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

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  528 ratings  ·  111 reviews
From New York Times bestselling historian H. W. Brands, the epic struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, two men with radically different views on how moral people must act when their democracy countenances evil.

John Brown was a charismatic and deeply religious man who heard the God of the Old Testament speaking to him, telling him to destroy s
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published October 6th 2020 by Doubleday
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Dec 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: overdrive, audio
I usually find that dual biographies don’t work very well, but in this case it was very interesting to see how the end of slavery came about by the opposite approaches of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. While both men concluded that slavery was morally wrong, Brown felt that there was no reasoning with the hearts and minds of slaveholders; that only violence could end the scourge. He was probably not completely sane, and he was certainly not a great military strategist. An interesting link to Li ...more
The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom by H.W. Brands was a riveting dual biography of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln and the period of history where each man's commitment to overcoming slavery were handled in diverse and very different ways. H.W. Brands addresses this dichotomy as follows:

"What does a great man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound
Nov 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Did you ever read one of those books where, when you got to the end, you said to yourself, "that's it??!!" This book was one of those kind. The narrative was brisk and engaging; above all, Mr. Brands is a terrific storyteller. You can conceivably wonder whether the length of the book could have been doubled without detracting from its readability. The book focuses on the parallel lives of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Along the way we are introduced to a whole group of movers and shakers. Bott ...more
Jan 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Structure/Formatting 5/5
I seem to have a tendency to love dual biographies. I've read some that are done better than others, and this one is set up in the way that I seem to enjoy most (fairly chronologically, even with the flipping back and forth between subjects). Even though the two primary subjects are frequently in different parts of the country and not interacting with one another, their different storylines work very well together.

Thoroughness of research/knowledge of subject 5/5
This boo
Casey Wheeler
This book is a dual biography of specific time periods in the lives of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. The book is well researched and well written as I have come to expect of the author as I have read several of his other books. As the title indicates the theme is the different paths that John Brown and Abraham Lincoln took in freeing the slaves in the United States. The most interesting part of the book for me was the detail on John Brown and his thoughts and convictions. I have read some abou ...more
S. Smith
Sep 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
This thoroughly researched study of two emblematic giants of U.S. history compares and contrasts the very different -- and differently significant -- actions taken by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln regarding freeing the country's enslaved population. While the fiery Brown's life and death comprise the book's the most dramatic sections, the detailed narrative explaining Lincoln's gradual, lawyerly progress to supporting emancipation are equally fascinating. Because the author is a skillful storyt ...more
Brian Willis
Nov 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
The latest effort from H.W. Brands is not only a kind of dual biography of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln; in a very real sense, it is a dual biography of abolitionism and emancipation.

I had not read a book that focused more specifically on John Brown. He always glides into the historical narrative within the context of a larger scope: the Civil War, its causes, the impact of the raid on Harpers Ferry on national politics. It was a pleasant surprise to read much more deeply what motivated John B
Feb 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
"When were the good and the brave ever in a majority?" - Thoreau

Other mid-19th century quotes plucked out for this book:

"When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without a base alloy of hypocrisy" - Lincoln

"There was no extravagance of the ancient parliamentary debate which he did not repeat; nor was there any possible deviation from truth which he did not mak
Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett
Nov 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Five stars! Despite its awful title!

I should have known I’d love this book; many years ago, I read Brands’s fine Franklin biography, subtitled interestingly enough, “The First American.” Drawn from author’s definition of an American as the Gatsby-like, Bob Dylanesque, product of “creative” autobiography, molecular striving, and a touch of hedonism, Franklin made a well reasoned first entry.

But THIS book!

I have to admit upfront that the American Civil War is one of my educational blindspots. Of
Tom Glaser
Dec 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I listened to a podcast interview with the author because I'd started to watch James McBride's The Good Lord Bird on Showtime and wondered whether Ethan Hawke's character was anything like the real John Brown. Prior to this, I hadn't done much reading since high school about the American Civil War, so The Zealot and the Emancipator was pretty much my re-introduction to the subject.

Brands' interview was very interesting and his book proved to be even more so. He relies heavily on primary sources
Josh Roberts
Jan 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
One man set out to end slavery by any means necessary and one set out to prevent its expansion through politics but not at the expense of the Union. In the end, both were accomplished but not without extensive bloodshed. Being a Lincoln novice, this book really shed light on how great of a calculated politician he was, rarely saying more than what was needed. Myself having a heavy John Brown bias, thought this book was satisfactory in presenting him as a man with a sense of purpose and willing t ...more
Pat Lilley
Feb 22, 2021 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book and recommend it. Because I’ve already read quite a bit about Lincoln, to me the most interesting parts were about John Brown. His devotion to the equality of all people was certainly admirable and though he definitely slipped into fanaticism by the end, it’s hard to argue that slavery wasn’t a cause worth dying—and perhaps killing—for. I found the ending of the book very thought-provoking. The author makes a compelling case that Lincoln, who had strongly condemned John Brown ...more
Feb 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this dual biography of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. The book’s timeline was mostly chronological, beginning with an emphasis on “The Zealot” Brown followed by “The Emancipator” Lincoln. I was surprised to learn that abolitionist Frederick Douglass figured prominently in the lives of both men.

I appreciated author H.W. Brands’ focus on Lincoln’s political and ethical struggles rather than Civil War details. Many other books cover Civil War strategies and battles. Instead, The Zealot
Lynn Glazewski
Jan 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I knew next to nothing about John Brown, only to find him to be a driven abolitionist revolutionary, unlike the backwoods wild man he appeared. Lincoln, in contrast, was plain spoken, affable, even funny, but intolerable of letting slavery spread to the US territories like Kansas. A mesmerizing story-I couldn’t put it down!
John  Landes
Feb 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
HW Brands is an incredible author. Learned an immense amount about Lincoln, John Brown, and all the politics of the American slave and freedom movements. Must read!
Feb 19, 2021 rated it it was ok
Maybe I read too much in this historical era, and this book is not for me. In my humble opinion, there are much better books out there are all of the threads it was trying to track.
Feb 24, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
More like 3.5. This book felt a little more disjointed for me than the other books by Brands that I've read and it negatively affected my enjoyment in reading it. ...more
David Kent
Oct 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Well written dual biography of John Brown (The Zealot) and Abraham Lincoln (The Emancipator) and their differing strategies for ending slavery. [Longer review to follow shortly]
Oct 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating joint history of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln that grapples with the question of how good people should respond to a great evil like slavery -- politics and its compromises? or violence? Brands does a great job of acknowledging the shortcomings of each approach while adding lots of detail to our understanding of each man. My only quibble is that I could have used a bit less pre-1859 Lincoln; it is only after John Brown's raid that the issues in this book come into high relief. ...more
Paul Vogelzang
Nov 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What an amazing story of two men, at odds, but with much in common, too.
Oct 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very enjoyable and informative. The book is well written and easy to read. I couldn't put it down. ...more
Oct 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
To me this was like a dual biography and was really interesting. This is the story of two men who opposed slavery, But had two different views on how to oppose slavery. John Brown used violence and Abraham Lincoln found a peaceful way.
Jan 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A duo-biography revolving around President Abraham Lincoln and Abolitionist John Brown. This book features more of Lincoln’s political planning. It goes into detail as to why he would do what he did and when he did things. As an American, I only had the most basic knowledge of John Brown and it was associated with Harper’s Ferry. The book tells Brown’s life story and how he became the “Zealot.”

I have always enjoyed history, and found the US Civil War the most interesting to learn about. This wel
Doctor Moss
Mar 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is much more than factual history. Telling Brown’s and Lincoln’s stories side-by-side presents a striking moral and political contrast. Brown, for whom the abolition of the slaves could not be compromised for any supposedly competing considerations. And Lincoln the skillful politician, convinced of the ultimate validity of the abolitionist cause but placing the preservation of the Union above it.

Brown is someone you can deplore and respect in the same breath. This is someone who fully dedic
...more Biography & Memoir
H. W. Brands, the author of this superb study, THE ZEALOT AND THE EMANCIPATOR, has presented us with a fascinating, authoritative, carefully researched account of the activities and beliefs of two figures who might be described accurately as men who changed America --- who forced Americans to examine their minds and hearts in ways that never had been demanded of them before, and who ultimately were responsible for the hard realization that the country could not exist half-slave and half-free. Th ...more
Ironically Nostalgic
Feb 22, 2021 rated it really liked it
Of the many enigmatic figures in American history, few complement each other as well as John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. While Brown’s uprising in Virginia gave the nation a vision of war, Lincoln’s tempered approach to politics and law sowed the seeds for a future peace. H.W. Brands’ newest work, The Zealot and the Emancipator, explains how both men sought to answer the all-encompassing question of their time: what does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? Driven by the Word of G ...more
Feb 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
Simply because I'm such a poor writer and reviewer I'm about to lay out a couple of total contradictions and you can make of them what you will.
This book was super slow for me and yet I found the history laid out as profound. I think probably because even though the conclusion which I'll get to was one of the most profound points of view I've ever encountered reading about, the lives of these two men only seem tenuously connected. Sure I get that both fought against slavery in their own ways but
Ted Hunt
Feb 24, 2021 rated it really liked it
A nation torn apart by racial issues. A lame duck president who watches calamity unfold. Violence between groups of Americans who refuse to bestow any sense of legitimacy upon their adversaries. A rushed trial in the midst of inflamed passions after a treasonous attack. The United States in 2021? No, America in the late 1850's and early 1860's. (As Mark Twain supposedly once said, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."). In one of H.W. Brands recent books, he examines two historical fig ...more
Eric Grunder
Nov 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is the story of two men whose paths never crossed, but whose ideas did ... eventually. As Brands puts it: "John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery." Purists may complain that Brands skips over, abbreviates of simply ignores many of the historic events leading up to Harpers Ferry a ...more
Philip J Cardella
Feb 08, 2021 rated it really liked it
The Zealot and the Emancipator is a timely, well written, entertaining and honest appraisal of two of the most consequential Americans in history. Though the author seems to approve of both men and their actions, he takes pains to paint them for the men they were by their own words. Lincoln in particular comes across as no saint, but the right man at the time. Lincoln's own words condemn his as a shockingly racist, white supremacist man who nevertheless hated slavery and pitied the enslaved and ...more
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Henry William Brands was born in Portland, Oregon, where he lived until he went to California for college. He attended Stanford University and studied history and mathematics. After graduating he became a traveling salesman, with a territory that spanned the West from the Pacific to Colorado. His wanderlust diminished after several trips across the Great Basin, and he turned to sales of a differen ...more

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