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• Last updated: June 6, 2021

The Libraries of Great Men: Frederick Douglass

Libraries of famous men illustration.

Welcome back to our series on the libraries of great men. The eminent men of history were often voracious readers and their own philosophy represents a distillation of all the great works they fed into their minds. This series seeks to trace the stream of their thinking back to the source. For, as David Leach, a now retired business executive put it: “Don’t follow your mentors; follow your mentors’ mentors.”

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. Before him, many white men didn’t think it was possible for a black man to have any intellectual rigor; for a black man to be able to think for himself in an intelligent way. When Douglass was around 20, he escaped his shackles and began life anew as a free man. From that point on, he gave his full attentions to educating himself, which he believed was a necessary component of all individual achievements and the ability to create real change in the world. It was a truth he understood from his own personal, hard-fought struggle: up from slavery, he rose to become one the foremost leaders in America in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, as well as one of the most celebrated orators and writers of his era.

None of that would have been possible without his personal library.

Douglass was taught to read around the age of 12 by Sophia Auld, the wife of one of his masters. Mrs. Auld did this in spite of a Maryland law that prohibited teaching reading skills to slaves. Mr. Hugh Auld strongly disapproved, believing that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and would begin to desire freedom. Even a slave owner, or perhaps especially a slave owner, understood that knowledge equaled power and will. Eventually, Mrs. Auld gave in to her husband’s admonitions and resigned herself to the idea that slavery and education were incompatible. Her tutoring came to an abrupt end one day when she snatched away a newspaper Douglass was trying to read.

Undaunted, Douglass continued to hone his reading skills on his own, in secret. He read anything he could get his hands on — newspapers, political pamphlets, novels, textbooks. He even credits one particular collection, The Columbian Orator, with clarifying and defining his views on freedom and human rights.

Douglass wished to rise in the world, and he fervently believed the path of self-reliance was the only way up. It was not luck or circumstances that determined man’s success, he argued, but how hard and how consistently he worked. Nothing valuable could ever be gotten for nothing or from waiting around for others to make things happen for you. “The man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down,” he preached. He understood that no one else could shovel knowledge into his brain; it was up to him to pry it out of as many books as he could. Whatever knowledge he secured to himself, could never be taken away by another.

Frederick Douglass reading books in room.

Ultimately, then, for Frederick Douglass reading meant freedom.

His ability to read a text, to synthesize that information, and then let it change his thoughts and compel him to action directly led to his fight against slavery, both as an individual man seeking his own freedom, and later as a statesman, fighting for the rights of his fellow man. A single man’s desire to read and attain knowledge changed the landscape of America forever.

Throughout his life, Douglass’s library would grow, and it now serves as a great insight into his thoughts and beliefs. In reading through the list, you get an idea of how incredibly wide-read Douglass was. We see everything from classic Christian pieces, to abolitionist texts, to popular novels of the time, to history and science textbooks, and even seemingly random works on subjects like the dental arts and knitting(!).

If you don’t recognize the name of an author you see below, I encourage you to do some Googling (like I did!) in order to find out more about these works that are contained to this day in Douglass’s library. This list is a fascinating trove of knowledge that played a crucial part in the history of this nation.

You can view his library by visiting Cedar Hill in Washington, D.C., which was Douglass’s home for the final 20 years of his life, and was turned over to the National Park Service in 1962. This list below features about 85 books of the thousands listed in his library’s register.

Before you dig in, I’ll leave you with a quote from Douglass’s incredibly inspiring “Self-Made Men” speech, that attests to the value he put in reading. To read, and simply forget, is to have never read at all. Let the reading you do change you for the better, and let it compel you to action to make the world a better place. If you do so, you’ll make ol’ Douglass proud.

“We have all met a class of men, very remarkable for their activity, and who yet make but little headway in life; men who, in their noisy and impulsive pursuit of knowledge, never get beyond the outer bark of an idea, from a lack of patience and perseverance to dig to the core; men who begin everything and complete nothing; who see, but do not perceive; who read, but forget what they read, and are as if they had not read; who travel but go nowhere in particular, and have nothing of value to impart when they return.”

A Selection of Books from Frederick Douglass’s Personal Library

Frederick Douglass study books in library.

Title Author
Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe Alexander von Humboldt
The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas
Poems Alfred Lord Tennyson
A Thousand and One Nights  
Henrietta Temple: A Love Story Benjamin Disraeli
Bleak House Charles Dickens
Cricket on the Hearth Charles Dickens
‘Three Score Years and Ten’ Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and Other Parts of the West Charlotte Van Cleve
Orations Cicero
Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa David Livingstone
Hesiod and Theognis (Davies translation)
The Steam Engine Explained & Illustrated Dionysius Lardner
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon
Journal of a Residence on a Georgian 1863 Plantation Frances Anne Kemble
A Journey Through Texas Frederick Law Olmsted
Mary Stuart: A Tragedy Friedrich Schiller
An Egyptian Princess Georg Ebers
Memorial Address on the Life of Abraham Lincoln George Bancroft
Romola George Eliot
The Journal of George Fox George Fox
An Overland Journey Round the World George Simpson
Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe Harriet Beecher Stowe
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Harriet Jacobs
Complete Works of Henry Fielding Henry Fielding
History of Civilization in England Henry Thomas Buckle
Notes from Plymouth Pulpit Henry Ward Beecher
History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America Henry Wilson
The Study of History in American Colleges and Universities Herbert Adams
The Iliad Homer
The Odyssey Homer
The American Conflict Horace Greeley
Natural History of Enthusiasm Isaac Taylor
Music and Some Highly Musical People James Trotter
Napoleon: His Army and His Generals Jean Charles Dominique De Lacretelle
The Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Sorrows of Young Werther Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Farm and the Fireside; Or the Romance of Agriculture. John Blake
Works of John Greenleaf Whittier John Greenleaf Whittier
Poetical Works of John Keats John Keats
The Rise of the Dutch Republic John Lothrop Motley
The Life of Rev. John Wesley John Whitehead
Journal of John Woolman John Woolman
The Science of Government Joseph Alden
Reminiscences of Levi Coffin Levi Coffin
Don Juan Lord George Byron
Works of Lord Byron Lord George Byron
Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth Lucy Aikin
The Essence of Christianity Ludwig Feuerbach
Meditations Marcus Aurelius
A Popular Treatise on the Teeth: Containing a History of the Dental Art Mayo Smith
Plain Truths About Stock Speculation: How to Avoid Losses in Wall Street Moses Smith
The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Vicar of Wakefield Oliver Goldsmith
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table Oliver Wendell Holmes
Pushing to the Front, Or Success Under Difficulties Orisen Swett Marden
The Life and Letters of Washington Irving Pierre Irving
Pictorial Guide to Chicago Rand McNally
The Farmer’s Boy: A Rural Poem Robert Bloomfield
Poems and Songs Robert Burns
The Life of William Wilberforce Robert Isaac Wilberforce
Knitting Work: A Web of Many Textures Ruth Partington
Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott Sir Walter Scott
Narrative of Sojourner Truth Sojourner Truth
Twelve Years A Slave Solomon Northup
History of Woman Suffrage Susan B. Anthony
History of Frederick the Great Thomas Carlyle
The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy Thomas Fowell Buxton
The Modern British Essayists Thomas Macaulay
Les Miserables Victor Hugo
The Age of Louis XIV Voltaire
The Life and Voyages of Columbus Washington Irving
Brigham’s Destroying Angel Wild Bill Hickman
Slave Songs of the United States William Francis Allen
Exlporation of the Valley of the Amazon William Lewis Herndon
The Words of Garrison William Lloyd Garrison
History of Pendennis William Makepeace Thackeray
Roundabout Papers William Makepeace Thackeray
Autobiography of William Seward William Seward
The Complete Works of Shakespeare William Shakespeare
Narrative of William Brown, A Fugitive Slave William Wells Brown
Selected Poems William Wordsworth
Constitution of the United States  
Encyclopedia Britannica  
English Bible  

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