Consider the Self-Made Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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