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“Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps”: An Etymology of an American Dream

May 17, 2011

The notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has become a notion so fundamental to the mainstream American ethos that it’s highly unlikely that any sincere candidate running for public office could actually challenge the idea directly without committing an act of political suicide. The expression is meant to imply something like “improving oneself by one’s own efforts” and speaks to the rather hyper-independent and gritty identity captured in the fantasy of the American West or the idealized middle class of White suburbia in the 1950s.

Politicians from both parties discuss the “bootstraps” narrative often enough. Conservatives revel in the American’s true grit and independent character, and they’ll beat the living hell out of any Big Bad Nanny Statist that gets in their way or gives a sick poor person healthcare.  For example, here’s Tim Pawlenty, a possible contender for the GOP Presidential candidacy for 2012, from his memoir Courage to Stand [emphasis added by me],

More than anything, right now, at this moment in history, I believe it’s time for America to square its shoulders and get about the business of fixing our problems ourselves…For the past eight years, I’ve tried to inspire just that kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps reform in my home state of Minnesota.

Liberals counter not by challenging the idea of “lifting yourself up” itself, but instead by explaining how hard it is, often saying something like, “How can someone lift themselves up by their own bootstraps if they haven’t got boots?”

Interestingly, the expression itself wasn’t originally intended to describe something we should expect from anyone at all, ever. Difficulty notwithstanding. In spite of what liberal critics often describe as the unlikely chance that a person will rise from pauper to President, what they forget is that it is literally impossible for a person to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, which was the original intention of the expression.

Indeed, many suggest that the phrase originated from the fantastical stories of the adventurer Baron von Munchausen (circa 1785) who had, among other fantastic feats such as riding on a cannonball, pulled himself–and his horse–up from a swamp by his bootstraps (or his hair, depending on the person telling the story). Searching through Google Books reveals that the expression held this meaning more or less consistently throughout much of the 1920s and even up to the 1950s. Consider this article from Popular Mechanics magazine:

By this time however, perhaps because military technology had begun to outpace the expression, the “bootstraps” saying had started to take on its more colloquial interpretation. Writers such as those of early 1930s biographical collection British Authors of the Nineteenth Century had begun referring to poor poets who had “lifted themselves by their own bootstraps,” and James Joyce had made similar usage of the phrase in Ulysses (but who really knows what the shit he was saying in that thing, anyhow?)

In 1941 the sci-fi author (and possible fascist sympathizer) Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called “By His Bootstraps,” in which a man lifts himself up by his own bootstraps time machine, and travels thousands of years into the future when, after presumably a millennium of welfare and unions had taken their toll, everyone has become a mindless slave waiting to be conquered by a White man from the 1950s who changes his name to “Diktor.”

"What you haven't built yourself a time machine yet you fucking luddite? Go on and make something of yourself!" - Tim Pawlenty, a.k.a. Diktor.

By the 1970s and 1980s, of course, it seems that the phrase had not only taken on its contemporary understanding, but had actually become a regular part of America’s political and social vernacular. Take a look at this chart from Google Ngram Viewer (a search tool for nerds that shows you how frequently a term or phrase has been used historically):

The use of the term skyrockets  throughout the 1980s, often, it seems, by liberal authors and college professors arguing with conservatives about how hard it is to lift yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots (or time machines).