Republicans jammed through their tax cut late last year, which means it’s only a matter of time before they try to cut entitlements to make up the difference — the tax plan is expected to increase the federal deficit by a whopping $1.5 trillion. And when they do inevitably try to take away welfare and other social safety nets—probably sometime in the next year, according to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan—they will almost certainly justify it by saying it’s time the lesser-offs to stop living off the government cheese and finally “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
But anyone who uses any iteration of this phrase will be wrong — not just because the bootstraps argument is almost always made in bad faith, and assumes the absolute worst about the people it’s directed toward, but because it’s literally impossible for someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
It simply can’t be done — an irony that’s always lost on the people who use the phrase as a political cudgel.
The term “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” dates back to the 19th century American frontier, when the men manifesting our country’s destiny wore cowboy boots with leather loops attached to the sides, according to Michael Adams, a professor of linguistics at Indiana University and an expert in American slang. “That way they could pull their boots on standing up,” Adams says.
Even then, the term had sociopolitical undertones. “These were workboots, and not the fancy boots like the people in New York, Boston and Philadelphia were wearing,” Adams explains. In modern terms, the urban elites wore boots fastened with buttons, while the real Americans were out there tugging on their bootstraps.
The idea of pulling on your bootstraps quickly became associated with the American ideals of independence and self-determination. But the idea of pulling your boots up by their bootstraps is distinct from pulling yourself up by them. The first is a function of 19th century fashion design. The second is contradiction — no matter how hard a man pulls, he cannot lift himself off the ground by his bootstraps.
Point is, the term was used ironically. Adams and I searched the Newspapers.com database for any and all passages including the words “pull” and “bootstraps,” and the earliest printed use of the phrase was in the February 14, 1843, edition of the Southport Telegraph, a newspaper printed out of Southport, Wisconsin: “The Racine Advocate, in speaking of the subject, significantly remarks that ‘the Governor must be trying to pull himself up [by] the bootstraps.’”
The phrase was intended to make fun of the Wisconsin governor (a guy by the name of James Duane Doty) for contradicting himself. (Also, the paper apparently made a typo in leaving out the word “by”.)
In a May 7, 1884, Chicago Tribune article, a writer uses the phrase in a column opposing a plan to build a railroad connecting the U.S. to Argentina. “To attempt to construct or run [a railroad] now against the existing trade barriers will be as hopeless a task as the man undertook who tried to elevate himself by his bootstraps.” (The article talks of “walls,” “tariffs” and “trade” with respect to Mexico and other countries in Asia and is eerily reminiscent of our current political moment.)
In a separate Tribune article about a labor rally that appeared several months later, a man is quoted as saying that the Democratic and Republican parties have so subjugated the laborer that, “if he elevated himself at all, he must pull himself up by his boot-straps.” Little did that labor organizer know that 100 years later, his socialist rallying cry would be co-opted by the very capitalist overlords he once railed against.
The bootstraps narrative, however, didn’t really start to catch on with the mainstream until the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, when pulling yourself up by your bootstraps became “a slogan of self-sufficiency in the face of harsh conditions,” says Adams.
The term took on added political significance in the 1960s, when social conservatives weaponized the bootstraps phrase against African Americans engaged in the Civil Rights movement. For their part, Civil Rights leaders fought back by calling bullshit on the the entire bootstraps narrative. For example, in his 1969 inauguration speech for being appointed the first black president of Florida A&M University, Dr. Benjamin L. Perry, Jr., exposed the bootstraps mentality as faulty:
“Those misinformed citizens who ponder why Black America has not lifted itself by its bootstraps should be aware that when the black man was brought to America by slave traders he had neither boots nor bootstraps. … For over 300 years the black man in America has been isolated from the so-called ‘bootstrap’ culture.”
None of this, though, stopped politicians from evoking bootstraps whenever they wanted to argue against welfare and other social programs. In fact, the phrase spiked in popularity during the late-1980s and early-1990s, when conservatives were conjuring up parasitic Welfare Queens who leeched off the nanny state at the expense of other taxpayers.
It’s a strange journey for the bootstraps phrase, but not an uncommon one. Conservatives often co-opt progressive terms, and turn them back on the very people who originated them. “Political correctness,” for instance, was originally a way for liberals to criticize politicians who lack conviction, and only ever do the politically expedient thing. Now, conservatives use it to accuse liberals of stifling free speech.
Similarly, “fake news” was originally used to describe fraudulent news “articles” that were intentionally meant to deceive U.S. citizens, for either political or monetary gain. Now, President Trump and Fox News use the term to discredit news organizations they disagree with.
But first, there was bootstraps — a phrase that went from a way to mock something as a fool’s errand, to a rebel yell, to a way to tell poor people they deserve to be poor.