The internet had a collective meltdown after Forbes described Kylie Jenner as “self-made” last summer. Many critics railed against Jenner’s privileged upbringing; others pointed out socioeconomic systems are inherently unequal; and the rest mostly noted there’s no such thing as self-made — no person’s an island, no lipstick developed alone, and all that.
One’s opinion of Jenner’s self-made status aside, the “self-made mogul” kerfuffle presented a terrific opportunity to explore the origins of “self-made” in America, its centrality in our national myth, and the dangerous expectations it creates.
I didn’t have a chance to write about this very pressing matter when the story first broke, but now, as 2018 comes to a close, here are a few words on Kylie Jenner and the timeless cult of “self-made.”
First thing’s first: The idea of being self-made has always been thick in America. Countless optimistic colonists came hither to transform themselves from poor nobodies into wealth somebodies. There were no social barriers in the New World, and ceaseless opportunity for all — or that’s what they were told —, and so they came by the boatload to make their dreams come true. Yet for all this bright-eyed hope, it wasn’t until years after the Revolution that the term “self-made” itself emerged.
As with all neologisms, “self-made’s” emergence was halting and linguistic integration slow. Many historians peg “self-made’s” birth date as February 2, 1832, the day Sen. Henry Clay used the phrase on the floors of Congress, but that’s wrong. “Self-made” first arose at least 8 years prior, among supporters of Georgia senator-turned-presidential hopeful WH Crawford: One pro-Crawford op-ed, dated August 10, 1824, read, “WH Crawford is what we call a self-made man; has risen from obscurity by his own exertions…”
Crawford failed to gain footing that year, and clearly so did “self-made: it was another two years before it appeared again, this time in Massachusetts, at Bowdoin College, on September 5, 1826, when Professor Samuel P. Newman employed “self-made” in a speech about expanding the elite school’s scholarship program. The Quarterly Register and Journal of America Education reported, “Professor N. directs the attention first to that peculiar and important class of persons in our country whom he styles ‘self made men.”
With the term still in its semantic infancy, Newman felt compelled to define it — “It may tend to the definiteness of our views of a self-made man, to fix the attention on an individual instance.” — and he offered as example Roger Sherman, the poor shoemaker who became a Founding Father: “He was the son of poor parents…. [But] he saw that all his resources were in himself, and, in the strength of resolution, he rose from the bench of the shoemaker [and] seated himself in the Halls of Congress.”
Yet “self-made” still didn’t catch on, and it wouldn’t for another decade. But then it seemed to explode. There was a January 23, 1836 Camden Weekly Journal obit for James Hoss, a man described as both “self-made” and “Scotland’s sweetest poet,” and Clay’s February usage that year — “In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.” —; Martin van Buren’s supporters described him as “self-made” during his 1836 presidential campaign; and in one of the more interesting references I found, 1837 edition of DC’s Madisonian newspaper translates a local Indian man’s name, Nar-nar-he-keit as “self-made man.”
“Self-made” had hit a tipping point. And at just the right moment.
After years of post-colonial malaise and uncertainty, the States were starting to come into their own. They looked back on the half century or so since independence and were impressed by their unprecedented progress. The States were finally financially sound, thanks to increased exports, improved Asian trade, and industrial marvels like textile mills; and improved infrastructure made the people were more mobile, literally and economically, offering citizens new routes on which they could pave their way as traveling salesfolk.
The states were much bigger than before, as well: Westward expansion continued unabated — ten new states were added between 1803-1837, including far-off Michigan and Arkansas — and Americans were generally prouder of our culture as a whole. While most Americans post-revolution continued comparing themselves to England and Europe, now they embraced what set them apart from the rest of the world. Two of the most popular heroes of this era were Daniel Boone and Benjamin Franklin, both of whom were admired for their hard work, determination, and “only in America” tenacity.
As time went on, and as their sense of pride grew, Americans became more convinced they had created something from nothing, that they had cleaved themselves from England all by themselves, with help from nobody and no one. Our French and Spanish allies? They were incidental. To Americans of this era, the nation was completely self-generated. They were self-made.
The term “self-made” therefore arose at just the right moment. For a nation that conceived of itself as self-constructed, it was a soundbite-sized summation of a national promise. Rev. Calvin Colton insisted in 1844, “[America] is a country of self-made men.” And John Frost made a similar declaration four years later, in his book Self Made Men in America: “‘Self-made men!’ We use the term every day; and we use it without irreverence, because all understand its popular import… This is the country, the home of self-made men.”
“Self-made” embodied and embodies the epitome of America’s potential, and with the added value of “proving” the American experiment worked. It was as Francis Bowen wrote in 1856’s The Principles of Political Economy [of] the American People:
Neither theoretically nor practically, in this country, is there any obstacle to any individuals becoming rich… There are no obstacles but natural and inevitable ones [i.e. smarts, etc.]; society interposes none…. And ours is the only community on earth of which this can be said.
It was almost a self-defense: an insistence that America had a monopoly on rags to riches, that only here could paupers become moguls.
And thus the term “self-made” and its attendant myths spread through American vernacular and imagination: William Holmes McGuffey’s eponymous and ubiquitous McGuffey Readers peddled the idea via short fables and parables starting in 1838 and remained a dominant learning tool until 1961; Charles Seymore celebrated dozens of such characters in his 1858 book Self-Made Men; historian William Thayer created a veritable cottage industry of self-made-themed tomes circa 1870-1890, including presidential biographies and a slew of self-help books, such as Tact, Push and Principle and Success and Its Achievers; Emma May Buckingham published the novel A Self-Made Woman in 1873; and WA Croffut put a fine point on it in his 1886 work, The Vanderbilts and the Story of Their Fortune:
America is the land of the self-made man — the empire of the parvenu. Here it is felt that the accident of birth is of trifling consequence…. here the name of parvenu is the only and all-sufficient title of nobility. So here, if nowhere else in the world, should such a dominant man without hesitation or apology assume the place to which he is entitled…
And so it continued into the 20thcentury, too: Orison Swett Marden wrote in 1907’s The Optimistic Life, “It matters not whether the boy is born in a log cabin or in a mansion; if he is dominated by resolute purpose and upholds himself, neither men nor demons can keep him down;” Calvin Coolidge praised George Washington as “self-made” in 1927, even though Washington was decidedly privileged, and Ayn Rand’s 1957 book Atlas Shrugged is built on the idea self-made folk built the whole world. By 1983, there’s Ronald Reagan insisting, “I want to see above all that this remains a country where someone can always get rich.” You get the idea.
No matter the media or era, the message remained the same: hard work, perseverance, and absolute self-reliance guaranteed fabulous success in America. Racial, sexist, and economic barriers weren’t considered; “self-made” whitewashed institutional discrimination. To admit these blockades would undercut the nation’s core premise: If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.
Sure, some people tried to dislodge the self-made myth: Frederick Douglass’ insisted in his landmark 1859 speech “Self-Made Men,” “Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men;” Irvin G. Wyllie released The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Richesin 1954; and Brian Miller and Mike Lapham offered a similar title in 2012. Notable as these efforts were, their impact was lost in the ever-growing din of self-made adoration, a fetishization of the self-made most graphically and grotesquely realized in real estate heir Donald Trump hoodwinking voters with patently absurd claim that’s he’s “self-made” from a $1 million paternal hand-out.
Taken together, America’s long history of self-made mythmaking reveals that ugly truth we try to ignore: In the land of the free, the money maker reigns supreme. The States sells itself as land of the underdog, but it’s clear the underdog had better be a workhorse, too. We’re told “self-made” comes solely and always with drudgery and determination. This creates unrealistic assumptions of what it means to “make it” in America. Americans are expected to make a mint, and if they’re not, it’s their own damn fault. It’s as Rev. Russell Conwell said in his famous 1913 “Acres of Diamonds” speech: “There is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of someone else. It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.”
In this light, “self-made” becomes oppressive, and not to mention dangerous. It breeds a rabidly competitive culture in which we must look out for number one, and no one else, in our all-American quests for fortune. By telling people they can only rely on themselves, that they must go it alone, we devalue cooperation, and more — just look at people who overlook human rights abuses for the sake of profit.
One final note, before signing off: The utopian Owenites coined the term “individualism” in the 1830s, right around the time “self-made” took off. It was also in this era that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville offered a telling, and unflattering definition, of the phenomenon: “A calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
With 2019 approaching, now seems like a good time for everyone to challenge the illusory and corrosive notion of “self-made.” It won’t be easy — we do have centuries worth of conditioning to counter, after all —but unmaking the myth of the self-made person would be worth far more than all the Jenner-Kardashians combined.
[Image via YouTube]