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The Self-Made Man: Fredrick Douglass

Any column about self-made men that’s worth anything owes a lot to Fredrick Douglass. For one thing, his lecture about self-made men is a must-read, a stunning piece of oratory wherein he argues that education and a strong work ethic are the basis for every successful man’s, uh, success. For another thing, he himself was a self-made man, escaping slavery to become one of America’s foremost statesmen and social reformers. That story’s hard to top.

The badass Fredrick Douglass

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818, working first on the Wye Plantation in Talbot County, Maryland before he was given – think about the indignity of being given to someone – to the household of Hugh Auld, who lived in Baltimore.

Even though the law forbade it, Auld’s wife taught Douglass the alphabet, and he slowly taught himself how to read, absorbing the writings of men he worked with, political pamphlets, books, and newspapers in great number. Through this, he saw the true and horrible injustice of his condition.

Unfortunately, his owners were not about to relinquish the true and horrible injustice of his condition. After the Bible school he’d started for other slaves was broken up, Douglass was sent to work for Edward Covey, who had a rather sadistic reputation as a “slave-breaker.” No definition needed there. Douglass endured several vicious beatings from his new owner, tried to escape and failed, then fought Covey in a two-hour-long brawl, after which he was never beaten again.

Douglass’ escape came soon after he met Anna Murray, a free black woman who helped him escape to Philadelphia, eventually meeting him in New York. They were married eleven days later, having grown somewhat attached to each other during that trying time. Douglass became an internationally renowned speaker, touring all over America and Europe for pro-abolitionist causes, and even held government positions during Reconstruction.

Douglass first gave his speech about self-made men in 1859, in which he defined self-made men as those who weren’t successful through “birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.” Similar to Ben Frankin, Douglass believed in a strong work ethic, saying that “opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable,” and was understandably a strong proponent of education.

But Douglass also understood something else about self-made men; namely, they need to build relationships. “No possible native force of character, and no depth or wealth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow-men,” he says in his speech, “and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.” Self-made men may live and die by their ambition, but they are still part of a larger entity that depends on its individual members to sustain itself.

Douglass himself is proof of this, as is every other man this column has covered so far. Douglass had Mrs. Auld and Anna Murray, James Brown had Bobby Byrd, John Waters had his Dreamlanders, and Steve “Mugger” Corbin had Black Flag. Other men we’ll talk about in later columns will share this habit of spinning success from real friendships, rather than aimlessly networking to try and game the system for opportunities. Just ask wrestling superstar Virgil how well that works.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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