Best-selling historian H.W. Brands offers a dual biography of the Civil War’s most famous martyrs to the anti-slavery cause. To present the thoughts and deeds of John Brown, who courted martyrdom, and Abraham Lincoln, who did not, Brands draws mostly from each man’s own inimitable words and the insightful reflections of those who knew them. This method makes for engaging reading: a great historian’s gift is to transport readers to another place and time, and even into another’s mind and heart. Alternating between Brown and Lincoln, Brands pursues his guiding question: “How does a good man challenge a great evil?”

Occasionally, Brands does cross the line between history and historical fiction. His prologue, for instance, ends with this leap into omniscience:

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.

This is sheer speculation, not history. But such moments of dramatic overreach are rare.


Knowing less about Brown, I found the details of his formation and murderous exploits

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