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.
About the Author
H. W. BRANDS holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written more than a dozen biographies and histories, two of which, The First American and Traitor to His Class, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
“[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
“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
“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
"Fascinating" —The New York Times
“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
“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
“Brisk and vivid . . . engaging.” —Shelf Awareness