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The Trials and Triumphs of Self-made Men: An Address Delivered in Halifax, England, on January 4, 1860



Halifax Courier, 7 January 1860. Another text in Halifax Guardian, 7 January 1860.

Douglass discoursed on “Self-Made Men” on many occasions over a thirty-
five-year period of his speaking career. The first versions of the speech date
from a tour of Illinois and Wisconsin in February 1859. The present text, the
earliest surviving published text of the lecture, features a section comparing
American and British views on upward mobility, which Douglass most likely
added to capture the interest of his listeners at Mechanics’ Hall in Halifax,
England. On that occasion a large crowd heard the Reverend H. O. Crofts,
who presided, introduce Douglass with a brief biographical sketch suggesting
Douglass’s own qualifications as a “self-made man. ” Whatever reservations
Douglass may have had regarding the delivery of a speech dealing with
neither slavery nor reform to a foreign audience must have faded with the
enthusiastic reception accorded the two-hour address. According to the Leeds
Mercury. the crowd listened “throughout with marked attention” to an ora-
tion that was “fresh and original both in . . . manner and . . . subject.” At
its close, the meeting voted its thanks to Douglass. See Appendix A. text 3,
for a précis of an alternate text. Janesville (Wisc.) Gazette, 11 February 1859;
Leeds Mercury, 7 January 1860.

The LECTURER on rising was received with immense cheering. He said: I
appear before you this evening in an unaccustomed position. I usually
speak in public on the subject of American slavery, and it is supposed by
some in my country that a coloured man has not thoughts worth listening to
on any other subject. Partly with a view to show the fallacy of this notion,
and partly to give expression to what I think sound and important views of
life, I have prepared this lecture.

The various uses to which men put the brief space of human existence,
and the proportion which their success in the world bears to their several
opportunities, are subjects worthy of the attention and study of all men, and
especially of those who have something of life still in prospect. It may not
be of very serious consequence, what views of life are presented and urged
upon the attention of those who have grown old and hardened in the violent
and long continued abuse of life’s best privileges. Under the whole heav-
ens there is not a sadder sight—a more affecting and melancholy specta-
cle—than such men present to the eye of a thoughtful man. Standing upon
the very verge of misspent time, and looking back only upon wasted


opportunities, a whole life wantonly flung away, such men stud the field of
human existence only as warnings. And sad warnings they are. The chance
to redeem the time for themselves has come and gone, never to return. The
past is covered with regrets. the present is without the life and inspirations
of hope, and the future is mantled in gloom.

But to the young, with all the bright world before them where to
choose, the case is widely and cheeringly different. By wisdom, by
firmness, and by a manly and heroic self—denial, these may wholly escape
the sharp and flinty rocks, the false lights, and the treacherous shores, the
tempest, and the whirlwinds of passion and sin which have sent other
voyagers to the bottom wrecked and ruined. Life is the world’s greatest and
most significant fact. It is the grand reality that realizes all other realities.
All that man can know of the dim and shadowy past, and of the solemn and
mysterious future have their explanation mainly in this one great fact. It is
the now that makes the then, and the here that makes the hereafter to us all.
Death itself is only predicated of life, and itself can only comprehend

Without trenching upon the forbidden domains of theology, I may
venture to say, that if this life shall only be regarded as an individual fact,
standing alone, having no relations or bearings, full and complete in itself,
wholly independent of, and disconnected with, any other state or place, we
still find it a most glorious fact, and crowded with arguments the most
convincing, and with motives the most powerful, in favour of the construc-
tion and cultivation of a true and manly character. Such are the transcen-
dent rewards of virtue, knowledge, wisdom, and power, even in this life,
and the certain misery which a life of inaction, vice, and ignorance entails,
that man is ever under the pressure of the highest motives in favour of self-
culture and self-improvement.

How to make the best of this life, as a thing of and for itself,—viewed
apart from those other considerations to which I have alluded,—must ever
be an important and useful enquiry. For he who has best fitted himself to
live and serve his fellow men on earth has best fitted himself to live and
serve his God in Heaven. While in the world, a man’s work is with the
world and for the world. It is something to be a man among shady trees and
stately halls—but much more to be a man among men, full of the cares,
labours, and joys of this life. It is good to think that in Heaven, all injustice,
all wrong, all wars, all ignorance, and all vice, will be at an end; but how
incomparably better is it, to wage a vigorous war upon these blighting evils


and drive them from the present, so that the will of God may be done on
earth as in heaven—(cheers).1Douglass paraphrases a portion of the Lord's Prayer. Matt. 6: 10, Luke 11: 2.

There have been many daguerrotypes taken of life. They are as various
as they are numerous. Each picture is coloured according to the lights and
shades surrounding the artist. To the sailor, life is a ship, richly freighted,
and with all sail spread to the breeze. To the farmer, life is a fertile field
waving with its golden harvests. To the architect, it stands out as a
gorgeous palace or temple, with its pillars, domes, towers, and turrets. To
the great dramatic poet, all the world is a stage, and men but players;*Douglass alludes to Shakespeare's As You Like It, act 2. sc. 7, lines 139—40. but to
all mankind, the world is a vast school. From the cradle to the grave, the
oldest and the wisest, not less than the youngest and the simplest, are but
learners; and those who learn most, seem to have most to learn—(hear.

The lecturer then spoke at some length on the anomalies of society; the
rich and the poor, the lofty and the lowly, the happy and the miserable.
But, he observed, even taking this aspect of society, humanity was a great
worker, and it sometimes worked wonders. It was a master of all situa-
tions, and a match for all adversities. Notwithstanding the vast disparity
between the hut and the hall, these two extremes, as well as others, did
sometimes meet in life’s eventful journey, and shake hands upon a com-
mon platform of knowledge, wisdom, usefulness, virtue, honour, and

Nevertheless, life presented many puzzles. It was a puzzle that men
could resemble each other so closely, yet differ so widely. Possessed of the
same faculties, vitalized by the same life-blood, sustained by the same
elements, yet how endless were the dissimilarities and contradictions.
While some were Miltons, Bacons, and Shakespeares,*John Milton (1608—74), English poet and Puritan propagandist; Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English essayist, philosopher, jurist, and advisor to King James I; and William Shakespeare (1564—1616), English playwright and poet. DNB, 1: 800—33, 13: 471—88, 17: 1286—1335. illuminating and
filling a wondering world with the resplendent glories of their achieve-
ments, others were as dull as lead, and rose no higher in life than a mere
physical existence. The natural laws for the preservation and development
of human faculties were equal, uniform, harmonious, permanent, wise,
and perfect; but the subjects of them abounded in oddities, confusions,
opposites, and discords—(hear, hear).


A thousand arrows might be shot at the same object, but, though united
in aim, they might be divided in flight. And such was life—equal in
quiver, but unequal in aim; matched when dormant, but unmatched, mis-
matched, and countermatched in action. The boundless realms of the past
were covered with these fallen arrows. They were to be met with in history,
biography, and the other walks of life. Nothing was more natural or in-
structive than to walk among those fallen arrows. and estimate the probable
amount of skill and force requisite to bring each to its place. “The proper
study of mankind is man”4Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle 11, lines 1-2. was a saying of which men never tired. lt
expressed a sublime truth, it came fresh to the ear every time repeated, and
vibrated the soul like the lightning the wire; it was felt as well as thought; it
was felt before it was thought. A single human being was of more interest
than all else on earth. The solitary form of the great navigator, Franklin,5John Franklin (1786—1847) was Britain's most famous Arctic explorer. The son of a middleclass family, Franklin joined the Royal Navy at fourteen and saw combat in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Between 1818 and 1822 and again between 1825 and 1827 he commanded expeditions that charted much of Canada's northern coast. In 1845, after seven years as colonial governor of Tasmania, Franklin returned to the Arctic as leader of an expedition striving to discover and navigate the long-hoped-for “Northwest Passage." When he failed to return, numerous British and American expeditions explored the Arctic waters searching for clues to the fate of Franklin and his men. In 1859 one of these expeditions discovered evidence that Franklin‘s ships had become icebound in 1846 and that his crew had finally starved to death two years later. Paul Nanton, Arctic Breakthrough: Franklin's Expeditions, 1819—1847 (London, 1970), 1-4, 150—53, 227-36; Leslie H. Neatby, The Search for Franklin (London, 1970), 42—64, 92—100, 262—70.
wedged in between walls of eternal ice, cast all the gloomy wonders of the
Arctic Seas into the shade. He was greater to us than the polar night or the
north-west passage6Within a quarter century of Christopher Columbus‘s “discovery” of the American continents, Europeans began searching for a water passage leading to the Pacific Ocean. Over the next century and a half, Jacques Cartier, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, William Baffin, John Ross, William Parry, and other navigators explored the upper regions of North America in search of a “Northwest Passage." In the mid-nineteenth century, Robert McClure, one of the searchers for John Franklin, finally completed mapping the northern sea route to the Pacific. After centuries of effort, the Northwest Passage was found to be permanently ice-clogged and commercially valueless. George Malcom Thomson, The North-West Passage (London, 1975).—there was a charm about him in the simple quality of
manhood—(hear, hear).

The voyage of discovery that evening was over the broad ocean of
humanity. They might not find that for which they were searching, but they
would find that which would make the search worth undertaking. Men
were noble and generous when they found a man who came up to their idea
of a hero. The lecturer at this point stated that he once saw a swarm of little


boys following the great O’Connell,7Daniel O'Connell. from square to square in the city of
Dublin, forgetful of their poverty and wretchedness, despising cold and
rain and mud, swept on by a joyous enthusiasm, making the welkin ring
with praises of the great Irish liberator. Why did they follow him? The
answer was plain—they could not help it; they obeyed the tide of their

The lecturer having enlarged on this view of human nature, he re-
marked that the title of his lecture that evening involved something like a
solecism. He freely admitted that there could not be self-made men in the
world; all had begged, borrowed, or stolen from somebody or some-
where—(cheers). Nevertheless, it was a fit and convenient title to the
subject matter of his discourse.

Four points were suggested as the natural divisions of his subject.
First, the class designated as self-made men. Second, the true theory of
their success. Third, the advantages which they derived from the ideas and
institutions of the country in which they lived. And the fourth, the criticism
and disadvantages to which they were exposed.

In a certain sense, most if not all the great characters whose names
shone in history, and whose deeds commanded homage and admiration
might be regarded as self-made men; but he meant that evening just what
the name imported: those men who had without the ordinary helps of
favouring circumstances, raised themselves against great odds from the
most humble and cheerless positions in life to usefulness, greatness, hon-
our, influence, and fame. These were the men who had built the ladder on
which they climbed and built as they climbed—(hear, hear). Such men,
whether they were found in the factory or the college, whether at the
handles ofthe plough or in the professor’s chair, whether at the bar or in the
pulpit, whether of Anglo-Saxon or of Anglo-African origin, ought to have
awarded to them the honour of being self-made men—(cheers).

There were three special explanations given as to the cause of success
in self-made men. The first attributed to such men superior mental endow-
ments, and assigned this as the true explanation of success. The second
made the most of circumstances, favouring opportunities, accidents,
chances, &c. The third made industry and application the great secret of
success. All had truth in them, and all were capable of being pressed into

Mr. Douglass entered into a discussion of each point, but the substance


of his own views on them was. that industry and application, together with
a regard to favourable circumstances and opportunities were the means of
success. The lecturer continued:—Such is my theory of self-made men,
and, indeed, of all made men. The credit belongs and must be ascribed to
brave, honest, earnest. ceaseless heart and soul industry. By this simple
means—open and free to all men—whatever may be said of chances,
circumstances, and natural endowments—the simple man may become
wise, and the wise man become wiser. Striking examples of the truth of this
position are abundant.

Hugh Miller,8Although trained as a stonemason, Hugh Miller (1802-56) earned an international reputation as a geologist and journalist. At age thirty-two, Miller abandoned the quarries to work in a bank so that he might devote more time to his scientific and literary efforts. His earliest writing was mostly poetry and Scottish folklore. In the early 1840s he edited the Witness, a newspaper that opposed patronage in the Church of Scotland. He wrote numerous books on geology and paleontology aimed at refuting the theory of evolution. His autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters, reinforced the public's image of Miller as a model self-made man. Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters; or, The Story of My Education (Boston, 1872), 53-56, 175—79, 502-04, 530—37; Thomas N. Brown, The Life and Times of Hugh Miller (New York, 1858). whose lamented death a few years ago cast a dark
shadow, not only over this land, but across the broad Atlantic, is, perhaps,
among the most striking and brilliant examples of industrious application
at self-culture. In a country famous for its colleges and other institutions of
learning, this brave son of toil mastered geology while wielding the heavy
hammer of the mechanic. As was said of Burns, Miller was himself a
college. One is really astonished, on reading this man's works, at what he
accomplished by simple, patient application. guided by a steady purpose.

The case of Elihu Burritt—a man whose very goodness overshadows
his real mental greatness—may be cited. He had to support his bodily
wants by his own hands, while maintaining the struggle for an education.
But this did not discourage him. Over the glowing forge, the red-hot steel,
the polished anvil, amid the noise and dust of the blacksmith’s shop, this
brave son of toil mastered, I dare not say how many languages, and is now
admitted to be among our best American scholars.

That not many books, or very favourable circumstances are essential to
successful education. is amply demonstrated in the life of Louis Kossuth.
That eminent man came here from the extreme east of Europe, loaded
down with Anglo-Saxon ideas, and clothed with an English eloquence
which is absolutely overwhelming. When asked where and when he got his
knowledge, he tells us that his school-house was an Austrian prison, that


his books were the Bible and Shakespeare, and the English Dictionary, and
that his schoolmaster was Louis Kossuth9Douglass paraphrases a portion of Louis Kossuth's speech given at Faneuil Hall, where the Hungarian exile was the guest of honor at a banquet sponsored by members of the Massachusetts legislature. Recounting his imprisonment for leading a rebellion against Austrian rule,. Kossuth recalled: “I was sent to prison for one year, deprived of all intellectual food, until at last, when permitted to select books, I was ordered to have nothing about politics. Well, indeed, not conscious of what I did, but only remembering treasures hidden in the English language—treasures of knowledge and of science—I told them to give me an English Grammar and Shakespere [sic]." New York Daily Tribune5 May 1852; Francis W. Newman, ed., Selected Speeches of Kossuth (New York, 1854), 328. —(cheers and laughter).

The United States has produced no self-made man more worthy of
mention than Benjamin Bannecker. the black astronomer of the State of
Maryland.10Benjamin Banneker (1731—1806), a free black from Maryland who received very little formal education, taught himself both mathematics and astronomy. He assisted Andrew Ellicott in surveying the District of Columbia in the early 179(0s. From 1792 until 1797 Banneker published a highly respected almanac for the Chesapeake Bay region; he continued to provide ephemerides for other almanacs until 1804. Silvio A. Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneke (New York, 1972); P. Lee Phillips, “The Negro, Benjamin Banneker; Astronomer and Mathematician, Plea for Universival Peace," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 20: 114 20(1917); ACAB, 1: 159; DANB, 22—25. With honest pride I turn to this black sage as in part blotting
out the charge of natural inferiority so often brought against the negro race.
You may know his history. He was black—for slavery had not in his day
robbed the negro in America of his colour, as well as of his liberty.
Bannecker was distinguished as a mathematician, and was among the
surveyors who laid out the present capital of the United States—where
freedom has been “laid out” ever since. In the corn field, and by the
roadside, this sable son oftoil picked up an education which brought him to
the favourable notice ofeminent men on both sides ofthe Atlantic. He held
a creditable correspondence with a man no less distinguished than Thomas
Jefferson, one of the early presidents of the United States. At that time
presidents were men, and not as now mere platforms. Bannecker was an
astronomer as well as a surveyor, and calculated almanacs. One of his
almanacs he sent to Mr. Jefferson, which brought him the following letter
in return:—

Philadelphia, August 30, 1790.

Sir,—I thank you sincerely for your letter and the almanac it contains.
Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit that
nature has given our black brethren talents equal to those of other
colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing


merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and
in America. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Mon-
sieur Condorcet, secretary of the Academy of Science at Paris, and
member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a
document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification
against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

I am, with great esteem, Sir,

Your most obedient,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.11Douglass only slightly misquotes Thomas Jefferson's letter to Benjamin Banneker. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols. (New York, 1904—05), 4: 309-10.

William Dietz,12William A. Dietz (?—1885?) worked as a servant in the household of Charles E. Dudley, a wealthy merchant of Albany, New York. Following Dudley's death, his wife Blandina turned over most of the management of her estate to Dietz. His skill as an architect and businessman enabled the Dudley estate to profit greatly through the construction of commercial properties in Albany. After Blandina Dudley’s death in 1863, Dietz went into business for himself and became one of Albany's wealthiest black citizens. Washington (DC) New National Era, 27 April 1871; Howell and Tenney, County of Albany, 662. of Albany, another black man, now living, has risen
from the humble condition of a servant in a private family, to be the
manager of an estate worth three million dollars. This black man (for he too
is black) who would be read out of the human family by the Notts, Glid-
dens, Mortons,13Josiah Clark Nott, George Robert Gliddon, and Samuel George Morton. and other American ethnological writers, is admitted to
be one of the best designers and draftsmen in the state of New York. He is
not only a draftsman but an inventor, and a very ingenious one. He has
recently invented a bridge for spanning the Hudson at Albany, which is
calculated to overcome all the objections scientific men have raised in
behalf of navigation against the erection of a draw-bridge at that point. This
is not all: he has invented and planned a railroad for Broadway, New York
city, equally obviating the presence of dust, smoke, noise, and horses, in
that grand thorough-fare, and should any railway be allowed there, it will
be on the plan suggested and modelled by William Dietz, of Albany. An
engraving of this railway has been published and commended by the Scien-
tific American
.14This engraving appeared in Scientific American, 26 November 1853. The proposed streetcar line for Broadway became enmeshed in a legal battle during the 1850s, and Dietz's plans were never adopted. New York Daily Times, 24 July, 19 November 1852, 5 November, 19 December 1853, 3 April 1855. Men read of the inventions of Mr. Dietz, but do not know
what I know, and what the American people ought to know, that the


inventor is a black man. His achievement if known, would do more to
elevate the popular estimate of the coloured race than any number of
learned desertations on the natural equality of races. Nothing in logic is so
stubborn, and here is a strong one certainly.

There too, stands the bright example of Tousant l’Ouverture. He is
confessed to have been a brave and generous soldier, a clear-headed, calm
and sagacious statesman, and the noble liberator and law giver of his brave
and dauntless people. A slave during fifty of the best years of his life. A
poor scholar, yet rising up in troublous times, and in an age ofgreat men he
towered among the tallest of his times. I will not extol his merits. He is
already a hero of history, poetry, and eloquence. Wordsworth has en-
circled his memory with a halo of fadeless glory,15Douglass alludes to the poem “To Toussaint L'Ouverture,” published in 1803 by the popular British romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770—1850). E. de Selincourt, ed., The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (Oxford, 1946), 112-13; DNB, 21: 927-42. while Wendell Phillips
has borne his name heavenward in a chariot of matchless eloquence.16One of Wendell Phillips's most popular lyceum lectures in the late 1850s and early 1860s was a biographical sketch of Toussaint l'Overture. Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (Boston, 1863), 468—94; Oscar Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty: The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips (New York, 1958), 419—20; Carlos Martyn, Wendell Phillips: The Agitator (New York, 1890), 321-22.

I might if time permitted, point to a long list of self-made men, and
could I ask these by what means they obtained their high positions among
their fellowmen, their answer would come with the startling effect of a
blast from a quarry—industry and application.

I now come to the relation which ideas and institutions bear to this class
of men, and shall have special reference to America. I seldom find any-
thing either in the ideas or institutions of that country, whereof to glory.
The one deep dark veil of human bondage, covering as it does every
department of the government, and every class of its people, poisoning the
very life blood, the morals, religion, manners, and civilization ofthat great
nation, hides from my dim vision much that might otherwise be seen, noble
and beautiful and worthy of admiration and of imitation. But pushing aside
this black and clotted covering which mantles all our land, as with the
shadow of death, I recognize one feature at least of special and peculiar
excellence, and that is the relation of America to self-made men.

America is, most unquestionably and pre-eminently, the home and
special patron of self-made men. In no country in the world are the condi-
tions more favourable to the production and sustentation of such men than
in America. They are found in all the high places, exercising all the


powers, and enjoying all the immunities of office and honour. The press
flames with the living and quenchless fires of their genius, and the senate
listens with respect and admiration to their eloquence. They are foremost
men everywhere. They are found among our authors, editors, lawyers,
preachers, inventors, poets, philosophers, and statesmen, and the fact that
they are self-made is often dwelt upon by the crowd as their highest

Let me give you one or two of the causes of this ample growth of self-
made men. One cause, undoubtedly, is to be found in the general respect-
ability of labour, especially in the northern states of the American Union.
Work has not yet come to be looked upon as a degradation or disgrace. A
man may labour there with his hands, or with his head, or with both hands
and head, and yet move in respectable society—that is if he has a white
skin. Every stranger landing upon American shores is struck by the easy,
independent, and even haughty bearing of the labouring classes. This
general respectability of labour is an important element in the production of
self-made men.

But a second, and perhaps the most powerful, cause is this: the princi-
ple of measuring men by their own individual merits is better observed and
enforced there than anywhere else. In Europe

A king can mak’ a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and a’ that.17Douglass slightly misquotes two lines from Robert Burns's “For A‘ That And A' That.” Alexander Smith, ed., The Complete Works of Robert Burns (New York, 1884), 92.

But there, a man who wants to be a nobleman, must prove his nobility to his
neighbours and the public. The sons of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and
John C. Calhoun, are put upon trial, and have to make their way in the
world like the rest of us, and they must prove themselves real Clays,
Websters, and Calhouns, if they attract to themselves any of the respect
and generous admiration commanded by their brilliant fathers.18Henry Clay had two sons: Henry Clay. Jr. (1811—47), who left a promising legal and political career to fight in the Mexican War, in which he was killed; and James Brown Clay (1817—64), who practiced law in Missouri and Kentucky and served one term in Congress (1857—59). Daniel Webster had one son, Fletcher Webster (181362), who was a lawyer and the surveyor of the port of Boston (1850—61). The younger Webster was killed at the Second Battle of Bull Run while serving as colonel of the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. John C. Calhoun had five sons: Andrew Pickens, James Edward, John Caldwell, Patrick, and William Lowndes. A. S. Salley, Jr., The Calhoun Family of Soutlh Carolina (n.p., n.d.). 25, 28, 37; ACAB, 1: 644-45, 6: 415; BDAC, 704. Our de-
parted great men drop down from their various circles of greatness, like


bright stars from the blue overhanging sky, bearing away with them their
own silvery light, leaving the places they have illumined robed in
darkness, until the heavens are re-lighted by the glory of other rising
stars—(hear, hear, and cheers). On the strength of a great name, and upon
the accident of being just what any other man might be, the nephew of his
uncle,19Napoleon I. Mr. Louis Napoleon, has been able to banish from France many of
the wisest, best, and bravest patriots and statesmen. On the ruins of broken
faith and outraged liberty, he has firmly seated himself on the throne of a
despot. But such an experiment on such a capital of name and nephewship
could never succeed in America. Nobody there now cares for George
Washington, jun., nor for Andrew Jackson, jun.,20Neither George Washington nor Andrew Jackson fathered any children, but both adopted heirs. Washington adopted George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, the orphaned grandchildren of his wife Martha by her first marriage. Jackson also adopted two children: his wife Rachel's nephew, who was called Andrew Jackson, Jr., and Lyncoya, a Creek Indian boy whom Jackson had found on the battlefield at Tallushatchee, Alabama, in 1813. In addition, Jackson was the legal guardian of several other children, including Andrew Jackson Hutchings and Andrew Jackson Donelson. Of all these heirs only Donelson held important political positions: private secretary to Jackson (1828—36) and U.S. minister to Prussia (1846—49). Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822—1832 (New York, 1981), 3—5, 144, 395, 414; ACAB, 3: 384, 6: 383—84; NCAB, 1: 7—9; DAB, 9: 527. and they stand no
better chance of being made presidents ofthe United States than William or
John, or other common men, whose fathers were never heard of twenty
miles from home.

But self-made men are by no means invulnerable men. I do not at all
subscribe to the maxim that self-made men are the best made men. With
many excellent qualities and acquirements, they are apt to possess some
which are not so excellent and desirable. It is hard to shake off all the
effects ofearly surroundings. There is, however, one very common defect
to be found among such men, to which even I may allude, who may share
it; this it is: such men are generally very egotistical. The very nature of the
path they have pursued. and the energies they have employed in reaching
their position, have served to render them so. A man who is indebted to
himself for himself, is apt to think no small pumpkins ofhimself—(laugh-
ter). He has altogether too much to say about being a self-made man.
Whatever else shall be forgotten, this is always remembered. “I am a self-
made man” is the thread-bare preface to all his words and actions—

I have still another criticism to pass upon self-made men; and that is,


they too often display a want of respect for the means by which other men
have risen above the level of the race. They are too free in disparagement of
schools they never attended, and colleges, of which they are ignorant. In
this they assume a place that does not become them; for whatever may be
their merits they are generally but relative merits—they are out-siders.
They may pass judgment upon the best means of self-education, but they
may not lay down the law as to the best means of educating others. There
never was yet a man who had educated himself who could not, by the same
exertion and application and determined perseverance, have been better
educated by the helps of the ordinary institutions of learning—(hear,

Thus I have given you a peep at both sides of the class of men taken as
my subject, having nothing set down in malice, whatever I may have set
down in partiality. The lessons which such men teach are valuable in many
respects, chief among them is the dignity of humanity. They teach us, too,
the value of work, self-reliance, and manly independence. Let us appreci-
ate such men and award to them the mead of praise due to their heroism—
give them equal elbow room—no matter from what land they come or
from what race they descend—(cheers).

After all, my friends, let it be remembered—let it be rivetted upon our
understandings and anchored in our hearts for ever—that neither self-
culture, nor any other kind of culture, can amount to much in this world,
unless joined to some truly unselfish and noble purpose. Patriotism, re-
ligion, philanthropy—some grand motive power other than the simple
hope of personal reward must be present, or the candle is under the bush-
el21An adaptation of Matt. 5: 15, Mark 4: 21, or Luke 11: 33. and will certainly remain there. We all need some grand, some soul-
enlarging, some soul-sustaining object to draw out the best energies of our
natures and to lift us to the plains of true nobleness and manly life—

And is it not a consoling thought that, rich as this great world may be,
and poor and small as the individual man may be, there [is] none so small,
none so destitute, but that he is rich enough to make this great world a
debtor to him for something in the way of example, word, or deed more
precious than all the gems of the east?—(loud applause).


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


January 4, 1860


Yale University Press 1985



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