Self Made Men & Women | Frederick Douglass Speech

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Today’s reading has been edited and adapted from the lecture Self-Made Men by Frederick Douglass, first delivered in 1859.

The subject of today’s talk is not new. The individual, in one form or another, has been a frequent and fruitful subject for analysis and contemplation. This subject has come up for consideration under a variety of attractive titles, such as “Great Leaders,” “Peculiar Geniuses,” “Scientific Explorers” “Literary Giants” and “Successful Entrepreneurs,” but under whatever name or designation, the vital point of interest in the discussion has ever been the same, and that is, character itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.

The tendency to the universal, in such discussion, is altogether natural: for when we consider men and women, as a whole, are (what they have been; what they aspire to be, and what, by a wise and vigorous cultivation of their faculties, they may yet become) we see that it leads irresistibly to a broad view of the individual as a subject of thought and inquiry.

The old saying that the proper study of humankind is ourselves, and which has been the starting point of so many lectures, essays, and speeches, holds its place, like all other great sayings, because it contains a great truth and a truth alike for every age and generation. It is always new and can never grow old. It is neither dimmed by time, nor tarnished by repetition; for humanity (both with respect to the individual and the species) is now, and evermore will be, the center of unsatisfied human curiosity.

The pleasure we derive from any department of knowledge is largely due to the glimpse which it gives us of our own nature. We may travel far over land and sea, brave all climates, dare all dangers, endure all hardships, try all latitudes and longitudes; we may penetrate the earth, sound the ocean’s depths, and explore the starry sky, in the pursuit of other knowledge; we may contemplate the glorious landscape, gemmed by forest, lake, and river, and dotted with peaceful homes and quiet herds; we may whirl away to the great cities, all aglow with life and enterprise; we may mingle with the imposing assemblages of wealth and power; we may visit the halls where Art works her miracles in music, speech, and color, and where Science unbars the gates to higher planes of civilization.

But no matter how radiant the colors, how enchanting the melody, how gorgeous and splendid the pageant: the awakened individual, with eyes turned inward upon their own wondrous attributes and powers, surpasses them all.

A single human soul standing here upon the margin we call time, overlooking the solemn past (which can neither be recalled nor remodeled), ever chafing against finite limitations, entangled with contradictions, eagerly seeking to pierce the clouds and darkness of the ever mysterious future, has attractions for thought and study more numerous and powerful than all other objects beneath the sky.

To human thought and inquiry the individual is broader than all visible worlds, loftier than all heights and deeper than all depths. Were I called upon to point out the broadest and most permanent distinction between mankind and other animals, it would be this; our earnest desire for the fullest knowledge of human nature on all its many sides.

The importance of this knowledge is immeasurable, and by no other is human life so affected and colored. Nothing can bring to us so much of happiness or so much of misery as humanity itself. Today we exalt ourselves to heaven by our virtues and achievements; tomorrow we are smitted, with sadness and pain, by our crimes and follies.

But whether exalted or debased, charitable, or wicked (whether saint or villain, priest or prize fighter), if only we be great in our line of endeavor, we are an unfailing source of interest, as one of a common humanity — for the best men and women find within their breast the evidence of kinship with the worst, and the worst with the best.

Confront us with either extreme and you will rivet our attention and fix us in earnest contemplation, for our chief desire is to know what there is within us, and to know ourselves at all extremes and ends and opposites, and in pursuit of this knowledge, we will follow others from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that it is natural to believe in the great individual. Whether this is a fact, or not, we do believe in them and, in many respects, worship them. We seek out our wisest and best citizens, the men and women who, by eloquence, genius, or the sword, compel us to believe them, and make them our leaders, prophets, and law givers. We do this, not because they are essentially different from us, but because of their identity with us. They are our best representative and reflect, on a colossal scale, the scale to which we would aspire: our highest aims, objects, powers, and possibilities.

This natural reverence for all that is great in the individual, and this tendency to deify and worship that person, though natural, has not always shown itself wise but has often shown itself far from wise. It has often given us a wicked ruler for a righteous one, a false prophet for a true one, a corrupt preacher for a pure one, and an advocate of war for an advocate of peace.

But it is not my purpose to attempt here any comprehensive and exhaustive theory or philosophy or the nature of humankind in all the range I have indicated. I am here to speak to you of a peculiar type of individual who belong to the category of Self-Made Men and Women.

Properly speaking, of course, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist. We have all either begged, borrowed, or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown; and that which others have strewn, we have gathered.

It must in truth be said that no possible native force of character, and no depth of wealth and originality, can lift a person into absolute independence of their fellow citizens, and no generation can be independent of the preceding generation. The interdependence of humankind is guarded and defended at all points.

I believe in individuality, but individuals are, to the mass, like waves to the ocean. The highest order of genius is as dependent as is the lowest. It, like the loftiest waves of the sea, derives its power and greatness from the grandeur and vastness of the ocean of which it forms a part. We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea.

To do something well does not necessarily imply the ability to do everything else equally well. If you can do in one direction that which I cannot do, I may (in another direction) be able to do that which you cannot do. Thus the balance of power is kept comparatively even, and a self-acting interdependence is maintained.

When using the term “self-made,” I am thus doing so in the popular parlance, with which I am sure you are familiar. Self-made men and women are those who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary help of favoring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power, and position — and have learned from themselves the best uses to which life can be put in this world, and (in the exercise of these uses) build up worthy character.

They are the men and women who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, or friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other people usually rise in the world and achieve great results.

In fact, they are the men and women who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up, not only without the assistance or friendly co-operation of society, but often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society, and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard, and keep them down.

They are the individuals who (in a world of schools, academies, colleges, and other institutions of learning) are often compelled by unfriendly circumstances to acquire their education elsewhere and, amidst unfavorable conditions, to create for themselves a way to success, and thus become the architects of their own good fortunes.

They are, in a peculiar sense, indebted to themselves for themselves. If they have traveled far, they have made the road on which they have travelled. If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder. From the depths of poverty, they often rise. Flung overboard in the midnight storm on the broad and tempest-tossed ocean of life (left without ropes, planks, oars, or life-preservers), they have bravely fought the waves and have risen in safety and life where others (supplied with the best appliances for safety and success), have fainted, despaired, and gone down forever.

There is genuine heroism in their struggles and something of sublimity and glory in their triumph. Every instance of such success is an example and a help to humanity. It, better than any mere assertion, gives us assurance of the latent powers and resources of the simple and unaided human spirit. It dignifies labor, honors application, lessens pain and depression, dispels gloom from the brow of the destitute and weariness from the heart of those about to faint. And it enables each one of us to take hold of the roughest and flintiest hardships of the battle of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes, and a larger courage.

What exact qualities do these self-made men and women have that allows them to achieve greatness? Well, when we attempt to account for greatness, we never get nearer to the truth than did the greatest of poets and philosophers who have said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

However, I do have a few opinions on this matter that I feel worth sharing. I am certain that there is nothing good, great, or desirable which we can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor: physical, mental, moral, or spiritual. A person, at times, does get something for nothing, but it will, in their hands, amount to nothing.

What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of the mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress; and without conflict, no victory. A person that lies down a fool at night, hoping that they will awake wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as they laid down in the evening.

Nature is herself a great worker and never tolerates, without certain rebuke, any contradiction to her wise example. Inaction is followed by stagnation. Stagnation is followed by pestilence, and pestilence is followed by death.

It therefore should be evident that, allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting, and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put: that is the true miracle worker.

Everyone may avail themselves of this marvelous power, if they will. There is no royal road to perfection. Certainly no one must wait for some kind of friend to put a springing board under their feet, upon which they may easily bound from the first rung of their ladder onward and upward to its highest rung. If you wait for this, you may wait long — perhaps forever. If you do not think yourself worth saving from poverty and ignorance by your own efforts, you will hardly be thought worth the efforts of anybody else.

Remember that the individual who will get up will be helped up; and the one who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just, and beneficent. I know of no other rule which can be substituted for it without bringing social chaos.

Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest character. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed by others. It must be developed from within.

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