STARRED REVIEW
October 2020

The Zealot and the Emancipator

By H.W. Brands
Review by
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You might be forgiven for thinking that a book about a firebrand who pushes a centrist politician to take a more just position on race was written about current events. However, The Zealot and the Emancipator by H.W. Brands examines the relationship between two men who never met but played pivotal roles in 19th-century American history: John Brown (the zealot) and Abraham Lincoln (the emancipator).

Pulitzer Prize finalist Brands is a master storyteller whose previous books have covered topics as diverse as Andrew Jackson, the Gilded Age and post-World War II America. In The Zealot and the Emancipator, Brands uses his lucid writing to explore the rich ironies that surrounded Lincoln and Brown. Brown, a lifelong abolitionist who hated slavery more than he loved his life, raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an ill-fated attempt to spark a revolt among enslaved people. Lincoln, a cautious lawyer who loved the Union more than he hated slavery, ignited a civil war two years after Brown was hanged for treason.

Brown, who had little time for politics or politicians, gave the new antislavery Republican party the energy it needed to defeat the proslavery Democratic party in the 1860 election. Lincoln, who would have happily given up on the idea of abolition if it would have saved the Union, became the Great Emancipator and the main proponent of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. In the greatest irony of all, the very thing that Lincoln feared would destroy the country—the recognition that slavery was at the crux of the war and must be abolished—actually gave the North the impetus it needed to defeat the Confederacy and reestablish the Union.

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.

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