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Consider the Self-Made Man

May 2024
6min read

It is an old joke in my family that my mother, the daughter of an immigrant tailor, never met a family poorer than her own until she met my father, who was lucky to get out of Germany in 1934 with the skin on his back. Only in America, as Harry Golden used to say, could the leap from the pushcarts of Orchard Street to the pages of American Heritage be accomplished in a single generation.

These thoughts are spinning through my head today because I just read a wonderful little book that deserves a wider audience. Irvin G. Wyllie’s The Self-Made Man in America, published in 1954, is a beautifully organized, carefully written study that covers more ground in a few words than almost any book I know. There are other good books on the subject, notably John G. Cawelti’s Apostles of the Self-Made Man and Richard M. Huber’s The American Idea of Success, but for simplicity, clarity, and brevity—those profoundly agreeable virtues—no one comes close to Wyllie.

The Self-Made Man in America does not tell the stories of self-made Americans, but the story of an idea. His aim, Wyllie explains, is “to explore the story of the rags-to-riches idea in terms of its practical relation to our business civilization” and, in the process, to tell us “something of the men who loved and, despised the idea.”

Like most students of the American character, Wyllie sees Benjamin Franklin as a key figure, both as someone who helped create the cult of the self-made man and as someone who became in the nineteenth century “the first object of adoration in this cult, the convenient symbol which linked the success traditions of the two centuries.”

Though contemporary journalism sometimes gives the opposite impression, today’s yuppies are not the first Americans who have bowed at the feet of Mammon. “The only principle of life propagated among the young people is to get money,” one New Yorker complained in 1748, “and men are only esteemed according to what they are worth—that is, the money they are possessed of.” William Ellery Channing, the pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston from 1803 until his death in 1842, echoed the complaint shortly before he died: “How widely spread is the passion for acquisition, not for simple means of subsistence, but for wealth! What vast enterprises agitate the community! What a rush into all the departments of trade!”


In 1842 the publisher of the New York Sun, Moses Y. Beach, published the first directory of wealthy Americans. Beach’s Wealth and Pedigree of the Wealthy Citizens of New York City provided brief biographies of all residents of New York with an estimated worth of one hundred thousand dollars or more. The list included fourteen millionaires, headed by John Jacob Astor, an immigrant who had hawked pastries on the streets in his first weeks in America.

Many of the leading proponents of the self-help gospel were clergymen. We may never know which came first, the Protestant ethic or the spirit of capitalism, but we do know that Protestantism not only sanctioned accumulation but also sanctioned the economic virtues—industry, frugality, sobriety—that were presumed to lead to accumulation. Whole books have been written on this subject, but perhaps it is enough to note that the Reverend Thomas P. Hunt was not ashamed to publish, in 1836, a volume with the title The Book of Wealth; In Which It Is Proved from the Bible That It Is the Duty of Every Man to Become Rich.

“Godliness is in league with riches,” said William Lawrence, the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts and the son of the industrialist Amos Lawrence. Money, a Unitarian minister told his congregation, “is a blessing from the Lord.” But neither clergymen nor nonclerical preachers of the get-ahead gospel went so far as to glorify scoundrels who used any means in pursuit of the great end. “Riches got by fraud, are dug out of one’s own heart and destroy the mine,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher, the pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, in his Seven Lectures to Young Men (1844). “Unjust riches curse the owner in getting, in keeping, in transmitting.”

The Baptist minister Russell Conwell, who founded Temple University and delivered his famous lecture “Acres of Diamonds” six thousand times, sounded a similar warning: “The man that worships the dollar instead of thinking of the purposes for which it ought to be used, the man who idolizes simply money, the miser that hordes [sic] his money in the cellar, or hides it in his stocking … that man who hugs the dollar until the eagle squeals, has in him the root of all evil.”

From the days of Benjamin Franklin till the end of the nineteenth century, the self-help creed taught that wealth and virtue went hand in hand. Wyllie warns against overemphasizing the influence of Darwinist ideas: “The success cult took its texts from the Bible, not from writings of Darwin and Spencer. It preached no warfare of each against all, but rather a warfare of each man against his baser self. … Business practice may have suggested a Darwinian struggle for existence, but the self-help rationale insisted that the only struggle of consequence was the struggle for good character.”

Good character meant more than honest industry in the accumulation of a fortune. It also meant paying proper attention to its use. “I do not recognize myself as owner in fee of one dollar of the wealth which has come into my hands,” said the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper. “I am simply responsible for the management of an estate which belongs to humanity.”

The best-known expression of this attitude was Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth,” published originally in the North American Review in 1889. The rich man has a duty, the steel magnate argued, to administer his wealth “in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community … the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth … will pass away ‘unwept, unhonored, and unsung,’ no matter to what uses he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him. Of such as these the public verdict will then be: ‘The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.’” Carnegie himself was rich when he died, but not disgracefully rich. He gave away well over a quarter of a billion dollars in his own lifetime.

Not everyone accepted the tenets of the self-help creed. “If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day,” Thoreau complained, “he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer, but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.” Hawthorne regretted that Franklin’s literary reputation rested mostly on sayings that “are all about getting money or saving it” and that “teach men but a very small portion of their duties.”

Men with scientific backgrounds challenged as naive the notion that luck and environment meant little. “Nature is more wasteful of men than of apple blossoms, and blights a thousand where she ripens one,” wrote a physician, Titus M. Coan, in 1871. A political scientist, Francis Lieber, attacked the self-help creed with the deadliest weapon, humor: “Self-made men, indeed! Why don’t you tell me of a self-laid egg?”

From men of inherited wealth, too, came expressions of the traditional aristocratic contempt for “mere” money-making. Others might worship the golden calf, but aristocrats were expected to uphold standards. Theodore Roosevelt sounded the proper note: “I am simply unable to make myself take the attitude of respect toward the very wealthy men which such an enormous multitude of people evidently really feel. I am delighted to show any courtesy to Pierpont Morgan or Andrew Carnegie or James J. Hill, but as far as regarding them as, for instance, I regard … Peary, the Arctic explorer, or Rhodes, the historian—why, I could not force myself to do it even if I wanted to, which I don’t.”

Today’s yuppies are not the first Americans who have bowed at the feet of Mammon.

America’s first investigatory journalists, the muckrakers, attacked from another angle. It was all very well to preach the wealth-through-virtue gospel, but did the facts support that faith? Or did the evidence suggest that the men who had made the largest fortunes in America were men who had bribed legislators, appropriated resources, organized monopolies, flouted the law, crushed competitors? The answer, richly documented, was not always flattering.

Even if the careers of the robber barons were regarded as aberrations, what were the actual chances of rising from rags to riches in the United States? In 1885 Andrew Carnegie warned that “it is becoming harder and harder as business gravitates more and more to immense concerns, for a young man without capital to get a start for himself.” What sense did it make to talk about unlimited opportunities when, in cities like New York and Chicago, ten applicants competed for every job? By 1903 the American Banker, a respectable business journal, was ready to scrap the idea that success awaited every hardworking American: “Yet only a few of us that share the common lot are destined to accumulate great wealth, or achieve conspicuous stations. The number of such stations and the chances for such accumulations never did correspond, and never will, to the number of energetic, ambitious and capable men which is hopeful of achieving them. This unpalatable truth the literature of success abhors.”

“Through all our history,” Wyllie concludes, “the self-made man was the exception not the rule. American opportunities have been magnificent, but they have never equalled the aspirations of the whole people.” Sociologists and business historians have piled up mountains of data to prove that “a majority of our wealthy citizens do not now, and never did, come up from the ranks of the poor.”

And yet, looking out the window of my apartment, I see a vegetable stand run by a family of Korean immigrants. The family keeps the stand open twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Who will tell them that America is not the land of opportunity? Who will tell them that they live by the virtues of a vanished age? They may not know anything about Benjamin Franklin, but they share his faith: “In short, the Way to Wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the Way to Market. It depends chiefly on two Words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY. … He that gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets (necessary Expences excepted) will certainly become RICH: If that Being who governs the World, to whom all should look for a Blessing on their honest Endeavours, doth not in his wise Providence otherwise determine.”

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