IN NOVEMBER 1848, a socialist activist gave a speech at the 13th annual meeting of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. "Mr. Inglis" began his remarks well enough, reported the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who was also there to give a speech that day, "but strangely enough went on in an effort to show that wages slavery is as bad as chattel slavery."
Douglass soon became infuriated with the socialist speaker. "The attempts to place holding property in the soil--on the same footing as holding property in man, was most lame and impotent," Douglass declared. "And the wonder is that anyone could listen with patience to such arrant nonsense."
Douglass heard a lot of arrant nonsense from American socialists. That's because, as the historian Carl Guarneri has explained, most antebellum socialists "were hostile or at least indifferent to the abolitionist appeal because they believed that it diverted attention from the serious problems facing northern workers with the onset of industrial capitalism." The true path forward, the socialists said, was the path of anti-capitalism.
But Douglass would have none of that. "To own the soil is no harm in itself," he maintained. "It is right that [man] should own it. It is his duty to possess it--and to possess it in that way in which its energies and properties can be made most useful to the human family--now and always."
Douglass favored the set of ideas that came to be known as classical liberalism. He stood for natural rights, racial equality, and economic liberty in a free labor system. At the very heart of his worldview was the principle of self-ownership. "You are a man, and so am I," Douglass told his former master. "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living." Referring to his first paying job after his escape from bondage, Douglass wrote: "I was now my own master--a tremendous fact." This individualistic, market-oriented definition of liberty put Douglass squarely at odds with the socialist creed.
The abolitionist-turned-socialist John A. Collins offers a telling contrast. In the 1840s, Collins went on a fundraising trip to England on behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He returned home a devotee of the English socialist George Henry Evans.
The "right of individual ownership in the soil and its products," Collins declared, are "the great cause of causes, which makes man practically an...