphabet from marks on timbers in the shipyard. He practiced his handwriting between the lines of young Thomas Auld’s discarded copy books.”[12]Douglass’s determination and hard work made it possible for him, a person born into slavery, to learn how to read and write. Later in Douglass’s life, his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave became a bestseller. He also founded the North Star, which became “one of the leading abolitionist newspapers of its time.”[13]Through self-education, not only did Douglass learn how to read and write, he also became an influential writer, which illustrates what it means to be a self-made man. (Figure 2. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Photo from

Knowledge is wealth, Douglass is a self-made man who created paths for himself to successfully become a “wealthy man.” Similar to Franklin, a son of a candle maker who later became a world-famous scientist, “an influential patriot and diplomat, and, not least, a wealthy man of business,”[14] Douglass changed his fate from a slave to a powerful abolitionist, an excellent orator, a bestselling author, and a famous newspaper publisher. Both Franklin and Douglass created opportunities for themselves beyond their limitations, which truly makes them self-made men and iconic figures in the United States.

[1] Frederick Douglass, “‘Self-Made Men.’ Address before the Students of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, PA,” Frederick Douglass Heritage The Official Website. Speech, 1872. (Accessed February 01, 2018). (here after: Douglass, Self-Made Men).

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” Phylon (1960- ) 40, no. 1 (1979): 21.

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself: Electronic Edition.” 1818-1895. (Accessed February 01, 2018). (here after: Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 21.

[7] David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, slavery, and the American Revolution ( New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 3-4.

[8] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[9] John Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man: The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.” September 29, 2014, 6.

[10] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 21.

[11] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[12] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 22.

[13] “The North Star.” The North Star (Educational Materials: African American Odyssey). December 9, 1998. (Accessed February 01, 2018).

[14] Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man,” 7.

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