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

Doubleday. Oct. 2020. 464p. ISBN 9780385544009. $30. HIST
Historian Brands (Univ. of Texas at Austin; Dreams of El Dorado) joins the stories of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln as they struggled with the intractable problem of slavery. Brands skillfully employs the men’s own dramatic words to draw readers into their lives and visions for the United States. In early chapters, Brown’s fiery spirit and militancy eclipsed Lincoln’s gradualism. They never met, but each served as a foil for the other, Lincoln wanting to avoid war on Brown’s terms, and Brown rejecting Lincoln’s political approach. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, most significant of the author’s many well-drawn secondary figures, served as a bridge between the two men. Before the war, he assisted Brown in assembling his followers. Later, he became an informal antislavery adviser/critic to Lincoln during the Civil War. Brown’s execution in 1859 put Lincoln’s character and actions at the center of Brands’s account. Throughout, he focuses on how these men’s values and visions affected their actions. Brands largely avoids becoming bogged down on details of consequential events he describes.
VERDICT 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.
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