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‘The Zealot And The Emancipator’ Explores The Different Paths Of Abraham Lincoln And John Brown

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H.W. Brands provided by the University of Texas
Author H.W. Brands explores how Abraham Lincoln and John Brown responded in different ways to the horror of slavery.

On Oct. 16, 1859, a brief dispatch out of Maryland reported the stunning news of a “formidable negro insurrection” in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

“An armed band of abolitionists have full possession of Harpers Ferry and the United States arsenal,” the news dispatch read. “They are led by about 250 whites, with a gang of negroes fighting for their freedom. ... The leader told Conductor Phelps, of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train, that they were ‘determined to have liberty, or die in the attempt.’” Some news accounts reported that 500 Black men were involved.

Those reports were wildly inaccurate. The raid on the arsenal was the work of not quite two dozen men, most of them white. Their leader, abolitionist John Brown, hoped to use the weapons in the arsenal to arm slaves throughout the South and launch an insurrection. But his raid quickly proved a fiasco. Most of his followers were captured or killed, with Robert E. Lee leading a small contingent of U.S. Marines in a battle to reclaim the arsenal that took just three minutes.

Brown’s raid was later called “a dress rehearsal” for the Civil War, credited for propelling abolitionists to action. But even many people sympathetic to his anti-slavery views didn’t welcome his attack on federal property. Historian H.W. Brands reports that Abraham Lincoln “groaned” upon receiving word of the raid.

Publicly, Lincoln distanced himself from Brown and his insurrectionists, Brands writes. “No man, North or South, can approve of violence or crime,” he said. Beyond that, Lincoln felt it was counterproductive: “It was, as all such attacks must be, futile as far as any effect it might have on the extinction of a great evil.”

How should a good person respond to a “great evil” in their midst? Brown ultimately gave his life because he felt politics and compromise were insufficient to free enslaved people. Lincoln felt politics were the only solution — and that compromise was necessary to achieve bigger goals. Both men, in truth, were right.

H.W. Brands’ new book, “The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom,” puts the two men’s lives in context. Brands discussed the book on St. Louis on the Air in advance of his Oct. 15 virtual event with the St. Louis County Library and HEC Media.

He said the decision to focus jointly on the men came out of his work as a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys challenging his class with Brown’s and Lincoln’s actions and asking what they would do in each man’s 19th-century shoes.

“The longer I teach American history, and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the essential questions of history are the timeless ones,” Brands said. “‘What does an honest, moral man do when his country is engaged in a great evil?’ Because we confront this.”

He added: “When I was drafting this book, I wasn’t thinking of the current moment and the reaction to the George Floyd killing and all this stuff that’s been happening in the last several months. But I was thinking generally. I thought, for example, when I was in college, the Vietnam War was a big issue. And a lot of people, including me, thought it was immoral. So what do you do? Do you march in protest? Certain extreme groups lit bombs.

“So, how far can you take a good cause without crossing the line into, one, counterproductivity — and, two, an evil of its own? John Brown really gets us there.”

The book’s second question, he continued, is equally complicated: “How does progress occur?” And in that, he admitted to coming down in favor of Lincoln, in favor of political compromise.

He also suggested modern-day progressives need to cut historical figures like Lincoln some slack.

“If Lincoln had had views that would make him pass muster with liberals today, he never would have been elected president,” he said. “To be president in the 1860s, he had to understand the perspective of people who lived then. You can’t get in a position to make change unless you share certain of the views, even of the prejudices, of your day. …. Without the views for which Lincoln is criticized today, he would not have been able to emancipate any slaves.”

Related event

What: H.W. Brands in conversation with historian Talmage Boston

When: Oct. 15

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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