Douglass understood that the proper role of government was to protect individual rights and guarantee equality before the law, not to dispense favors to this group or that. For example, in his famous April 1865 speech, “What the Black Man Wants,” Douglass declared, “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. … I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
“Congress is erecting a monument to him, but they’d be better off remembering his ideals.”
Douglass’s message was not just about African Americans. Rather, it offers a stinging rebuke to all those who believe that men and women cannot be the masters of their own fates.
Moreover, Douglass understood that economic liberty was a crucial component of liberty more generally. He believed in private property and the accumulation of wealth. When a speaker from the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society compared “wage slavery” to “chattel slavery,” Douglass declared such sentiments to be “arrant nonsense,” and argued forcefully that “so far from being a sin to accumulate property, it is the plain duty of every man to lay up something for the future.”
He rejected class warfare, saying, “I have no sympathy for the narrow, selfish notion of economy which assumes that every crumb of bread which goes into the mouth of one class is so much taken from the mouths of another class.” And while acknowledging the imperfections of capitalism in practice, he nonetheless saw it as the best engine for both individual betterment and economic progress.