H.W. Brands, the author of this superb study, “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” has presented us with a fascinating, authoritative, carefully researched account of the activities and beliefs of two figures who might accurately be described as men who changed America; who forced Americans to examine their minds and hearts in ways that had never been demanded of them before; and who ultimately were responsible for the hard realization that the country could not exist half-slave and half-free. The zealot was John Brown. The emancipator was Abraham Lincoln.
Both of these revolutionary individuals were in agreement about the single most significant flaw of the American Experiment: they insisted, as the Constitution most certainly did not, that slavery is immoral and must be destroyed. But that was just about all they agreed upon. John Brown, unlike Lincoln, believed that God had spoken to him, had ordered him to extinguish the sin of slavery for now, for once, and for all time. And he also believed that that command meant that he must take any actions necessary to achieve that end immediately, consequences (and slave owners) be damned.
Brown was an imposing figure, physically and spiritually. He wielded an almost hypnotic power over those who heard and followed him. He was driven, and his commitment to fight for the freedom of all people was absolute. He felt that the punishments due those who refused to abandon slavery were his to determine, and those deserved punishments definitely included physical destruction and death. So this profoundly and obsessively religious man became a destroyer, a murderer. And when his raid at Harpers Ferry, a town which held a large arsenal of weapons, resulted in multiple deaths but failed miserably, he was arrested and hanged, defiant to the last. Yet he was admired, even revered, by almost everyone who knew him or knew of him. He quickly became a martyr to his sacred cause, the hero of thousands — abolitionists, folks who were impatient for the freedom ostensibly guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and, of course, virtually all African-Americans, slave or free.
But John Brown, the ultimate abolitionist, was no hero to Abraham Lincoln and his Republican party. Lincoln was furious about the Harpers Ferry attack. That spree of violence, property destruction, and death allowed proponents of slavery to label abolitionists as murderers and Republicans as their more-than-willing accomplices, accessories to murder.
The information about Brown in Brand’s work is both chilling and enlightening. The information about Lincoln, however, is more complex, stunning, and thought-provoking. Lincoln was as convinced as Brown that slavery in the south was evil. But Lincoln was a politician, a lawyer, a statesman; the Constitution and the Union were always his first priorities. He did, in fact, say that despite his fierce opposition to the institution of slavery, he would give up his fight to free the slaves if it meant he could save the Union; and he would strive for peace at almost all costs.
Lincoln was not an abolitionist. His oft-stated goal was simply to ensure that no new territory would be a slave state. He did not initially plan to immediately abolish slavery in the southern states. He felt instead that slavery would die a slow death eventually due to its inherent cruelty, its unmitigated evil. Lincoln’s beliefs and plans pleased nobody on the left (the abolitionists) or the right (the slave owners). Frederick Douglass did not trust him. Wealthy Southerners despised him. So when Lincoln won the election, but before he took office, seven rebel states had already seceded from his beloved Union.
Still, Lincoln wanted peace above all. He put forth a plan that he thought might avoid all-out war, The government, he proposed, would buy all the slaves from the southern slaveholders at a “fair” price. Again, abolitionists were horrified and plantation owners were insulted. Then came Fort Sumpter, and America became a living hell. As the violence escalated and the South proved an incredibly difficult and stubborn foe, the president decided, finally, that the Union could not truly triumph unless slavery was immediately, totally, and unambiguously erased. Thus the Emancipation Proclamation. And with the later addition of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments, freedom for all was now constitutionally guaranteed. The Union, with, incidentally, the huge contributions of newly freed Black soldiers, had prevailed — at the cost of 300,000 American lives.
Ironically, John Brown had been right. He had claimed all along that only bloodshed would destroy slavery. But even he had no idea that the horrendous amount of blood shed would far exceed his own dire expectations. And Lincoln, the man of peace, compromise, and patience, would prove to be, in a sense, the primary instrument of the violence and destruction that Brown prophesied.
Yet try as we might to imagine other solutions to the horrendous problems Lincoln faced and the terrible but probably inevitable solutions he finally decided upon, we cannot — to this day — think of any other actions or choices that were realistically available to him. In “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” 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 might all profit from careful consideration of those lives and the laws and conditions which defined them and shaped their identities and destinations.
Review by Jack Kramer. Please note: This review first was posted on Bookreporter.com.