Tag: Benjamin Franklin

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 fromhttps://www.biography.com/people/frederick-douglass-9278324 ))

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 fromhttps://tinyurl.com/ycjexdm7)

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. http://www.frederick-douglass-heritage.org/self-made-men/ (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. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html. (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. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/odyssey/educate/norths.html. (Accessed February 01, 2018).

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

Rise & Grind by Celeste Joyce

“I used to be a slave.” During a speech at a campaign event, the newly-Republican Abraham Lincoln told the crowd that he had been a slave. This statement was partially true: until he was 21 years old, Lincoln’s father had rented out his son’s labor and kept all the profit. It is also completely false. Lincoln was still free to go. He may have worked hard, and toiled under unfair conditions, but he was still able to become a lawyer, a state representative, and eventually president of the United States- things a slave could never have done.

Lincoln’c story of hard work, perseverance, and grit is compelling. It also writes out any mention of luck, chance, or privilege. The myth of the “self-made man” necessarily requires some doctoring of one’s own story. The most important component, the one that is always left in, is the hard work. Whether to convince others of the validity of the self-made man’s success, or to convince oneself, hard work is the common thread of every self-made story. Lincoln purposefully left out the fact that he had married into elite society in his “I used to be a slave” speech. He didn’t mention that his father was financially stable, or that he was allowed to pursue education as a child instead of being forced to work more. Even his height gave him a decided political advantage. Instead, history has created a narrative of a tireless hard worker, whose success had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with strength of will.

In older, more traditional versions of the self-made man fable, this hard work often took the form of manual labor. A self-made man was always that- a real man. His legacy was quite literally founded in the sweat off his back. Many of the self-made men of John Swansburg’s article fall into this category. Ben Franklin made sure people saw him pushing his wheelbarrow around and waking up early. Lincoln’s strength of character was forged while splitting rails as a child. The author’s own father got started pouring tar on rooves. He could feel a good real estate prospect “in his balls.”

Even more contemporary success stories, which don’t rely on balls or backbreaking manual labor still focus on the necessity of hard work. Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal reminds her aspiring readers to work hard: “If you’re a #GIRLBOSS, you should want to work harder than everybody else.” She goes on to discuss the various menial tasks and dead-end jobs which taught her to “tolerate shit [she didn’t] like…” and reminded the #GIRLBOSSes of the world that on their way up, they might have to do some unsavory jobs because “this is not an ideal world and it’s never going to be.”

The rhetoric of every self-made man is blind to the fact that the world is unfair, unideal. What Amoruso cites as “shitty learning experience” jobs might be the only job someone will ever get. Through no fault of their own, it will not lead to multi-million dollar profits. Scrubbing the floor, no matter how well you do it or how diligently you apply yourself, does not guarantee a $50 million investment. For some people, “stepping-stone” jobs are the only one’s they’ll ever have. And although she states it in her own writing, Amoruso does not seem to acknowledge that the world is not ideal.

America has an obsession with hard work. There is a pervasive American ideal that working is like freedom- it keeps you honest and wholesome. There is also the indelible, inescapable American promise: that you are always free to work (wherever you want, in whatever profession). There is no promise of freedom from work. After all, if you want to make it, you have to put in the sweat equity. No one promises this more than the people who have made it.

As Swansburg’s article illustrates, the self-made men and women of the world love to tout the value of hard work. This maxim is in their autobiographies, their speeches, and their self-help books. After all, hard work is the only guarantee in America. You will have to work hard. No one can guarantee luck, chance, or privilege. It’s far prettier to insist that hard work creates opportunities, than to suggest that opportunities might be as random as chance.

Blumenthal, Sidney. Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

“Old Hickory” and his History by Francesco Truscia

AJThe idea of the self-made man has become a major part in American culture. It is the idea that a person who is, let’s say, a “nobody” can turn him or herself into a “somebody.” It is a recurring idea that inspires many people today. There have been many American icons that are self-made men, and one of them was Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson was the 7th president of the United States. He was born into poverty into the South, and as a result he had little formal type of schooling. Jackson took it upon himself to start reading law and worked his way into becoming a prosecuting attorney in what is now known as Nashville, Tennessee. Soon after, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and served as the judge of Tennessee’s supreme court before becoming head of the state militia during the War of 1812. His success in the Battle of New Orleans portrayed him as a national war hero. He was elected President in 1828 and after two terms was succeeded by Martin Van Buren in 1836.

Pretty successful story for a guy whose family had nothing too substantial to provide him, wouldn’t you say? Andrew Jackson definitely fits the image of the self-made man, on the basis of going from having nothing to becoming President of the United States. However, his given history alone isn’t the only contribution to his self-made man status. A very important factor in this is the image that he left behind.

The main contribution to Andrew Jackson’s image of being a self-made man was his stories that he had left behind during his life. Andrew Jackson was an interesting man, in the sense that he was a part of some very unique experiences. One experience was that during the Revolutionary War, he was taken prisoner by British soldiers and was struck in the face with a saber when he refused to shine an officer’s boots. This experience is comparable to Benjamin Franklin and when he was his brother’s apprentice. In David Waldstreicher’s Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution, he talks about Benjamin Franklin and describes him as, “a seventeen-year-old apprentice printer and the servant of a master in serious trouble” and that “Franklin remembered James’s ‘harsh and tyrannical treatment’ ” (Waldstreicher 3). Both Franklin and Jackson were both at the hands of a much higher authority, but by standing up for themselves Jackson and Franklin, gave the impression that they were not going to give up so easily. Perseverance is a true characteristic of a self-made man. Jackson has other stories of climatic triumph, such as when a man failed an assassination attempt against him he proceeded to beat him with his walking stick.

Andrew Jackson is a prominent figure in American culture. At this point in time, he has definitely reached the status of being an icon. Along with his history of success, it is his image and stories of his life that are a large, contributing factor in him becoming a self-made man.


“Andrew Jackson.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Waldstreicher, David. “Chapter 1: Runaways and Self-Made Men.” Runaway America:

Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. Print.

Michael Jackson: An American Self-Made Man and Icon by Stephanie Hirsch

When we talk about self-made men/ women we talk about people who have found their own voice through tenacity mixed with hard work and patience. One person that we cannot exclude from this category is none other than the “King of Pop” himself, Mr. Michael Jackson.

Jackson built his iconic empire through his own talent as well as through careful choices in his music that made him explode onto the scene in the 80s. However Jackson had a rough start to success, which begins this story like so many other self-made men before him.

Like Benjamin Franklin, Jackson grew up into a large family in a poor area of Gary, Indiana. As one of 10 children, Jackson struggled to find an outlet of his own. However his brothers under the direction of their father Joe Jackson formed the Jackson 5 which began to showcase Michael’s talents as a singer at a very young age.

Similarly to Franklin, Jackson was in some ways an indentured slave. Franklin’s journey started out as an indentured slave to his brother where he would receive, “harsh and tyrannical treatment” working in his brother’s printing press (1). His brother would beat him at times creating an abusive environment in which Franklin had to escape. Similarly Jackson, under the direction of his father, lived in fear of Joe Jackson’s wrath and worked as hard as he could to avoid abuse. Jackson knew that if he wanted to be successful he had to get away from his family and make use of his talents to reach stardom.

Henry Clay who coined the term “self-made man” describes these people as “enterprising men who give whatever wealth they possess by being patient and diligent” (2). In many ways Jackson understood this definition as he recognized the wealth and success he had within the Jackson 5, yet risked it all anyway to have a solo career.

Jackson went on to have records such as Off the Wall in 1979 that gained some following. However, the turning point for Jackson in his journey happened once he teamed up with Quincy Jones. Together Jackson and Jones produced the highest selling album of all time in Thriller soon changing Michael’s status from celebrity to icon.

In some ways Jackson’s album was the smartest capitalistic move of his career. Every song on that album was meticulously thought out and meant to be a sound for virtually everyone to “get down” with. He even got Paul McCartney, one the largest white music legends, to sing a duet with him on Thriller. Jackson’s album exploded as top hit after top hit was played on the radio showing that a black voice could be iconic.

Benjamin Franklin in similar fashion understood the concept of appealing to a mass audience as well with his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette. In David Waldstreicher’s book Runaway America, Waldstreicher describes how Franklin succeeded with his newspaper because, “it spread crucial information between participants in translocal markets” appealing to many people across different boundaries (3). This is the job of the self-made man, and Jackson and Franklin understood this very well and capitalized on it.

Jackson’s celebrity and presence grew beyond anything he could of imagined paving the way for other artists such as Usher and Justin Timberlake to make similarly inspired music and social presences. In similar ways Benjamin Franklin did the same as both came into the spotlight through persistence and hard work. Both deserve the title as self-made men, but most of all both are icons that forged new paths for others to follow.

  1. Waldstreicher, David. pg 3-4. Runaway America. New York: Hill and Wang. Print.
  2. Swansburg, John. pg 6 “The Self-Made Man The Story of America’s Most Pliable, Pernacious, Irrpressible Myth” Print.
  3. Waldstreicher, David. Pg 23-24 Runaway America. New York: Hill and Wang. Print.