The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
It is perhaps a measure of the unique reach of the early nineteenth century version of the self-made man that it was finally able to breach a barrier that had once seemed impossible to overcome: slavery. Henry Clay suspected that slavery inhibited his attempts to champion the self-made man; Abraham Lincoln acted decisively to end it for that reason. But only African Americans themselves could truly realize the possibilities of emancipation. As would soon become apparent, this would not be easy, even after slavery was destroyed. But the nation, and the idea, now seemed big enough to contain such a possibility.
The most impressive demonstration of what a self-proclaimed self-made man could be was Frederick Douglass. Born in bondage circa 1818 – “slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs” he notes at the start of his famous autobiography – Douglass began his life on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, the child of a mother he barely knew and an unknown white man. And yet, as he and others were keen to note, the deprivations he suffered as a slave were relatively mild. He spent a significant stint of his childhood in Baltimore – once again, city as greenhouse of self-making – under the tutelage of a white woman who taught him to read. Douglass continued to practice his skills while working as an assistant in a local shipyard before being sent back to work as a plantation hand (where he tried to teach his fellow slaves to teach until he was ordered to desist). Rented out to a notorious slave breaker named Edward Covey, Douglass was brutalized until he finally stood up and asserted himself. After being jailed for failed attempt to escape to freedom in 1836, he returned to Baltimore, gaining a number of skills, among them caulking, that allowed him to become quite valuable to his owner. But his determination to escape to freedom was finally realized in 1838, after which he chose the name that made him famous (based on a character in a Sir Walter Scott novel), married, and settled in Massachusetts. Douglass eventually moved to upstate New York and founded a newspaper that became an important instrument in the struggle against slavery.
But it was Douglass’s own life story, made legend in his now classic slave narrative, which proved to be his most important weapon. First published in 1845 – longer editions were issued in 1855 and 1888 – the pointedly titled Life Story of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself – catapulted him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Douglass had a great story to tell, and he told it with prose that was stirring in its eloquence.
It is, in a number of decisive ways, a story of gender identity. While the myth of the self-made man tends to view manhood as the pre-existing foundation for success, Douglass’s manhood was itself a product of his own manufacture. Indeed, the essence of slavery was precisely the lack of such an identity. In his deepest misery at the hands of Covey, Douglass noted, “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, my disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed upon me; and behold a man was transformed into a brute!” Conversely, freedom meant reclaiming that identity. “You have seen how a man was made a slave,” he declared in the famous line of chiasmus from the most dramatic scene in the book, “[now] you shall see a slave made a man.”
This act of self-construction is presented as an act of will, and yet it was one that echoed generations of earlier Americans, white and black, who declined to claim complete agency. Douglass acknowledged a destiny delivered by a higher power. “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace,” he writes early in the autobiography, “and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.” Douglass was much criticized for pointing out the religious hypocrisies of slave owners, so much so that he felt compelled to include an appendix in the book disclaiming any intention of apostasy. But a deep vein of spirituality animated Douglass’s writings, notwithstanding the superstitions among slaves he lamented in the text and the rage he occasionally directed at those he believed acted in bad faith.
This helps explain the missionary fervor of Douglass’s career as an abolitionist, one that was expansive enough to include ardent advocacy of woman suffrage as well as Irish rights in the face of British oppression. Like Emerson, Douglass was a public intellectual. But he was much more what we would consider a social activist. And yet he also reflected the tenor of his time in his belief that freedom was an act of individual emancipation no less than a collective and political one. “Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.’; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States,” Douglass wrote, advocating the use of African American soldiers in the Civil War (initially forbidden, they eventually became a significant factor in the outcome). In another piece at the time, he asserted that black Americans were fighting “for principle, and not from passion,” and that these soldiers were achieving “manhood and freedom” of their own making.
To the end of his life – he lived until 1895 – Douglass remained a committed American integrationist. This wasn’t always easy. Though he was an important functionary in the Republican Party in the decades following the Civil War, Douglass was disappointed by its ebbing commitment to freedpeople and its increasing graft and corruption. But even as some of his contemporaries, notably Martin Delany, began advocating what we might call an early form of black nationalism, Douglass continued to believe in the United States as a place were Americans could, should, and ultimately would be masters of their own destinies. He would arguably be vindicated, but it would take a very long time.
Douglass was not only facing stiff racial winds. The bold sense of civic purposes that had characterized the United States in the decades before the Civil War, and which had animated a wide array of social movements, had stalled. Insofar as there were such movements – the Populists come to mind as an important example – they were marked by more of a sense of mass organization, or, alternatively, a growing emphasis on scientific management (Douglass’s protégé Ida B. Wells, who had a similar fiery spirit, relied on statistics and reporting in leading an attack on the epidemic of lynchings that occurred in the South in the 1890s). The self-made man remained a fixture on the American landscape. But his profile was shifting, away from the civic orientation that marked an era that stretched from Franklin to Lincoln. More than his predecessors, the new one had a pecuniary flavor.