How does a good man challenge a great evil? This is the question H.W. Brands — master storyteller and historian — seeks to unlock in his latest historical deep dive, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom. During one of the most tumultuous times in American history, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln stood at a crossroads — two men moved to confront our nation’s gravest sin but taking radically different paths to do so. If you’ve been watching the miniseries adaptation of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (now on Showtime and Hulu), the real story is just as wild and cinematic. Here, H.W. Brands discusses how history has viewed the events and players of this time and insights on how the current phase of the struggle for racial equality may be remembered in years to come.
John Brown and Abraham Lincoln embodied competing versions of antislavery opinion in America in the mid-nineteenth century. Brown believed in direct action to destroy slavery at once; in Kansas he led the murder of proslavery settlers, and at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, he sought to arm slaves for an uprising against their masters. Lincoln eschewed violence and shuddered at Brown’s actions; Lincoln judged that an institution that had developed over centuries couldn’t be dismantled overnight without grave peril to the Union.
Brown cared nothing for the Union, if it stood in the way of freedom for the slaves. Lincoln cared about slavery, but he cared more about the Union, deeming it the surest guarantor of freedom to the greatest number of people, including those currently enslaved.
Brown attempted to start a war and failed. The enslaved men he urged to join his army thought he was deranged or, at least, dangerously misguided. They concluded he would get them all killed, and they kept their distance. Brown was captured, tried and hanged.
Lincoln tried to avert a war, and failed, too. His efforts to preserve the Union by persuasion fell short against the determination of Southern slaveholders to break the Union apart. Lincoln was compelled to resort to military force, with the result being the Civil War.
Yet together, by means neither foresaw, Brown and Lincoln both achieved their goals. Slavery was ended and the Union preserved. By different routes, each wound up on the right side of history.
How history will view the current phase of the struggle for racial equality will depend on what happens in the coming months and years. If the protests produce lasting, positive changes in the institutions of American life — in law enforcement, education and health care, for example — then the excesses of the moment will be forgiven and forgotten. If the changes are chiefly symbolic — the removal of statues and the renaming of streets — then the excesses might well be condemned as counterproductive.
Lincoln condemned Brown’s violence as counterproductive to the cause of freedom, predicting that it would cause slaveholders to become more protective of slavery than ever. Lincoln was right, until the slaveholders overplayed their hand by seceding. The folly of secession was what made a prophet of Brown and an emancipator of Lincoln.
The ideal outcome for our current troubles would be a Lincoln without a Brown: the modern equivalent of emancipation without a Civil War. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln summoned the “better angels” of American nature. Maybe this time the angels are listening.