PRESS CONFERENCE OF THE SELF-MADE MEN
“DID THEY ALONE PULL THEMSELVES UP BY THEIR OWN
BOOTSTRAPS OR DID GOVERNMENT LEND A HAND?”
Conflict and Cooperation
Values, Beliefs, Political Ideas, and Institutions
Habits of the Mind:
Significance of the Past
Importance of individuals
Objectives: The Student Will Be Able To
define the terms “self-made man” and “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”
research an historical figure
complete a graphic organizer on the historical figure
assume the role of a historical character
use research to debate the focus question
form questions to explore different perspectives on an historical question
background information for each historical figure
Role Sheets for each group
Press Conference briefs for each group
a graphic organizer for each group
1. Divide students into ten groups.
2. Each group should assign each member of the team a role (see Role Sheets).
3. Each group is responsible for learning the perspective of their assigned historical
4. Working cooperatively each group should organize a clear action plan. The
groups should agree on the presentation of arguments.
5. Individuals work on their part of the action plan.
6. Group members meet and share their part of the plan.
7. Group finalizes plans.
8. Press conference begins.
9. Each historical figure makes opening remarks.
10. Moderator then opens the discussion to reporters in the audience.
11. During the other group’s presentations, reporters should take notes in preparation
12. When all questions have been asked, the moderator will ask for any concluding
Conclusion and Assessment:
1. Whole class discussion should follow the Press Conference with these questions:
To what extent were these men “self-made”? To what extent were they
beneficiaries of government policies?
2. Question script could include:
a. What actions made them successful?
b. To what extent did government policies factor into the person’s success?
c. What obligations does a “self-made man” owe to the community that “gave
him his opportunity?”
d. What insight for today do you draw from this experience, and what are the
implications of those insights?
e. Why does the myth of the self-made man persist in popular American
3. Students could do more research to defend their individual point of view in an
1. What other individuals would you add to the list of the “self-made?” To what
extent would it enhance the exercise to add women or minorities to the list?
2. If the men were, indeed, self-made men, would it then be appropriate to have the
government “get out of their way?” What does it mean for government to get out
of people’s way?
1. Have a volunteer from the group read the biography of the self-made man. Or, you
can each read the information online.
2. Go over roles and assign each group member to a role.
3. Each group member should work on his or her assigned role.
4. Group comes back together to share his or her work.
5. Group hears opening statement and gives feedback.
6. Reporters share their questions with group and revise if necessary.
PRESS CONFERENCE ROLE SHEET
HISTORICAL ACTOR: Plays the part of the “self-made man”
Takes the time to read all background information provided and to understand the
ideas and beliefs of assigned person.
Helps others in group to understand his/her perspective as a self-made man.
Takes on personality of assigned person.
Makes opening statement on his/her position, touting personal accomplishments.
Is ready to answer questions from Press Corp.
ASSISTANT TO THE ACTOR:
Takes notes on graphic organizer.
Introduces actor as a self-made man at the beginning of the press conference.
Sits next to or behind actor.
Assists actor in answering any questions during the press conference.
One-half of the remaining members of the group.
Responsible for making sure everyone in the group understands the ideas and beliefs
of the actor. Should emphasize how he made it on his own.
Asks “friendly” questions to the actor during the press conference to make the actor
look as if his success was primarily a personal achievement and bring out the
perspective the group believes in.
One-half of the remaining members of the group.
Responsible for anticipating and preparing the Actor for any hostile questions that
may be asked.
Researches the other group’s ideas that support or oppose their own. Determine in
what ways government policies contributed to the actor’s success.
Prepares questions to ask the other groups in an effort to expose their weaknesses by
showing that those actors did not achieve as much on their own.
Looks for indirect government influences on the actor in addition to direct
PRESS CONFERENCE BRIEFS
Franklin’s life is the pattern from which all other self-made men have been cut. His rhetoric of
hard work, ambition, and thrift was not merely a philosophy he preached; it was the code by
which he lived his life. None of his successes came by chance; they were created by the
ceaseless way in which he organized his life to maximize productivity. Such discipline was
necessary if he ever hoped to rise from his humble beginnings. Franklin was the 15th of 17
children born to father Josiah Franklin, a candle maker. Granted only two years of formal
schooling, Franklin supplemented his knowledge by constantly having his nose stuck in a
When he was 17, young Ben struck out on his own and traveled to Philadelphia. Unlike other
aristocrats of the period, who used slave labor to free up time for their other pursuits, Franklin
created an enormously successful printing business, which allowed him to retire and became a
veritable Renaissance man. His accomplishments are numerous. As an author he penned Poor
Richard’s Almanack, his famous autobiography, and numerous classic essays. As an inventor,
he created the lightning rod, the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the
flexible urinary catheter. As a thinker he established the Junto discussion group, the first
subscription library, and the American Philosophical Society. As a scientist he made
important investigations into the nature of electricity. He served his country, state, and city as
a councilman, postmaster, recruiter of the Pennsylvania militia, Speaker of the Pennsylvania
State House, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, ambassador to France, President of
Pennsylvania, and Founding Father. Not bad for the son of a candle maker, eh?
Eli Whitney was the inventor of the cotton gin and a pioneer in the mass production of cotton.
Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts on December 8, 1765 and died on January 8,
1825. He graduated from Yale College in 1792. By April 1793, Whitney had designed and
constructed the cotton gin, a machine that automated the separation of cottonseed from the
short-staple cotton fiber.
Eli Whitney failed to profit from his invention because imitations of his machine appeared
and his1794 patent for the cotton gin could not be upheld in court until 1807. Whitney could
not stop others from copying and selling his cotton gin design.
Eli Whitney and his business partner Phineas Miller had decided to get into the ginning
business themselves. They manufactured as many cotton gins as possible and installed them
throughout Georgia and the southern states. They charged farmers an unusual fee for doing
the ginning for them, two-fifths of the profits paid in cotton itself.
Farmers throughout Georgia resented having to go to Eli Whitney's cotton gins where they
had to pay what they regarded as an exorbitant tax. Instead planters began making their own
versions of Eli Whitney's gin and claiming they were "new" inventions. Phineas Miller
brought costly suits against the owners of these pirated versions but because of a loophole in
the wording of the 1793 patent act, they were unable to win any suits until 1800, when the law
Struggling to make a profit and mired in legal battles, the partners finally agreed to license
gins at a reasonable price. In 1802, South Carolina agreed to purchase Eli Whitney's patent
right for $50,000 but delayed in paying it. The partners also arranged to sell the patent rights
to North Carolina and Tennessee. By the time even the Georgia courts recognized the wrongs
done to Eli Whitney, only one year of his patent remained. In 1808 and again in 1812 he
humbly petitioned Congress for a renewal of his patent.
In 1798, Eli Whitney invented a way to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts
were interchangeable. Ironically, it was as a manufacturer of muskets that Whitney finally
Lincoln lacked connections, charisma, good looks, and formal education, and yet became one
of the greatest presidents in United States history. Famously born in a one-room cabin to
uneducated farmer parents, Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency has long been the stuff
of legend. Lincoln was almost entirely self-educated; he received only 18 months of formal
schooling. He offset this disadvantage by voraciously consuming any book he could get his
hands on. At age 22, Lincoln packed his meager belongings in a canoe and paddled out on his
own. He taught himself the law and became a successful attorney and state legislator in
Illinois. Losing his senatorial campaign in 1858 to Stephen Douglas did not deter him from
his goals; he persevered against this very same opponent to win the presidency. The rest, of
course, is history. Lincoln went on to guide America through her darkest and stormiest hour.
When it comes to rags to riches stories, there are no rags lowlier than those worn by American
slaves. Rising from the shackles of slavery to extraordinary success required monumental
amounts of hard work, tenacity, and passion, and Frederick Douglass had these qualities in
spades. Douglass understood that nothing in life would ever be handed to him. When his
master’s wife, who had been teaching him the alphabet, was reprimanded for doing so by her
husband, Douglass continued to learn to read by interacting with white children and working
through any written materials he could find. When he was traded to the cruel mastery of
Edward Covey, who regularly whipped Douglass, Douglass confronted his master, getting
him to back down and never raise his hand to him again.
In 1838, Douglass took his greatest risk yet and escaped from slavery to Massachusetts.
Douglass soon rose to prominence, becoming an outspoken abolitionist, a spectacular orator, a
bestselling author, and a newspaper publisher. After the Civil War, Douglass served as
President of the Freedman’s Savings Bank; marshal of the District of Columbia, minister-
resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican
Republic. During the 1888 Republican Convention, he became the first African-American to
receive a vote to be nominated for the Presidency. Dying in 1895, Douglass had risen from
slavery to become one of the most prominent and well-respected black men in the United
Carnegie represents the epitome of the self-made man. His father was a Scottish hand-loom
weaver, who moved with his family to America when Andrew was 13. Carnegie’s first job
was working as a bobbin boy at a textile factory, making $1.50 a week. He subsequently took
jobs as a boiler tender, bookkeeper’s clerk, and telegraph delivery boy. All the while he read
to educate himself and worked to mitigate his thick Scottish accent. In 1853, Carnegie landed
a job with the Pennsylvania Telegraph Co.
He religiously saved his money and reinvested it in the railroad business. He worked his way
up to being superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Western Division and then
supervised the Union’s telegraph lines during the Civil War. He continued to make incredibly
wise investments with his savings which reaped him handsome dividends. After the war, he
left the railroad business and began to focus on building and investing in ironworks. By
bringing great efficiency to the business, taking over one steel company after another, and
utilizing vertical integration, Carnegie soon created an empire of steel and iron.
In 1901, Carnegie sold his steel holdings to JP Morgan for $480 million. Carnegie had long
preached what he called “The Gospel of Wealth,” a philosophy in which a man should aim to
acquire as much fortune as possible and then give it away to others. On this point, (unlike
several others) Carnegie was a man of his word. During his lifetime he donated $350,695,653
to philanthropic causes; upon his death he gave away the last $30,000,000 of his wealth.
Kicked out of school for being easily distracted, Thomas Edison received only 3 months of
formal schooling. The rest of Edison’s education came from his mother’s homeschooling and
his reading of classic books. Though he lost nearly all of his hearing at a young age, Edison
did not let this disability hinder him. He early on showed a tenacious entrepreneurial streak;
he sold candy and newspapers aboard trains as a youth and then won a position as telegraph
operator when he saved a station agent’s son from being run over by a train. As a telegrapher,
he worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Edison requested the night shift so that he could
read and do his experiments during the slow evening hours. His constant tinkering paid off;
Edison (often with help from his partners) came up with a myriad of inventions, including the
phonograph, stock ticker, fluoroscope, kinetoscope, and most famously, the first
commercially viable incandescent lamp. “The Wizard of Menlo Park” was both a genius
inventor and a savvy business man; he filed more than 1500 patents during his lifetime and
founded 14 companies including General Electric.
Very few men will ever have the chance to completely revolutionize the American way of
life; even fewer who do so will come from obscure backgrounds. Henry Ford was born in
1863 on a farm near Detroit, Michigan. His father wanted Henry to take over the family farm,
but Henry had other plans. At age 16, he left home to become a machinist’s apprentice. After
several years, he returned to farm work, and also ran a sawmill. But his love for engineering
kept calling him away. In 1891, Ford was hired by the Edison Illuminating Company, and he
worked his way up to chief engineer. He saved money scrupulously until he had enough so he
could quit and work on his experiments with gasoline engines.
Ford began creating and testing self-propelled vehicles, but could not produce them cheaply
and efficiently as he desired. With this goal in mind, Ford and partner Alexander Malcomson
founded Ford Motor Co. Ford’s technical smarts were matched by his business savvy. He
offered his auto workers $5 an hour, nearly double the going rate. The country’s best
mechanics thus flocked to Ford, and this greatly slowed employee turnover and increased
productivity. And he introduced moving assembly belts to his plants, which greatly improved
efficiency. Such ideas helped make the Model T an affordable, immediate, and widespread
success; half of all cars on the road in 1918 came from Ford factories. Ford found equal
success with his next model, the Model A, which he had large part in designing. Ford secured
sole ownership of the company for his family, expanded the business internationally, reaped a
massive fortune, and introduced America to its ongoing love affair with the automobile.
SAMUEL ZEMURRAY (1877-1961)
Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961), a Russian-born U.S. fruit importer, in a classic "rags
to riches" career built the United Fruit Company into a powerful international
corporation. The economic power of his banana companies dwarfed the Central
American states where they operated and allowed him to play a major economic and
political role there in the mid-20th century.
Samuel Zemurray was born in Kishinev, Bessarabia, Russia, on January 18, 1877, to poor
Jewish parents, David and Sarah (Blausman) Zmuri. In 1892 he emigrated to Selma,
Alabama, and worked at several low-paying jobs that enabled him to help the rest of his
family come to Alabama by the time he was 19. In 1895 he entered the banana business,
buying carloads of "ripes" in Mobile and peddling them to small-town grocers along the
railway. He expanded this trade to New Orleans, getting a contract from the United Fruit
Company (UFCO) to sell to small dealers and peddlers bananas too ripe to ship into the
interior. Grocers called him "Sam the Banana Man," a name that stuck throughout his career.
Within three years he had $100,000 in the bank.
Under Zemurray's leadership the United Fruit Company expanded to other parts of the
world, but it was in Central America that the company's role was most dominant. He faced
and overcame with research and bold experimentation a near-disastrous epidemic of sigatoka
and other tropical diseases. UFCO had a near monopoly on steamship and rail transportation,
radio communications, and the export of bananas and other tropical crops. Zemurray's close
relationships with the leaders of these states caused some to regard them as lackeys of
"Yankee imperialism" and engenderedresentment from nationalists.
A strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Zemurray helped frame the
Agricultural Adjustment Administration industry codes, and during World War II, as an
adviser to the Board of Economic Welfare, he cooperated closely with the war effort. UFCO
chartered ships to the government and concentrated on production of rubber, hemp,
quinine, rotenone, soybeans, and other strategic tropical crops in Central America. Zemurray
was still influential within UFCO during the company's involvement with the CIA-backed
1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan government. He was a leading figure in the campaign to
alarm the U.S. government and public of the "communist" threat in Guatemala, although he
was never publicly identified with the CIA plot.
Without Zemurray's active leadership UFCO was in serious decline by the mid-1950s.
Recognizing this, and seriously ill from Parkinson's disease, Zemurray divested himself of all
UFCO stock. He died in New Orleans on November 30, 1961.
DAVID SARNOFF, 1891-1971
David Sarnoff was born to a poor family in a small Jewish village in what is today
Belarus. His talents were recognizable from a young age, and his family planned on David
becoming a rabbi. These plans were interrupted when the family emigrated to the United
States in 1900. Living in New York City, young David helped support the family by selling
newspapers before and after school. Then, when his father was stricken with tuberculosis,
David was forced to become the man of the house and its main breadwinner. He found a
position as the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. Sarnoff worked hard to
educate himself to the ins and outs of the communications business and steadily rose through
the company ranks. He paid close attention to the developing radio technology and suggested
to his superiors that they begin to design and build a radio for the average consumer. His idea
for a “radio music box” was ignored by his bosses at the Marconi company, and his ideas
continued to fall on deaf ears when the company was bought by GE and became RCA.
Yet, as the 1920′s dawned and Sarnoff’s predictions about the popularity of radio were
proved to be quite prescient, Sarnoff began to get the recognition and respect he deserved.
RCA launched NBC radio in 1926, and only a few years later, Sarnoff was made its president.
After building the AM radio business into a success, Sarnoff turned his attention to the
television, which he sensed was going to be bigger than radio. Sarnoff, now the president of
RCA, invested heavily in the research and development of the new technology. His gamble
paid off when NBC introduced television to the American public at the 1939 New York’s
World Fair. The next day, RCA began selling their television sets in stores. The television
business exploded after the war, and Sarnoff again led NBC to dominance by being first to
introduce color television to the country.
Born in Texarkana, Texas to a father who worked as a cotton broker, Ross Perot could have
lived and died in obscurity like thousands before him. But from a young age, Perot’s ambition
set him apart. He became an Eagle Scout in high school and then attended the Naval Academy
where he helped establish the school’s honor code and became class president and battalion
After leaving the Navy, Perot became a salesman for IBM. Perot quickly distinguished
himself from the pack, filling the year’s sales quota in two weeks. Full of entrepreneurial
ideas, but ignored by the higher ups, Perot left IBM in 1962 to found his own company,
Electronic Data Systems. Things started off rocky; Perot’s initial attempts to sell their data
processing services to corporations resulted in 77 rejections. Yet Perot persisted, won EDS
government contracts, and turned the company into a technology powerhouse. EDS was
eventually bought by GM for a cool 700 million. Not content to rest on his business laurels,
Perot began to involve himself in political policy issues, an interest that culminated in his
famous run for the presidency in 1992. Garnering the largest percentage of the popular vote as
a third party candidate since TR’s run in 1912, Perot’s success surprised the pundits and
assuredly a lot of folks back in Texarkana.
SELF-MADE MEN OR BENEFICIARY OF GOVERNMENT POLICIES
Name of “self-made man” Notes
Describe his origins and family’s
circumstances. What advantages and
disadvantages did he start with?
Describe his success and how it was
Identify personal qualities that contributed
to his success
What part did government policies play in
the person’s success?
Other information found
Would you categorize this person as a
“self-made man” or a beneficiary of
government policies? Did he “pull himself 2.
up by his own bootstraps” or did
government policies make his rise
possible? List three reasons. 3.