John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: A Study in Contrasts

By Sean Wilentz


John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom

By H. W. Brands

Late in 1859, news of John Brown’s failed raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry alarmed Abraham Lincoln, and his dismay worsened when prominent Northerners celebrated Brown as a saint. For five years, Lincoln had been working to build an antislavery political coalition across the North that would finally break the Southern slaveholders’ domination of the government. Fending off absolutists who proclaimed a moral law higher than the Constitution, battling Northern racists who hurled slurs unprintable today, Lincoln and the fledgling Republican Party would put slavery on what Lincoln called “the course of ultimate extinction.” After decades in the political wilderness, slavery’s opponents were at last seriously contending for national power.

Suddenly, on the eve of a crucial presidential election year, Brown’s attempted insurrection, doomed from the start (as Frederick Douglass told Brown when he refused to join it), endangered everything. Instantly, a national chorus from Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis blamed the incident on the party they vilified as the “Black Republicans,” now disgraced as lawless traitors. Worse for Republicans, some prominent high-minded Northerners exalted Brown’s crime as a sublime act by a Christlike hero who transcended petty party politics. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that Brown’s blood sacrifice would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” In some New England towns, church bells pealed at the hour of Brown’s execution.

The next day, Lincoln, on the verge of commencing to run for president, drew a distinction that was escaping some of his panicky fellow Republicans. “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason,” Lincoln wrote, and though he granted that Brown was perfectly right about slavery, he repudiated Brown’s undertaking. Brown’s antislavery convictions hardly made him a Republican; neither could they justify a desperate, even suicidal effort to instigate a violent rebellion. Nor could Brown’s strange mystique hide the damage his exploits had done to the growing antislavery cause. “It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right,” Lincoln concluded. At a time of inexorable polarization, Lincoln permitted neither racist smears nor radical pieties to deflect his own antislavery purpose.

H. W. Brands’s study of Brown and Lincoln, which features this dramatic moment, is at heart an appraisal of contrasting political designs and personas in prerevolutionary times. A distinguished professor of American history at the University of Texas, Brands is a hyperprolific scholar, the author of more than two dozen books on subjects ranging from the life of Benjamin Franklin to Lyndon B. Johnson’s foreign policy. “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” describing Brown’s and Lincoln’s development in alternating chapters, builds on strengths long evident in Brands’s books, combining expert storytelling with thoughtful interpretation vividly to render major events through the lives of the chief participants. Apart from a biography of U. S. Grant, Brands has until now had surprisingly little to say about the Civil War era, but this book presents a gripping account of the politics that led to Southern secession, war and the abolition of slavery.

By calling John Brown a “zealot,” Brands appears to mean a fanatic in a righteous cause. An ironclad patriarch of Puritan rectitude — his admirers likened him to Oliver Cromwell — Brown, when in his mid-30s, consecrated his life to destroying the institution of slavery. As it was founded in wicked violence, he believed, so holy violence, including terrorist atrocities when called for, would weaken it, all leading to a final reckoning when oppressed Black people and their white allies would vanquish the Pharisee slaveholders. Brown regarded all conventional politics, including antislavery politics practiced by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, as a sham, as dangerous to the cause of liberty as the power of the slaveholders. The escalating supremacy of the slave South and its racist abettors in the 1850s, culminating in the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, hardened Brown’s contempt, and it propelled his attack on Harpers Ferry.

Brands offers a detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of Brown’s raid, which he rates a “wretched fiasco,” a “quixotic venture” that, far from unshackling the enslaved, tightened their shackles even further. Brands affirms the justice behind Brown’s actions, no matter how zealous, when measured against the cruelty of slavery. He describes how Brown’s self-dramatizing performance during his trial turned him into the inspiring popular martyr whose soul would mythically go marching on. But Brown’s story ends roughly two-thirds of the way through Brands’s book. The denouement — and the achievement of slavery’s destruction — belonged to Abraham Lincoln.

In calling Lincoln “the emancipator,” Brands takes exception to a view of Lincoln, now in vogue in some quarters, as a reluctant freedom fighter, a moderate politician who was devoted only to preserving the Union until the vagaries of the Civil War forced his hand. In fact, Lincoln’s hatred of slavery, established early in his life, ran deep: Brands quotes one Illinois abolitionist who got to know him in the 1840s and found “his view and mine on the wrong of slavery … in perfect accord.” As a working politician, Lincoln heeded practical limits, but he did not conceal his antislavery convictions: During his single term in Congress, from 1847 to 1849, he gravitated to antislavery colleagues, withstood abuse for opposing the American war against Mexico as pro-slavery and introduced legislation to eradicate slavery in the District of Columbia, a longtime abolitionist goal. Lincoln’s emergence as an antislavery leader in the 1850s had a long foreground.

In line with recent writings by, among others, James Oakes and Sidney Blumenthal, Brands refuses to diminish Lincoln’s antislavery moral commitment because of his politics, any more than he absolves Brown’s uncompromising higher judgments of their untethered recklessness. He quotes Frederick Douglass, who knew both men and who said in retrospect that while abolitionist agitators (including Douglass himself) might have dismissed Lincoln before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation as cold and indifferent, in fact, given the difficulties he faced, “he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”

At the heart of everything was Lincoln’s understanding of the Constitution: Whereas his radical critics cared little or nothing about man-made laws or believed, much as the pro-slavery secessionists did, that the framers had enshrined human bondage in national law, Lincoln saw great antislavery potential in the Constitution. In that sense, his reverence for the Union and his hatred of slavery went hand in hand. When, in 1860-61, Southern states seceded rather than accede to his election as president, Lincoln resolved to crush the rebellion. Doing so, perforce, would also crush the rebels’ claim that the national government was powerless to halt slavery’s growth and commence its extinction. At the outset, it seemed, nothing could begin on slavery unless and until the Union was saved. Yet as the war raged, it became apparent that preserving the Union required a proclamation of emancipation, a goal that, as Brands’s final chapters show, Lincoln pursued with constitutional correctness and immense political skill.

John Brown despised politicians and political parties. His disastrous raid paradoxically contributed to the nomination of Lincoln, the fresh national face from Illinois, unlike Senator William Seward of New York, who carried decades of political baggage, and was tarred, not least, for having known Brown. This may have been Brown’s greatest feat for the antislavery cause and his most important contribution to American history. Only the sort of consummate politician Brown hated could have achieved the abolition of slavery.

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