“I approached the old quarry very cautiously,” Frederick Douglass wrote in the summer of 1859, “for John Brown was generally well armed, and regarded strangers with suspicion.” Brown had good reason to be cautious: He was wanted for the murder of five proslavery men in Kansas. But the authorities had yet to realize how fully he committed to his false identities. Douglass did, which is why, when he received a letter from a stranger named Isaac Smith inviting him to a meeting in central Pennsylvania, he went. (The quarry was where Brown’s alter ego, a miner, supposedly stored his tools.) Brown asked Douglass to bring a mutual friend of theirs, a formerly enslaved person named Shields Green, along with as much money as they could get their hands on.

Cover courtesy of Doubleday

Douglass arrived at the quarry, cash in hand, believing that Brown wanted to establish a new spur of the Underground Railroad on a mountain corridor running north from Virginia to Canada, just as Douglass and Shields had. That plan would have been risky enough, but Brown now had something more suicidal in mind: a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown, who claimed that God had put him on Earth to abolish slavery, intended to distribute the 100,000 rifles and muskets there to enslaved people at nearby plantations, who would then join his growing army and sweep across the state, county by county. The institution of slavery would collapse first in Virginia, then throughout the South.

Douglass seriously doubted the wisdom of Brown’s plan. Its likeliest outcome, he believed, would be a wave of White violence. And that was assuming Brown got out of the armory alive. Douglass felt sure that “Virginia would blow him and his hostages sky-high.” In the event, his prediction wasn’t far off. When the raid took place a few months later, Brown and his men were pinned down and ultimately captured. None other than Robert E. Lee, then a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, brought him in. Among the spectators who attended his hanging in Charles Town that December was John Wilkes Booth, the future presidential assassin.

“Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last,” the historian H.W. Brands writes in his gripping new dual biography, “The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom.” The book spans immense geographic, temporal and biographical territory. We meet Brown and Lincoln at the beginning of their careers, and by the end, Douglass is giving a speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial. But no matter where the narrative takes us, it is always seeking the answer to a question that Brands doesn’t explicitly pose until the very end: “What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil?” Does he resort to violent extremism, like Brown, or to coolheaded incrementalism, like Lincoln?

This is a worthy question for any era but particularly for the one we’re living through, when we have come to see historical memory as a battleground for present-day politics, a front in the all-consuming culture wars. On one side are the traditionalists, exceptionalists and reactionaries, who argue that men such as Thomas Jefferson remain beyond reproach, in spite of what we know about their deep-seated hypocrisy on the question of slavery. On the other side, according to the pundits, are those who believe that Jefferson and his ilk should be summarily canceled. Anything that glorifies them should be removed, including all monuments glorifying their achievements.

Brands offers a nuanced middle path. In Brown and Lincoln, he presents two perfectly imperfect heroes who act in ways that both excite and disappoint us. Those new to Brown’s story will embrace what Brands calls his “advantage of immediacy,” the “soul-satisfying” way he used violence to assail a hated institution. “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine,” Douglass would say after Brown’s death. He would also acknowledge Lincoln’s often maddeningly slow evolution, cast in stark contrast to Brown. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent.” But to the voters who elected him, he “was swift, zealous, radical and determined.” That’s how most of us like to remember him now – but mythology, Brands reminds us, is as unreliable a lens as nostalgia. And that’s why he keeps Douglass close. He was never entirely convinced by Brown’s or Lincoln’s methods, and he told them as much when they were alive; after, he looked upon their success with a dispassionate eye.

Still, the book makes a few small nostalgic missteps of its own. It’s unfortunate that Brands, like so many male biographers before him, refers to Lincoln’s wife as Mary Todd Lincoln, a formulation she never used. It was favored by William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, and there was no love lost between them. (Herndon called her a “she wolf,” and she denounced him as “a dirty dog.”) Herndon, as historian Catherine Clinton writes, “later repackaged” the late Ann Rutledge, a woman to whom Lincoln was once engaged, as his “only true love.” These small slights and large demotions were very much felt by Mrs. Lincoln, who, dressed in black mourning clothes, struggled to find her place over the next decade. Had Brands read Clinton’s “Mrs. Lincoln: A Life,” he might have avoided the error.

Published less than two months before the 2020 election, “The Zealot and the Emancipator” feels particularly well timed, if not exactly urgent. The lessons it contains about America’s slow progress toward a more perfect union, even during a time of literal disunionification, are legion, but the takeaway is clear: “Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union,” Brands writes in a memorable formulation, but “Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.” For Lincoln, violence was the last resort, and he succeeded not because he was the only man for the job but because he had the Constitution on his side. That document, and the promise of America, are more powerful than any president, from George Washington to Donald Trump.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: