Manvotional: Self-Made Men by Frederick Douglass

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 11, 2009 · 16 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals


Once a very popular and inspiring ideal, the concept of the self-made man has fallen into disfavor in our modern times. In a day when men often shirk personal responsibility, people excuse their failings with the victim card and everything is a “disease” over which we have no control, people are cynical that a man can really become whatever he chooses by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. We want to believe that luck was really the determining factor in a successful man’s achievements, thus excusing ourselves from own failures by believing we were simply not as fortunate.

Frederick Douglass thought that such rationalizations were crap, and he had the right to think so. He rose from the shackles of slavery to become an author, newspaper publisher, and respected abolitionist. What was possible for him, he sincerely believed was possible for any man who was willing to work hard. His ideas on the subject were superbly summed up in his “Self-Made Men” speech, which during his life was his most popular and sought after lecture. A Philadelphia newspaper called it “noble and eloquent,” and full of “richness of thought and manly sentiment.”

It’s truly a masterful work and will inspire a man to believe that he is indeed the captain of his destiny. In my searches of the net, the only place I have found it is here, in image format. Such an important speech deserves a greater audience and accessibility, so I have transcribed some of the best excerpts. It is quite a bit longer than a tweet, but infinitely worth your time and study.

Self-Made Men

By: Frederick Douglass

That there is, in more respects than one, something like a stoicism in this title, I freely admit. Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist,

Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed, or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered. It must in truth be said, though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth of wealth and originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellowmen, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation. The brotherhood and interdependence of mankind are guarded and defended at all points. . .

Nevertheless, the title of my lecture is eminently descriptive of a class and is, moreover, a fit and convenient one for my purpose, in illustrating the idea which I have in view…Self-made men are the men who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps of favoring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position and  have learned from themselves the best uses to which life can be put in this world, and in the exercises of these uses to build up worthy character. They are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, or friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. . . They are in a peculiar sense indebted to themselves for themselves. If they have traveled far, they have made the road on which they have travelled. If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder . . . Such men as these, whether found in one position or another, whether in the college or in the factory; whether professors or plowmen; whether Caucasian or Indian; whether Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African, are self-made men and are entitled to a certain measure of respect for their success and for proving to the world the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or color.

Though a man of this class need not claim to be a hero or to be worshipped as such, there is 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 and resources 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 the battle of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes and a larger courage.

The Theory of Self-Made Men

The various conditions of men and the different uses they make of their powers and opportunities in life, are full of puzzling contrasts and contradictions. Here, as elsewhere, it is easy to dogmatize, but it is not so easy to define, explain and demonstrate. The natural laws for the government, well-being and progress of mankind, seem to be equal and are equal; but the subjects of these laws everywhere abound in inequalities, discords, and contrast. We cannot have fruit without flowers, but we often have flowers without fruit. The promise of youth often breaks down in manhood, and real excellence often comes unheralded and from unexpected quarters.

The scene presented from this view is as a thousand arrows shot from the same point and aimed at the same object. United in aim, they are divided in flight. Some fly too high, others too low. Some go to the right, others to the left. Some fly too far, and others, not far enough, and only a few hit the mark. Such is life. United in the quiver, they are divided in the air. Matched when dormant, they are unmatched in action.

When we attempt to account for greatness we never get nearer to the truth than did the greatest of poets and philosophers when he classified the conditions of greatness: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” We may take our choice of these three separate explanations and make which of them we please, most prominent in our discussion. Much can certainly be said of superior mental endowments, and I should on some accounts, lean strongly to that theory, but for numerous examples which seem, and do, contradict it, and for the depressing tendency such a theory must have on humanity generally.

This theory has truth in it, but it is not the whole truth. Men of very ordinary faculties have, nevertheless, made a very respectable way in the world and have sometimes presented even brilliant examples of success. On the other hand, what is called genius is often found by the wayside, a miserable wreck; the more deplorable and shocking because from the height from which it has fallen and the loss and ruin involved in the fall. . .

I do not think much of the good luck theory of self-made men. It is worth but little attention and has no practical value. An apple carelessly flung into a crowd may hit one person, or it may hit another, or it may hit nobody. The probabilities are precisely the same in this accident theory of self-made men.  It divorces a man from his own achievements, contemplates him as a being of chance and leaves him without will, motive, ambition and aspiration. Yet the accident theory is among the most popular theories of individual success. It has about it the air of mystery which the multitudes so well like, and withal, it does something to mar the complacency of the successful.

It is one of the easiest and commonest things in the world for a successful man to be followed in his career through life and to have constantly pointed out this or that particular stroke of good fortune which fixed his destiny and made him successful. If not ourselves great, we like to explain why others are so. We are stingy in our praise to merit, but generous in our praise to chance. Besides, a man feels himself measurably great when he can point out the precise moment and circumstance which made his neighbor great. He easily fancies that the slight difference between himself and his friend is simply one of luck. It was his friend who was lucky but it might easily have been himself. Then too, the next best thing to success is a valid apology for non-success. Detraction is, to many, a delicious morsel. The excellence which it loudly denies to others it silently claims for itself. It possesses the means of covering the small with the glory of the great. It adds to failure that which it takes from success and shortens the distance between those in front and those in the rear. Even here there is an upward tendency worthy of notice and respect. The kitchen is ever the critic of the parlor. The talk of those below is of those above. We imitate those we revere and admire.

But the main objection to this very comfortable theory is that, like most other theories, it is made to explain too much. While it ascribes success to chance and friendly circumstances, it is apt to take no cognizance of the very different uses to which different men put their circumstances and their chances.

Fortune may crowd a man’s life with fortunate circumstances and happy opportunities, but they will, as we all know, avail him nothing unless he makes a wise and vigorous use of them. It does not matter that the wind is fair and the tide at its flood, if the mariner refuses to weigh his anchor and spread his canvas to the breeze. The golden harvest is ripe in vain if the farmer refuses to reap. Opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable. . .

When we find a man who has ascended heights beyond ourselves; who has a broader range of vision than we and a sky with more stars in it in than we have in ours, we may know that he has worked harder, better and more wisely than we. He was awake while we slept. He was busy while we were idle and was wisely improving his time and talents while we were wasting ours . . .

I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor of physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man, at times, gets something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of the mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. A man that lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening. …

From these remarks it will be evident that, allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker. Everyone may avail himself of this marvelous power, if he will. There is no royal road to perfection. Certainly no one must wait for some kind of friend to put a springing board under his feet, upon which he may easily bound from the first round of their ladder onward and upward to its highest round. If he waits for this, he may wait long, and perhaps forever. He who does not think himself worth saving from poverty and ignorance by his own efforts, will hardly be thought worth the efforts of anybody else.

The lesson taught at this point by human experience is simply this, that the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just and beneficent. I know of no other rule which can be substituted for it without bringing social chaos. Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within. . .

In the idea of exertion, of course fortitude and perseverance are included. We have all met a class of men, very remarkable for their activity, and who yet make but little headway in life; men who, in their noisy and impulsive pursuit of knowledge, never get beyond the outer bark of an idea, from a lack of patience and perseverance to dig to the core; men who begin everything and complete nothing; who see, but do not perceive; who read, but forget what they read, and are as if they had not read; who travel but go nowhere in particular, and have nothing of value to impart when they return. Such men may have greatness thrust upon them but they never achieve greatness. …

But in this awarding praise to industry, as the main agency in the production and culture of self-made men, I do not exclude other factors of the problem. I only make them subordinate. Other agencies cooperate but this is the principal one and the one without which all others would fail.

But another element of the secret of success deserves a word. That element is order, systematic endeavor. We succeed, not alone by the laborious exertions of our faculties, be they small or great, but by the regular, thoughtful and systematic exercise of them. Order, the first law of heaven, is itself a power. The battle is nearly lost when your lines are in disorder. Regular, orderly and systematic effort which moves without friction and needless loss of time or power; which has a place for everything and everything in its place; which knows just where to begin, how to proceed and where to end, though marked by no extraordinary outlay of energy of activity, will work wonders, not only in the matter of accomplishment, but also in the increase of the ability of the individual. It will make the weak man strong and the strong man stronger; the simple man wise and the wise man, wiser and will insure success by the power and influence that belong to habit . . .

There is still another element essential to success, and that is, a commanding object and a sense of its importance. The vigor of the action depends upon the power of the motive. . . Work is not often undertaken for its own sake. The worker is conscious of an object worthy of effort, and works for that object; not for what he is to it, but for what it is to him. All are not moved by the same objects. Happiness is the object of some. Wealth and fame are the objects of others. But wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of men, and thus, to them, these are not motive-impelling objects. Happily, however, personal, family and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations to earnest endeavor, if we would but respond to their influence.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stan Geronimo July 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Add Ralph Waldo Emerson to the list.

2 Andrew Galasetti July 12, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Excellent post! I’ve always been an admirer of Frederick Douglass. I agree that there’s really no such thing as luck. The way you become “lucky” is by working your ass off and persisting.


3 Ricky July 13, 2009 at 5:39 am

Anyone who denies the existence of luck denies the existence of probability.

4 Ed July 13, 2009 at 10:20 am

Well said, Ricky.

As it so happens I almost fell foul of the core piece of learning in this lecture; I read the first half and assumed how the rest would go/got bored/got distracted so set about typing a comment a snippet of which is below.

“The thing that must always be considered here is that being a ‘self-made man’ with a reference to being someone that’s succeeded in business is not an aspiration that can be applied to everyone. Everyone knows that Alan Sugar isn’t the sharpest tool in the box but he got where he is today through hard work, a bit of in-built business acumen, and a smattering of luck. Well done to him. However, there is nothing about the man that inspires me beyond reminding me that a bit of hard work over and above your course of duty can pay dividends. ”

However, I then checked myself and realised how foolhardy it would be to comment on such a well received lecture without first taking the whole thing in. How correct a course this proved to be.

To what am I referring exactly? Well, in the closing two lines Fredrick holds up my very thoughts that different men have different motivations. So here’s to perseverance and hard work… oh, and AoM, of course!

5 Paul Maurice Martin July 13, 2009 at 11:29 am

FD was a wonderful combination of manliness and class. On a cautionary note, I’ve heard more than one news report in recent years that upward mobility in America is at an all time low. Among the industrialized nations, only England ranks lower. The best predictor of weatlh in America? Your parents’ wealth.

6 Jeff Hodgson July 14, 2009 at 12:26 am

The problem is cultural.

7 BM July 14, 2009 at 12:39 am

Our culture has a unique double standard that adores and admires self made and driven individuals and on the other hand denigrates and despises those men for “Chasing Money” and “Not Spending Time With family”. What a lot of people fail to realize that no one innovates or build up successful business from scratch by working 40 Hrs/Week.

8 Bjorn July 14, 2009 at 3:58 pm

A lot of people like to think that most millionaires are rich because they had things handed to them on a silver platter, or because they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. The reality is that most millionaires are self made, and had to work hard to get where they are. The book “The Millionaire Next Door” says that fully 80% of millionaires are first generation affluent.

9 Brucifer July 14, 2009 at 5:22 pm

I’d like to make this piece REQUIRED READING for every young black male in America. So-called “Black Culture” would be a whole lot better (as would all of America) if young black males (all young males, actually) would follow the lead of Frederick Douglass instead of like, Snoop Dog.

10 Tuplad July 20, 2009 at 8:17 am


11 Green Lantern July 21, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Probability and Luck are opposing concepts. Probability is a calculated outcome, taking into account the forces and pressures of a present situation. Luck is the supposition that given the pressures and forces in effect, a highly probable outcome is baseless. Action based on probability is a realistic approach to becoming a “Made Man.” Inaction based on the supposition that Luck is all you need/have/want, is ludicrous. Thank you Frederick for hope that probability can prevail. Thank you Ellison for keeping it real.

12 Rogue One December 14, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Douglass was and is such an inspiration. Probability is a simple minded way of excusing luck. Fractal theory being the most obvious, yet negating as irrelevant the sheer “chaos” of reality. Were it not true there enver would have been a Fredrick Douglass, as an example.

13 Jon March 4, 2013 at 10:34 am

Probability and luck are completely different. If it is probable for an individual to be successful at x, then success at x cannot be obtained through luck or chance but only through work and the application of the proper methods.

14 Conor May 16, 2013 at 4:32 am

“You don’t get lucky, you create lucky.”
- Rob Sharma

“Chance favors the prepared.”
- Louis Pasteur

15 yog-sothoth April 9, 2014 at 8:32 pm

These are some good snippets from the speech. However, I was recently reading the whole speech for a paper, and I think there are some other points that need to be included for this to completely make sense, because Douglass was very clear that work isn’t the only important aspect of success there’s already so much inequality. Yes, he says that

“…*allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity,* we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!”

but that’s only when comparing two people from similar backgrounds who achieve different levels of success. Douglass warns against comparing a successful white man raised in a middle class home with a newly freed slaves, and insists that you can only compare people who’ve had the same amount of opportunity.

So in answer to the criticisms of young black men leveled by users Brucifer and Jeff Hodgson, I’d like to quote Douglass:

“It is not fair play to start the negro out in life, from nothing and with nothing, while others start with the advantage of a thousand years behind them. He should be measured, not by the heights others have obtained, but from the depths from which he has come.”

The problem is not just cultural, and young African Americans aren’t just led awry by Snoop Dog. The issue for many poor black men is that they are coming out of poverty-stricken cities with terrible public education and high crime rates. So please, don’t use this speech to criticize anyone who hasn’t succeeded when the opportunities they’ve been given have been so different. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to succeed. They have far fewer chances.

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