Chapter 19 of Volume II, Part III of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America dealt with ubiquity and limited scope of American ambition. “The first striking thing about the United States,” Tocqueville wrote, “is the huge number of people bent on escaping their original condition. The second is the small number of great ambitions that stand out amid this universal outpouring of ambition. The desire to rise apparently gnaws at every American, yet almost no one seems to nurse vast hopes or to aim very high.”
During the thirty years before the Civil War, according to Wyllie, the up from poverty theme captured the imaginations of young men in the nation’s developing cities. It was not, as Wyllie makes clear, a delusion. Although starting out wealthy may have been a common and more assured route to success, examples of extraordinarily successful men with poor origins abounded. John Jacob Astor and Thomas Mellon were only two of many examples. As I have pointed out before, this emphasis on poor beginnings necessarily entailed what Wyllie called the “glorification of poverty,” since the rise to riches depended on moral qualities developed in rags.
By the end of the Civil War, the ideal of the self-made man, the common individual rising through life by his own efforts, had become deeply entrenched in the shared worldview of Americans. Judy Hilkey, in the 1997 book Character is Capital, observed that "in the years between 1870 and 1910, a special, new type of book became commonplace in millions of homes across America. These new books were typically large, elaborately bound, illustrated volumes boasting such titles as The Way to Win, Pushing to the Front, The Royal Path of Life, and Onward to Fame and Fortune.... They were marketed with a rural and small-town market in mind and addressed to an audience of native-born Protestants of moderate means and modest education.” Self-made men did not live in a world in which all people enjoyed the same standards of living or the same chances of success, but one in which individuals could rise and could look forward to better futures.
Booker T. Washington’s classic Up From Slavery was significant as part of the literature of self-reliance because it brought black Americans into the mainstream culture of self-reliance, even as they lived under segregation. Part of the attraction of Booker T. Washington’s public program, for both black and white Americans, was that it offered a way of seeing becoming a self-made man as an option for black Americans. In this book, being born in slavery appeared as the black version of being born in a log cabin. The humble origins removed all advantages of birth, so that every accomplishment of the author could be attributed only to his own efforts and virtues. Washington’s birth in slavery gave him the chance for the most extreme form of self-creation. He recounted how, when he started school, he did not even know the second name of “Taliaferro” his mother had given him, so he christened himself “Washington” when the teacher asked him for a last name.
As in the tales of log cabin politicians and diligent journalists, the efforts of self-creation produced the virtues. In the second chapter, Washington told how he was embarrassed by the fact that he alone among the pupils in his school had no cap. When he complained to his mother, she responded that they had no money for a store-bought hat and she made him a cap out of two pieces of homespun. Washington wrote that he took this as a lesson in self-reliance and strength of character. He noted that later in life some of his schoolmates with store-bought hats ended up in the penitentiary, clearly having failed to develop strength of character as a consequence of early sartorial privileges.
When Washington wrote of working in a coal mine after the early school days, his greatest objection to this kind of work was neither its dangers nor its difficulty. Rather, he observed that the labors in the mines often stunted the ambitions of the young miners. For Washington, the drive to rise through one’s own struggles was always the greatest of qualities.
Of course, Washington recognized that being black was a severe disadvantage in late nineteenth century America. But he never claimed that the one born in slave quarters had the same life chances as the white child of a log cabin. Instead, he made an argument that applied the self-made man ideal to black Americans, while simultaneously accepting segregation. He asserted the common claims for the virtues of humble origins, while accepting a distinct path for advancement for blacks:
In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reached the conclusion that often the Negro boy's birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.
Self-making always involved some reversal of the valuation of life chances. The more limited one’s chances at the beginning, the better one’s moral character and, since success that was truly worthwhile depended on moral character, the greater one’s ultimate opportunity for ultimate success. In Washington’s narrative, starting out as a slave became, in a sense, the best opportunity of all. In the Up From Slavery account, slavery became a log cabin story.
While today it may be fashionable to be cynical and dismissive of the self-made man ideal, for Americans in general and for minority group members in particular, we should reflect that opportunity means nothing unless people make use of opportunities. The self-improvement literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, from this point of view, contributed to the motivational side of a rising nation. Rather than reject Up From Slavery as a servile product of accommodation, perhaps we should value this book as an important contribution to American moral thought and a book that should be rediscovered today.