Speaker: William Allen Butler? Henry Clapp? John Bright? Junius Henri Browne? Howard Crosby? Henry Armitt Brown? Benjamin Disraeli? William Cowper?
Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I hear the claim that an individual who has excelled in life is a self-made man or a self-made woman I think of a well-known clever riposte:
Person A: He is a self-made man.
Person B: Yes, I have heard him say that many times, and he certainly worships his creator.
This quip is based on a comical form of self-reference. The definition of “self-made” implies that the man’s creator is the man himself. Hence, when he worships his creator he is worshiping himself. Do you know who originated this joke and who was being criticized?
Quote Investigator: A precursor that expressed the core of the joke appeared in a satirical poem composed in 1858 titled “Two Millions” by William Allen Butler. The work described a millionaire who obeyed the following “higher law” with “all his heart and soul and mind and strength”: 1
To love his maker, for he was SELF-MADE!
Self-made, self-trained, self-willed, self-satisfied,
He was himself, his daily boast and pride.
Thanks to Professor Ian Preston who located the above citation and shared it with QI. The entire poem was reprinted in the magazine “Titan” in London. 2 Also, sections of the work were reprinted by reviewers in periodicals such as “The Knickerbocker” in New York. 3 Thus, the jest was further disseminated.
A close match to the popular form of the joke appeared in March 1868 in multiple newspapers such as “The Stillwater Messenger” of Minnesota and the “Burlington Hawk Eye” of Iowa. In the following statement “The World” was a reference to a New York newspaper. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4 5
The World says Horace Greeley is “a self-made man who worships his Creator.”
Also in March 1868 the “Springfield Republican” of Massachusetts and the “Utica Daily Observer” of New York identified the originator of the jibe as Henry Clapp who was the editor of a New York literary newspaper called “The Saturday Press”: 6 7
Henry Clapp says that Horace Greeley is a self made man, and worships his creator.
In July 1868 “Harper’s Magazine” published a version of the remark and suggested that Greeley would probably respond with good humor: 8
We take it that no man laughed more heartily than Mr. Greeley did when he was told what Henry Clapp had said about him. Said Clapp: “Horace Greeley is emphatically a self-made man, and he worships his Creator!”
In 1869 a non-fiction volume titled “The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York” by Junius Henri Browne was published, and the author applied the joke to a New Yorker named George Law: 9
He is frequently to be seen walking and driving about on his private business; occasionally appears at Fulton Market in quest of oysters, which he swallows voraciously as if he were more savage than hungry; and now and then figures as a vice-president of some public meeting, which he never attends. Such is Live-Oak George, who, as has been said, is a self-made man, and worships his creator.
By June 1870 a different version of the joke was circulating in England. The phrase “adores his maker” replaced the phrase “worships his creator”. A short item published in newspapers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Leicester claimed that the politician John Bright had aimed the barb at the politician Benjamin Disraeli: 10 11
One of Mr. Disraeli’s admirers, in speaking about him to John Bright, said, “You ought to give him credit for what he has accomplished, as he is a self- made man.” “I know he is,” retorted Mr. Bright, “and he adores his maker.” -Court Journal.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
By July 1870 the version of the tale featuring Bright and Disraeli had migrated across the ocean to appear in “The Jewish Messenger” of New York City. 12
A novel recombination of the tale with the phrase “adores his maker” applied to Horace Greeley was printed in “The Argus” of Albany, New York in August 1870: 15
The fact that Mr. Greeley aspires to the vacant throne of Spain is not concealed from his intimate friends. The man that the Tribune has in its eye,—always has—is Greeley, the self made man who adores his maker. He declines to be minister to England, or Governor of New York, while the Spanish crown is vacant.
A famous humorist of the period released an almanac for 1873 called “Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax” which employed dialectical spelling. A thematically related joke about self-made men was included. The original text and a version with traditional spelling follow: 16
Self-made men are most alwus apt tew be a leetle too proud ov the job.
Self-made men are most always apt to be a little too proud of the job.
Henry Clapp died in 1875, and in that year the “Boston Globe” printed a letter of reminiscence that presented details about the remark ascribed to Clapp: 17
His most brilliant piece of wit was upon Horace Greeley, who, in commenting in the Tribune upon a communication in the World signed M.B. asked “Who is M. B.?” The World replied, “Who is H. G.?” Mr. Clapp addressed a note to the World saying H. G. is a self-made man, and worships his creator.”
In 1880 “The Phrenological Journal” printed the jape in a short piece by Howard Crosby that commented critically on the notion of a self-made man: 18
The so-called “self-made man” is generally of this sort, of whom some wag has said that one good thing you can affirm of him, and that is that he worships his Creator.
In 1880 a biographical work about an orator named Henry Armitt Brown stated that he used the jest when describing an adversary: 19
He said of a political and notably self-opinionated opponent, who on one occasion was accused by a speaker of his own party of being an “infidel”: “An infidel,—not so; he is a self-made man, and he worships his creator.”
A variant of the joke was mentioned by a lecturer at the “Shelley Society” of London in 1886 who reported that an American humorist was told about an individual described as self-made, and he responded that: 20
…it relieved his Maker of a great responsibility.
In 1889 the saying appeared in volume seven of a ten volume work titled “A Library of American Literature”. This instance was ascribed to Clapp and used the word “Yes”: 21
A JEST FROM BOHEMIA.
A self-made man? Yes,—and worships his creator.
Henry Clapp. 1810-75.
In 1898 a periodical from Utica, New York called “The Cambrian” recounted an interesting variant anecdote in which Benjamin Disraeli delivered the humorous line while commenting on an industrialist named David Davies: 22
A capital story about the late David Davies, Llandinam, is resuscitated by the “Saturday Review” in a note on the late Mr. Edward Davies.
Mr. David Davies sat in the House of Commons for Cardiganshire, and was ever dwelling on the fact that he was “a self-made man.” Disraeli (the “Saturday” reminds us), after one of his speeches, remarked, “The hon. and genial member for Cardiganshire is never tired of repeating the information that he is a self-made man. I think the House will agree that whatever the value of the hon. member’s opinion, there is no doubt that he worships his maker.”
In 1942 H. L. Mencken included the saying in his massive compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles” within a section dedicated to Horace Greeley. Mencken conjectured that the saying ascribed to Clapp originated circa 1858, but he gave no supporting citation: 23
Greeley, Horace (1811-72)
A self-made man who worships his creator.
HENRY CLAPP, c. 1858
Mencken also included another entry for the saying ascribed to John Bright with a date circa 1868, but Mencken listed no supporting citation: 24
He is a self-made man, and worships his creator.
JOHN BRIGHT: Said of Benjamin Disraeli, c. 1868
In 1949 the indefatigable quotation collector Evan Esar placed the jest in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. Oddly, the words were attributed to the poet William Cowper: 25
COWPER, William, 1731-1800, English poet.
A self-made man? Yes—and worships his creator.
In 1964 “The Fine Art of Political Wit” by Leon A. Harris presented a version of the anecdote that flipped two traditional roles. Harris suggested that Disraeli was criticizing Bright: 26
When it was said that his attacks on John Bright were too harsh and that Bright was, after all, a self-made man, Disraeli replied, “I know he is and he adores his maker.”
In 1977 the popular collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” followed the anomalous lead of Esar and attributed to joke to William Cowper: 27
A self-made man? Yes—and worships his creator.
—William Cowper (1731-1800)
In conclusion, based on current evidence the core of this joke should be credited to William Allen Butler who wrote the poem “Two Millions” in 1858. Butler’s lines were a work of fiction, and no specific person was being criticized.
The modern version of the jibe emerged by 1868 when Henry Clapp criticized Horace Greeley. By 1870 the same joke with different vocabulary was credited to John Bright who was criticizing Benjamin Disraeli. It is possible that future research will locate earlier examples of the quip, and the order of precedence may change. The remark was also employed by others such as Howard Crosby, but the expression was already in circulation.
Image Notes: Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli by Francis Grant in 1852. William Blake’s “Europe a Prophecy”, British Museum. Horace Greeley by J. E. Baker, Library of Congress. Files obtained via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Professor Ian Preston who located the key 1858 citation. Thanks to Stephen Goranson who pointed to the variant quip given in the 1886 citation. Thanks also to Dave Hill for valuable comments. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
Update History: On June 11, 2014 the 1858 citation dated was added. Parts of the article were rewritten to reflect this new evidence. On June 13, 2014 the 1886 citation was added.
- 1858, Two Millions by William Allen Butler, (Dedication: To The Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale College, this poem, written at their request, and delivered before them, July 28, 1858, is dedicated), Quote Page 9, Published by D. Appleton & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1858 November, Titan: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 27, “Two Millions” by William Allen Butler, Start Page 605, Quote Page 606, Published by James Hogg & Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1858 September, “The Knickerbocker, Or, New-York Monthly Magazine”, Volume 52, Literary Notices, (Review of William Allan Butler’s “Two Millions” with extensive excerpts), Start Page 291, Quote Page 291, Published by John A. Gray, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1868 March 11, The Stillwater Messenger, Clippings and Drippings: Personal and Literary, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Stillwater, Minnesota. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1868 March 11, Burlington Hawk Eye, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Burlington, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1868 March 12, Springfield Republican, Gleanings and Gossip, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Genealogybank) ↩
- 1868 March 16, Utica Daily Observer, Tea Table Gossip, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Utica, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1868 July, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine [Harper’s Magazine], Editor’s Drawer, Start Page 281, Quote Page 283, Column 1, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1869 (Copyright 1868), The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York by Junius Henri Browne, Chapter LXXX: George Law, Start Page 642, Quote Page 644, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1870 June 3, Newcastle Courant, MULTUM IN PARVO, [Humor paragraph with acknowledgement to Court Journal], Quote Page 3, Column 4, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. (19th Century British Library Newspapers) ↩
- 1870 June 18, Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury, Varieties, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Leicester, England. (This newspaper used the phrase “speaking of him” instead of “speaking about him”)(19th Century British Library Newspapers) ↩
- 1870 July 8, The Jewish Messenger, Floating Facts, Quote Page 2, Column 4 and 5, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1870 August, The Galaxy: An Illustrated Magazine of Entertaining Reading, Volume 10, Section: The Galaxy Advertiser and Miscellany, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Published by Sheldon & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1870 August 9, Sentinel Of Freedom, Foreign Gleanings, Column 3 and 4, Newark, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1870 August 31, The Argus (Daily Albany Argus), A King For Spain, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Albany, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1873 (Copyright 1872), Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the Year of Our Lord 1873, (Page for May 1873), Quote Page 15, Published by G. W. Carleton & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1875 April 20, Boston Daily Globe, Some Reminiscences of Henry Clapp, (Letter to the Editor from H. W. of Boston, dated April 16), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1880 May, The Phrenological Journal, The Self-Made Man by Howard Crosby, Page 252 and 253, S. R. Wells & Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1880, Memoir of Henry Armitt Brown: Together with Four Historical Orations, Edited by J. M. Hoppin (James Mason Hoppin), Quote Page 54, Published by J. B. Lippincott & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1888, Shelley Society’s Publications, Series 1, Number 1, Part 1, “Shelley’s View of Nature Contrasted with Darwin’s” by Mathilde Blind, (Lecture delivered to the Shelley Society on November 10, 1886), Start Page 36, Quote Page 47, Published by Reeves and Turner, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1889, A Library of American Literature: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Compiled and edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman and Ellen Mackay Hutchinson, Volume 7 of 10, Volume title: Literature of the Republic Part 3: 1835-1860, Section: Noted Sayings, Quote Page 192, Published by Charles L. Webster & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1898 March, The Cambrian: A National Monthly Magazine, Volume 18, Number 3, Section: Personal-Miscellaneous, Quote Page 138, Column 2, Thomas J. Griffiths, Publisher, Utica, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Horace Greeley, Quote Page 498, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Self-made, Quote Page 1081, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Quote Page 61, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1964, The Fine Art of Political Wit by Leon A. Harris, Page 80, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Quote Page 126, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩