The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom

The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom

by H. W. Brands

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Gifted storyteller and bestselling historian H. W. Brands narrates the epic struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln—two men moved to radically different acts to confront our nation’s gravest sin.
John Brown was a charismatic and deeply religious man who heard the God of the Old Testament speaking to him, telling him to destroy slavery by any means. When Congress opened Kansas territory to slavery in 1854, Brown raised a band of followers to wage war. His men tore pro-slavery settlers from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Three years later, Brown and his men assaulted the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to arm slaves with weapons for a race war that would cleanse the nation of slavery.

Brown’s violence pointed ambitious Illinois lawyer and former officeholder Abraham Lincoln toward a different solution to slavery: politics. Lincoln spoke cautiously and dreamed big, plotting his path back to Washington and perhaps to the White House. Yet his caution could not protect him from the vortex of violence Brown had set in motion. After Brown’s arrest, his righteous dignity on the way to the gallows led many in the North to see him as a martyr to liberty. Southerners responded with anger and horror to a terrorist being made into a saint. Lincoln shrewdly threaded the needle between the opposing voices of the fractured nation and won election as president. But the time for moderation had passed, and Lincoln’s fervent belief that democracy could resolve its moral crises peacefully faced its ultimate test.

The Zealot and the Emancipator
is acclaimed historian H. W. Brands’s thrilling and page-turning account of how two American giants shaped the war for freedom.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


University of Texas historian Brands (Dreams of El Dorado) delivers an entertaining and insightful dual biography of revolutionary abolitionist John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln. Brown’s participation in the 1856 murder of five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and the 1859 attack on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va., filled Lincoln with horror, according to Brands. To Lincoln, who promised voters during his presidential campaign that he had no intention of eradicating slavery in the Southern states, Brown was a fanatic whose “lawless invasion” threw slavery’s supporters on the defensive and undermined the attempts of moderates to limit its power. In short, tightly focused chapters alternating between Brown’s and Lincoln’s perspectives, Brand narrates their progress, as Brown becomes convinced that he’s God’s chosen weapon against human bondage, and Lincoln emerges as a leader in the Republican Party and evolves his attitudes toward slavery. Though they never met, Brown and Lincoln both died as martyrs to “slave power,” Brands writes, and spent much of their lives trying to answer the question “what does a good man do when his country commits a great evil?” Though much of Brands’s material is familiar, he provides essential historical context and intriguing insights into both men’s characters and decision-making. American history fans will be thrilled. (Oct.)

From the Publisher

One of Smithsonian Magazine's Best Books of 2020

“[Brands] scrupulously narrates the relevant facts and trusts readers to form their own conclusions. . . The Zealot and the Emancipator relates these familiar events skillfully. . . [Brands] recognize[s] that the contrast between Brown and Lincoln offers a lesson that has never been timelier. Prudence and idealism are complementary virtues. And zeal unencumbered by a concern for consequences is indistinguishable, in practice, from bloodlust.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Brands’s study of Brown and Lincoln [is] at heart an appraisal of contrasting political designs and personas in prerevolutionary times. . . [The Zealot and the Emancipator] builds on strengths long evident in Brands’s books, combining expert storytelling with thoughtful interpretation vividly to render major events through the lives of the chief participants. . . This book presents a gripping account of the politics that led to Southern secession, war and the abolition of slavery.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Gripping. . . [Brands poses] a worthy question for any era but particularly for the one we’re living through. . . Brands offers a nuanced middle path. In Brown and Lincoln, he presents two perfectly imperfect heroes who act in ways that both excite and disappoint us. . . The Zealot and the Emancipator feels particularly well timed. . . The lessons it contains about America’s slow progress toward a more perfect union, even during a time of literal disunionification, are legion, but the takeaway is clear.”
—The Washington Post

“[The Zealot and the Emancipator is] a tale told by a master storyteller, with a momentum and a power appropriate to the subject. In these pages we have the hare (Brown) and the tortoise (Lincoln). In these pages it is no fable, but instead one of the greatest, but surely the bloodiest, American stories.”
—The Boston Globe

The Zealot and the Emancipator deftly recounts two martyrs’ disparate approaches to ending slavery. . . Engaging. . . Brands concludes his fast-paced book with a grand flourish, bringing the seemingly disparate legacies of Brown and Lincoln into sync.”
Washington Independent Review of Books

“Fascinating. . . This book is the work of a master historian at the top of his craft.”
New York Journal of Books

“A skilled narrative writer, Brands offers a vivid account of the raid on Harper’s Ferry and its aftermath.”
—London Review of Books

“Featuring the riveting narrative sweep, sharp eye for detail, and original analysis we have come to expect from H. W. Brands, The Zealot and the Emancipator vividly illuminates the convulsive battles to fulfill the long-deferred American dream of freedom for all. Along the way, Brands makes thought-provoking connections between these two extraordinary men—a revolutionary and a president—that have eluded most historians for generations. Here is a book that deserves to become foundational reading for America’s new reckoning with slavery, race, and racism.”
—Harold Holzer, author of The Presidents vs. the Press and winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize
“Frederick Douglass appreciated both Abraham Lincoln, whom he deemed ‘emphatically the black man’s president,’ and John Brown, whose zeal in the cause of black freedom he acknowledged ‘was far greater than mine.’ Similarly, H. W. Brands evenhandedly portrays both of those martyrs to African American free­dom as they trod their separate and distinct paths toward the same goal. This volume is a worthy companion to Brands’s earlier biographies of FDR, Benjamin Franklin, and other eminent Americans.”
—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

The New York Times

“Excellent. . . Brands is an adroit storyteller and captures both Brown’s intensity and zeal and Lincoln’s pragmatism and wit.”
—Christian Science Monitor

“Reveal[s] striking parallels between the elections of 1860 and 2020. The extreme polarization, violent rhetoric, distortions – we’ve been here before.”
—Austin Chronicle

 “Brands is a master storyteller. . . Brands uses original sources and narrative flair to illuminate how Brown’s fierce moral clarity eventually forced Lincoln to confront the sins of slavery. The result is an informative, absorbing and heartbreaking American story, the reverberations of which are still felt today.”
—Booklist (starred)

“Entertaining and insightful . . . Brands provides essential historical context and intriguing insights into both men’s characters and decision-making. American history fans will be thrilled.”
—Publishers Weekly
“An outstanding dual biography”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Brands skillfully lays out nuances in [Lincoln and Brown’s] lives.”
—Booklist (starred)

“A fascinating and wonderfully readable portrayal of the tensions between fiery militancy and determined but measured devotion in working toward a goal. Excellent for general readers, especially those with an interest in the Civil War.”
Library Journal

“Superb. . . A fascinating, authoritative, carefully researched account. . . Complex, stunning, and thought-provoking. . . Brands presents the portraits of these two giants, Brown and Lincoln, in such stark and affecting terms that we cannot help but be moved and jarred by this story of their lives, their times, their beliefs and their deaths. We all might profit from careful consideration of those lives and the laws and conditions that defined them and shaped their identities and destinations.”

“Brisk and vivid . . . engaging.”
—Shelf Awareness

“Incredibly timely. . . Given the present political climate, one cannot help but find parallels, lessons, and warnings in The Zealot and the Emancipator.”
Law & Liberty

“Brands has written perhaps his most fluent book, a constantly engaging study of history and biography worthy of the model on which it is built: Plutarch’s parallel lives. . . Sometimes Brands needs only a sentence to show why Brown and Lincoln belong together. . . That kind of parallel structure reminds me of Samuel Johnson.”
—The University Bookman

“Your concept of the antebellum and Civil War eras will be reshaped by this masterpiece.”
The Archive, Best Books of 2020

Library Journal


Historian Brands (Univ. of Texas at Austin; Dreams of El Dorado) joins the stories of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln as they struggled with the intractable problem of slavery. Brands skillfully employs the men's own dramatic words to draw readers into their lives and visions for the United States. In early chapters, Brown's fiery spirit and militancy eclipsed Lincoln's gradualism. They never met, but each served as a foil for the other, Lincoln wanting to avoid war on Brown's terms, and Brown rejecting Lincoln's political approach. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, most significant of the author's many well-drawn secondary figures, served as a bridge between the two men. Before the war, he assisted Brown in assembling his followers. Later, he became an informal antislavery adviser/critic to Lincoln during the Civil War. Brown's execution in 1859 put Lincoln's character and actions at the center of Brands's account. Throughout, he focuses on how these men's values and visions affected their actions. Brands largely avoids becoming bogged down on details of consequential events he describes. VERDICT A fascinating and wonderfully readable portrayal of the tensions between fiery militancy and determined but measured devotion in working toward a goal. Excellent for general readers, especially those with an interest in the Civil War.—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2020-07-14
The veteran historian maintains his high standards in this study of two of 19th-century America’s most significant figures.

Although still controversial, John Brown (1800-1859) needs no rehabilitation. Brands, the chair of the history department at the University of Texas, reminds readers that Brown was not only an abolitionist (an extremist position for the time); he considered Blacks equal to Whites, an extraordinary belief shared by few contemporaries. He was also deeply religious, obsessed with freeing the slaves—even by violence, which seemed the only way—and charismatic enough to convince many establishment abolitionists to finance his campaigns. With his sons, he traveled to Kansas to participate in the nasty 1850s conflict between free-state and pro-slavery settlers, where he severely damaged his reputation with the 1856 Pottawatomie massacre, during which his band dragged five pro-slavery men from their beds and murdered them. Brands delivers a gripping account of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry but succeeds no more than colleagues in explaining its utter incompetence. Capturing the nearly undefended armory was simple; clumsy efforts to provoke a slave rebellion failed, and Brown dithered when escape was easy. Severely injured during his capture, he was tried and hanged. The author rocks no boats by affirming that the raid galvanized the nation and set it on course to civil war. Wisely avoiding another standard biography of Lincoln, Brands confines himself to a sharp portrait of a fiercely ambitious Illinois politician yearning for electoral office. Like nearly all Republicans at the time, he opposed expanding slavery and, like most, promised not to interfere with it in existing states because the Constitution, a sacred document, protected it. Lincoln considered slavery wrong, but winning elections depended on White voters, so his arguments stressed slavery’s harm to White interests. Opposition Democrats accused Republicans of believing that Blacks were equal to Whites. In defending himself and his party, Lincoln’s statements about race went beyond what, from other historical figures—presidents included—has led to toppled statues.

An outstanding dual biography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593295373
Publisher: Diversified Publishing
Publication date: 10/27/2020
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 752
Sales rank: 167,287
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

How does a good man challenge a great evil? How can a man of God confront the work of Satan?

John Brown remembered when he realized this was the fundamental issue of his life. He was sitting in a crowded church in Hudson, Ohio. He was surrounded by neighbors, but also by strangers who had come to the town to protest the killing of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist preacher and publisher. Few in the assembly knew Lovejoy, and the shooting had occurred hundreds of miles away, in Illinois. But Hudson was a hotbed of abolitionism, and many that day could imagine that what had befallen Lovejoy might claim them. They gathered to praise him, to reassure themselves and to rededicate themselves to the cause of ridding their country of slavery.

John Brown was familiar to many in the group. Some had known him as a child. His father had moved the family from Connecticut, where John was born, to Ohio—“then a wilderness filled with wild beasts & Indians,” he remembered many years later. “He was called on by turns to assist a boy five years older (who had been adopted by his Father & Mother) & learned to think he could accomplish smart things in driving the cows; & riding the horses,” he wrote, speaking of himself in the third person. “Sometimes he met with rattle snakes which were very large; & which some of the company generally managed to kill.”

His new home was a wonder. “After getting to Ohio in 1805 he was for some time rather afraid of the Indians, & of their rifles; but this soon wore off: & he used to hang about them quite as much as was consistent with good manners; & learned a trifle of their talk.” His father took up the tanning trade and taught his son the craft. Before long the boy was an expert. “He could at any time dress his own leather such as squirrel, raccoon, cat, wolf or dog skins; and also learned to make whip lashes: which brought him some change at times; & was of considerable service in many ways.” Itchy feet that would mark his whole life appeared early. “At six years old John began to be quite a rambler in the wild new country finding birds and squirrels and sometimes a wild turkey’s nest.”

The narrator John Brown was telling his story to the son of a friend. The lad had inquired of Brown’s biography, and Brown obliged. He included episodes of which he was not proud. “I must not neglect to tell you of a very bad & foolish habit to which John was somewhat addicted. I mean telling lies; generally to screen himself from blame; or from punishment. He could not well endure to be reproached; & I now think had he been oftener encouraged to be entirely frank, by making frankness a kind of atonement for some of his faults; he would not have been so often guilty in after life of this fault; nor have been obliged to struggle so long with so mean a habit.” The struggle, he feared, wasn’t over.

Struggle of another sort was less blameworthy. “John was never quarrelsome; but was excessively fond of the hardest & roughest kind of plays; & could never get enough of them. Indeed when for a short time he was sometimes sent to school the opportunity it afforded to wrestle, & snow ball & run & jump & knock off old seedy wool hats, offered to him almost the only compensation for the confinement & restraints of school.” This attitude made an indifferent scholar. “He would always choose to stay at home & work hard rather than be sent to school.”

He discovered a knack for self-reliance. “To be sent off through the wilderness alone to very considerable distances was particularly his delight; & in this he was often indulged so that by the time he was twelve years old he was sent off more than a hundred miles with companies of cattle; & he would have thought his character much injured had he been obliged to be helped in any such job.”

At eight he lost his mother to what in those days was the most dangerous of maternal activities: childbearing. His father quickly remarried. John could find no fault in his stepmother, yet neither could he get close. “He never adopted her in feeling, but continued to pine after his own Mother for years.” From the distance of half a century, he reflected, “This operated very unfavorably upon him; as he was both naturally fond of females &, withal, extremely diffident; & deprived him of a suitable connecting link between the different sexes; the want of which might under some circumstances, have proved his ruin.”

He was twelve when America went to war with Britain—the second time, in 1812. His father provisioned the army with beef and enlisted young John to herd and drive the cattle to the camps. He became a pacifist as a result. “The effect of what he saw during the war was to so far disgust him with military affairs that he would neither train, or drill; but paid fines; & got along like a Quaker until his age finally has cleared him of military duty.”

The experience changed him in another way. “He was staying for a short time with a very gentlemanly landlord since a United States marshal who held a slave boy near his own age very active, intelligent, and good feeling; & to whom John was under considerable obligation for numerous little acts of kindness. The Master made a great pet of John: brought him to table with his first company; & friends; called their attention to every little smart thing he said or did, & to the fact of his being more than a hundred miles from home with a company of cattle alone; while the negro boy (who was fully if not more than his equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed; & lodged in cold weather; & beaten before his eyes with iron shovels or any other thing that came first to hand. This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children: for such children have neither Fathers or Mothers to protect & provide for them. He sometimes would raise the question is God their Father?”

He continued to reflect as he grew older. The boy became a young man who was sober and spottily educated. “He never attempted to dance in his life; nor did he ever learn to know one of a pack of cards from another. He learned nothing of grammar; nor did he get at school so much knowledge of common arithmetic as the four ground rules.” He sprouted rapidly in his mid-teens. “He became very strong & large of his age & ambitious to perform the full labour of a man; at almost any kind of hard work.”

He was shy around those his own age, preferring the company of his elders. “This was so much the case; & secured for him so many little notices from those he esteemed; that his vanity was very much fed by it: & he came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit; & self-confident; notwithstanding his extreme bashfulness.” His siblings noticed; a younger brother called him “a king against whom there is no rising up.” The narrator John Brown acknowledged the fault. “The habit so early formed of being obeyed rendered him in after life too much disposed to speak in an imperious or dictating way.”

He married at twenty to a woman as sober as he. They had seven children in a dozen years; she died just after the birth of the last. Two of the children themselves died young, but the others were strong and hearty. John Brown was a stern father, hoping to keep his children from falling into the bad habits he had learned at their age. The neighbors recalled the severity of the punishments he administered. One of his sons, Jason, remembered having a dream so vivid he thought it was real. He told his father, who said it was only a dream. When Jason insisted that it was true, his father thrashed him for lying. The boys were confused as to what was expected of them. Another son, Watson, later told his father, “The trouble is, you want your boys to be brave as tigers, and still afraid of you.” A visitor to the homestead remarked that John Brown looked like an eagle. “Yes,” said Watson, “or some other carnivorous bird.”

Five years into the marriage Brown decreed that the family would move. The tanning business he operated in Hudson was thriving, and he had just built a new house for his growing family, but the itch was on him, and neither his wife, Dianthe, nor any of the children dared object. They landed in Richmond, in western Pennsylvania, where he channeled his restless energy and abundant strength into clearing twenty-five acres and building a new tannery. He became a model citizen of the district and in time its postmaster.

Richmond was where Dianthe died and John remarried. His second wife, Mary, was half his age, poor and unschooled. Her father was happy to marry her off. If she was daunted by the prospect of taking on Brown and his five children, she kept quiet about it. She did what was expected of her, minding the home and bearing children, lots of them. She had thirteen children in all, making a total of twenty for John Brown. Seven of Mary’s children died early.

Yet they considered taking in more. The sympathy he had discovered for slaves at twelve was emerging slowly and uncertainly. “I have been trying to devise some means whereby I might do something in a practical way for my poor fellow-men who are in bondage,” Brown wrote to his brother in 1834. “And having fully consulted my wife and my three boys”—the ones still at home—“we have agreed to get at least one negro boy or youth and bring him up as we do our own—viz., give him a good English education, learn him what we can about the history of the world, about business, about general subjects, and, above all, try to teach him the fear of God. We think of three ways to obtain one: First, to try to get some Christian slaveholder to release one to us. Second, to get a free one if no one will let us have one that is a slave. Third, if that does not succeed, we have all agreed to submit to considerable privation in order to buy one. This we are now using means in order to effect, in the confident expectation that God is about to bring them all out of the house of bondage.”

The adoption of one black child was just the start. “I have for years been trying to devise some way to get a school a-going here for blacks,” he told his brother. “I do think such advantages ought to be afforded the young blacks, whether they are all to be immediately set free or not. Perhaps we might, under God, in that way do more towards breaking their yoke effectually than in any other. If the young blacks of our country could once become enlightened, it would most assuredly operate on slavery like firing powder confined in rock, and all slaveholders know it well. Witness their heaven-daring laws against teaching blacks. If once the Christians in the free states would set to work in earnest teaching the blacks, the people of the slaveholding states would find themselves constitutionally driven to set about the work of emancipation immediately.”

Brown could be better at dreaming than at doing. He and his wife never adopted a black child, and he never started a school. His wanderlust recurred, and he led the family back to Ohio, but to the hamlet of Franklin Mills rather than Hudson. Something about Brown kept him at a distance from neighbors. He wasn’t unfriendly, in any overt way, but he formed no deep attachments. He would stay in one place for a time and then, without obvious reason or explanation, up stakes and move on. He moved in no consistent direction. Many in his day trended west, following the advancing frontier. But Brown moved east as often as west. His family, of course, went with him, and they learned to ask no questions. The model might have been one of the nomadic tribes of the Old Testament.

He shifted from herding cattle to tending sheep, which he hoped would bring him greater returns. He was vigilant and sensitive to the animals’ needs, and his flocks grew. He had less luck with people. In the mid-1830s loose credit caused land prices to bubble, and Brown joined the speculation. A financial crisis in 1837 burst the bubble, catching many of the speculators short. Brown found himself deeply in debt. John Brown Jr. recalled the lesson his father learned from the experience, a lesson he shared with his son. “Instead of being thoroughly imbued with the doctrine of pay as you go,” Brown said, “I started out in life with the idea that nothing could be done without capital, and that a poor man must use his credit and borrow; and this pernicious notion has been the rock on which I, as well as many others, have split. The practical effect of this false doctrine has been to keep me like a toad under a harrow most of my business life.” Another son, Jason, later remarked, “It is a Brown trait to be migratory, sanguine about what they think they can do; to speculate; to go into debt; and to make a good many failures.”

Brown’s bankruptcy forced a move back to Hudson, where his father still lived. And it was in Hudson where he discovered his life’s mission. When Brown had left the town, slavery was an important issue in American politics but not one that dominated everything else. During the 1830s it achieved that dubious distinction. Two events triggered the change. In 1831 a slave called Nat Turner led a rebellion in southern Virginia that killed dozens of whites before being bloodily suppressed. The episode reminded Southern slaveholders that they sat atop a keg of powder. At any time other slaves might mimic Nat Turner and burst out murderously against their masters. The possibility of revolt had long inhabited the nightmares of slaveholders; now it filled their waking hours.

The second event was the decision of the British government to end slavery in the British empire. Abolition had already come to other countries: France and its empire, most of the New World republics that broke free from Spain. But Britain’s decision to end slavery had a special effect on Americans, for Britain had introduced slavery to America in colonial days, and its law and practices were most akin to those in America. If the British could abolish slavery, thought both the friends and the foes of slavery in the United States, so could Americans.

Abolitionism became a growing force in American politics. William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, a Boston paper that even its subscribers often judged intemperate in its treatment of slavery and slaveholders. Other papers appeared in other cities, including St. Louis, where Elijah Lovejoy denounced slavery with growing vehemence. It took courage to do so, for while New England abolitionists like Garrison were surrounded by people of similar views, Lovejoy operated in enemy territory—Missouri being a slave state. Lovejoy alienated his neighbors, some of whom were apologists for slavery, others who simply thought his agitation would harm the businesses and prospects of them all. Lovejoy’s enemies smashed his printing presses repeatedly, eventually driving him across the Mississippi to Alton, in the free state of Illinois, where he launched a new abolitionist paper.

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