Abstract: Narratives of Self-Made Men and the State in Antebellum America

Pamela Walker Laird


In 1832 Henry Clay famously used the phrase "self-made men" in the U.S. Senate while defending the American System and federal support for manufacturing. He praised Kentucky manufacturers as "enterprising and self-made men" who deserved the nation's honors and favors because they had "acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor." In 1817, Congressman and fellow Kentuckian Alney McLean had argued that men "among the lower and middle walks of life ... as to property... who might be styled self-made men" were worthier of election than the "more wealthy" because of their "talents, morality, industry, and integrity." McLean drew upon a centuries-old call to serve and glorify God and community as men's measure, best achieved by building their character and working diligently in their vocations. Whereas McLean lauded "self-made men" for what they could do for the nation, Clay praised such businessmen in order to garner support from the nation. As the young republic debated its course, the meaning of "self-made men" shifted from McLean's sense to Clay's. Recovering the phrase's religious and community-oriented traditions helps to explain how worldly success came to measure men's character and determine their claims on public esteem and state largess.