Vail Daily column: ‘Self-made person’ myth persists

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

We use the word “myth” to express opposite meanings. A storyteller spins a yarn and plays with the truth. Listeners conclude the story is fictitious — a myth. In contrast, a historian studies ancient Greek and Roman myths. These sagas reveal strengths and foibles in human character. We designate these stories as “myths” because they teach what’s authentic, revealing and worth preserving.

Consequently, we speak of “myth” to identify stories of sheer fabrication and, in the same breath, use “myth” when referring to a venerable story that reveals the truth about human experience. Such are the contradictory uses of “myth.”

Conservatives treat a myth about how-to-get ahead in life as rock-solidly true, when in fact it’s bogus. Their brand of rugged individualism favors local control. That’s why conservatives are leery of federal regulations for banks and other corporations too big to fail.

Like circus elephants running around a center ring and grabbing the tail of the beast ahead, the GOP is hooked on a myth to secure the American dream. They guarantee success through hard work, calculated risk and confidence in a market-driven economy with government off its back.

Conservatives trace this conviction about self-made citizens achieving the American dream back to our nation’s founding. Hands-off government throughout U.S. history, they say, has allowed citizens who made it on their own to live the American dream of financial independence. Not true!

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U.S. history contradicts this popular mythical claim. That independent pioneers succeeded without government help lacks historical validity. Conservatives who cling to this myth assume its veracity as a fundamental tenet of non-negotiable convictions.

Ronald Reagan believed in this myth that citizens achieve the American dream when big government gets out of their way. He gave succinct radio messages in the 1970s excoriating excessive government as the source of national economic malaise.

Reagan sounded baffled about why detractors rejected the myth that self-achievement advances as government recedes. On radio, he sounded gratuitously provocative, playing to his ring-wing audience: “It’s almost as if we refuse to read the evidence of our senses! Bigger government is not more efficient government. Big government is weak government! Its only strength is its power to bring its weakness, uncertainty and efficiency to every corner of American life.”

Historic evidence, however, moves in the opposite direction to Reagan’s suspicion of Uncle Sam working for citizens’ benefit.

By putting government to work, many pioneers benefited from its services. In 1815, life in the U.S. proved arduous and isolated. Laborers worked long, monotonous hours. Prior to receiving Uncle Sam’s help, pioneers lacked means of transportation to speed up communication. Government paved the way in West Virginia by building the first public road into impassable wilderness.

Initially, government provided subsidies to stage coach companies, giving mobility to pioneers. Then public state funding financed digging canals, such as the Erie that was started in 1817 and stretched from Buffalo to Albany. Canals transformed struggling local economies into a national economy. These government-sponsored waterways made Manhattan the national hub for big business, which in turn produced more jobs to fuel western expansion.

In 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson’s American army routed British Redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans. Prior to the fight, Jackson waited for two thousand Kentucky militia, who epitomized the myth of self-made patriots. These “reinforcements proved a disappointment,” reports Pulitzer prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe. “Freezing in their tattered clothing, the Kentuckians lacked tents or blankets to shelter them from rough weather. Worst of all, only 550 of them were armed. …Jackson joked in disgust that it was the first time he’d ever seen a Kentuckian ‘without a gun, a pack of cards and a jug of whiskey’” (“What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America,” 1815-1848, page 11).

What gave Gen. Jackson the victory? Government manufactured artillery. These cannons, rather than self-made Kentuckian riflemen’s heroics, made the difference between victory and defeat.

Sounding like Ronald Reagan’s devotees, most citizens denied this historic fact. Instead, they propagated the American myth that self-made pioneer soldiers armed with rifles, not cannons, won at New Orleans. Such convoluted history conservatives recite today. Historian Howe writes, “Cannons seemed not altogether satisfactory as a patriotic symbol for the American public. Cannons were products of the industrial revolution and government-sponsored technological development. A predominantly rural people wanted heroes from the countryside.

“… The Battle of New Orleans came to be regarded by Jackson’s many admirers as a victory of self-reliant individualists under charismatic leadership. It seemed a triumph of citizens-soldiers over professionals, of the common man over hierarchy, of willpower over rules” (page 17-18).

Conservatives in 1815 and today have deluded themselves. Their aberrant reading of U.S. history turns them “from listening to the truth (as they) wander into myths” (II Timothy 4:4). The myth of the self-made American who succeeds without government help is blunder of mythic proportions. Strong communities fortified by effective government beat back enemies on battlefields and in winning the West. Conservatives who deny the important role government played in our national growth fall for conjured-up myths about the self-made individuals.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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