The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom

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Release Date: 
October 6, 2020
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“This book is the work of a master historian at the top of his craft.”

John Brown believed that slavery in the United States could only be eradicated by force of arms, and he and his small group of followers acted on that belief in “bloody” Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery in the United States would eventually die out if laws prevented its expansion into newly acquired territories, and as president he sought to preserve the Union without bloodshed if possible, and with bloodshed if necessary.

Historian H. W. Brands in his new book The Zealot and the Emancipator weighs the contributions of Brown and Lincoln to slavery’s demise in a fascinating narrative based largely on the words spoken and written by Brown, Lincoln, and their contemporaries in the context of Southern secession, civil war, and emancipation.

This book is the work of a master historian at the top of his craft. Brands brilliantly contrasts how the “zealot” John Brown consecrated his life to the abolition of slavery and committed murder and insurrection in a failed effort to emancipate the slaves, while the “emancipator” Lincoln devoted his presidency to saving the Union at all costs (including allowing slavery to continue) by waging a relentless war that spilled gallons of blood and eventually led to the end of slavery in this country.

Brands’ Lincoln is not the mythical emancipator of popular history, but the shrewd and calculating politician and commander-in-chief who understood and exemplified human nature and its imperfections. Indeed, as Brands points out, Lincoln repeatedly expressed his personal belief that the races were not equal, and that blacks and whites should live separately. Even in the midst of the Civil War and after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Brands notes, Lincoln urged Congress to compensate southerners for their emancipated slaves and encouraged the “colonization of American blacks abroad.”

In Kansas, John Brown committed murder. At Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia did not exist yet), Brown committed treason by briefly seizing the military arsenal there until surrendering to U.S. troops led by Col. Robert E. Lee, one of the rising stars in the U.S. Army.

“The assault on Harpers Ferry,” Brands writes, “produced shock waves that rumbled around the region and country, with truth chasing rumor.” Fears of a slave rebellion spread. Many abolitionists praised Brown for his “great courage and rare unselfishness.” Likely presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, Brands explains, “distanced himself from Brown’s actions.” “No man, North or South,” Lincoln said, “can approve of violence or crime.”

Brown’s trial commenced a week after he was captured. He was found guilty of treason, conspiracy, and murder. He was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on December 2, 1859. Throughout the ordeal, Brown was composed, patient, and steadfast in his belief that he was acting as an instrument of God.

Present at Brown’s hanging was John Wilkes Booth. In a parting testament, Brown had written that he was “quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” It seemed to many, Brands writes, that Brown’s “dreadful forecast made the martyr into a prophet as well.”

Brown was praised by, among others, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Beecher, Wendell Phillips, and former slave Frederick Douglass. Lincoln was busy campaigning for president, seeking the nomination of the new Republican Party. On the issue of slavery in the territories, Lincoln proclaimed himself a conservative, explaining: “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point of controversy while you . . . reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.”

Lincoln said that slavery was wrong, but he stated repeatedly that as president he would not interfere with it where it already existed and would not permit its expansion. He saw this as the only compromise that would save the Union and eventually lead to emancipation.

After Lincoln accepted the Republican nomination for president, he settled on what Brands calls a “strategy of silence.” Brands explains that Lincoln “could read the evolving political landscape, and he understood what it required of him. The presidency was his to lose. He should speak as little as possible; when speech could not be avoided, he should strive to say nothing.” And his inscrutability, Brands notes, paid off. Lincoln was elected, but he had no mandate. And he would not take office until March 1861. Meanwhile, southern states—beginning with South Carolina—seceded from the Union.

After taking the oath of office from Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (who had ruled in the Dred Scott case that black slaves were property), Lincoln attempted to reassure southerners that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed but would not countenance its further expansion. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war,” Lincoln said. “The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”

Brands notes that abolitionists like Frederick Douglass were disappointed in Lincoln’s speech. He accused Lincoln of starting his administration by announcing “his complete loyalty to slavery in the slave states.” Lincoln’s “[w]eakness, timidity and conciliation towards the tyrants and traitors had emboldened them,” Douglass said.  Brands explains the difference in the approaches of Douglass and Lincoln to the crisis: “Douglass saw the struggle as essentially moral; Lincoln saw it as political. Douglass was an idealist; Lincoln, a pragmatist.”

For Lincoln, the war—at least at the outset—was about the Union, not slavery. “He had intended,” Brands writes, “to save the Union first and deal with slavery later, if at all.” But as the war progressed and political circumstances changed, Lincoln reluctantly but gradually fused the goals of saving the Union and emancipating the slaves.

Lincoln’s first major step in that direction came with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation after the Union’s “victory” in the Battle of Antietam. But it wasn’t until the twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Brands explains, that Lincoln decided to “recast his original war aim in a fresh mold, fusing freedom and equality to Union as the triadic core of a new vision of what should come out of the conflict,” which he expressed most memorably in the Gettysburg Address.

But words and proclamations did not lead to emancipation—victories on the battlefields did. There were still great battles to fight—especially in Virginia, and Lincoln had finally selected a general who would do what it took to achieve victory. In an earlier book, Brands rightly called Ulysses S. Grant “the man who saved the Union.” Without his victories, Lincoln’s words would not have freed any slaves.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln sounded like John Brown when he invoked God to justify the “mighty scourge of war” that might last “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” The 13th Amendment later put into law what had been achieved on the battlefields.

In the end, Brands notes, Lincoln, like Brown, gave his life to the cause of emancipation: “Brown had foretold blood atonement while becoming one of the first sacrifices; Lincoln at the time had resisted the concept for his country and scarcely imagined it for himself. But he made decisions whose consequences included a bloodletting far greater than anything Brown had envisioned, and finally his own death.”

Brown sought to use violence to end slavery; Lincoln sought to use politics to save the Union. Their two paths, Brands writes, led to the same place: “The most terrible war in American history.” “Brown,” Brands concludes, “aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”