Friday, August 29, 2008



In 1832, founder of the Whig Party, Henry Clay coined a new term never heard before, ‘the self made man.’ Eleven years later, this term was applied to a tall, poor, self educated farm boy who had struggled to become a lawyer, an Illinois state legislator, a member of the United States House of Representatives, and an unsuccessful candidate for election to the Senate. He eventually became the sixteenth president of the United States. That man was Abraham Lincoln.

This blog is not about Lincoln, but about the phrase, ‘self made man.’ Like all original terms, it has become buried in decades of overuse and misuse. In Lincoln’s day, it was a fresh, unique and meaningful label.

Keep in mind that Lincoln was born in 1809 into what we today would call poverty. His birth was twenty eight short years after the end of the America Revolution in 1781. The American Constitution was ratified in 1788, twenty one years before Lincoln’s birth. The first ten amendments of the Bill of Rights was ratified by three-fourths of the States in 1791, just eighteen years before Lincoln was born.

In other words, America was literally in her infancy. This new democratic republic was what historians unanimously call, ‘the great experiment.’ People would actually govern themselves without a King, Queen, Pope or Sultan. By virtue of circumstances, young Abe Lincoln just happened to be on the ground floor of this ‘great experiment.’ Up until this time, universally men and women were primarily, if not exclusively, ‘made’ by the circumstances of their birth. The wealthy and powerful gave birth to offspring who became wealthy and powerful, the poor and powerless were forced to remain in their place. This was true not only of women and other so called ‘minorities,’ but of all people, including men. Wealthy elitist women may not have been as involved in roles of political or religious power, but they were far better off than 99.9% of the males born into lower classes, which was the vast majority of males in Europe.

The new American republic ‘began’ to change all of that. ‘Began’ is a key word, because this radical new idea did not arise perfectly formulated and executed. With a constitution granting the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ a new climate had been initiated. Any man, primarily because they were the soldiers who gave their lives to the revolutionary cause, initiated this new process. Political and religious freedoms and new economic opportunities opened the doors for almost any man to arise from the bottom and ascend to the top, politically or economically.

Few today have little idea what a radical idea, let alone reality, this was at the time. Humans had lived by roles for literally thousands of years, and suddenly they were in a new land where they could potentially transcend all limitations. Of course those with wealth and power had the advantage, but they were not guaranteed these prime roles automatically. Men like Lincoln now had the opportunity if they had the vision and persistence.

It is easy in the 21st century to complain that ‘white males’ have had power for most of America’s history, but our history is not that old. This great experiment, largely gained by the blood shed and minds exercised of these farsighted white males, opened the door for what we see today.

As Joshua Shenk says in Lincoln’s Melancholy, “The dream still eluded women, Native Americans, and African-Americans; many minority ethnic groups had to struggle for their own. Such shortcomings, though, must not obscure the boldness of the country’s basic proposition. To say that ‘all men are created equal’ – even when the phrase, in practice, applied only to white men – and that they could do what they wished, unfettered by church or crown, was to go further than any nation had gone before.”

When Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American presidential candidate, the news reporters at the democratic convention acted as if this were the first time in human history an underdog had climbed to such heights. While not detracting from this noteworthy event, I found their rhetoric hollow and ignorant of America's history. Less than two hundred years ago, a poor, undereducated, non-elitist white farm boy became the leader of the United States of America. Historically, this was arguably far more shocking to the world than Obama’s current rise to his position. He was raised by middle class grandparents and has a degree from Harvard. Certainly congratulations are in order for Senator Obama, but let’s not forget that the evolution into such incredible success stories did not begin in Denver at the Democratic Convention. Hopefully, the evolution of these principles will continue their meteoric rise into other cultures and civilizations.

When Henry Clay coined the phrase, ‘self made man,’ it was a first. These amazing, brave, bold and heroic men of his era opened the door for all those who have followed – going against millennia of political and religious precedent.

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