Is there really such a thing as a self-made man or woman? The common wisdom of the progressive left is no, as famously expressed by President Barack Obama when he said “you didn’t build that.” Obama went on to say that anyone’s success is because of the circumstances created by government policy and government spending. This implies that everyone has a duty to government service, and even worse, it implies that successful people have a duty to “give back.” To believe this drivel is to ignore two facts – that self-made men and women pay for everything, and that our government exists by the consent of the governed.
These are the self-made men and women who gave us the most free and comfortable living standards the world has ever known. Yet we owe them no duty, just admiration and gratitude. Frederick Douglass is the Poetic Justice Warrior who epitomizes this, and who created and delivered the Self-Made Men lectures in 1872.
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.
Perhaps no one in American history has a better claim to the title self-made man than the one who escaped slavery to become one of the America’s greatest anti-slavery activists, and an author, lecturer, and diplomat.
The Self-Creation Process
The Self-Made Men lectures celebrated heroic figures who rose from obscurity through their own hard work. Douglass referred to engineers, poets, political revolutionaries, and industrialists. “If they climbed high, they built their own ladders.” But Douglass also acknowledges the role of contemporaries and predecessors in helping everyone create their own fortunes.
Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strewn, we have gathered. The brotherhood and inter-dependence of mankind are guarded and defended at all points.
Yet, this does not diminish the idea that everyone has the capacity for self-creation, as this draw my life video demonstrates, and Douglass knew how it was done and what it meant. Self-made men do not accomplish their status through luck or fate. They accomplish it with vision, ingenuity, and perseverance, or as Douglass put it – WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!
One thing Douglass never told his audience was to follow your dreams. To him, this would encourage passivity and negate self-reliance. While dreams are important, they are the easy part. For Douglass, to have ambition, will, and aspirations is very self-regarding, and this is necessary for self-creation. It has nothing to do with service to your fellow man, that is a natural consequence of living free and with dignity, or what Douglass calls “mutual esteem.” And to Douglass, self-creation has an aesthetic quality:
Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul. There is in the contemplation of art, an unconscious comparison constantly going on in the mind of the pure forms of beauty and excellence, which are without, to those which are within and native to human heart. It is process of soul-awakening self-revelation. Art is both an expression of ideals, and a means by which we can contemplate those ideals more objectively.
As biographer Timothy Sandefur says about Douglass’ philosophy, “making art plays a role in self-creation and self-definition. The self-made man is like an artist who sculpts his life and his actions to reflect his model of the ideal.”
Asserting One’s Abilities
During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass served as recruiting officer for the Union Army. However, he never urged black Americans to enlist out of service to their country. They owed the country nothing. To Douglass, the United States owed black Americans the right to fight, to be free to assert themselves, to build their sense of self-worth. As he famously said, “citizenship rests on three boxes – the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.” Douglass was not an advocate of non-violence, but an enemy of those who initiate force. Or as he put it during recruiting speeches, “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” In other words, the threat and use of violence shackles you, don’t depend on others to win your freedom and dignity.
In April 1863, Douglass published a letter encouraging blacks to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In it he gave nine reasons to enlist. The first one was a question of action or inaction. Another reason was that, “every Negro-hated and slavery-lover in the land regards the arming of Negroes as a calamity and is doing its best to prevent it.” Others include the necessity for learning the use of firearms, defending themselves against accusations of cowardice, and taking ownership of their freedom, dignity, and self-respect. The eighth reason was to help prevent America from drifting back into pro-slavery compromise at the end of the war, which was Douglass’ greatest fear.
What Douglass wrote was echoed over 100 years later by Poetic Justice Warrior Ayn Rand in her address to the graduating class at West Point in 1974, “The defense of one’s country means that a man is personally unwilling to live as the conquered slave of any enemy, foreign or domestic.”
The Romantic Manifesto
Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, and someone who delivered lectures on the new science of picture making. He said about asserting one’s self in this gentler context:
Making pictures is one of the most basic aspects of what it means to be human. Picture making is the process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, so that it becomes the subject of astute observation and contemplation. When we make pictures, we make an abstract ideal concrete.
His portraits are unsmiling, intentionally so. He refused to play into the caricature of the happy, docile slave. Much like early 20th century black leaders such as J. B. Stradford, O. W. Gurley, and W. E. B. DuBois refused to be referred to by their first names by white men. It was a blatant form of condescension in the Jim Crow South. But Douglass’ sense of life was utterly romantic. His favorite authors were Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Lord Byron because of their timeless characters of nobility, idealism and strength. Douglass was also a dedicated advocate for women’s suffrage, he understood clearly that female slaves suffered most. As Douglass explains in his autobiography.
Conscience is an interior dialogue with the self, and slavery obliterates it. The self-made man who asserts his ability and becomes an independently real person, cannot outsource the functions of conscience. On the contrary, he seeks to bolster his conscience, and exercise it more vigorously over his actions so that the story of his life as whole will be a comprehensive, focused, and rewarding one.
A Poetic Justice Warrior like Douglass would never submit to the unchosen obligations of the social justice warrior who boasts “you didn’t build that.”