At the heart of H.W. Brands’ dual biography of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln is the question: “How does a good man challenge a great evil?” This is a problem that continues to vex politicians, pundits, and activists from all across the political spectrum, and many of the responses have remained the same in the age of Trump as they were in the age of Lincoln. Brown and Lincoln have been put into dialogue by historians before, representing conflicting means of attaining the shared vision of a United States rid of slavery. Likewise, at different times in U.S. history, Brown’s and Lincoln’s approaches have drawn applause and criticism from different sides within American politics. Given the current political and racial climate, as well as the public infighting between the political parties and their bases, The Zealot and the Emancipator is an incredibly timely work.
What propels much of the book is Brown’s and Lincoln’s differing and dueling approaches to the pursuit of ending slavery. Since these two might be viewed as fellows in the same fight, Brands teases out the differences between the pair, along with a whole host of other antislavery movers and shakers. While political throwdowns between proslavery and antislavery figures should come as no surprise, Brands offers a narrative of how allied advocates and like-minded politicians can be the source of some of the most heated and embittered debates and rivalries. Though Brown and Lincoln never knew one another, nor had any contact, Brands presents them as the representatives of a much deeper struggle to shape the future of antislavery policy and politics. One chose uncompromising vigilantism (or even terrorism) while the other chose elected office, professional politics, and legal remedies.
Brown didn’t begin life as the radical we know him as today. As Brands details, Brown went from a steadfast but practically minded critic of slavery to an uncompromising advocate of immediate emancipation. In 1834 Brown wrote, “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 mused that this could take the form of the adoption of black children into his already large family or perhaps the opening of a school for former slaves. He even contemplated purchasing a slave, if only to buy that person’s freedom, though none of these plans came to pass. But by 1837 Brown would declare, “Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” From there onward, Brands chronicles Brown’s exploits across the country, zeroing in on the events of Bleeding Kansas and his demise following the failed raid on Harpers Ferry.