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• Last updated: September 24, 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.

Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the UniverseAlexander von Humboldt
The Count of Monte CristoAlexandre Dumas
The Three MusketeersAlexandre Dumas
PoemsAlfred Lord Tennyson
A Thousand and One Nights 
Henrietta Temple: A Love StoryBenjamin Disraeli
Bleak HouseCharles Dickens
Cricket on the HearthCharles Dickens
‘Three Score Years and Ten’ Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and Other Parts of the WestCharlotte Van Cleve
Missionary Travels and Researches in South AfricaDavid Livingstone
Hesiod and Theognis(Davies translation)
The Steam Engine Explained & IllustratedDionysius Lardner
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireEdward Gibbon
Journal of a Residence on a Georgian 1863 PlantationFrances Anne Kemble
A Journey Through TexasFrederick Law Olmsted
Mary Stuart: A TragedyFriedrich Schiller
An Egyptian PrincessGeorg Ebers
Memorial Address on the Life of Abraham LincolnGeorge Bancroft
RomolaGeorge Eliot
The Journal of George FoxGeorge Fox
An Overland Journey Round the WorldGeorge Simpson
Works of Harriet Beecher StoweHarriet Beecher Stowe
Incidents in the Life of a Slave GirlHarriet Jacobs
Complete Works of Henry FieldingHenry Fielding
History of Civilization in EnglandHenry Thomas Buckle
Notes from Plymouth PulpitHenry Ward Beecher
History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in AmericaHenry Wilson
The Study of History in American Colleges and UniversitiesHerbert Adams
The IliadHomer
The OdysseyHomer
The American ConflictHorace Greeley
Natural History of EnthusiasmIsaac Taylor
Music and Some Highly Musical PeopleJames Trotter
Napoleon: His Army and His GeneralsJean Charles Dominique De Lacretelle
The ConfessionsJean-Jacques Rousseau
The Sorrows of Young WertherJohann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Farm and the Fireside; Or the Romance of Agriculture.John Blake
Works of John Greenleaf WhittierJohn Greenleaf Whittier
Poetical Works of John KeatsJohn Keats
The Rise of the Dutch RepublicJohn Lothrop Motley
The Life of Rev. John WesleyJohn Whitehead
Journal of John WoolmanJohn Woolman
The Science of GovernmentJoseph Alden
Reminiscences of Levi CoffinLevi Coffin
Don JuanLord George Byron
Works of Lord ByronLord George Byron
Memoirs of the Court of Queen ElizabethLucy Aikin
The Essence of ChristianityLudwig Feuerbach
MeditationsMarcus Aurelius
A Popular Treatise on the Teeth: Containing a History of the Dental ArtMayo Smith
Plain Truths About Stock Speculation: How to Avoid Losses in Wall StreetMoses Smith
The Scarlet LetterNathaniel Hawthorne
The Vicar of WakefieldOliver Goldsmith
The Autocrat of the Breakfast TableOliver Wendell Holmes
Pushing to the Front, Or Success Under DifficultiesOrisen Swett Marden
The Life and Letters of Washington IrvingPierre Irving
Pictorial Guide to ChicagoRand McNally
The Farmer’s Boy: A Rural PoemRobert Bloomfield
Poems and SongsRobert Burns
The Life of William WilberforceRobert Isaac Wilberforce
Knitting Work: A Web of Many TexturesRuth Partington
Complete Works of Sir Walter ScottSir Walter Scott
Narrative of Sojourner TruthSojourner Truth
Twelve Years A SlaveSolomon Northup
History of Woman SuffrageSusan B. Anthony
History of Frederick the GreatThomas Carlyle
The African Slave Trade and Its RemedyThomas Fowell Buxton
The Modern British EssayistsThomas Macaulay
Les MiserablesVictor Hugo
The Age of Louis XIVVoltaire
The Life and Voyages of ColumbusWashington Irving
Brigham’s Destroying AngelWild Bill Hickman
Slave Songs of the United StatesWilliam Francis Allen
Exlporation of the Valley of the AmazonWilliam Lewis Herndon
The Words of GarrisonWilliam Lloyd Garrison
History of PendennisWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
Roundabout PapersWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
Autobiography of William SewardWilliam Seward
The Complete Works of ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare
Narrative of William Brown, A Fugitive SlaveWilliam Wells Brown
Selected PoemsWilliam Wordsworth
Constitution of the United States 
Encyclopedia Britannica 
English Bible 

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