PUL acquires 1861 letter by Frederick Douglass

A letter from Frederick Douglass to John Brown from 1861.

A letter from Frederick Douglass from 1861.

Photo Credit: Alexis Antracoli

Princeton University Library (PUL) has acquired another letter written by abolitionist, author, and statesman Frederick Douglass. Written in 1861 and currently housed in PUL Special Collections, the acquisition features Douglass contemplating the onset of the Civil War.

“This is a pretty great acquisition for a couple reasons,” said Alexis Antracoli, Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Technical Services. “One is the time the letter was written – shortly after the beginning of the Civil War. It talks about Douglass’s friendship with John Brown. Douglass had even clipped out and included some writing from a letter he had received from Brown and placed it at the end of his letter.”

This letter is also notable for where it sits in relation to others in the collection. PUL has three other letters by Douglass, one from later in his life in which he again reflects on John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid, and another in which he also muses about the beginning of the Civil War. The third was written after Reconstruction and reflects on the migration of African Americans to Kansas in 1879.

“We also have a letter from John Brown to Frederick Douglass from 1858, which is before Harper’s Ferry and the Civil War,” said Antracoli, “creating something of a constellation of items that are in conversation with each other.”

These letters also supplement PUL’s collection of early editions of Frederick Douglass autobiographies. As Antracoli explained, while the letters give readers insight into Douglass’ private persona, the autobiographies help to flesh out his vision as a writer.

“By having both types of materials, faculty and staff in Special Collections have multiple layers to work with when they are teaching or working with students doing research on Douglass,” Antracoli said. 

“I think the copies of the Douglass autobiographies are both a teaching and research collection, and these letters, while there aren’t a lot of them, talk about significant events in American history that make them valuable for research.”


Rochester, April 16th 1861

S[amuel] D. Porter, Esqr.

My Dear Sir,

It gives me pleasure to be able to oblige with an extract from a letter from my old and precious friend John Brown. It is but a part of a sentence, but I hope enough to serve the purpose of your friend Dr. [William] Sprague. It is a fair specimen of Capt Brown’s chirography. The good old man wrote with much care and very uniformly.

I am deeply exercised by what is going now in the country. Oh! that out of the present trouble and chaos might come the Slaves deliverance! The calamity of civil war can have no compensation short of this. 

Truly your grateful friend,

Frederick Douglass

[John Brown:] our own faults & follies

To learn more about the Douglass letters please visit the PUL Finding Aid.

Published on February 14, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications