... builds on strengths long evident in Brands’s books, combining expert storytelling with thoughtful interpretation vividly to render major events through the lives of the chief participants. Apart from a biography of U. S. Grant, Brands has until now had surprisingly little to say about the Civil War era, but this book presents a gripping account of the politics that led to Southern secession, war and the abolition of slavery ... In line with recent writings by, among others, James Oakes and Sidney Blumenthal, Brands refuses to diminish Lincoln’s antislavery moral commitment because of his politics, any more than he absolves Brown’s uncompromising higher judgments of their untethered recklessness.
'Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last,' Brands writes in a tale told by a master storyteller, with a momentum and a power appropriate to the subject. In these pages we have the hare (Brown) and the tortoise (Lincoln). In these pages it is no fable, but instead one of the greatest, but surely the bloodiest, American stories.
The Zealot and the Emancipator relates these familiar events skillfully without pretending to offer new material or original interpretations. The final 150 pages gallop through the Civil War, quoting extensively from Lincoln’s most famous works, with cursory paragraphs providing context. But Mr. Brands, who has written about nearly every era of American politics, seems to recognize that the contrast between Brown and Lincoln offers a lesson that has never been timelier. Prudence and idealism are complementary virtues. And zeal unencumbered by a concern for consequences is indistinguishable, in practice, from bloodlust.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Brands is a master storyteller ... Brands uses his lucid writing to explore the rich ironies that surrounded Lincoln and Brown ... 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.
So what makes Brands’ book worth reading? The answer: its deep look at its two main characters and their views on slavery ... Brands quotes his characters at length; their stilted 19th-century English can raise readers’ eyebrows. But Brands also tucks in some stray factual gems ... And some readers may find eerie parallels to events in recent months—widespread racial tension, for example, and the debate over whether federal or state government should act to handle a problem—in our time, the coronavirus, and in Lincoln’s, the extension of slavery.
...gripping ... 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 ... 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 ... particularly well timed, if not exactly urgent.
In The Zealot and the Emancipator, Brands foregrounds the central irony that while Brown embraced violence as a means to end slavery and Lincoln condemned it, Lincoln’s eventual path resulted in carnage beyond what Brown, who was executed in 1859, could have imagined. Brands is an adroit storyteller and captures both Brown’s intensity and zeal and Lincoln’s pragmatism and wit ... In the end, Brands writes, 'Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last.'
The veteran historian maintains his high standards in this study of two of 19th-century America’s most significant figures ... Brands delivers a gripping account of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry but succeeds no more than colleagues in explaining its utter incompetence ... An outstanding dual biography.
...an entertaining and insightful dual biography of revolutionary abolitionist ... Though much of Brands’s material is familiar, he provides essential historical context and intriguing insights into both men’s characters and decision-making. American history fans will be thrilled.