Obama’s philosophy out of step with American history’s ‘self-made men’

Nothing symbolized the overall economic philosophy of modern day liberalism and President Barack Obama, than his statements in a Roanoke, Virginia campaign speech last week.


“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” Obama said.

This statement by Obama demonstrates a fundamental lack of belief in individual Americans to create their own wealth and become what many in American history have called “self-made men.” The philosophical underpinnings of Obama’s statement fundamentally contradict the belief in American exceptionalism, that is: Laissez faire economics, equality of opportunity, individualism, and popular but limited self-government.

There are a number of famous examples in American history that show how out of step Obama’s beliefs are with the long tradition of dominant American beliefs and attitudes, and some of these examples are of people who generally believed that government action could in fact help in the process of entrepreneurial success.  I will use three men of American history demonstrate the powerful ethic of the self-made man. These individuals are Benjamin Franklin, Henry Clay, Frederick Douglass.

The man who almost single-handedly created the image of the self-made man in America was Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin demonstrated the virtues of self-reliance and hard work in both his own life and especially in his writings, yet he came from very humble origins.


Franklin believed that by cultivating industry, frugality, and self-sufficiency in its citizens, America would be both strong and prosperous. A society of dependents would have been odious to Franklin, who wrote in Poor Richards Almanack, “A plowman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.”

While the ultimate burden of success fell on the individual, Franklin believed that those who had achieved success should be interested in maintaining and improving their society. He combined the ideas of both individualism and civics that were so critical to the founding.

Franklin would have had no patience for the welfarism demonstrated by the Obama administration and the modern Democratic Party.  In early July the Obama administration made a drastic and possibly illegal move to repeal the welfare reform laws of 1996 through a Department of Health Human Services mandate, changing the welfare-to-work programs back into no-strings attached handouts.

Franklin was harsh on even the poor laws of his own day and said that they “encourage idleness and prodigality” and “promote and increase poverty.” Obama’s change in welfare will make America more like California, which didn’t go through the same welfare reform that the rest of the nation did in the 1990’s and currently has one-third of all welfare recipients in the nation, a stagnant economy, crushing deficit, staggering debt and a mass exodus of Californians looking for work and better opportunities. This will be a clear setback for this and future generations.


The idea of the self-made man became an even more important force in American culture in the generation after the founding, and it was apparent that the culture of individualism and self-reliance that Franklin and other founders tried to inculcate in future American generations was taking off.

The great American statesman, Henry Clay, is often given credit for popularizing the term “self-made man” in an 1832 speech he gave about the “American System” in the Senate.

In a clarification of his “you didn’t build that” statement, Obama said, “What I said was together we build roads and we build bridges…That’s the point I’ve made millions of times, and by the way, that’s a point Mr. Romney has made as well, so this is just a bogus issue.”

Obama and his followers may point to Clay as a champion of their belief in the government’s critical role in economic development, as the American System was about building a system of national roads, protective tariffs to protect and promote manufactures, and a centralized national bank, however, there is a key difference in the ethos of Clay and Obama.


In a speech promoting his program of economic development, Clay said, “In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me, is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”

Notice the key difference in the outlook of Clay versus Obama. Clay believes that the right economic and infrastructure programs can help individuals reap the benefits of their self-sufficiency, while Obama ultimately believes that the wealth and success of individuals is ultimately owed to collective society and government. This is a critical part of modern day liberal thought, that government and society own both you and the fruit of your labor, and that “society” has a right to redistribute it in any way that it sees as “fair” and “equitable”. This is the foundation of “positive rights”.


Clay, often called the “Mill Boy of the Slashes” to highlight his humble, middle-class origins would undoubtedly have seen the modern day liberal ethos as a warped version of his American System. Clay had a good but uneven education, and was certainly not a product of an Ivy League school, yet he reached the height of American society through incredible talent and ambition, not welfare or affirmative action.

The most dramatic example of the self-made man, perhaps in American history, is Frederick Douglass. Douglass, an former slave from Maryland, the offspring of a black slave mother and white father, had given himself and education despite attempts by his former master to keep him from getting an education. If there was ever a person who should have looked for a handout or given up on success in life, it should have been Douglass, but instead he made himself into one of the most learned and successful men of his age. He didn’t let institutional opposition keep him from reaching the pinnacles of success in America.

Douglass, a man who had every right to believe in welfare and reparations for himself and others like him, instead expounded upon an entirely different ethic, one of individualism, self-sufficiency, hard work, and independence.

In a famous speech that he gave through most of his life called, “Self-Made Men,” Douglas spoke about what the critical elements are for success in America. He explained who the self-made men were and what made them successful. Douglass’s speech is the antithesis of everything Obama and modern liberals stand for.


“Self-made men are the men who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps 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 exercises of these uses to build up worthy character,” Douglass continued, “In fact they are the men who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up, not only without the voluntary 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.”

Douglass expounded upon the principles of the modern Americans who wish to conserve the traditional ethos, culture and political system of the Founding Fathers.


Douglass continued to describe self-made men, “Such men as these, whether found in one position or another, whether in the college or in the factory; whether professors or plowmen; whether Caucasian or Indian; whether Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African, are self-made men and are entitled to a certain measure of respect for their success and for proving to the world the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or color.”

In his speech, Douglass even scoffed at the idea that an Ivy League education is what gives a person ultimate success, and he lambasted do-nothing intellectuals. Douglass also scoffed at the idea that success comes through “good fortune” and circumstance. Douglass said “Detraction is, to many, a delicious morsel.”


Modern day Leftists base their values on the idea that society owes you and you owe society, and Obama’s statement demonstrates a clear philosophical agreement. However, conservative economist Milton Friedman described exactly how individuals should see government. Friedman said that a free citizen should ask, “‘What can I and my compatriots do through government’ to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom?”

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