Consider the Self-Made Man

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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