At the center of the dual biographies of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln of HW Brands is the question, “How does a good man challenge a great evil?” This is an issue that continues to preoccupy politicians, experts and activists from across the political spectrum, and many the answers have remained the same in the age of Trump as in the age of Lincoln. Brown and Lincoln have previously been brought into dialogue by historians that represents contradicting means of achieving a shared vision of a United States freed from slavery. Likewise, Brown’s and Lincoln’s approaches at different times in US history have generated applause and criticism from various quarters within American politics. Given the current political and racist climate and the public disputes between the political parties and their bases, The Zealot and the Emancipator is an incredibly contemporary piece of work.
What drives much of the book are Brown and Lincoln’s different and dueling approaches to ending slavery. Since these two could be viewed as companions in the same fight, Brands teases the differences between the two along with a slew of other anti-slavery makers and shakers. While political clashes between proslavery and anti-slavery should come as no surprise, Brands offers a narrative of how allied supporters and like-minded politicians can be the source of some of the most heated and bitter debates and rivalries. Although Brown and Lincoln never knew or had no contact, Brands presents them as representatives of a much deeper struggle to shape the future of anti-slavery policy and politics. One opted for uncompromising vigilantism (or even terrorism) while the other opted for elected office, professional policy, and legal remedies.
Brown didn’t start his life as the radical we know him today. As Brands points out, Brown went from being a staunch but practical critic of slavery to an uncompromising advocate of instant emancipation. In 1834 Brown wrote: “I have tried to find means by which I can do something practical for my poor fellow men who are in bondage.” Brown suggested that this could take the form of adopting black children into his already large family or opening a school for ex-slaves. He even considered buying a slave, if only to buy that person’s freedom, though none of these plans came about. But until 1837 Brown declared, “Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from that time on I dedicate my life to the destruction of slavery.” From then on, Brands recorded Brown’s exploits across the country, focusing on the events of Bleeding Kansas and his death after the failed raid on Harpers Ferry.
Brands also shares Lincoln’s anti-slavery genesis, beginning with his father’s influence and early life in Kentucky and then Indiana. In New Orleans, Lincoln witnessed firsthand people buying and selling. As Brands writes, a considerable amount of hagiography has evolved around the event since then, yet such horrific scenes most likely confirmed “simply the aversion he already felt” for slavery. In addition to the inhumane treatment of blacks, Lincoln’s opposition to slavery was also underpinned by how the slave system would negatively affect whites’ wages and conditions. From there, Brands recounts Lincoln’s early forays into law and politics, of which the Lincoln-Douglas debates became the focus.
While Brands puts Brown and Lincoln at the center of his anti-slavery drama, he also highlights the numerous other personalities who have voiced criticism of the “peculiar institution” and their views on how it should be destroyed. William Lloyd Garrison, Elijah P. Lovejoy, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and numerous others are eligible. Frederick Douglass is rightly getting a lot of attention, which is more than appropriate given that he knew the horrors of slavery, rubbed his shoulders with some of the most famous anti-slavery voices, and met both Brown and Lincoln. It is for this reason that Douglass brings out the most complex elements in these debates on how best to address slavery. For example, Brands describes the back and forth between Brown and Douglass during their conversation about sparking a sweeping southern slave revolt. Both theorize what could happen if such a course of action were taken, arguing how the slaves would react and what their slaves could do in retaliation. Douglass believed that a less violent route was possible while Brown saw no alternative. With Life or Death on the Line, it’s a fascinating example of dissent between personal friends and allied supporters.
Lincoln viewed radical abolitionists like Brown as a danger, not only because of their more violent methods, but also because such actions would harden the line of slaveholders, arouse sympathy for them, and run the risk of breaking the already weak union.
Brands doesn’t shy away from or play off the most violent aspects of Brown’s anti-slavery activities. Brands covers the Pottawatomie Massacre, the Battle of Black Jack, the Battle of Osawatomie, and other elements that now make up what we know as “Bleeding Kansas,” as well as the Harpers Ferry raid on elements of Brown’s legacy. In an attempt to capture this difficult legacy, David Blight quipped that John Brown was “a terrorist on the right side of history,” a descriptor that could also apply to characterizing brands. In addition to Brown’s own actions, Brands also brings out notable historical details about Brown’s perception of himself and how his enemies perceive him. In particular, Brown tried to downplay his role in the execution of slave sympathizers and his intention to lead an armed slave revolt. In contrast, his enemies have exaggerated both his skills and his actions. While Brown’s personal story climaxes in the middle of the book, his ghost still haunts much of the second half, both as a source of condemnation against so-called “Black Republicans” and as inspiration, as the song “John Brown’s Body” shows. ”
Vigilance or politics?
Throughout the book, Brands captures the consensus of northerners, especially religious reformers and Republicans, that slavery is a moral evil and that it must end. But there was no consensus on how such a feat should be achieved, whether former slave owners should be compensated, and what should be done with formerly enslaved people. As Lincoln publicly argued, “If all earthly power were given to me, I wouldn’t know what to do about the existing institution [of slavery]. “A common theme for brands is therefore how historical actors deal with political realities and at the same time want to change American culture, society and legislation. As the old saying goes, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable,” and this attitude is best embodied in Lincoln in Brands’ narrative. Brown, on the other hand, saw such feelings and policies in looking only for the path of least resistance.
Brown viewed the policies of figures like Lincoln and the Republicans, and anti-slavery Democrats, as little better than a deal with the devil and a wrong choice between the lesser of two evils. Lincoln, on the other hand, viewed radical abolitionists like Brown as a threat, not only because of their more violent methods, but also because his actions would harden the line of slaveholders, arouse sympathy for them, and risk breaking the already weak union.
While everyone today would like to introduce themselves as an abolitionist, the brand’s narrative is a stark reminder of the contrasting types of anti-slavery activism and the different costs involved. Given these different forms of anti-slavery, the question naturally arises as to who was more effective. The idealistic but destructive John Brown or the politically cunning but often compromised Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps with caution or in an effort to be ambiguous, Brands’ narrative doesn’t offer much in answer, and this will undoubtedly give readers a chance to choose one over the other. In this sense, it is worth remembering the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: “In retrospect, self-righteousness is easy – also cheap.”
Despite recent efforts to challenge the sincerity of Lincoln’s anti-slavery principles, Brands claims that Honest Abe genuinely opposed slavery. A professional politician who was nervous about alienating voters, angering his grassroots, and deterring anti-slavery but democratic voters, Lincoln acted in a political arena loathed by abolitionists like Brown and showed his efforts to exert southern influence minimize and stop the spread of slavery. With this ever-changing balancing act by the partisans, Brands explains how people who support Lincoln might view him as too radical and too conservative in slavery. But Brands doesn’t delve very deeply into the development and hardening of Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and Brands doesn’t really grasp the anti-slavery sentiment that underlies the Young Republican Party’s ideology. Still, Brands presents Lincoln’s undeniable commitment to slavery as cautious but practical, negotiable but determined.
Unfortunately, Brands also fails to unpack and explore the depths and complexities of Brown’s religious beliefs. Although Brands describes Brown as a “zealot” against slavery, he does not explain what Brown’s anti-slavery theology meant. The book is filled with Brown’s references to God and Satan and the strange passage from the Bible, but Brands does not take the opportunity to substantiate their relevance to Brown’s worldview. This lack of religious contextualization is a shame because Brands Brown paints Brown’s political and cultural context well. Curious readers should seek out Louis A. DeCaro Jr.’s brilliant religious biography, “Fire From the Middle of You”: A Religious Life by John Brown.
Given the current political climate, one cannot help but find parallels, lessons, and warnings in The Zealot and The Emancipator. Many of his moments certainly have echoes of our own: frustration with the constitutional order, dissatisfaction with the two ruling political parties, threats to refuse to recognize the result of the presidential election, outbreaks of political violence, advocates for law and order, and shock scenes of racial injustice. For this reason, calls for reform and calls for change can be heard loud and clear. However, the recent work of Brands is a powerful reminder that just because a large fraction of the American people believe that change is necessary, they disagree on how those changes could come about. While Lincoln’s style of politics ultimately proved victorious in the 19th century, one can only wonder if in our present moment he will win the day.