PUL digitizes letter from John Brown to Frederick Douglass

Transcript located at the end of article

A letter from John Brown to Frederick Douglass.

Following Princeton University Library’s (PUL) acquisition of an 1861 letter from Frederick Douglass, Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Technical Services Alexis Antracoli revisited the Library’s General Manuscripts Miscellaneous Collection (1502-2012) to find related material. Upon closer inspection she found an interesting piece: a letter from abolitionist John Brown to Frederick Douglass.

“It was very surprising to see that it was about Harriet Tubman,” Antracoli said, anticipating it to be more of a routine correspondence between abolitionists. “I thought it might be about abolitionist conferences, speaking tours, etcetera, and it kind of is, but in a much more interesting way than I expected.”

In the letter, Brown asks Douglass if he would be willing to make a contribution to a $100 fund for Tubman, which she’d use “towards furnishing a home for herself” and her parents. “I know of no one better deserving assistance,” Brown wrote. 

He also inquires about the possibility of Tubman traveling with Douglass. “Could you not manage to make  as much as you would loose [sic] by her presence?”

PUL acquired the letter as part of the Cyrus H. McCormick Jr. (Class of 1879) autograph collection. Library records show that McCormick’s widow, Alice H. Brown (1881-1950) (or Mrs. Marshall L. Brown as she’s referred to in the Library’s accession records), initially deposited the collection, along with several hundred books from McCormick’s library, in 1947, later gifting it to PUL in January 1948, after which it was added to the General Manuscript collection. As noted in the Princeton & Slavery Project, McCormick was a descendant of a prominent slaveholding family that made major financial contributions to Princeton University. 

“McCormick was an autograph collector, so he may have just wanted Brown's autograph, but it's still surprising and unusual that there is a connection between this letter from one abolitionist to another about a third and the history of Princeton's connections to slavery,” Antracoli said. 

Since identifying the letter’s content, its description on Princeton’s Finding Aids website has been updated to provide additional contextual information and access points, such as name authorities and subject headings, for better discovery and access per reparative description-related work. 

To view the digitized letter, visit the PUL Finding Aids

Published on March 20, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications


Richmond House

Chicago 22d June 1858

Frederick Douglass Esq.

Dear Sir,

When at your place 

I forgot in my haste to say a word in behalf of my friend

Harriet Tubman of St. Catherine’s C. W.  She wants to

Raise $100 towards furnishing a home for herself + her

aged Father and Mother.  I know of no one better

deserving assistance; [I] have given her $25 to start

the thing with.  She spoke of asking you to let her

travel with you a little, when you should be out

from home.  Could you not manage to make as

much as you loose by her presence?

Any thing you can do for Gen. Tubman the man

of deeds will be fully appreciated by your 

Sincere Friend

Old Hundred