Essential Books on Frederick Douglass
There are numerous books on Frederick Douglass, and it comes with good reason, after escaping slavery he established himself as a national leader of the abolitionist movement through oratory and incisive antislavery writings.
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of America’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
As a young man, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.
Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, using his own story to condemn slavery. By the Civil War, Douglass had become the most famed and widely traveled orator in the nation. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. After the war, he sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.
In this “cinematic and deeply engaging” (The New York Times Book Review) biography that won the Pulitzer Prize in History, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historians have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers.
The President and the Freedom Fighter by Brian Kilmeade
Abraham Lincoln was White, born impoverished on a frontier farm. Frederick Douglass was Black, a child of slavery who had risked his life escaping to freedom in the North. Neither man had a formal education, and neither had an easy path to influence. No one would have expected them to become friends – or to transform the country. But Lincoln and Douglass believed in their nation’s greatness. They were determined to make the grand democratic experiment live up to its ideals.
Lincoln’s problem: he knew it was time for slavery to go, but how fast could the country change without being torn apart? And would it be possible to get rid of slavery while keeping America’s Constitution intact? Douglass said no, that the Constitution was irredeemably corrupted by slavery – and he wanted Lincoln to move quickly.
Sharing little more than the conviction that slavery was wrong, the two men’s paths eventually converged. Over the course of the Civil War, they’d endure bloodthirsty mobs, feverish conspiracies, devastating losses on the battlefield, and a growing firestorm of unrest that would culminate on the fields of Gettysburg.
Kilmeade has transformed this nearly forgotten slice of history into a dramatic story that will keep you turning the pages to find out how these two heroes, through their principles and patience, not only changed each other, but made America truly free for all.
Picturing Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer
Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave turned leading abolitionist, eloquent orator, and seminal writer whose fiery speeches transformed him into one of the most renowned and popular agitators of his age.
Indeed, Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of Civil War, he wrote more extensively on the subject than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” by the war and wanted a speech only on “this mighty struggle.”
He frequented photographers’ studios regularly and sat for his portrait whenever he could. To Douglass, photography was the great “democratic art” that would finally assert black humanity in place of the slave “thing” and at the same time counter the blackface minstrelsy caricatures that had come to define the public perception of what it meant to be black. As a result, his legacy is inseparable from his portrait gallery, which contains 160 separate photographs.
At last, all of these photographs have been collected into a single volume, giving us an incomparable visual biography of a man whose prophetic vision and creative genius knew no bounds. Chronologically arranged and generously captioned, from the first picture taken in around 1841 to the last in 1895, each of the images – many published here for the first time – emphasizes Douglass’s evolution as a man, artist, and leader.
Frederick Douglass by Benjamin Quarles
Originally published in 1948, this was one of the first modern biographies of Frederick Douglass, and according to noted historian James M. McPherson, it is still a model of “fairness and readability.” Douglass himself wrote three autobiographies, so Benjamin Quarles offers only a brief account of the abolitionist’s early life, dealing with his childhood in slavery and his escape from the peculiar institution in just a few pages. He devotes more time to Douglass’s travels in Britain, which were undertaken after the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass because he feared capture and re-enslavement.
Young Frederick Douglass by Dickson J. Preston
Drawing on previously untapped sources, Young Frederick Douglass recreates with fidelity and in convincing detail the background and early life of the man who was to become “the gadfly of America’s conscience” and the undisputed spokesman for nineteenth-century black Americans.
Dickson J. Preston’s highly regarded biography traces the life and times of Frederick Douglass from his birth on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818 until 1838, when he escaped from slavery to emerge upon the national scene. Astounding his white contemporaries with his oratorical brilliance and intellectual capabilities, Douglass dared to challenge the doctrine of white supremacy on its own grounds.
At the time of Douglass’s death in 1895, one eulogist wrote that he was probably the best-known American throughout the world since Abraham Lincoln.
Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought
In both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. And the great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.
Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career.
Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women-including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing – who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle-class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds.
Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history. By examining the circle of women around him, this gem among books on Frederick Douglass brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”
The first and most frequently read of his three autobiographies, Douglass provides graphic descriptions of his childhood and horrifying experiences as a slave as well as a harrowing record of his dramatic escape to the North and eventual freedom. Published in 1845 to quell doubts about his origins – since few slaves of that period could write – the Narrative is admired today for its extraordinary passion, sensitive and vivid descriptions and storytelling power.
The Failed Promise by Robert S. Levine
When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the country was on the precipice of radical change. Johnson, seemingly more progressive than Lincoln, looked like the ideal person to lead the country. He had already cast himself as a “Moses” for the Black community, and African Americans were optimistic that he would pursue aggressive federal policies for Black equality.
Despite this early promise, Frederick Douglass, the country’s most influential Black leader, soon grew disillusioned with Johnson’s policies and increasingly doubted the president was sincere in supporting Black citizenship. In a dramatic and pivotal meeting between Johnson and a Black delegation at the White House, the president and Douglass came to verbal blows over the course of Reconstruction.
As he lectured across the country, Douglass continued to attack Johnson’s policies, while raising questions about the Radical Republicans’ hesitancy to grant African Americans the vote. Johnson meanwhile kept his eye on Douglass, eventually making a surprising effort to appoint him to a key position in his administration.
Levine grippingly portrays the conflicts that brought Douglass and the wider Black community to reject Johnson and call for a guilty verdict in his impeachment trial. He brings fresh insight by turning to letters between Douglass and his sons, speeches by Douglass and other major Black figures like Frances E. W. Harper, and articles and letters in the Christian Recorder, the most important African American newspaper of the time.
Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography – written after ten years of reflection following his legal emancipation in 1846 and his break with his mentor William Lloyd Garrison – catapulted Douglass into the international spotlight as the foremost spokesman for American blacks, both freed and slave. Written during his celebrated career as a speaker and newspaper editor, My Bondage and My Freedom reveals the author of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass grown more mature, forceful, analytical, and complex with a deepened commitment to the fight for equal rights and liberties.
The best compilation of his speeches, this necessary addition to the growing index of books on Frederick Douglass adds vital detail to the portrait of a great historical figure. Featured addresses include “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which was delivered on July 5, 1852, more than ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation. “Had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke,” Douglass assured his listeners, “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
Other eloquent and dramatic orations include “Self-Made Men,” first delivered in 1859, which defines the principles behind individual success, and “The Church and Prejudice,” delivered at the Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society in 1841.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Frederick Douglass, be sure to check out our list of The 15 Best Books on President Abraham Lincoln!