Frederick Douglass, the escaped former slave who became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement, has long been accused of harboring certain libertarian tendencies. University of Virginia historian Waldo Martin, for example, charged that Douglass’ emphasis on self-reliance revealed an unfortunate “procapitalist bias” in his otherwise commendable thinking. Yale University historian David Blight, meanwhile, has criticized Douglass for preaching “a laissez-faire individualism that echoed the reigning Social Darwinism of the day.”
It’s true that Frederick Douglass simultaneously championed both civil rights and economic liberty, writes Senior Editor Damon Root, in a review of the new book The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass. But the proper term for that combination isn’t Social Darwinism; it’s classical liberalism. The central component of Douglass’ worldview was the principle of self-ownership, which he understood to include both racial equality and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.