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Publisher's Summary

Master storyteller and best-selling historian 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.

John Brown was a charismatic and deeply religious man who heard the God of the Old Testament speaking to him, telling him to destroy slavery by any means. When Congress opened Kansas territory to slavery in 1854, Brown raised a band of followers to wage war. His men tore pro-slavery settlers from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Three years later, Brown and his men assaulted the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to arm slaves with weapons for a race war that would cleanse the nation of slavery.

Brown’s violence pointed ambitious Illinois lawyer and former officeholder Abraham Lincoln toward a different solution to slavery: politics. Lincoln spoke cautiously and dreamed big, plotting his path back to Washington and perhaps to the White House. Yet his caution could not protect him from the vortex of violence Brown had set in motion. After Brown’s arrest, his righteous dignity on the way to the gallows led many in the North to see him as a martyr to liberty. Southerners responded with anger and horror to a terrorist being made into a saint. Lincoln shrewdly threaded the needle between the opposing voices of the fractured nation and won election as president. But the time for moderation had passed, and Lincoln’s fervent belief that democracy could resolve its moral crises peacefully faced its ultimate test.

The Zealot and the Emancipator is acclaimed historian H. W. Brands' thrilling account of how two American giants shaped the war for freedom.

Cover photograph of Abraham Lincoln courtesy of the White House Collection/White House Historical Association

©2020 H. W. Brands (P)2020 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Brands is a master storyteller... 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.” (Booklist, starred)

“Entertaining and insightful ... Brands provides essential historical context and intriguing insights into both men’s characters and decision-making. American history fans will be thrilled.” (Publishers Weekly)

“A fascinating and wonderfully readable portrayal of the tensions between fiery militancy and determined but measured devotion in working toward a goal. Excellent for general readers, especially those with an interest in the Civil War.” (Library Journal)

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  • William G. Stuart
  • 19-10-2020

I Never Knew That!

I've studied US history, but apparently not deeply enough. I didn't appreciate the life of John Brown and his anti-slavery activities prior to his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This man lived his life with the passion of, well, a zealot, moving himself and parts of his family to slavery "hot zones" like Kansas (following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the firs test of popular sovereignty) and upper New York State (an exile community for freed slaves). The author goes into great detail about Brown's thoughts, actions, and interactions.

Brown's zealous efforts to free slaves is contrasted with Abraham Lincoln's indifference to slavery throughout his life. Far from an abolitionist, Lincoln merely sought to arrest the spread of slavery. Otherwise, his views of Negros were little different from his political opponents' or slave owners'. He considered the Negro race inferior, he struck fear in voters' minds with images of biracial communities, and supported efforts to ship slaves to Central America to preserve white society.

Yet in the end, the zealot died, having little effect on the institution of slavery (though making a name for himself in every US history book, if only for a paragraph or two in many texts). And the man who would gladly have "saved" the union without freeing a single slave ended up the emancipator.

In every political situation, I pose the same question: Do we judge a person by his thoughts and beliefs, his goals in advancing a particular policy or action, or the results of the policy or action? Usually, it's the goals (witness the Affordable Care Act, a law with noble intentions that has fallen far short of its coverage goals, blows through its, budget, and offers unaffordable coverage to nongroup purchasers - yet is deified by its supporters because the intentions were good). In the case of Brown and Lincoln, Brown wins the argument hands down based on thoughts and beliefs. And if you believe that freeing the slaves was imperative, he most likely wins on action - though his plan was far-fetched, his goal was far more noble than Lincoln's. But Lincoln's victory in the war (no matter the negative consequences and short- and long-term cost - listen to Thomas DiLorenzo's "The Problem with Lincoln") led to freedom from bondage for millions of slaves.

Brown held that goal and failed to achieve it with his actions. Lincoln became a late convert to the abolition cause - reluctantly, and motivated by political considerations rather than noble beliefs - and freed the slaves.

When you listen to this very "listenable" book of the intertwining of these two men and their beliefs, you'll appreciate the struggle with which the nation grappled during the final 40 years of legal slavery.

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  • Terrence Franklin
  • 04-11-2020

White Folk Fight - Mostly Not About Black Humanity

Compelling, fascinating dialectic exchange about the predominant views on race and slavery before during and after the Civil War. So often found myself listening to cold arguments over unity and power, economics, security, violence, white rights to be paid for labor, or for cheap cotton generated from black labor. So often left feeling a deep longing for more arguments based on the humanity of enslaved people.

But this is what our country was. Is. Fights about laws that mostly leave humanity outside the debate.

Sad. True. America

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  • Kristy Hjort
  • 03-04-2021

Dr Brands delivers AGAIN!

The Zealot and the Emancipator gives the reader a sense of the vigor which Brown possessed and the hesitancy that Lincoln pursued trying to deal with the Peculiar Institution. There are some great nuggets of context with which Dr. Brands brings both of these men of the mid-19 Century alive! The relationship between Stephen Douglas and Mary Todd gives the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 a whole new spin! Great job Dr. Brands!

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  • Kevin E. Werner
  • 22-12-2020

exceptional

This is a phenomenal trip through the lives of Brown and Lincoln as it relates to the Civil War. The importance of John Brown may be overplayed a bit, but it is still an excellent presentation of the two and their approach to the same issue. One radical and driven by cause. The other more pragmatic and driven by result.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 28-10-2020

Accelerate and enjoy

The narrator speaks very slowly, but once I accelerated it to 150% it went very nicely.

I importance of Browns crazy last adventure to Lincoln's strategy is, to me, imperfectly drawn Still, great story, with independent slant and focus on Lincoln. But read also Team of Rivals.

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  • Lauren Rees
  • 01-04-2021

Exquisite. Must-read.

One of the best books I’ve ever read. Fascinating, detailed, diplomatic and inspiring. Perfectly read by Robert Fass. Off to find more books written by H. W. Brands ....

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