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John Brown And Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths In The Fight To End Slavery


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're at a moment in history when many Americans are thinking and speaking out about the injustice of racism in the United States and wondering what to do about it. Will mass demonstrations bring meaningful change? Are electoral politics and new laws the key to new opportunity and transformed relationships? And when, if ever, are violence and property damage justified?

Our guest, historian H.W. Brands, explores some of those questions in a new book about two 19th century American leaders who pursued the abolition of slavery in very different ways. John Brown was an antislavery militant who sought to free people from bondage with guns, and he was hanged in 1859 after trying to spark an insurrection in Harpers Valley, Va. Brown, by the way, is played by Ethan Hawke in a new Showtime series about Brown's life called "The Good Lord Bird." Abraham Lincoln is, of course, remembered as the Civil War president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But Brands notes that for years, Lincoln took a gradualist approach to ending slavery, even offering to pay rebellious slave owners for the property they would lose if their slaves were freed.

H.W. Brands chairs the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. He's written more than a dozen biographies and works of history, two of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. He joins me from his home in Austin to talk about his new book, "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom."

Well, H.W. Brands, welcome to FRESH AIR. These are two historical figures whose lives, you know, have been pretty well chronicled - Lincoln, especially. Why did you want to consider them again and together?

H W BRANDS: Partly because they address a timeless question, especially in a democracy - what does a good person do when the government that that person lives under is engaged in something evil - in a great evil, in fact? And the evil that John Brown and Abraham Lincoln agreed on was slavery. But they differ dramatically on the most effective, the most appropriate way of dealing with that. This is a question that comes up in every generation. It could be the Vietnam War. It could be the current crisis over race relations and a reckoning with race. And I thought it was worth looking at in the context of the 19th century and the overriding issue then of slavery.

DAVIES: So let's talk about John Brown first. He is best known for the raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., which is, by the way, now in West Virginia. That was the event that ended his life. But he was a pretty fascinating character long before that. Tell us just a bit about his life and what distinguished him, particularly on the subject of race relations.

BRANDS: John Brown was born in 1800, and he spent the first 35 years of his life trying to figure out what to do with himself. He married twice. His first wife died. He had 20 children. But he never could quite make a success at anything. He tried his hand at various occupations. He finally found his calling, though, when the abolitionist movement really took hold in the United States in the 1830s.

He had always been opposed to slavery. He recalled a moment when one of his playmates, a Black boy, had, for no good reason, just been beaten about the head with a shovel by his master. And young John Brown thought this was wrong, but he couldn't quite figure out what to do about it. But when Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor, was killed - was murdered by a mob in 1837, John Brown decided that this was the cause of his life. This was what he had been preparing for. And he stood up in his church in Hudson, Ohio, and announced that he would forever after wage war against slavery.

DAVIES: He lived a lot of places. And he had a place in Elba, N.Y. And it was interesting that it was a truly biracial household, at least for a while, wasn't it?

BRANDS: Well, this was set up as - it was a colony that was set up, funded by philanthropists - abolitionist philanthropists - and set up to demonstrate that whites and Blacks could live side by side in peace and prosperity. And John Brown was one who was willing to join that demonstration. And for a while, this was what he did. He imagined that he would start a school for Black children and that he would make his contribution this way. But it didn't quite answer the need that John Brown seemed to have for immediacy, for making an impact now.

DAVIES: He became famous and a wanted man for his activities in Kansas in the 1850s, kind of waging his own private war against slavery. First of all, explain why Kansas was such a flashpoint for the issue of slavery in the 1850s.

BRANDS: In 1820, Congress had approved the Missouri Compromise, which set aside the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, which would include Kansas territory, for freedom. It would allow slavery in the southern part around the state of Louisiana, where there were already slaves. But basically, the idea was, and the thinking was that this new large part of the American West should forever be free from slavery. And that was the deal in 1820. And opponents of slavery were counting on that to contain the spread of slavery.

But in 1854, Congress repealed that portion of the Missouri Compromise and opened Kansas territory to, well, the principle - the phrase was popular sovereignty. The idea was that any settler could go, pro-slavery or anti-slavery. The pro-slavery settlers could take their slaves into Kansas. And the deal was that when Kansas territory then had enough residents to qualify for statehood, those people there on the ground would get together. They would write a constitution. And the constitution of the state would either allow slavery or forbid slavery.

But what it meant was that in the 1850s, the proponents of slavery spread, and the opponents of slavery spread. They felt themselves in competition. We have to get our people on the ground in Kansas so that at that critical moment when the constitution is written, our side will prevail. And so there was this rush to Kansas by people who were both for and against slavery. And John Brown went with several of his adult sons on the side that was opposed to slavery.

DAVIES: What kind of violence was occurring between the two sides there?

BRANDS: At first, the violence took the form of relatively minor acts of intimidation. So the settlements of one side or the other would be raided by militias, guerrilla units of the other, and things would be broken up. But what really got to John Brown was an attack on the free-state settlement - and this was the term; these are the ones who wanted Kansas to be a free state - the free-state settlement of Lawrence, Kan., where militia of pro-slavery settlers arrived and they broke up the town and they destroyed a hotel there. And they didn't kill anybody, but they intimidated the people living there. And what angered John Brown more than anything else was the fact that the free-state settlers didn't retaliate. They didn't fight back.

And so when he heard this, he began heading toward Lawrence and didn't get his chance to weigh in at that point. The event was over before he got there. But John Brown determined to make a statement showing that the pro-slavery settlers could not get away with this sort of thing.

DAVIES: Right. So Brown and a couple of his sons and some followers engaged in two successive nights of violence that came to be known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Describe what happened.

BRANDS: So what they did was they approached a community along Pottawatomie Creek that was known to be inhabited by pro-slavery settlers. And John Brown and his sons and a couple of his followers grabbed five of these pro-slavery settlers out of their beds, out of their homes in the middle of the night and took them out and brutally murdered them, hacked them to pieces with broadswords. John Brown apparently was trying to send a message to the pro-slavery side that this could happen to you if you persist in these activities.

DAVIES: Pretty savage stuff. How did it affect his family? What did they think of this?

BRANDS: His sons, especially the ones - there were a couple who weren't with him on this. And when they heard about it, one of them asked him, did you do this? Did you do this horrible thing? And John Brown essentially said, it was the will of God. John Brown, by this time, believed in some way that he had become the avenging angel of the Lord. He believed that slavery was such an evil institution that almost anything was justified in opposing it.

Now - so his sons knew. And some of them were involved. Some of the sons took part in the murders themselves. But in the somewhat larger group, John Brown was a little bit cagey. He was wanted for the murders in Kansas territory. But he never admitted openly that he had done it. And as he traveled out of Kansas and went back east, soliciting more funds for the battle in Kansas, his supporters made a point of not asking him directly if he had done it because, apparently, they didn't want to know. He let them believe maybe he had done it, maybe he hadn't done it.

DAVIES: And so from then on, Brown would move carefully around the country, often with pseudonyms, because he was a wanted man, right?

BRANDS: So it was fortunate for John Brown that there was no convenient photography in those days. So nobody could circulate pictures of John Brown. He changed his appearance. He would cut his hair and grow his beard. He would change his name. And he was pretty good at posing as somebody else, either a farmer or a surveyor. And he had a remarkable personality. There was an intense kind of magnetism that drew people to him, that drew people to engage in this murderous sort of behavior on his behalf and at his direction. But at the same time, he was also very good at just passing himself off as this harmless, old fellow that no one would suspect of anything out of the ordinary.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with H.W. Brands. He chairs the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with H.W. Brands. He is a history professor at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book is "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom."

So let's talk about Abraham Lincoln. While John Brown was becoming famous and wanted in Kansas, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer in Springfield, Ill., right? He had served one term in Congress and some time in the Illinois legislature. So he was morally opposed to slavery. It was an issue for him. What was his attitude towards Black people? Did he see them as social or political equals?

BRANDS: Abraham Lincoln did not see Black people as social equals, as political equals. He thought that they were moral equals to white people. And he thought that they should have rights. But he was careful - with Lincoln, it's sometimes hard to tell what he is saying for political purposes and what he actually believes. So he understood that he was surrounded by people in Illinois, and in the country at large, who had a really difficult time seeing Black people as fully the equals of whites if only because very few Blacks had been educated. And so they all seemed relatively ignorant.

Now, Lincoln left open the possibility that maybe they are the intellectual equals of white if given equal opportunities. But he didn't push that too hard because he knew it wasn't a majority opinion. And he was trying to get back into politics. But Lincoln says things that appear entirely sincere, that sort of make - put one's teeth on edge today because he is not, by any means, embracing the idea that Black people are and should be the full equals of white people.

DAVIES: Right. And he did not describe himself as an abolitionist, right?

BRANDS: No. In fact, he rejected the idea of abolition because abolition and abolitionism basically said that slavery is so evil that it overrides all other considerations in politics and life. So the abolitionists are the ones who say, we are going to ignore what the Constitution says, in effect, guaranteeing slavery in the states that have it. Slavery is so evil. It must be done away with, the Constitution be damned. Well, Lincoln revered the Constitution. Lincoln believed that it was the Constitution that made democracy possible. And if he had to choose between the constitution and emancipation, he would choose the Constitution. The abolitionists chose emancipation over the Constitution.

DAVIES: What did Lincoln think of John Brown's activities?

BRANDS: Abraham Lincoln, when he heard of John Brown, thought that this was somebody who was, first of all, taking the country in the wrong direction. John Brown thought that he was somehow loosening the shackles on slaves. But in practice, he was doing just the opposite because there would be a backlash in the South against this. And such minor liberties as some slaves had, those would be done away with because southern slaveholders would take alarm at what these militant abolitionists were doing.

Beyond that, John Brown was an impediment to Lincoln's successful return to politics because Lincoln knew that every Republican would be branded as an abolitionist by Democrats. Now, he wasn't - Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and most Republicans were not. But nonetheless, it was a charge that would be - and, in fact, was - leveled against the Republicans. And generally, by the Democrats, they were called the Black Republicans. And the black referred to their presumed preference for Black people but also for the black hearts that allowed them to countenance these horrible deeds.

DAVIES: So John Brown is waging a war to free slaves. Abraham Lincoln says we have to do this gradually. We have to prevent the expansion of slavery but don't think we can abolish it in the South right now. Lincoln is in this newly emerging Republican Party. Stephen Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois, hopes to become president as a Democratic candidate. What course does the election of 1860 take?

BRANDS: So Lincoln decides that he needs to make a statement that will appeal to Republicans because he first has to get the Republican nomination. And the Republican Party is on record as being opposed to slavery, but especially opposed the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. There are very few Republicans who are willing to take on slavery in the states where it exists. That's protected by the Constitution. So Lincoln seizes upon the Dred Scott decision, which says that Congress cannot forbid slavery in the territories. And he says that this is wrong, and it needs to be opposed. Now, we can oppose it by maybe changing the makeup of the Supreme Court.

But in the first place, Lincoln is going to challenge Stephen Douglas for the Illinois seat in the Senate. And he has the debates with Douglas in the summer of 1858 in which he tries to call Douglas out for what seems to be a contradiction. Douglas is supportive of the Dred Scott decision in principle, but he's also on record as supporting popular sovereignty - the idea that if individuals in a state or a territory don't want slavery, they can forbid slavery.

And so Lincoln corners Douglas in Freeport, Ill., one of the debates held in Freeport. And he says, please, explain. And Douglas comes up with something called the Freeport Doctrine, which basically says that local authority can trump what the Supreme Court has ruled regarding the constitutional protection of slaves in the territories. The locals can simply decline to pass laws that protect property and slaves. And so slaveholders will realize that their slaves are not secure as property in those states, and they won't go there. So he's trying to thread this needle.

But he - but Lincoln basically puts Douglas in a position where he has just alienated the South, which is a huge constituency for a Democratic candidate. And it hasn't fully satisfied the North. So Lincoln has caught Douglas between these two stools. And it turns out that that is going to lead to the demise of Douglas' hopes for the presidency. But meanwhile, Lincoln has made himself available and attractive as a candidate for the Republican nomination of 1860.

DAVIES: Right. And he gets the nomination by (laughter) kind of laying low, right? There were more prominent candidates that don't get on the same ballot. And then he emerges as the candidate on the third or fourth ballot, right? What did he have that spoke to people? I mean, he was kind of a nobody lawyer, wasn't he? When he...

BRANDS: Well, the main thing that he had was what he didn't have. He did not have a voting record to defend. So attitudes had changed on slavery within the previous 10 or 15 years. And the other likely candidates for the Republican nomination were people who were kind of caught out by having said or voted one way before things changed. And so it no longer suited the present moment.

Lincoln had been in Congress just for one term - for two years. And he really hadn't made a name for himself as well. So Lincoln was this unknown quantity. It helped, too, that he was a westerner from Illinois. And so - you know, most people didn't know anything about him. He gave a widely noted speech in New York in the early part of 1860. But that was just to show that he wasn't this crazy guy from the West. And the Republicans realized that if they nominate any reasonable candidate, that candidate's going to win because the arithmetic of the Electoral College pointed that way, the Republicans would win. And so Lincoln was nominated as this safe choice. The Republicans made that choice, and Lincoln went on to win.

DAVIES: Right. So the Democratic Party split apart in the South, essentially. And the Republicans dominated the North. And so we had a highly partisan election that sent Lincoln to the White House.

BRANDS: A highly partisan election, except not exactly the way we are today, because the Republican Party was unified, but the Democrats split. And so they couldn't put up a united front. Lincoln won the election. He got a majority of the electors. But he only had 39% of the popular vote. So he was a minority president. And he was a very sectional president. He got no electoral votes from the South. So southerners could say, he's not our president.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with H.W. Brands. He chairs the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom." He'll talk more with us after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with American history professor H.W. Brands. His new book explores the lives of two 19th century American leaders who pursued the abolition of slavery in very different ways. The book is called "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln And The Struggle For American Freedom."

So after John Brown was wadded in Kansas, he moved around the North, raising money for his campaign to fight slavery. And he developed a really big idea that wasn't just about Kansas but attacking slavery in the South. In general terms, what was his plan?

BRANDS: In general terms, the idea was to make property ownership in slaves so insecure that slaves would lose their value and the slaveholders would eventually throw in the towel. Now, the way he would do this would be to assist large numbers of slaves in escaping - escaping slavery, escaping through the North and into Canada. And the way he would do this would be to attack a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., seize weapons and give the weapons to slaves in the area who would then rise up for their own freedom. Now, John Brown's plan was not to start a race war. That's not what he was aiming for. But he had to realize that it might very well come to that. The nightmare of all southern slaveholders was the arming of slaves, and that's exactly what John Brown proposed to do.

DAVIES: So John Brown has - what? - 20 people or 20 men or so - I mean, a couple of his sons, some freed Black men, right? And...


DAVIES: He has this crew together. This is launched in October of 1859. He rents a farm near Harpers Ferry under a subterfuge with a pseudonym. And they initiate the attack in the wee hours of the morning. They can pretty easily capture this lightly defended armory, which had several buildings that were making - manufacturing weapons. Then they go out, and they visit a couple of nearby slave owners, one of whom is named Lewis Washington, a descendant of George Washington. You can't make this up. What happens with these slave owners?

BRANDS: Well, at first, the slave owners - Lewis Washington is one. They kind of wonder if this is serious. I mean, is this for real? Are you really doing this? And - but yeah, so they're - they insist that he go with them. You know, otherwise, they threatened to shoot him. And so he goes in, and they capture him. Exactly what John Brown is going to do with Lewis Washington it's a little bit unclear - presumably hold him as a hostage so that he won't be - he and his group won't be attacked. But it turns out not to be a particularly credible ploy. But - and then meanwhile, they're trying to talk the slaves on Lewis Washington's farm into joining them, but they're kind of reluctant. And a few come in, but most of them stay out.

So when you see this thing unfold, you realize that Brown had no idea what he was getting into. And he allowed himself to be persuaded by his own conviction that slavery was so wrong that somehow, all the problems would go away. Now, there's another aspect to this as well, and it's a little bit hard to say because possibly, John Brown was looking for some kind of divine intervention - not as though, you know, God's going to appear or something like that. But John Brown was so convinced that what he was doing was right - was morally right that he believed that God was on his side and that God somehow would overcome other difficulties. Well, yeah, God did sort of, but God works in mysterious ways that John Brown wasn't counting on at first.

DAVIES: So he is captured. He is tried very quickly right there in Virginia and hanged. What should we know about his conduct at the trial and the impact this whole thing had on the country?

BRANDS: From the moment John Brown was captured, he was then approached by local authorities and even by the Virginia governor. And almost to a person, they were enormously impressed by John Brown. Now, these were people who agreed with John Brown on nothing politically, who had reason to take natural offense that John Brown had killed or had been responsible for the deaths of some of their - the other people who lived in the town and compatriots in Virginia. But John Brown was a person who - he just presented himself as this man of conviction. And he said, I will tell you the truth. I will tell you the truth about everything you ask me regarding my activities. I'm not going to tell you who else is involved - because they did try to find that out.

But there was something about his character that was very impressive, and so he charmed his jailers. He - as I say, he charmed the governor of Virginia. He certainly didn't win over the jury, and he was convicted within short order. And he was convicted of treason against Virginia and of murder in the case of the people - the townspeople who were killed. And he was sentenced to die, to be - to hang.

John Brown asked to address the court at his - at the end of his trial. And so he gave this speech in which he stated his belief that slavery was wrong, that he knew it was wrong, everything that he had done was to advance freedom and that he was willing to live with this. And he was certainly appealing to the conscience of America. He didn't make much of a dent in the conscience of the South, but his words, which were duly recorded because the trial was the celebrity trial of the day - and there were lots of reporters there, and they were quickly reprinted in Northern papers. And John Brown really struck a chord in the abolitionist conscience of the North.

And people like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, they thought that John Brown was a saint and that he was the greatest man of the age. And their reaction really alarmed the South - more precisely, alarmed southern slaveholders - because here is someone who - well, if you use the terminology of our day, here was a terrorist who was trying to start a race war in the South that very likely would lead to the demise of the institution of slavery and probably deaths of hundreds or thousands of southerners. And he was being hailed as a hero and a martyr in the North. And at that point, many people in the South said, there is no way we can stay in the same country under the same government as this person, John Brown, and those people who have made a saint out of John Brown.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me just reintroduce you. We are speaking with H.W. Brands. His new book is "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom." He'll talk more with us after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with H.W. Brands. He chairs the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is "The Zealot And the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom."

So Lincoln is elected president in 1860. And many in the South regard this as an existential threat. This avowed opponent of slavery is in the White House. And so several states, starting with South Carolina, start announcing that they will secede from the Union. This is before Lincoln is even inaugurated, right? The inauguration was in March in those days. So once he becomes president, what does he do to try and preserve the Union?

BRANDS: In his inaugural address, Lincoln makes very clear that he will not accept secession, that secession violates the Constitution as he has sworn to uphold it. But on the other hand, he doesn't want war. And he summons what he calls the better angels of Americans' nature to stop this rush toward war. He hopes that the problem can be resolved.

One of the points that he makes is something he's said all along, that the federal government has no authority over slavery in the states where it exists. Lincoln took the position that if Virginia, if Mississippi, if South Carolina wants slaves in their own states forever, they can have it forever. That's what the Constitution says. He also said that he had no particular inclination to meddle with slavery in the states, but slavery shall not expand, that he was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the Western territories.

DAVIES: So he reluctantly pursues the war. A lot of people thought it would be easy and quick - it wasn't either. I mean, the southern troops were determined and well-led. And it went poorly for a long time. At what point does Lincoln decide to embrace emancipation? What is his thinking?

BRANDS: Well, there are two considerations primarily. One is that as long as slavery exists in the states that are in rebellion against the Union, those slave laborers provide the provisions, the food. They are a war resource for the rebellious states. And so anything that he can do to diminish the effectiveness and the value of that war resource is a good thing. A second element was Lincoln was really worried that Britain was going to acknowledge Southern independence. If Britain did that, it would have been the equivalent, in the American Civil War, of France signing a treaty of alliance with the United States in the American Revolution.

If the Confederacy got a foreign ally, then it might very well mean the end of the Union and the independence of the Confederate states. Britain, by this time, had freed its own slaves and was opposed, in principle, to slavery. And as long as Lincoln took an agnostic position on slavery, then he basically invited the British to simply follow their economic interests. Textile manufacturers in Britain had close economic ties to southern cotton producers. And so it looked as though if Lincoln didn't say this is also a war against slavery, then he might lose the war because of a Confederate-British alliance.

DAVIES: But did he at some point say, we have to be done with this issue if - after all of the sacrifice?

BRANDS: Well, the amount of the sacrifices comes in a little bit later. One thing he did realize was that until he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, he's taking the position that if the slave states - if the Confederate states simply rejoin the Union and say, you know, we're not going to rebel again, then all will be done. They will have met what he had been demanding. But he understood if that happened, then they might have to refight this issue over slavery 10 years later. And all the effort that had gone into it until this point would have been wasted.

He also finally realized that the Union was a good rallying cry for a while, but people will be persuaded to go to war for a higher cause. And if he can cast this as a war for liberty, a war for freedom, for democracy, for equal rights, then he can reinject a moral element, an emotional element, into the Union war effort. He will also encourage slaves in the South to flee their masters and come over to the Union side, where they can be used as soldiers against the Confederacy.

DAVIES: So Lincoln is assassinated in April of 1865 right as the - Lee is surrendering and the Confederate revolt is ending. It's after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed by Congress, was still awaiting ratification. You know, Frederick Douglass - and he was the man who had escaped slavery in Maryland and became this prominent abolitionist living in Rochester, N.Y., and, you know, one of the most famous and celebrated orators of the 19th century. Douglass admired Brown's commitment but thought some of his plans rash. And he was very critical of Lincoln's efforts to appease southern slave owners. You write at the end about how Douglass regarded these two men and their efforts. Let's explore that a bit - first of all, John Brown.

BRANDS: Frederick Douglass declined to join Brown on what turned out to be John Brown's suicide mission. But he greatly admired Brown's conviction. And he concluded, by observing the things that happened at Harpers Ferry and afterwards, John Brown's contribution to bringing this issue to a head - that John Brown had been a necessary contributor to eventual emancipation, that somebody had to take it upon himself to make everybody know the moral issues involved, the stakes involved, and to bring the issue of slavery front and center. And that's what John Brown did.

DAVIES: And what about Abraham Lincoln? You write about a speech he gave I think on the 10th anniversary of his inauguration. Is that what it was?

BRANDS: Yes. And actually, the speech was at the unveiling of a statue in Washington, D.C. - a statue that has currently been the source of controversy of Lincoln at the moment of emancipation. And the current controversy is that the slave depicted is rising up to freedom. That's the artistic symbolism of it. But the complaint is that, wait; the slave should be - the enslaved person, now with the shackles off, should be standing as tall as Lincoln.

But anyway, so Frederick Douglass was sorely critical of Lincoln during the early phases of the war - that Lincoln was not taking the position that this war is about slavery, that Lincoln was denying the obvious fact that it was slavery that caused this and the issue of slavery is going to have to be dealt with before this ended. But Douglass concluded, finally, after Lincoln embraced the emancipation - issued the Emancipation Proclamation and after the war turned out well, that Lincoln was probably a better judge of American politics than Douglass himself was. And so Douglass concludes that both men, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, were necessary to emancipation in the way it played out.

DAVIES: I want to finish by coming back to where we started. This is a story about two men choosing very different paths in pursuit of justice - one, you know, radical and violent, the other pursuing traditional politics as the route to change. You know, as you look at what we've seen in the streets of the United States and its political discourse over the past year - I don't know - I'm just wondering what these stories you think tell us as we consider these issues.

BRANDS: I hope they tell us relatively little because if they tell us a lot, it will mean that we are closer to a civil war than I hope and think we are. But there is a lesson to be taken from this, nonetheless. And part of the lesson is that every movement for social change requires the conscience of people like John Brown, but people like John Brown can sometimes follow their conscience too far. Just because you're on the right side of history doesn't mean that you can't go wrong. And no one would or should countenance the murders that John Brown was responsible for in Kansas or his efforts to start a war that might result in the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people. So we should look at John Brown as having the courage of his convictions, but let's not take it to those extreme ends.

Abraham Lincoln tells us that in American democracy, real change, lasting change comes only through the political system. And it wasn't John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. It wasn't even the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery. It was the 13th Amendment. And Lincoln had known from the beginning that slavery would not end in America until the Constitution was changed. And he was absolutely right. So maybe we need the conscience of the zealots, of the extremists like Brown, but we also need the pragmatism and the steady hand of the politician - the pragmatists like Lincoln.

DAVIES: Well, H.W. Brands, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRANDS: My pleasure.

DAVIES: H.W. Brands chairs the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is "The Zealot And The Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, And The Struggle For American Freedom."


DAVIES: Coming up, Justin Chang reviews a new film adaptation of the Jack London novel "Martin Eden" from writer-director Pietro Marcello. This is FRESH AIR.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, the host incorrectly says H.W. Brands is the chair of the University of Texas at Austin's Department of History. The chair of the department is Daina Ramey Berry. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. chair in history.]

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE'S "PEOPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 28, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this interview, the host incorrectly says H.W. Brands is the chair of the University of Texas at Austin's Department of History. The chair of the department is Daina Ramey Berry. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. chair in history.
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.