They were two men of unusual spirituality and reflection, confronting the biggest question of the time, confronting the character of their young country, and ultimately confronting their own character.
John Brown and Abraham Lincoln were two of the central figures in the destruction of slavery. Their stories were parallel lines, never intersecting. And yet they exerted irresistible force on each other, power that combined to end a blight on the country.
As a young man, the prominent historian H.W. Brands notes in his new book, “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” John Brown “could be better at dreaming than at doing.” That quality would not endure. He became a man of doing, a man of action, which of course is how we remember him.
Lincoln was in many ways the temperamental polar opposite of Brown — cautious, incremental, circumspect, practical. He was no romantic, except for his view of the Union and, pointedly, his celebration of the virtues of Henry Clay, remembered for his impulse to compromise and his aversion to confrontation. Eventually, Brands reminds us, Lincoln’s approach “led to slaughter a thousand times greater than anything John Brown ever committed.”
Frederick Douglass found the young Brown, whom he met in Springfield in 1847, “built for times of trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships,” and even then, fired with anti-slavery and with hatred for the slaveholder. He was fitted with a “plan,” an armed force ready for battle. Douglass was skeptical.
Brown grew more committed, more radical, more open to violent rebellion. And in time, in bloody Kansas, he met the violence of pro-slavery settlers with anti-slavery combat of his own, at Pottawatomie Creek, where five were slain in a pitched battle of wanton violence in May 1856.
Charismatic and messianic, Brown was, according to A.W. Phillips of the New York Tribune, a combination of militant and mystic. “The whispering of the wind on the prairie was full of voices to him,” wrote Phillips, who witnessed him in action in Kansas, “and the stars as they shone in the firmament of God seemed to inspire him.” Thoreau captured the life force of Brown crisply when he arrived in Boston in 1857: “Not yielding to a whim or transient impulse, but carrying out the purpose of a life.”
Lincoln regarded slavery as a “monstrous injustice.” He struggled with slavery, to be sure, but his struggle was largely internal and rhetorical, the better to prepare himself for Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race and then for the presidency, where an elegant equipoise was required for a nation riven by the slavery question and then by secession.
Brown spent the dangerous year 1859 plotting revolution, Lincoln plotting a presidential campaign. Brown looked to political upheaval growing out of his Harpers Ferry raid, Lincoln to Republican unity as the party approached the 1860 election. Lincoln regarded slavery as “wrong, morally and politically” but his goal in 1859 was to restrict its expansion. Brown had no taste for delay. From some points of view then as now, Brown had the moral high ground. But soon Lincoln would have the White House. Brown gathered armaments, Lincoln arguments.
And so Brown prosecuted his raid and roiled the country. The South was outraged, the North only less so. The raid was, the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison thundered, “misguided, wild and apparently insane.” Lincoln described it as “futile as far as any effect it might have on the extinction of a great evil.” Brands’s verdict: “It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The prospects of the Republican party had been improving by the month. So had Lincoln’s own prospects.”
But Brown on his cot in his captivity had an insight both profound and prescient. “I wish to say ... that you had better — all you people at the South — prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled — this negro question I mean.”
And so this is where Lincoln comes in for his star turn on the American stage.
But first he had to separate himself from Brown. In his 1860 Cooper Institute speech Lincoln said that “John Brown was no Republican,” and he then spoke of the raid: “It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed.”
And yet as John Brown’s body lay a-moldering in the grave his soul was marching on. The song that celebrated that, and the sentiment it symbolized, troubled Lincoln, whose first impulse was to save the Union and not the slave. But eventually the sentiment became as resilient as the song.
“Lincoln could assert that the war was about the Union, not about slavery, and for him it was,” Brands argues. “But everyone, including Lincoln, knew that slavery was the underlying cause of the sectional division that had produced secession and the war. He had intended to save the Union first and deal with slavery later, if at all; with this strategy floundering, he tried to reverse the order.”
The rest of the story is well known: emancipation followed by assassination. “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: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom
By H.W. Brands
Doubleday, 464 pp., $30
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.