Pulitzer Prize finalist H. W. Brands narrates the epic struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln—two men moved to radically different acts to confront our nation’s gravest sin.
... 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.