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Book Review: ‘The Zealot and the Emancipator,’ by H.W. Brands

[ Read an excerpt from “The Zealot and the Emancipator.” ]

H. W. Brands’s study of Brown and Lincoln, which features this dramatic moment, is at heart an appraisal of contrasting political designs and personas in prerevolutionary times. A distinguished professor of American history at the University of Texas, Brands is a hyperprolific scholar, the author of more than two dozen books on subjects ranging from the life of Benjamin Franklin to Lyndon B. Johnson’s foreign policy. “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” describing Brown’s and Lincoln’s development in alternating chapters, 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. Apart from a biography of U. S. Grant, Brands has until now had surprisingly little to say about the Civil War era, but this book presents a gripping account of the politics that led to Southern secession, war and the abolition of slavery.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of October. See the full list. ]

By calling John Brown a “zealot,” Brands appears to mean a fanatic in a righteous cause. An ironclad patriarch of Puritan rectitude — his admirers likened him to Oliver Cromwell — Brown, when in his mid-30s, consecrated his life to destroying the institution of slavery. As it was founded in wicked violence, he believed, so holy violence, including terrorist atrocities when called for, would weaken it, all leading to a final reckoning when oppressed Black people and their white allies would vanquish the Pharisee slaveholders. Brown regarded all conventional politics, including antislavery politics practiced by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, as a sham, as dangerous to the cause of liberty as the power of the slaveholders. The escalating supremacy of the slave South and its racist abettors in the 1850s, culminating in the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, hardened Brown’s contempt, and it propelled his attack on Harpers Ferry.

Brands offers a detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of Brown’s raid, which he rates a “wretched fiasco,” a “quixotic venture” that, far from unshackling the enslaved, tightened their shackles even further. Brands affirms the justice behind Brown’s actions, no matter how zealous, when measured against the cruelty of slavery. He describes how Brown’s self-dramatizing performance during his trial turned him into the inspiring popular martyr whose soul would mythically go marching on. But Brown’s story ends roughly two-thirds of the way through Brands’s book. The denouement — and the achievement of slavery’s destruction — belonged to Abraham Lincoln.

In calling Lincoln “the emancipator,” Brands takes exception to a view of Lincoln, now in vogue in some quarters, as a reluctant freedom fighter, a moderate politician who was devoted only to preserving the Union until the vagaries of the Civil War forced his hand. In fact, Lincoln’s hatred of slavery, established early in his life, ran deep: Brands quotes one Illinois abolitionist who got to know him in the 1840s and found “his view and mine on the wrong of slavery … in perfect accord.” As a working politician, Lincoln heeded practical limits, but he did not conceal his antislavery convictions: During his single term in Congress, from 1847 to 1849, he gravitated to antislavery colleagues, withstood abuse for opposing the American war against Mexico as pro-slavery and introduced legislation to eradicate slavery in the District of Columbia, a longtime abolitionist goal. Lincoln’s emergence as an antislavery leader in the 1850s had a long foreground.

In line with recent writings by, among others, James Oakes and Sidney Blumenthal, Brands refuses to diminish Lincoln’s antislavery moral commitment because of his politics, any more than he absolves Brown’s uncompromising higher judgments of their untethered recklessness. He quotes Frederick Douglass, who knew both men and who said in retrospect that while abolitionist agitators (including Douglass himself) might have dismissed Lincoln before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation as cold and indifferent, in fact, given the difficulties he faced, “he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”

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