Brisk and vivid, The Zealot and the Emancipator traces the confluence of outrages, convictions and political calculations it took for the United States to at last strike down the institution of slavery. Quoting at engaging length from letters, speeches and news reports, H.W. Brands (Heirs of the Founders; Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times) places special emphasis on the minds and actions of John Brown, the murdering abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, the murdered president. Much of Brands's account comes from the words of those who knew his subjects.
Brands's chatty retelling follows Brown and Lincoln through the buildup to the Civil War, recounting events like the collapse of Lincoln's Whig party and the maneuvering behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act in clear, exciting prose. The book's title suggests a simple dichotomy, a radical's and a moderate's approach to enacting just change, but Brands is attentive throughout to the thoughts of other Americans. Frederick Douglass, for example, was routinely disappointed in Lincoln's moderation, and George Kimball, an early volunteer for the Union army, called his compatriots in the Second Massachusetts Infantry Battalion "a light-hearted, whole-souled set of fellows."
One of the book's chief pleasures, besides the illumination of Lincoln's year-to-year thinking about slavery and Black Americans, comes from the observations offered by both men's contemporaries' descriptions: the reporter James Redpath, on assignment for the anti-slavery New York Tribune, wrote of a meeting with Brown, "I had seen the predestined leader of the second, and holier American revolution." And that endorsement came well after Brown's band had dragged five pro-slavery men from their bed and murdered them in Pottawatomie, Kan. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor