‘The Zealot and the Emancipator,’ by H.W. Brands: An Excerpt

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The prisoner raised himself on his elbow and picked up his pen. The effort stabbed his side and stole his breath. “My Dear Wife, and Children Every One,” he wrote. “I suppose you have learned before this by the newspapers that two weeks ago today we were fighting for our lives at Harpers Ferry.”

John Brown shifted and tried to get comfortable. The wounds to his head had begun to heal, though they still looked a fright. But the gash in his side caused him searing pain. If he lay quietly and breathed softly, he could almost forget the saber thrust that had nearly killed him, yet the slightest shifting brought the bloody moment back. In all his life he had never spent so much time immobile. He supposed being in jail had its blessings.

That he was in jail and not in a grave was a minor miracle. John Brown believed in miracles. He believed in the God of the Old Testament, the author of miraculous sea partings and towering pillars of fire. The God of the New Testament, of quotidian wonders like multiplying loaves and fishes, he found less compelling. John Brown believed that God spoke to men. He believed God had spoken to him. God had commanded him to make war on the great wickedness of his country: slavery. John Brown had heeded the call and traveled to Kansas, where he had fought the agents of the slave power. He had come to Virginia to advance the struggle.

[ Return to the review of “The Zealot and the Emancipator.” ]

And now, in the waning autumn of 1859, he lay on a cot in a cell in Charles Town, the county seat for Harpers Ferry. He hadn’t told his wife his plans; better she not know the risks he was taking. She would have heard eventually. Yet after what had happened, he assumed she had learned the news from the papers. She might not know she had lost two sons. In any case she should hear it from him. “During the fight Watson was mortally wounded,” he wrote. “Oliver killed.”

The pain of the writing compelled him to stop every few sentences.

He would add more later.

Abraham Lincoln shuddered on reading the news of John Brown’s crime. From his law office in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln had been plotting his return to public office. A decade had passed since his single term in Congress had ended, taking with it, apparently, his hopes of becoming someone important. He had talent; he knew he had talent. His mind was as sharp as the next man’s, and sharper than that of anyone he knew with as little education as he had received. He could talk; he could amuse friends and persuade juries. He was a good lawyer, the best in Springfield—though he realized this wasn’t saying a lot. A man of slighter ambition would have been content with how far he had come from the backwoods of his birth.

Or maybe it wasn’t ambition per se. Perhaps the need to do some thing more, to win the praise of those around him, was his manner of fighting the melancholy that recurrently settled upon him and caused him to question whether life was worth living.

He had been making progress. His old political party, the Whigs, had gone to pieces amid the strife that was tearing the country apart. He had leaped from the wreck to a new party, the Republicans. He had traveled around Illinois speaking to Republican meetings large and small. He had locked horns with the Republicans’ chief tormentor, Senator Stephen Douglas. He had carefully positioned himself among the Republicans on their defining issue: slavery. Not for Lincoln the uncompromising ultraism of those who demanded immediate abolition, or the moral absolutism of those who held that a “higher law” than the Constitution must govern the country on the slave question. No, Lincoln embraced the Constitution, fervently yet moderately, arguing that though it allowed the exclusion of slavery from the federal territories, it protected slavery in the states that chose to preserve it.

But now this. Lincoln knew that John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry would be blamed on all Republicans. “Black Republicans,” they were called by their opponents, for the darkness imputed to their motives and their solicitude for the welfare of black slaves. John Brown lent credence to the slur. He committed murder and treason, and tried to start a war of black slaves against white masters. And he did so, apparently, as part of a broad conspiracy against the South.

Lincoln wondered if Brown’s extreme act had rendered moderation untenable. The South was closing ranks more tightly than ever against any challenge to its peculiar institution. Meanwhile many Northerners were making a hero of Brown, praising him for striking the blow against slavery their consciences told them they should have made.

Lincoln looked at the walls of his office. In the past few years he had been able to see beyond them. He had managed to push back the melancholy as he returned to political life. Now this. The walls closed in. The melancholy settled upon him once more. Lincoln’s mother had taught him not to swear, but in his heart he was tempted to curse John Brown.

Lincoln lacked Brown’s unquestioning religious faith. Yet he confronted the same question Brown did: What was the moral man’s obligation when faced with an immoral institution like slavery?

Lincoln knew slavery from his earliest days, as Brown did not. Lincoln was born in the slave state of Kentucky; his neighbors in Hardin County included hundreds of slaves. The Lincoln family owned no slaves, not least because Thomas Lincoln couldn’t well afford them. Lincoln in later years spoke little about his father; what he said did the older man justice but no kindness. Recounting his ancestry, Lincoln arrived at his grandparents and their children. “Thomas, the youngest son, and father of the present subject, by the early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring boy, and grew up literally without education,” Lincoln said. “He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.”

[ Return to the review of “The Zealot and the Emancipator.” ]

Thomas Lincoln opposed slavery, partly for what it did to the slaves but also for what it cost non-slaveholding whites like himself. As visitors to the South often remarked, slavery demeaned manual labor, discouraging poor whites from improving their lot through their own toil. Thomas and Nancy Lincoln joined a sect that shared their antipathy toward slavery; when Lincoln was seven, his father moved the family across the Ohio River to free-state Indiana. “This removal was partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky,” Lincoln explained.

The region of Indiana Thomas selected was a wilderness. “He set tled in an unbroken forest, and the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead,” Lincoln said. “A.”—Lincoln himself—“though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument—less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.” The family were hunters and gatherers, as well as farmers. The son was no Daniel Boone. “A. took an early start as a hunter, which was never much improved afterwards. A few days before the completion of his eighth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log-cabin, and A., with a rifle gun, standing inside, shot through a crack, and killed one of them. He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.” Lincoln didn’t like his father, though they shared certain traits.

Neighbors commented that Lincoln acquired his storytelling skills from the older man. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine; Thomas remarried. A story recalled from his father had his second wife asking him whether he liked her or his first wife better. “Oh, now, Sarah,” Thomas responded, in a style and tone any of Lincoln’s adult acquaintances would have recognized. “That reminds me of old John Hardin down in Kentucky who had a fine looking pair of horses, and a neighbor coming in one day and looking at them said, ‘John, which horse do you like best?’ John replied, ‘I can’t tell. One of them kicks and the other bites and I don’t know which is worst.’ ”

But Thomas detected energy and ambition in his son that reflected unfavorably on his own. He ridiculed Lincoln’s efforts to improve himself; illiterate, he denied his son the chance at an education. “A. now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year,” Lincoln recalled. “He was never in a college or academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up. After he was twenty-three, and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid, since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.”

Thomas didn’t beat his son, at least not beyond the norm of parents at the time. Perhaps Lincoln’s size and strength protected him; in any event Lincoln didn’t mention physical blows. Except for one that came from a different source: “In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time.” Yet he survived, well enough for his father to hire him out to neighbors, with the pay going to Thomas. The scheme was not unlike the hiring out of slaves, and Lincoln himself saw and felt the similarity. “I used to be a slave,” he later said of that period.

The great adventure of Lincoln’s youth was a river journey. “When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he made his first trip upon a flat-boat to New-Orleans. He was a hired hand merely; and he and a son of the owner, without other assistance, made the trip. The nature of part of the cargo-load, as it was called, made it necessary for them to linger and trade along the Sugar Coast”—the stretch of the Mississippi where sugarcane enriched the planters—“and one night they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the melee, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then cut cable, weighed anchor and left.”

The journey proceeded less eventfully for Lincoln and his partner. On this and a subsequent journey Lincoln visited New Orleans, where for the first time he witnessed the buying and selling of slaves on a commercial scale. Slave markets cast the institution of slavery in the harshest light, revealing the essential inhumanity of a system that allowed men, women and children to be bought and sold like cattle. Implausible accounts have Lincoln vowing, after witnessing the sale of a young woman—invariably described as “comely”—to deliver a blow against slavery one day. More likely the experience simply confirmed the distaste he already felt.

Thomas Lincoln moved the family again, when Lincoln was twenty-one. Their new residence was in Illinois, on the Sangamon River where the forest met the prairie. “Here they built a log-cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sown corn upon it the same year,” Lincoln recalled.

He tried his hand as a clerk in a store and mill at New Salem, Illinois. The business languished but Lincoln made friends. When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832—resulting from a dispute over lands taken from the Sauk and other Indians—Lincoln enlisted. “A. joined a volunteer company, and to his own surprise, was elected captain of it. He says he has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction. He went the campaign, served near three months, met the ordinary hardships of such an expedition, but was in no battle.”

Lincoln’s success inspired him to try his hand at politics. “Returning from the campaign, and encouraged by his great popularity among his immediate neighbors, he, the same year, ran for the Legislature and was beaten—his own precinct, however, casting its votes 277 for and 7 against him.”

The bug had bit. He tried again and was elected. A lawyer named John Stuart, of Springfield, was elected that same season, and during the campaign he had been impressed by Lincoln. He encouraged him to take up law. Lincoln heeded the suggestion. “He borrowed books of Stuart, took them home with him, and went at it in good earnest. He studied with nobody.” During sessions of the legislature he put aside the books, but resumed his study at the sessions’ end. In 1836 he satisfied the state’s examiners that he was qualified to practice, and received his law license.

He fell in love. Ann Rutledge was four years younger than Lincoln and the daughter of the man who owned New Salem’s inn, where Lincoln sometimes ate and slept. Ann drew the attention of visitors, including one man to whom she became engaged. But he departed on a long trip, and in his absence she struck up a friendship with Lincoln. The longer her fiancé stayed away, the better she liked Lincoln. Lincoln became thoroughly enamored of her. In time they agreed that if Ann could get out of her existing engagement, they would be married. Then she was stricken ill, probably with typhoid fever. Her fiancé was nowhere in sight, and so it was. Lincoln who sat by her bed. But not for long: Ann faded quickly and died.

Lincoln was crushed. He was generally awkward around women, but something in Ann Rutledge had calmed him and brought out his best. He never forgot her. Years later Lincoln received a visit from a friend from the New Salem days. The friend asked Lincoln if he had indeed loved Ann Rutledge, as people around the town recalled. “It is true; true indeed I did,” Lincoln replied, according to the friend’s recollection. “I loved the woman dearly and soundly. She was a handsome girl, would have made a good loving wife.” Wistfully, Lincoln added, “I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often—often—of her now.”

[ Return to the review of “The Zealot and the Emancipator.” ]

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