A Labor Newspaper Derides the Myth of the Self-Made Man
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A Labor Newspaper Derides the Myth of the Self-Made Man

One of the prime frustrations of labor organizers in the late 1800s was the powerful myth that every American could attain untold riches if sufficiently hardworking and ambitious. The faith that some workers had in this mythology of the “self-made man” inhibited unionization and the spread of radical ideology. The anonymous writer of this 1877 editorial in the Labor Standard took aim at the national obsession with making money at any cost.

It is a fact that the labor movement within the United States makes a slower progress than almost anywhere else. In the Eastern States, it began almost forty years ago and interested many persons of the learned and well-to-do classes; one of its results was a reduction of the hours of labor from twelve, thirteen or more to eleven or ten. . . . The cotton mills of Lawrence and Lowell were from the outset established on a humane basis, and with a view toward benefiting labor materially and mentally. There is a great change for the worse now to be observed there. . . . The Brook Farm and the Hopedale and other Fourierist and Owenist experiments, tending to a trial of communist principles, counted among their adherents many of the best thinkers of those times. . . . There is now-a-days no such interest in the learned and well-to-do classes, but on the contrary an estrangement and even an open hostility is among them encountered to the improved ideas of Marx and Lassalle. . . .

It is another fact that what there still survives of the labor movement, has its roots, not in the natives, but among Irish, English, German, and other immigrants, or at least overwhelmingly among these latter; . . . (but) the children of these immigrants—with rare exceptions—turn cold shoulder to both trades unions and the labor movement generally. . . .

It is a third fact that as late as twenty and fifteen, nay a few, years ago our tribunes, pulpits, newspapers, and party conventions resounded with the enthusiastic praise of labor and laborers; that the great success of the Northern states as against the Southern was triumphantly vindicated to the intelligence, independence, and moral worth of the indomitable spirit of Northern workmen as compared with the slaves of the South. Our national power, our economical resources, our democratic self-government were demonstrated to be founded in the human dignity and equal social position of the workers, the producers of all wealth and virtue.—And now?—French Canadians, Chinese, Coolies, utterly oppressed Negroes, imported Italians and Poles—all without any education, without any American pride of manhood, are being praised as the best laborers, as the veritable blessing to our varied and growing industry, as the corner-stone to our national wealth.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshippers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists. Everybody had the theory and practice of the Manchester school in [his] brains and blood. We became a nation of believers in the possibility of universal capitalism. No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?. . Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: "Facts to be Considered," unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.