25 of the Greatest Self-Made Men in American History

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 28, 2008 · 118 comments

in Money & Career


The idea of the self-made man is inextricably tied up with that of the American dream. It is his image that has lured thousands of immigrants to our shores, all hoping for the chance to turn a handful of beans into a vast fortune. The self-made man is he who comes from unpromising circumstances, who is not born into privilege and wealth, and yet by his own efforts, by pulling himself up by the bootstraps, manages to become a great success in life. Frederick Douglass, a self-made man himself, said the discussion of self-made men was the discussion of “manhood itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.” Douglass sensed that the story of the self-made man is the story of manliness personified. The self-made man harnesses and utilizes the most important masculine qualities: hard work, perseverance, and most of all, personal responsibility. The story of the self-made man embodies the goal of every man: to become the captain of his own destiny.

What is a self-made man?

Although typically associated with the rags to riches story, a self-made man is anyone who attains far greater success than his original circumstances would have indicated was possible. The self-made man often has to overcome great obstacles to achieve his goals. Self-made men attain their success through education, hard work, and sheer willpower. While no man is an island, it’s not external help or special relationships that make the crucial difference in the self-made man’s rise.

Nor is luck the deciding factor. Society loves the story of a man whose success came to him largely by chance, from an opportunity dropped from the sky. Such stories allow unsuccessful men to excuse their failure as due to unavoidable bad luck and demerit the success of others by chalking their achievements up to chance. Sadly, too many men today believe that lounging on the shore, waiting for their ship to come in, constitutes the best pathway to reaching their goals. Instead, self-made men throughout history have made their own way in life by reaching deep inside themselves and through willpower and elbow grease, creating their own destiny. While there are always many factors to success, all are subordinate to work, which is the great key to success.

The History of the Self-Made Man

In his rise from being the son of a candle maker to a legend among men, Benjamin Franklin became America’s original self-made man. Abraham Lincoln likewise captured the public imagination when he made the improbable leap from lowly log-cabin to the White House. Yet the concept really took hold in American culture during the post Civil-War period. The so-called Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing, new inventions quickly made men rich and famous, and factories sprung from the ground, seemingly overnight. While a young man’s destiny had formerly been laid out for him practically at birth (he would follow his father into the family business) the possibility now existed to leave hearth and home and strike out for one’s individual success. For the young man who was willing to work hard and get ahead, the nation seemed to offer innumerable opportunities to strike it rich. Inspired by real examples like Andrew Carnegie and the fictional heroes of Horatio Alger’s novels, a man’s success seemed limited only by his drive and ambition.

After the heyday of the self-made man, the concept took several hits. During the 1920′s, America experienced a (thankfully) brief infatuation with eugenics and the idea that a man’s destiny and character were almost entirely determined by his DNA. The idea of the self-made man was further weakened during the Great Depression, when men who had seemingly done all the right things-worked hard, scrimped, saved, and invested- saw their fortunes wiped out and all they had worked for washed away. Buffeted by grave external forces, it was hard to retain faith in the idea that one’s life remained in one’s control.

The modern age continued to assault our culture’s belief in the self-made man. Sociologists and public policy experts stressed the effect of poverty and culture in determining an individual’s success, arguing that these factors greatly inhibited the rise of those beset by them. My American history textbook in college twice called the idea of the self-made man “a myth.” Most recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, posits that great achievement is largely the result of cultural background and good luck.

Why this list of self-made men?

While the popularity of the self-made man may have faded in recent times, it is worthy of being revived. The concept of manly personal responsibility has greatly eroded, and too many young men today believe they are the helpless victims of their circumstances. The following list provides a strong remedy against such thinking. It is full of stories of men who refused to be satisfied with their lot in life and instead chose a different, more extraordinary path for themselves. They set a course for greatness and proceeded to work without rest until their goals became a reality.

These stories prove that it doesn’t matter who your parents are, where you’re born, or how much education you acquire; the difference is in your character and willingness to do whatever it takes to be the best and achieve your dreams. As we honor these self-made men, we hope to inspire you to join their ranks. As Frederick Douglass said:

Though a man of this class need not claim to be a hero or to be worshipped as such, there is a genuine heroism in his struggle and something of sublimity and glory in his triumph. Every instance of such success is an example and help to humanity. It, better than any mere assertion, gives us assurance of the latent powers 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 he battles of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes and a larger courage.

This list of great self-made men is not all-inclusive; both the past and the present are studded with far too many remarkable strivers to possibly cover them all. But here we highlight some of the most extraordinary of these stories. While some of these varied men were far more virtuous than others, none were saints. All had flaws and made mistakes. Some were ruthless in their pursuit of success. Any time a man’s life is held up for an example, it is incumbent upon the reader to glean the valuable lessons to be learned from that life, while discarding those things which he finds distasteful.

And now the list:

Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790


Does thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff life is made of.

Franklin’s life is the pattern from which all other self-made men have been cut. His rhetoric of hard work, ambition, and thrift was not merely a philosophy he preached; it was he code by which he lived his life. None of his successes came by chance; they were created by the ceaseless way in which he organized his life to maximize productivity. Such discipline was necessary if he ever hoped to rise from his humble beginnings. Franklin was the 15th of 17 children born to father Josiah Franklin, a candlemaker. Granted only two years of formal schooling, Franklin supplemented his knowledge by constantly having his nose stuck in a book.

When he was 17, young Ben struck out on his own and traveled to Philadelphia. Unlike other aristocrats of the period, who used slave labor to free up time for their other pursuits, Franklin created an enormously successful printing business which allowed him to retire and became a veritable Renaissance man. His accomplishments are too numerous to list. As an author he penned the Poor Richard’s Almanack, his famous autobiography, and numerous classic essays. As an inventor, he created the lightning rod, the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the flexible urinary catheter. As a thinker he established the Junto discussion group, the first subscription library, and the American Philosophical Society. As a scientist he made important investigations into the nature of electricity. He served his country, state, and city as a councilman, postmaster, recruiter of the Pennsylvania militia, Speaker of the Pennsylvania State House, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, ambassador to France, President of Pennsylvania, and Founding Father. Not bad for the son of a candlemaker, eh?

Ross Perot, 1930-


Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.

Born in Texarkana, Texas to a father who worked as a cotton broker, Ross Perot could have lived and died in obscurity like thousands before him. But from a young age, Perot’s ambition set him apart. He became an Eagle Scout in high school and then attended the Naval Academy where he helped establish the school’s honor code and became class president and battalion commander.

After leaving the Navy, Perot became a salesman for IBM. Perot quickly distinguished himself from the pack, filling the year’s sales quota in two weeks. Full of entrepreneurial ideas, but ignored by the higher ups, Perot left IBM in 1962 to found his own company, Electronic Data Systems. Things started off rocky; Perot’s initial attempts to sell their data processing services to corporations resulted in 77 rejections. Yet Perot persisted, won EDS government contracts, and turned the company into a technology powerhouse. EDS was eventually bought by GM for a cool 700 million. Not content to rest on his business laurels, Perot began to involve himself in political policy issues, an interest that culminated in his famous run for the presidency in 1992. Garnering the largest percentage of the popular vote as a third party candidate since TR’s run in 1912, Perot’s success surprised the pundits and assuredly a lot of folks back in Texarkana.

John D. Rockefeller, 1839-1937


I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

John D. Rockefeller needed neither a trust fund nor the example of a successful father to become the richest man in American history. His dad was a salesman who was rarely at home as young John grew up. Rockefeller was left to forge his own path. As a young man, he took a job as an assistant bookkeeper, saved his dough, and then partnered with others in buying a couple of oil refineries in Cleveland. In 1870, Rockefeller incorporated his holdings into Standard Oil.

Rockefeller’s business plan was simple; by obsessively increasing the efficiency of his refineries and pressuring railroad companies for discounted shipping, he successfully undercut and then bought out the competition. It was said he had the “soul of a bookkeeper,” and he loved to pour over his figures and see where waste could be eliminated. Utilizing both vertical and horizontal integration, Rockefeller soon owned nearly every aspect of the oil business and controlled 90% of the kerosene market. Such success netted Rockefeller great wealth; when he retired he was estimated to have accumulated a $1,500,000,000 fortune. Having won this wealth through his own toil, he didn’t just sit on this money. He donated much of it in hopes of providing others with similar opportunities for success.

Ralph Lauren, 1939-


Knowledge is not a passion from without the mind, but an active exertion of the inward strength, vigor and power of the mind, displaying itself from within.

Growing up as a Jewish kid in the Bronx, Ralph Lauren never hung out at the country club, played polo, or went sailing on a yacht. Although his brand is now a famous symbol of gentility and affluence, Ralph Lauren’s own beginnings were far more humble. Born as Ralph Rueben Lifshitz, his parents were Ashkenazi Jews who had immigrated from Belarus, and his father was a house painter. The family lived in a small apartment, with Ralph sharing a room with his two brothers. Ralph’s mother hoped he would become a rabbi, but from a early age, Lauren was drawn to fashion and entrepreneurship. He worked after school as a stock boy and sold handmade ties to his classmates in order to purchase stylish suits.

Lauren attended Baruch College for two years, but then dropped out. He never went to fashion school. After a stint in the army, he became a salesman for Brooks Brothers. They weren’t interested in helping Lauren develop his own line of ties, so he then went to work for Beau Brumwell Neckwear which allowed him to design and sell his own “Polo” brand ties in their showroom. The ties became popular and other stores started carrying them. Lauren started designing women’s and men’s wear, and of course, introduced his now famous Polo shirt. He soon had enough money to open his own store and develop his brand into an empire. Today, Lauren has 35 boutiques across the country, has expanded his brand to include home furnishings and cologne, and currently ranks as the 76th richest man in America.

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895


Allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!

When it comes to rags to riches stories, there are no rags lowlier than those worn by American slaves. Rising from the shackles of slavery to extraordinary success required monumental amounts of hard work, tenacity, and passion, and Frederick Douglass had these qualities in spades. Douglass understood that nothing in life would ever be handed to him. When his master’s wife, who had been teaching him the alphabet, was reprimanded for doing so by her husband, Douglass continued to learn to read by interacting with white children and working through any written materials he could find. When he was traded to the cruel mastery of Edward Covey, who regularly whipped Douglass, Douglass confronted his master, getting him to back down and never raise his hand to him again.

In 1838, Douglass took his greatest risk yet and escaped from slavery to Massachusetts. Douglass soon rose to prominence, becoming an outspoken abolitionist, a spectacular orator, a bestselling author, and a newspaper publisher. After the Civil War, Douglass served as President of the Freedman’s Savings Bank; marshal of the District of Columbia, minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic. During the 1888 Republican Convention, he became the first African-American to receive a vote to be nominated for the Presidency. Dying in 1895, Douglass had risen from slavery to become one of the most prominent and well-respected black men in the United States.

Ray Kroc, 1902-1984


Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.

Ray Kroc, a high school drop out, attained his first job by employing a bit of dishonesty; the 15 year old young man lied to the military to become an ambulance driver during WWI. The war ended before young Ray could see action, and so Kroc took a job playing piano for a radio station at night and selling paper cups by day. He next became fascinated with a multi-mixer milkshake machine and purchased the marketing rights to it. For the next 17 years, Kroc traveled the country selling his milkshake making miracle to whoever would listen. As he made the rounds to customers, he became intrigued by a hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, California owned by the McDonald brothers. While the McDonald brothers were satisfied with their small franchise, Kroc believed the burger business had far greater potential. Although Kroc was by then a 53 year old man suffering from diabetes and arthritis and missing both his thyroid and gall bladder, he had a vision of turning the restaurant into a global fast food empire. In 1961, he purchased the McDonalds’s franchise. In only a few years years, Kroc had sold a billion hamburgers and opened the franchise’s 500th store. McDonald’s had begun its campaign to take over the world. The Hamburglar would be proud.

Harry Reid, 1939-


Reid was born in the tiny, abandoned mining town of Searchlight, Nevada: population 200. His father was a miner and alcoholic who possessed only an elementary school education. His mother took in laundry from local brothels to help the family make ends meet. The family lived in a house with two rooms and an outhouse. As a youth, Reid was rough around the edges and loved to use his fists, whether competing as an amateur boxer or taking part in an impromptu rumble in the streets.

Yet he overcame this auspicious start, graduating from Utah State University and attending law school at George Washington University. In order to support his family during law school, Reid would go to class during the day and work as a security guard at night. Reid practiced law before being elected to the Nevada State Assembly in 1967. He then served as Lt. Governor. Losing the senatorial election in 1974, Reid instead took a position as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. In 1982, Reid ran for Congress again, and this time won a seat in the House of Representatives. He then became a US Senator, and steadily moved up the leadership ranks from Democratic Whip, to minority leader, and finally to majority leader, the position in which he currently serves.

Thomas Edison, 1847-1931


It is astonishing what an effort it seems to be for many people to put their brains definitely and systematically to work.

Kicked out of school for being easily distracted, Thomas Edison received only 3 months of formal schooling. The rest of Edison’s education came from his mother’s homeschooling and his reading of classic books. Though he lost nearly all of his hearing at a young age, Edison did not let this disability hinder him. He early on showed a tenacious entrepreneurial streak; he sold candy and newspapers aboard trains as a youth and then won a position as telegraph operator when he saved a station agent’s son from being run over by a train. As a telegrapher, he worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Edison requested the night shift so that he could read and do his experiments during the slow evening hours. His constant tinkering paid off; Edison (often with help from his partners) came up with a myriad of inventions, including the phonograph, stock ticker, fluoroscope, kinetoscope, and most famously, the first commercially viable incandescent lamp. “The Wizard of Menlo Park” was both a genius inventor and a savvy business man; he filed more than 1500 patents during his lifetime and founded 14 companies including General Electric.

Larry Ellison, 1944-


The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts and questioning authority. While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it’s enormously useful in life.

Larry Ellison was born in the Bronx to an unwed mother; he never knew his father. While still an infant, Ellison was shipped off to Chicago to be taken care of and eventually adopted by, his mother’s aunt and uncle. Ellison grew up in a two bedroom apartment and attended two years of college before dropping out when his adoptive mother died. Interested in computer and software design, Ellison went to work for Ampex Corporation before founding what would become the database company Oracle in 1977 with $2000 of his own money. Greatly successfull, the company made Ellison a billionaire many times over and continues to secure his place as the 9th richest man in the world.

Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865


Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.

Lincoln lacked connections, charisma, good looks, and formal education, and yet became one of the greatest presidents in United States history. Famously born in a one-room cabin to uneducated farmer parents, Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency has long been the stuff of legend. Lincoln was almost entirely self-educated; he received only 18 months of formal schooling. He offset this disadvantage by voraciously consuming any book he could get his hands on. At age 22, Lincoln packed his meager belongings in a canoe and paddled out on his own. He taught himself the law and became a successful attorney and state legislator in Illinois. Losing his senatorial campaign in 1858 to Stephen Douglas did not deter him from his goals; he persevered against this very same opponent to win the presidency. The rest, of course, is history. Lincoln went on to guide America through her darkest and stormiest hour.

Clarence Thomas, 1948-


Clarence Thomas was born in the poor community of Pin Point, Georgia. Abandoned by their father and left homeless after a fire, Clarence and his brother moved to Savannah. They moved in with Clarence’s grandfather, who would have a profound effect on the boy. He taught Thomas the value of hard work by taking Clarence on deliveries for his ice business and having him regularly work on a farm from sunrise to sunset. Thomas became the first person in his family to attend college when he headed off to the College of the Holy Cross. He then received his JD from Yale Law School. After law school, Thomas steadily attained more and more prestigious positions, starting as an assistant to the Attorney General of Missouri and becoming Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Civil Rights. GHW Bush appointed Thomas to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He finally grasped the legal world’s brass ring when he was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1991.

Sam Walton, 1918-1992


I think I overcame every single one of my personal shortcomings by the sheer passion I brought to my work. I don’t know if you’re born with this kind of passion, or if you can learn it. But I do know you need it.

Now a big-box retailing behemoth, the idea for Wal-Mart came from the mind of an unassuming farm boy from Oklahoma. Walton spent his early years living on his family’s farm, and then moved to Missouri when his father decided to become a farm loan appraiser. Sam showed great ambition from an early age; he became Missouri’s youngest ever Eagle Scout when he received that award in 8th grade, and he was elected class president his senior year in high school. Despite growing up during the Great Depression and working odd jobs like delivering newspapers to help support his family, he excelled academically throughout his school years. He paid his way through the University of Missouri by working as a lifeguard, newspaper delivery boy, and waiter. When he graduated, he took jobs at JC Penney’s and at a DuPont’s munitions plant before serving in the army during WWII.

After the war, Walton was determined to open his own variety store. He pooled the substantial amount of money he saved while in the military and with a loan from his father-in-law, bought a Ben Franklin store in Newport, Arkansas. Walton supplied customers with a wide variety of goods at low prices and kept those prices low by buying in high volume directly from wholesalers. The store was highly successful, and Walton then opened his own store, “Walton’s Five & Dime” in Bentonville. In 1962, Walton introduced the first true Wal-Mart to Rogers, AR. That store, like all his others, turned a nice profit, and Walton began to expand the franchise across the country, making it the world’s largest retailer by 1991. He reigned as America’s richest man from 1985-1988, and were he alive today, he would be the world’s richest man, with wealth double that of Bill Gates.

Harry S. Truman, 1884-1972


In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves… self-discipline with all of them came first.

Harry S. Truman lived by the motto, “The buck stops here,” long before it officially adorned his Oval Office desk. Such decisiveness was a necessary trait for a man who had to routinely overcome low expectations to win respect. Truman was born into a farming family in Missouri. After high school, Truman was employed in a few odd jobs before returning to labor on the family farm. College was not in the cards for Harry; he couldn’t afford to attend any school except West Point, and they turned him down because of his poor eyesight. Truman would thus become the only president to serve after 1897 who did not hold a college degree.

Yet, Harry was determined to make the best of his circumstances.

He joined the National Guard and served in WWI. His eyesight should have prevented him from joining up, but Truman memorized the chart in order to pass. Truman served heroically, and became a Colonel in the Guard. After the war, Truman opened a haberdashery in Kansas City that went bankrupt during a recession in 1921. He then was elected as a county judge. In 1934, he became a US Senator. Ten years later, he was chosen to be FDR’s VP. When FDR died, Truman had finally ascended to the highest office in the land.

When he ran for reelection in 1948, Truman was, as he had been in his senatorial campaigns, the true underdog. He had to fight fiercely just to secure the nomination, and during the general election, determined to get his message out to the people, he crisscrossed the nation in an energetic whistle-stop tour. While the Democrat’s prospects looked bleak, Truman vigorously came from behind and pulled off an upset win. He had spent his whole life giving his naysayers hell, and he had done it once again.

Sean Combs, 1969-


I’ve never been surprised about what happened to me. I’ve put in hard work to get to this point. It’s like when you become a lawyer – if you’re bustin’ your ass, you’re not surprised when you get your degree. I came in to win, you know. This is why I stay up late while other people are sleeping; this is why I don’t go out to the Hamptons.

Puff, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy-whatever you want to call him, the name Sean Combs most deserves is that of self-made man. Mr. Combs claims to work harder than anyone else in the entertainment business, and he has the success to show for it. Born in public housing projects in Harlem, Sean’s father was shot to death when Sean was only 2. At age 12, Combs, who was too young to officially have his own paper route, found a way around the rule by taking over the routes of several older boys and giving them 50% of his earnings. He was soon making over $700 a week as a paperboy. After high school, Mr. Combs interned at Uptown Records while he attended Howard University. He dropped out and took an executive position with the company. Fired from the label in 1993, Combs formed his own company-Bad Boy Records.

In addition to producing hit artists like the Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy started putting out his own successful rap records and diversifying his business interests. His enterprises now include the Sean John clothing line, a cologne, the Making the Band television series, and a restaurant in Atlanta. With a net worth estimated to be around $324 million, Combs has taken full ownership of his life and done it with style.

Henry Ford, 1863-1947

Henry Ford with V-8 Engine

Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.

Very few men will ever have the chance to completely revolutionize the American way of life; even fewer who do so will come from obscure backgrounds. Henry Ford was born in 1863 on a farm near Detroit, Michigan. His father wanted Henry to take over the family farm, but Henry had other plans. At age 16, he left home to become a machinist’s apprentice. After several years, he returned to farm work, and also ran a sawmill. But his love for engineering kept calling him away. In 1891, Ford was hired by the Edison Illuminating Company, and he worked his way up to chief engineer. He saved money scrupulously until he had enough so he could quit and work on his experiments with gasoline engines.

Ford began creating and testing self-propelled vehicles, but could not produce them cheaply and efficiently as he desired. With this goal in mind, Ford and partner Alexander Malcomson founded Ford Motor Co. Ford’s technical smarts were matched by his business savvy. He offered his auto workers $5 an hour, nearly double the going rate. The country’s best mechanics thus flocked to Ford, and this greatly slowed employee turnover and increased productivity. And he introduced moving assembly belts to his plants, which greatly improved efficiency. Such ideas helped make the Model T an affordable, immediate, and widespread success; half of all cars on the road in 1918 came from Ford factories. Ford found equal success with his next model, the Model A, which he had large part in designing. Ford secured sole ownership of the company for his family, expanded the business internationally, reaped a massive fortune, and introduced America to its ongoing love affair with the automobile.

Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004


My philosophy of life is that if we make up our mind what we are going to make of our lives, then work hard toward that goal, we never lose – somehow we win out.

Any man who can turn an acting career into a successful run for the presidency certainly earns the title of self-made man. There was no silver spoon in the mouth of Ronald Regan when he came into the world in 1911. Born in Tampico, Illinois, Reagan’s father was a salesman who was always looking for better work. Reagan thus grew up moving from one tiny town in Illinois to the next, often living in apartments above banks and stores. The Gipper attended the definitively not ivy league Eureka College, mostly, by his own admission, to continue playing football. After college, he became a radio announcer and landed a film contract with Warner Brothers. After a stint in the military, Reagan became the president of the Screen Actors Guild. He began his foray into politics by working on Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. Then in 1966, without holding prior political office, Reagan was elected governor of California. Though he failed to win the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1976, Reagan was not discouraged and won not only the nomination, but also the White House in 1980.

Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919


People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.

Carnegie represents the epitome of the self-made man. His father was a Scottish hand-loom weaver, who moved with his family to America when Andrew was 13. Carnegie’s first job was working as a bobbin boy at a textile factory, making $1.50 a week. He subsequently took jobs as a boiler tender, bookkeeper’s clerk, and telegraph delivery boy. All the while he read to educate himself and worked to mitigate his thick Scottish accent. In 1853, Carnegie landed a job with the Pennsylvania Telegraph Co.

He religiously saved his money and reinvested it in the railroad business. He worked his way up to being superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Western Division and then supervised the Union’s telegraph lines during the Civil War. He continued to make incredibly wise investments with his savings which reaped him handsome dividends. After the war, he left the railroad business and began to focus on building and investing in ironworks. By bringing great efficiency to the business, taking over one steel company after another, and utilizing vertical integration, Carnegie soon created an empire of steel and iron.

In 1901, Carnegie sold his steel holdings to JP Morgan for $480 million. Carnegie had long preached what he called “The Gospel of Wealth,” a philosophy in which a man should aim to acquire as much fortune as possible and then give it away to others. On this point, (unlike several others) Carnegie was a man of his word. During his lifetime he donated $350,695,653 to philanthropic causes; upon his death he gave away the last $30,000,000 of his wealth.

Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915


I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.

Booker T. Washington was often criticized by fellow African-American advocates like WEB DuBois for his approach to helping his people progress. While DuBois felt that the fight for civil rights should have the top priority, Washington argued that blacks had to first work hard, manifest the virtues of industry and thrift, and achieve economic success. Once this occurred, he argued, the rights they sought would naturally follow. While Dubois felt that this approach was harmfully accommodating, such a philosophy was a direct product of Washington’s personal experience, a life which had taught him that man can work to make of himself anything he desires.

Washington grew up as a slave until freed by the 13th amendment. As a freedman, he took work in salt and coal mines before entering Hampton Institute in pursuit of an education. The president of Hampton recommended that Washington be made the head of the newly formed Tuskegee Institute. From this position, Washington soon came to prominence as a nationally known advocate for the uplift and education of African-Americans. His efforts to befriend many of the rich corporate heads of this time and persuade them to donate their money to the education of his fellow freedmen met with great success and led to the building of over 5,000 schools in the rural South. His profile was further raised by the brisk sales of his autobiography, Up from Slavery, and his invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt to become the first African-American to dine at the White House

Milton S. Hershey, 1857-1945


Milton S. Hershey had to face some bitter failure before he was able to achieve sweet success. Hershey was born on a farm in Pennsylvania in 1857. Due to his father’s frequent failed business schemes, the family moved frequently, and Milton’s parents separated. Hershey dropped out of school after the fourth grade. He was then apprenticed to a printer, but did not take to that line of work. He began an apprenticeship with a candymaker and after four years or learning the trade, attempted to open his own shop. This venture failed as did his two subsequent efforts in New York City and Chicago. At age 28, he returned home to Pennsylvania as an unemployed man who had thus far failed to make anything of his life. But Hershey’s luck would soon change; he started a caramel company and this time, his delicious confections caught on.

During his visit to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, he became fascinated by the German chocolate making machines. He purchased them for his Lancaster caramel factory and began producing various chocolaty confections. Sensing the great potential in chocolate treats, Hershey sold his successful caramel company in 1900 for a whopping one million dollars. With this new wealth he bought 40,000 acres of land near Lancaster, Pennsylvania and built the world’s largest chocolate factory and a model town for his employees. He was determined to bring what was then a Swiss luxury product-milk chocolate-to the masses. He tinkered with the formula until Hershey’s milk chocolate was ready to be introduced to the public and become the necessary ingredient for s’mores.

Walt Disney, 1901-1966


The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

The man who would one day create the “happiest place on earth,” experienced a less than idyllic childhood. Walt Disney’s father wandered from one job to another looking to find success, and often needing to rely on his brother to stay afloat. Walt lacked not just financial security, but for affection; his father was a cold and abusive man. Walt was determined to blaze his own path of success and not end up like his dad. At age 16, he dropped out of high school and served in the ambulance corps during World War I. After the war, Disney found work creating ads for businesses in Kansas City. He was fascinated by the emerging field of animation and decided to set up his own animation business. Unable yet to manage money effectively, the business went bankrupt.

Then Disney set up a studio in Hollywood and began turning out cartoons, culminating in the enormously popular Steamboat Willie in 1928. Over the next several years, Disney introduced equally beloved characters such as Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. In 1934, Disney began to work on his most ambitious idea yet: a full-length animated feature. Dubbed “Disney’s folly” by his critics, most thought the idea would spell the demise of the Disney studio. Instead, Snow White and the SevenDwarves was a smashing success. The film was followed by a myriad of other beloved full-length features and animated shorts. In the 1950′s Disney expanded the work of his company to include the production of live-action films. Disney also completed an ambitious project few believed could be a success: the 1955 opening of Disneyland. Disneyworld followed in 1964. Walt always understood the desires of average people. While critics lamented the artificially wholesome world depicted in his family-friendly movies and theme parks, the public fell in love with it and bought into Disney’s vision completely.

Barack Obama, 1961-


Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.

His story is of course well known by now, but it bears repeating,and certainly merits him a spot on this list. Obama’s childhood was far from typical. Obama was born to a white mother and Kenyan father in Hawaii. His father went back to Kenya when he was only 2 and saw his son only once more. His mother married again, this time to an Indonesian, and the family moved to Indonesia. Barack lived there for several years and then returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. Obama graduated from Columbia University, worked as a community organizer in Chicago for 3 years, and then went to Harvard Law School. While there he became the first African-American to be elected as president of the Harvard Law Review. Obama returned to Chicago and spent 12 years as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, and the US Senate in 2004. After only one term as Senator, Obama won the presidential election and became the first black president in United States history.

Ben and Jerry, 1951-


Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were childhood buds who early on bonded over their preference for eating over gym class. After high school, Ben attended and dropped out of several colleges, never quite finding his calling. He eventually took a job teaching pottery on a farm in the Adirondacks. Jerry attended and graduated from Oberlin college. Upon graduation, he unsuccessfully applied for admission to medical school. When the guys met up again, both were rather adrift professionally. They decided to open an ice cream shop in Burlington, Vermont. After taking a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making, they opened their store in a dilapidated gas station. The guys’ rich, chunky ice cream gained a popular following in the community. They soon began selling pints of their ice cream to local grocery stores. During the next several years, Ben and Jerry were able to expand their franchise and by 1988 had stores in 18 states. Ben and Jerry’s became a nationally known brand, and the company was bought by Unilever in 2000 for $326 million dollars, enough to buy a whole mountain of Cherry Garcia.

John Sperling, 1921-

John Sperling was born to a poor sharecropping family and struggled in school. Dyslexic and semiliterate when he graduated from high school, Sperling joined the merchant marines and sailed the world. Along the way, he taught himself to read. During WWII, he served in the Navy. When the war ended, Sperling attended Reed College, completed graduated work at Berkley, and earned his Ph.D from Cambridge; his childhood teachers had clearly underestimated him.

Sperling spent the next couple of decades as a professor, but he never could shake his concern that colleges were filled with the middle and upper classes, while those who were not well-off were left out of academia. At age 53, he decided to do something about it. He tried to bring a program for working adults into the university but was rebuffed. So he created his own university for adults. In 1976, he started the University of Phoenix, a franchise that would quickly expand around the country. This for-profit enterprise not only gave working adults a alternative for regular college, it made John Sperling a billionaire.

David Sarnoff, 1891-1971


Success, in a generally accepted sense of the term, means the opportunity to experience and to realize to the maximum the forces that are within us.

David Sarnoff was born to a poor family in a small Jewish village in what is today Belarus. His talents were recognizable from a young age, and his family planned on David becoming a rabbi. These plans were interrupted when the family emigrated to the United States in 1900. Living in New York City, young David helped support the family by selling newspapers before and after school. Then, when his father was stricken with tuberculosis, David was forced to become the man of the house and its main breadwinner. He found a position as the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. Sarnoff worked hard to educate himself to the ins and outs of the communications business and steadily rose through the company ranks. He paid close attention to the developing radio technology and suggested to his superiors that they begin to design and build a radio for the average consumer. His idea for a “radio music box” was ignored by his bosses at the Marconi company, and his ideas continued to fall on deaf ears when the company was bought by GE and became RCA.

Yet, as the 1920′s dawned and Sarnoff’s predictions about the popularity of radio were proved to be quite prescient, Sarnoff began to get the recognition and respect he deserved. RCA launched NBC radio in 1926, and only a few years later, Sarnoff was made its president. After building the AM radio business into a success, Sarnoff turned his attention to the television, which he sensed was going to be bigger than radio. Sarnoff, now the president of RCA, invested heavily in the research and development of the new technology. His gamble paid off when NBC introduced television to the American public at the 1939 New York’s World Fair. The next day, RCA began selling their television sets in stores. The television business exploded after the war, and Sarnoff again led NBC to dominance by being first to introduce color television to the country.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1947-


For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.

Sharing much in common with another famous actor-turned-governor-of –California, Arnold Schwarzenegger made the improbable leap from bodybuilder and actor to politician. Arnold was born in a small village in Austria. His cold and abusive father was the local police chief, and yet money was always tight for the family. Life in the unhappy household left Arnold determined to leave home and find fame and fortune. Deciding at an early age to make bodybuilding a career, Schwarzenegger started pumping iron at age 14. He also studied psychology to better sharpen his mind’s strength and willpower. Nothing could keep Schwarzenegger from his love of bodybuilding; as a youth he busted into the gym when it was closed on weekends and as a soldier he went AWOL to enter a competition.

Years of sweat and toil paid off when Arnold, at age 20, became the youngest ever winner of the Mr. Universe competition, a title he would win four more times. He continued training while simultaneously attending business school and working at a gym. At age 21, he moved to America to become a star of the silver screen. He continued to compete in bodybuilding and won the Mr. Olympia title seven times.

Arnold’s entrance into film was far more difficult than his workouts. With a thick accent and bulking body, he met many rejections before finally landing roles. After becoming a blockbuster action-star, Schwarzenegger’s next obstacle to conquer was politics. In 2003, overcoming his inexperience, accent, and having appeared in as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin, Arnold won the California recall election and became the governor or California.

{ 115 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Timothy December 28, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Harry Reid? You must be kidding. Self-made, perhaps, but not a fit example for anyone to follow.

2 Thomas December 28, 2008 at 8:12 pm

I’ve been reading this site for a few months and I thought I’d leave my first comment. I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the articles that you guys put out. I’ve never been a fan of most blogs because it seems like the writers just post some thoughts that they pull out of their head and that are found on hundreds of other blogs. But AoM consistently has well-written, well-researched articles on topics that don’t get covered anywhere else. So I thought some kudos were in order. Keep up the good work!

3 ced December 28, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Excellent article and many great men to look up to and follow……all except for Harry Reid, maybe when he was younger but not now.

4 The Man December 28, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Harry Reid….come on. Just because one is self-made, doesn’t make all they do with that achievement admirable.

5 Jigsaw Man December 28, 2008 at 9:54 pm

To the gentlemen above:

I’m not sure this is a list of men to be admired and emulated in all ways. (I may have missed something in the intro, however) This is a list of men who have made their own fortunes. There are a number of people on this list that I disapprove of, but they all qualify for this list.

Frankly, I doubt there is any man at all that should be emulated in all things. No person is without a flaw.

6 Michael Ramirez December 29, 2008 at 12:06 am

Great list, but there is another name that I think should be added. Chris Gardner of Pursuit of Happyness fame fits the bill nicely.

7 Mike Bates December 29, 2008 at 12:15 am

@ Timothy, Thomas, ced, The Man

Whatever. This isn’t a list about political beliefs, just a list of Americans who have managed to pull themselves up through hard work and determination. Let your feelings about Reid’s politics go for one minute and appreciate what the man has gone through and accomplished in his life,

Your friends Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas also made what is an interesting and eclectic mix of men from politics and business. You have to acknowledge, don’t you, that the concept of the self-made man is neither a conservative nor a liberal one. There are a myriad of examples from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as from a variety of industries.

As Brett and Kate write in their intro (you did read that, right?), “here we highlight some of the most extraordinary of these stories….Any time a man’s life is held up for an example, it is incumbent upon the reader to glean the valuable lessons to be learned from that life, while discarding those things which he finds distasteful.”

8 Brian December 29, 2008 at 5:39 am

Only problem is that some of the people on this list like Harry Reid, Lincoln, and Obama make their money by sucking the government teat. That is not being self-made.

I’d remove Shwarzenegger and Reagan from the list except for them both having successful careers before they started their suckling.

9 Frick December 29, 2008 at 6:55 am

Enjoyed the read, thank you.

10 Bradley Looy December 29, 2008 at 7:24 am

You’ve probably heard it said that when a man labeled Winston Churchill a self-made man he replied something like, ““I am glad to hear that, it relieves Almighty God of a fearful responsibility.”

11 Kevin December 29, 2008 at 10:18 am

Great list.

But in keeping with Churchill’s self-deprecating comment, I would recommend that everyone read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. His theme, bolstered by plenty of anecdotes, is that outlying success is almost always a combination of hard work and some collection of circumstances over which the successful person has no control (when they were born, where they were born, educational advantages available to them, etc.). The point is not to deemphasize acheivement, but to stress that hard work is not necessarily the distinction between all outliers and those who do well but not extremely well. Gladwell’s point is that to the extent society generates opportunity that some are able to take advantage of, we should look at ways to create more opportunity for those willing to work hard.

It’s a challenging and thought-provoking premise, worth looking into.

12 Quintus December 29, 2008 at 11:29 am

Good article. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

I’m guessing that this is just focusing on the manly attribute of “working hard.” I think that it would benefit us much more to look at the lives of men who have not only worked hard, but stuck to core “manly” values.

Al Capone was the son of poor Italian immigrants and worked his way up to controlling Chicago through the mafia, but I don’t think he deserves to be on the list. Similarly, I was really surprised to see Sean Combs and a couple others on here. Sure he has made a name for himself, but he has gotten there with songs filled with unmanly language, treating women badly, and promoting violence. I could go on with examples (Hitler, bin Laden) but I think you get the point.

What these people did to get to the top and then how they use their power should be considered; otherwise you lose the “manliness” and just end up with someone grubbing for fortune and fame.

13 bb December 29, 2008 at 1:15 pm

I don’t like or admire a lot of these people, politically, but I understand the point. But Puff Daddy? What is that about? He’s a con man.

14 Bob Smythe December 29, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Barak Obama? Please.

He was raised by rich white people in Hawaii. His grandmother, who recently died, was Vice President of the Bank of Hawaii.
And, because he is 1/2 black, he received affirmative action consideration at every level.

15 Adlyn December 29, 2008 at 1:56 pm

Obama? is that some kind of joke as a black American i would never see him as a moral and upright man. Just look at his policies for abortion, education, the unconstitutional bailout the list goes on and on with this Marxist nutcase and he only got so far because of affirmative action everything I’ve ever wanted i actually had to work for it unlike him. Believe it or not he hasn’t had that much of a hard life apart from and average American. Obama and his followers need to get over themselves.

16 Mitchel December 29, 2008 at 2:04 pm

To the comment on “sucking the government teat”, if someone works hard to achieve a position in life they should reap the reward that position brings them. Would your boss accuses you of sucking the corporate teat every time you were handed your paycheck? I say live life to the fullest and suck hard.

17 Geoff December 29, 2008 at 2:04 pm

So many conservative mongers on this blog……”He’s a liberal…he couldn’t possibly be a self-made man!” I mean if you’re going to bring up affirmative action with Obama, then you have to do it with Clarence Thomas too, no?

Adyln-You clearly didn’t read the intro…these men weren’t picked for their policies, they were picked for being self-made men. Maybe you should get over yourself enough to actually read the post.

18 Britt December 29, 2008 at 4:54 pm

Well, as others have said, this list is not a list of men to be emulated, merely a list of self-made men… Some may argue about the ‘self-madedness’ of one or the other, and I would agree in some cases, however what the underlying argument presented appears to be to me is to take life by the throat and force it to your will, not merely to be a participant, but to over and over again, regardless of lifes little tribulations, to continue picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying again.

19 Beat Attitude December 29, 2008 at 6:14 pm

spelling error: 2nd paragraph of Rockefeller (“pour” should be “pore”, I think!)

pedant :)

20 Allan December 29, 2008 at 6:25 pm

“25 Greatest Self-Made Men In History”

The time line has been truncated, it seems.

21 Brett December 29, 2008 at 6:27 pm


The title is actually “25 of the Greatest Self-Made Men in American History.” Since America “began” in 1776, that seems like a pretty good place to begin the timeline don’t you think?

22 Algernon December 29, 2008 at 7:53 pm

I love this site and comment frequently, but I have to leave my first negative comment after reading this article.
The men listed are definitely self-made, but many seem to have equally negative aspects that weren’t included. Andrew Carnegie, for example, rose to power through sheer determination, but he held onto that power by violently subduing his unions with hired muscle during the Homestead Strike. His 11th hour philanthropy was due more to the urgings of his wife than his own altruism.

23 Benjamin December 29, 2008 at 8:32 pm

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see Bill Gates here. He deserves a spot, as least in my opinion.

24 secret asian man December 29, 2008 at 10:41 pm

Barack Obama? You must be kidding me.

His grandmother who finances his mom’s lifestyle and his college was a banker. His father was a powerful African who went to Harvard Law.

Barack Obama is about as self-made as Louis XVI.

25 Wendy Blackheart December 29, 2008 at 11:10 pm

I like this list – and I have to disagree with everyone who brings up the negatives about the self made men – historically, making oneself, attaining great monetary/politcal/etc heights often requires doing this that aren’t so great. For the most part, we tend to forget about those things, if we even knew about them. (I noticed that no one pointed out that Thomas Edison kind of totally dicked over Tesla)

26 ELK December 29, 2008 at 11:53 pm

I would have like to have seen Clint Eastwood on this list. He grew up in Oakland, and went from B list actor to producing and directing and becoming a major force in Hollywood, even to this day at the age of 78!

27 evoLverR December 30, 2008 at 2:44 am

Yeah, Wendy said it – I’m surprised that Thomas Edison made the list – since its faily known that he made most of his money by stealing Tesla’s patents and thus ruined the life of one of the greatest inventors that ever lived.

I would punch him in the face if i saw him.

( http://www.electroherbalism.com/Bioelectronics/Tesla/TeslaversusEdison.htm)

28 Steven December 30, 2008 at 5:23 am

Hey! You forgot Warren Buffett.

29 Randy December 30, 2008 at 7:32 am

Bill Gates is a huge omission. Also, Harry Reid? Please, his story is very common in politics. I agree with Obama though.

30 Richard Deatherage December 30, 2008 at 7:33 am

Self made men? Reid, president elect and the terminator? I would think that you can do much better than that. They are not even in the same class as the others.

31 Rick December 30, 2008 at 8:02 am

Take another look at Rockefeller and Carnegie! These men are not self made. They only reason they had success was by stepping on the backs of others. Both had companies that were not on the up and up. Standard Oil was a monopoly and broken up for that reason. Carnegie’s steel fortunes were amassed keeping workers from unionizing for better working conditions. If anything these men were at the right place and definitely born in the right time. The only reason they became philanthropists was to clean up a very dirty image.

And the Wall family! Seriously? Thanks for forcing many businesses into the red to get low prices oh and once again fighting organizing efforts of your employees with NO benefits. Oh and don’t forget the class action suit they just settled because they would have for sure lost for not promoting women and paying them less. Great American icon!

32 donny December 30, 2008 at 9:06 am

The politically bias responses are totally lame and not what I expect from the members of this web site. It’s disappointing.

33 wizdom December 30, 2008 at 10:22 am

I’m curious how Puff daddy earned $700 a week deliverying news papers at the age of 12.. $2,800 a month is quiet a bit for a 12 year old.. I had a paper route once. For that kind of money I’d gladly go back to it

34 Jeremy J. December 30, 2008 at 11:16 am

I agree with most of this List. My biggest concern is that, of the 38 comments post only 1 brings up the fact that P-diddy was lumped in with Lincoln, Franklin,Obama. THAT HACK HAS NEVER DONE ANYTHING. He rode on the coattails of Biggie. He never created an original song. He has the dumbest reality tv show (which that alone should remove you from any GREATEST LIST).

35 TRJP December 30, 2008 at 1:03 pm

Sean Combs – self-made man – suuuuuure….

He created the entire music industry – the media which surrounds it – the TV networks which carry his videos and the retail networks which enable worldwide mass-sale of his CDs etc. etc.

Self-made-man MY ARSE – his inclusion in this list is somewhere between bizarre and insulting…

36 The Mameluke December 30, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Ronald Reagan deserves more credit. As a teenager, he performed back-breaking labor to support his family. Reagan knew the meaning of HARD work. He also worked as a lifeguard and saved a ton of people.

37 AmanAmongMen December 30, 2008 at 8:06 pm

I forgot, Barak Obama should not even be mentioned on this list. Surprised to see Ron Paul not make the List.

Paul believes along with with Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and F.A. Hayek that central banking distorts economic decisionmaking and misleads entrepreneurs into making unsound investments. Hayek won the Nobel Prize for showing how central banks’ interference with interest rates sets the stage for economic downturns. And the central bank’s ability to create money out of thin air transfers wealth from the most vulnerable to those with political pull, since it is the latter who receive the new money before the price increases it brings in its wake have yet occurred. For economic and moral reasons, therefore, we join the great twentieth-century economists in opposing the Federal Reserve System, which has reduced the value of the dollar by 95 percent since it began in 1913.

38 BEN NYERENDE December 31, 2008 at 6:00 am


39 tsims December 31, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Great post as usual! I felt compelled to share it with our readers as they begin preparations for the coming year, but thought you missed out on a couple great philanthropists:

Warren Buffett

Truett Cathy

Ted Turner

I also made reference to a great book called “They Made America” that’s full of inspirational details about the lives of some of the greatest American inventors and visioneers of all time.


40 rotten apple December 31, 2008 at 7:43 pm

I agree with Donnie up above.

Political differences shouldn’t matter on this site. If we all manned up we’d be better than most politicians.

I have to admit that I winced at some of the folks selected but they did make something out of nothing. Lets leave the politics for the political blogs. If there were better men on both sides of our political spectrum this country would be a real ring-a-ding-ding!

Off to be a good guest.

Happy New Year to you all


41 AMManess January 1, 2009 at 3:23 am

Arnold… absolutely. I’ve read a lot about him and he really embodies the American dream. Came here with nothing and became greatest bodybuilder, box office superstar and governor of Cali. Amazing.

However, I cannot believe that Bill Gates was not on that list. Like or hate him, he is a self-made billionaire.

42 MRF January 1, 2009 at 3:49 am

The reason Bill Gates and Warren Buffett aren’t on this list is that they are anything but self-made. Warren Buffett’s father was a Congressman and Bill Gates comes from a well-to-do Seattle family.

As for sucking on the government teat, if you disqualify the politicians on the list, you should disqualify Ross Perot as well. EDS made most of its money from government contracts.

43 Steven January 1, 2009 at 5:30 am


Buffett’s weath has nothing to do with his congressman father. According to Buffett’s biography, The American Capitalist, Warren Buffett started collecting pop bottles when he was eight years old. He would take them to the local grocery store and get a penny a piece for them. When Buffett was 11 years old, he bought his first stock. At 16, he sold his stock and bought a farm. At 21, he sold the farm and went back into the market. By the age of 29, he was a millonaire.

Buffett raised his children like he was raised. Warren Buffett does not believe in the National Bank of Dad.

44 Adlyn January 1, 2009 at 6:11 am


He wasn’t self made his Grandmother provided everything for him and only got into the schools he got into was because of Affirmative action not because he got their on merit what a joke.

btw, His father was a powerful African who went to Harvard Law.

There is nothing self-made about him.

45 Paul January 1, 2009 at 8:57 pm

I would include Waite Phillips in this list. He and his brothers started with nothing, started Phillips Petroleum and did lots of philanthropic work.

I agree that folks who started with privileged parents (Gates, Buffet, Obama, etc) and those who got where they are by exploiting women and throwing around the N word (Sean C) should NOT be on the list.

Barack Osama’s mother was vice president of a bank and from what I saw growing up, I wish one of my parents had been VP of a bank! Also, he was elected to the head of Harvard Law Review to appease the demonstrators at Harvard that year who were marching to get more black faculty at Harvard. And, as the parent of an Ivy League graduate, I know that the Ivys entry requirements for minorities are much lower than for the majority.

46 Allen January 3, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Obama is a self made man…
Made by a domestic terrorist and a foundation based on communism and hard left liberalism. He was “made” in the thug world of Chicago politics. The nations seat of corrupt politicians and he learned from the best.

Sean Combs is another joke. He may have come from meager means but if it wasn’t for the coat tails of other artist he been a no name hack.

I was enjoying the read until Combs, then I knew where this road was headed.

47 Daibhre Mac January 5, 2009 at 8:51 am

Forgot Bucky Fuller. Although he didn’t suffer overmuch in his youth, he certainly “made himself” in his adulthood!

48 Dan January 5, 2009 at 11:08 am

“For economic and moral reasons, therefore, we join the great twentieth-century economists in opposing the Federal Reserve System, which has reduced the value of the dollar by 95 percent since it began in 1913.”

Hummm… correct me if I’m wrong but are you trying to place the long term value of the dollar on the shoulders of Federal Reserve? Really?……. What about FDR eliminating the all be it flawed Gold Standard; or Nixon’s ending of the Brentton Woods system? You like many are under the illusion that there are people in control of the economy. The economy is people sir.

49 Jonathan Mead January 5, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Thanks for this awesome list. I agree with most all on it.

The only qualm I have… while Arnold is definitely a self made man, he does not belong in the political realm. He’s done more harm than good in California. He was quoted saying “I want to make the state of California a monetary government.” What the hell?

50 Jeff January 5, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Some people just need to shut their mouths. Some people, yes, I think should not be on this list, but all of them probably did more than any of you guys, and Barrack Obama has a lot of guts running for president. I wouldn’t if I was black for fear of discrimination and getting killed by the KKK.

51 Round-Eye January 6, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Though he did not make his own business, Ray Kroc was a genious! He took a small restaurant and made it boom into a global icon during a recession (even though he made lots of people fat).

52 matt January 7, 2009 at 1:31 pm

For everyone bashing p diddy I just want to let you know you sound down right retarded. You’re basically saying “he’s black we don’t want self-made black people working hard to get out of the hood we want them to stay there and stop making hip hop music with swears and violence”

Really bud, well that’s the reality of where Sean Colmes was from.. did he not make it out of the Harlem projects by himself? Was he not a great entrepreneur? Did he not make it to college and make good money with a good career after? Was his music not sold and made popular? (as with the emergence of modern rap with BIG roots) Did he not sing in front of hundreds of thousands at a super-bowl halftime show?
Bottom line is that his famous name was produced out of a poor affordable housing project complex where many people would not prefer to live. He earned his funds not by distributing cocaine to junkies across NYC, but by doing something meaningful with his life and passion.
His story is much, much more inspirational to someone following his footsteps then what John Rockefeller’s would be.

53 Al January 8, 2009 at 7:35 am

I stopped taking this list seriously when I read Harry Reid’s name. He is a self-made scumbag. Sean Combs? Please. This is just a ploitically correct list. You could have creataed a far better list if you had included good character in your qualifications.

54 Jeff January 13, 2009 at 8:37 pm

@ Al
This is not just a list of political people. It’s about self-made men. And i agree with Matt

55 chris January 18, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Harry Reid? did a women write this?

56 Bill January 18, 2009 at 7:29 pm

If you were to compile a list of all of the self made men, say in the US over the last 400 years, the thousands of men that have broken their backs, calloused their hands, earned cancer from obliviously toiling away in unsafe environments, invented, provided break throughs, provided simple useful products and CREATED WEALTH,

Harry Reid would rank as nothing but a pale limp wristed bureaucrat, who merely reappropriated the wealth of the above real men.

Harry Reid has never invented, cured, provided simple useful products, has NEVER CREATED WEALTH. His specialty, is to reappoint our tax dollars to areas to where he, Nancy Pelosi & Ted Kennedy see fit. He is the antithesis of the self made made man.

Whoever wrote this article is clearly unaware of what hard work is, and has likely never engaged in it, other than writing papers. Probably never fought in a war, slung shot in a ditch, hung drywall, invested or made millions. Its likely the writer of this is your typical genteel provincial liberal white kid, with nice middle class parents who put him through college. I am sorry, but this site is looking gayer by the minute.

57 Ross Wigley January 26, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Barack Obama? That’s downright offensive. He is ANYTHING but a great “self-made” man. He’s downright privileged.

58 Exxon300 January 27, 2009 at 7:52 am

God Bless you President of this United States of America Barack Obama. Much respect just like the rest of the other Presidents.

59 image January 29, 2009 at 12:54 pm

I really have to disagree with Barack Obama being a self-made man not just because I’m politically conservative but just because he really isn’t one. It’s very easy for someone who attends a private high school that costs $16,675 per year to have success doing anything. Not only that but going to a private high school that costs $16,675 a year and spending your teenage years doing cocaine, drinking alcohol, and smoking marijuana seems to me like he just reaped the benefits of a guaranteed success (which is inevitable after going to a top notch high school).

Let’s give the honor of self-made men to those that actually deserve it.

Otherwise, great article.

60 Bill March 1, 2009 at 7:48 am

A subjective list for sure. Lincoln and Ben Franklin get my vote. P Diddy and Obama
sorry. More opportunists than anything.

61 R. W. Bray March 1, 2009 at 9:57 am

and so the truth is revealed… The concept of the “Self-made Man” has been dead far too long. In todays world where men take advantage of the miss fortune of others, it is humbling to note that some of this list are men who withstood opposition at its peek and won! The times ahead will be trialsome for many and those privileged human beings who only by the grace of God have wealth will be tested by the angel of character. The fate of the world rest on the shoulders of Manliness! My hats off to the men who have revealed this hidden truth of honor. Let it be said and now written that the authors of said article be duly added to this list. For any man or men who dare to offer faith and work to a generation as the most prolific form of education and need, have earned their place in the pages of “Self-made Men”

– R.W. Bray

62 Jovita March 12, 2009 at 10:15 am

Thanks, that blog was very helpful as I am just making a presentation on the subject of self-made man :)

63 mouslem May 23, 2009 at 10:02 pm

you r wrong all of you the gratest man in history in all categories is
the prophet mouhamad
the prophet mouhamad makes islam and islam is wake up from the dark that all
the people leave it in history to the happyness with themes selfves and with god
that give me and you this a life like a test for god works or bad
so islam is the way to heaven !!!!!!! the mouslem samih al sheghry
lebanon tripoli

64 Anthony Benjamin June 5, 2009 at 4:07 am

The is not a static place, most of the comments on forum is subjective. The list of self-man is objective. Meaning to be great is to overcome great obstacles and they all did challenged the status accepted notions on how things should be than how it ought to. Ron Paul forgets that he is living in the 21 century where money is no longer based on nails, sea shells or even the gold standard. Even though I am a fan of Austrian school of economics society at large most of the individuals are irrational and such an economical model wouldn’t me applicable to all. Austrian school is only applicable the rationalists

65 E. T. Duke July 13, 2009 at 12:43 am

Personally I think this is a pretty good list. My only objection is either the omission or slipping between the cracks of Alexander Hamilton. From wikipedia:

Alexander Hamilton was the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, a Founding Father, economist, and political philosopher. He led calls for the Philadelphia Convention, was one of America’s first Constitutional lawyers, and cowrote the Federalist Papers, a primary source for Constitutional interpretation.

where did he come from? Born on a small island in the Caribbean He received nothing from his father save his family name, and his mother died when he was only 13. Since his parents were never married Hamilton could not attend catholic school. To get through this he got tutoring from a Jewish school (something that no good christian at the time would permit themselves to do) and read all the books from his bygone parents library. When he was about 16 he got a job with a local import/export merchant, where he began to meet many of the well to do merchants trying to ship their goods off the island. He so impressed these wealthy families that only a year later they paid for him to travel to New Jersey to receive a real education. If you’re interested in the rest of the story check out Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

66 Ali July 25, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Great People.

67 zethembiso August 12, 2009 at 6:24 pm

wonderful portray of what success is. thanks for the very usefull, contsructive and posetive article. you work is highly appreciated and well-esteemed . May GOD almighty blees you

68 salw August 27, 2009 at 10:22 am

i like Larry Ellison the most.

69 saleer September 27, 2009 at 7:32 am

Benjamin Franklin my choice

70 JOhn October 1, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Andrew Jackson?

71 Justin October 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm

I think this is a pretty good list. I’m glad you focused on rags to riches stories and didn’t include people like Bill Gates or Michael Dell. Although, I thought you might include Rockefeller, Walton, Or Buffett over Kroc.

72 Johnny the Freemason December 6, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Dear er…. “sirs” that insist on crying about politics:

Just because you don’t agree with a person’s politics, does not mean they have not successfully made their own way in life. I’m not nuts about Reid… or Arnold for that matter, but let’s be honest Rocker, Combs and Thomas were/are dirtbags in their respective ways, and Edison was a bully to his staff and stole ideas from other geniuses (the radio *ahem*- Tesla and Marconi had far more to do with it).

Admittedly there are men on this list that are a bit sketchy, but to decry someone based on POLITICAL views, c’mon! As a staunch moderate (or libertarian depending on the issue) if you’re going to cry about Reid being on here based on politics alone, go back to listening to that pill popping, elitist, tub of a hypocrite Rush.

…I’ll just be over in the corner beating my skull on the wall, waiting patiently for a third party solution to join the two-party clusterf***.

73 DEZ December 14, 2009 at 2:16 pm

not 2marrow but soon….u will see my name and picture and story above these comments……GOD BLESS EVERYONE

74 E.C. Walker December 30, 2009 at 8:55 am

Kind of wish that W. Clement Stone had made the list. Born poor, he built Combined Insurance from himself selling small policies in a one room headquarters, to a massive corporation through his philosophy of “Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude”.

And the entire list, basically meets it. Started with less then nothing and a lot of the time no formal education, and through hard work, planning, sacrifice, and good ole’ mental sweat, built themselves empires and lives worthy of emulation and praise.

Good article.

75 RoY January 17, 2010 at 6:32 pm

You put 3 of the worst presidents of all time on here….

76 Anuj Gosalia January 20, 2010 at 6:35 am

Hi Folks,
I love your website, the way you write and the kind of desire it evokes within me to become a better man. Thank you for the Art of Manliness. It’s phenomenal!

77 Harry reid February 2, 2010 at 11:26 am

harry reid hahaha thats a great name!!!! hahahahaha!!!!!!

78 harry reid February 2, 2010 at 11:29 am

harry reid thats an awsome name

79 Ryan February 2, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Weird…the two people that most people have problems with are black.

Must just be a coincidence…

80 Taz February 9, 2010 at 10:57 pm

As a black man I can say Puffy is an idol of many, he wasn’t a king, he was king maker in hiphop who became king. Now if you don’t like rap that’s cool but you can’t deny his business savvy the ability to maneuver in what Hunter S. Thompson called…a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free.

I agree Obama is not a self made man at all.

I would say Young Farah Gray is the perfect example of a self made man. Google him.

81 Robert Simpson March 4, 2010 at 5:53 am

I have to comment on the ignorance based Obama bashing going on here. Saying that Obama had a privileged youth is pure folly. The recurrent ‘His dad went to Harvard’ and ‘his mother was vice president of a bank’ are just ridiculous. His dad left when he was two and returned to Africa to be briefly seen once again in his life. He never contributed a penny to his family. His mother was a single mother who’s job was not much higher than a teller in the bank and she made $8,000 a year. She could not afford even a car and took the bus most of her career. He lived for 7 years in Indonesia with a step dad that was a failed politician that scraped for every penny. Priviledged?
He got into university because he was an outstanding student. He did drugs and booze? Those were the times and so what, so did most of the participants on this list. I don’t have the insider knowledge to say how he got into Harvard but why does it matter whether there was affirmative action or not. He was one of their best students anyways and didn’t need affirmative action. As for sucking on the governments teat, he could have been making $500,000 a year in corp law for decades rather than making much less than that as a senator or a president. (his wife nearly divorced him because of his low earnings). Obama became president as a vocation, not for the glory or the money. He took the job with two ongoing wars and a collapse of the world economic system that was going to make the ‘Dirty Thirties’ look clean. Whether you agree with his policies or not, the black, lower middle class son of a single mother became the most powerful man in the world. That is the definition of a self made man and what America is all about. BTW, I am Canadian.

82 milo April 11, 2010 at 3:27 am

These are great men who inspite of their humble beginnings have achieved extraordinary things in their lifetime, benefitting not just themselves but humanity. The passion they have in their lives readily inspires and puts fire into others. Great Work!

83 chris April 17, 2010 at 2:07 am

Dwight D. Eisenhower. A small town boy from Kansas joins the military and goes on to become the Supreme Allied Commander, leads the D-Day invasion and then goes on to become president of the U.S.A.

84 Dariush April 25, 2010 at 1:32 pm

that was a good article and thank you.

85 This is for Jay Bird: Special delivery May 11, 2010 at 9:00 am

Dear Jay,
I know you are entering manhood. I’m proud of you. I’m excited for you.
This is part of my contribution to your readiing endeavors. May you continue to read and grow in knowledge. May wisdom keep watch over you.
To My Nephew:
From: Aunt FiFi

86 opolot david vincent June 1, 2010 at 7:44 am

It is interesting to read about great men in history and an inspiration to achieve the greatest overtime.

87 Jeff C. July 4, 2010 at 10:28 am

Barack Obama being privileged? HA!

I’ve heard this one before and I hardly understand the argument. Why don’t people take the time to do simple research and discover the history of his family before spouting off some canned partisan political point.

First, he was raised by his single mother and grandparents in a small apartment in Honolulu. They worked hard to put him through a good school, but it isn’t exactly like his tuition was funded by a trust fund. His grandfather never found a vocation. His grandmother began her career as a bank teller in a bank, taking the bus everyday to work. She rose to the position of vice-president of the bank after 30 years of hard work in her own right.

As for his college, I’m sure that he received scholarships and grants – but he also took out loans to pay for his undergrad and law school. He was still paying for his college loans until “Audacity of Hope” became a best seller.

Also, you don’t get on the Law Review any where just by being black. It has to do with your grades, which are done anonymously (at least this has been my experience of law school). Those that finish in the top of their class are invited to join. Obama becoming President of the Law Review was a matter of working with different political factions.

88 Elmas August 13, 2010 at 9:27 am

Harry Reid and Barack Obama?

These monsters wish to truly GOVERN AND RULE people, not let them alone. Not let them pursue their own happiness.

“But free, independent men are truly hated by our ‘leaders,’ who are power-lusters first class. ‘Governing’ otherwise free men — making them think and act in ways free men might not otherwise think or act — is their chief and principal end. If the element of compulsion or force were not woven into their laws, they would have no interest in such legislation — they would have no reason to act, no reason to seek office, no reason to persuade their future serfs and slaves that it is in their best interests to become serfs and slaves.” (Ayn Rand).

I’m appalled that these two monsters are on the same list as Benjamin Franklin who along our other founding fathers laid it all on the line to fight against what was then the mightiest military force known to man in order to gain our freedom.

89 John_II August 14, 2010 at 3:35 am

Harry Reid? Obama? These guys are lying scumbags. Reid is a scumbag. Obama was raised by rich white grandparents. Obama is a lying Marxist scumbag. Shame on you for including those SOB’s in the list.

90 Han November 12, 2012 at 8:59 am

You forgot Steve Jobs.

91 Charles Savoie December 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Rockefeller, Carnegie, Sarnoff, Truman and Reagan were members of The Pilgrims Society. What’s is about? See link or do Google search.

92 A Snyders January 4, 2013 at 11:28 am

Sean Combs, 1969-
Comparing him to Edison and some others who will truly go down in history is like comparing A Big Mac to a Steak.

Being truly successful is not about money.

Put all these men and their wealth together and they still could not come up with a cure for cancer.

Edison cured using candles.

Most of the others? I won’t waste my time trying to to find our what they truly achieved other then make a lot of money for themselves.

93 ulysse January 14, 2013 at 2:22 pm

you might wanna talk about

_Benjamin Graham_

as well

94 Thiago January 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm

All you guys bickering about Sean combs, buffett, gates are PATHETIC. Sean Combs came from the bottom up. You may not like his music or his lyrics but he is a true entrepreneur and businessman. And Buffett coming from a well to do family? So what! There are millions of people that come good families yet VERY few worth 50 billion dollars. Self made means you didn’t inherit your money. Pathetic people always try to make excuses for others success to make themselves feel better for their own lack of it! Grow some balls, go hustle hard and stop hating!

95 R J Joel February 28, 2013 at 6:01 am

i am sorry where is steve jobs in your list its

96 Ginny March 1, 2013 at 10:22 pm

You didn’t mention the women, though I believe their stories mirror these. Why not mention the women?

97 Adogo dickens July 14, 2013 at 7:43 am

i wish to see a ugandan on the list e.g idi amin

98 Kabanica July 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Great piece. Though some naysayers try to smear it with their nonsensical comments. I don’t understand why some people can’t just appreciate what others do, enjoy and do yours or shut up.

99 cman033 August 2, 2013 at 12:43 am

Where was Nikola Tesla

100 turism in tara August 4, 2013 at 7:13 am

super acest lucru este minunat am gasit ceva la fel aici la WZY.
RO :) imi place

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