The best books about John Brown the abolitionist

Why am I passionate about this?

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author or editor of 16 books, on subjects that include John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman Andrew Jackson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the literary and popular culture of the American Renaissance. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Lincoln Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Book Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, the Christian Gauss Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.


I wrote...

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

By David S. Reynolds,

Book cover of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

What is my book about?

A cultural biography of John Brown, the controversial abolitionist who used violent tactics against slavery before the Civil War and single-handedly changed the course of American history. Brown’s most violent acts—including his killing of proslavery settlers in Kansas and his historic raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia--were inspired by the slave revolts, guerilla warfare, and revolutionary Christianity of the day. Viewed by Southerners as a satanic abolitionist and by many Northerners as a Christlike martyr who gave his life for Black people, Brown polarized the nation and ratcheted up the tensions between the sections. He permeated American culture during the Civil War and beyond, and he planted the seeds of the civil rights movement by making a pioneering demand for complete social and political equality for America’s ethnic minorities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of John Brown

David S. Reynolds Why did I love this book?

First published in 1909, this succinct biography by a leading Black author and reformer spearheaded a tradition of appreciative commentary on Brown by African Americans. Brushing aside longstanding critiques of John Brown as a fiend, a fanatic, and a traitor, Du Bois explores the depth of Brown’s antislavery commitment and his willingness to sacrifice his own life in order to bring about the emancipation of Amerca’s 4 million enslaved people. Du Bois makes the memorable generalization: “John Brown was right.”

By W.E.B. Du Bois,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked John Brown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A moving cultural biography of abolitionist martyr John Brown, by one of the most important African-American intellectuals of the twentieth century.

In the history of slavery and its legacy, John Brown looms large as a hero whose deeds partly precipitated the Civil War. As Frederick Douglass wrote: "When John Brown stretched forth his arm ... the clash of arms was at hand." DuBois's biography brings Brown stirringly to life and is a neglected classic.


Book cover of Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown

David S. Reynolds Why did I love this book?

John Brown was a devout Calvinist who believed that God had chosen him to fight against slavery. In this stimulating book, Decaro provides us with the first full-scale religious biography of Brown, placing him in the context of nineteenth-century revivals and religiously inspired abolitionists. Decaro also explores Brown’s closeness to African Americans and his debt to Black militants such as David Walker, Denmark Vesey, and Henry Highland Garnet.

By Louis A. Decaro Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fire from the Midst of You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reveals a complex new portrait of John Brown, radical abolitionist and leader of the 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry
John Brown is usually remembered as a terrorist whose unbridled hatred of slavery drove him to the ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Tried and executed for seizing the arsenal and attempting to spur a liberation movement among the slaves, Brown was the ultimate cause celebre for a country on the brink of civil war.
"Fire from the Midst of You" situates Brown within the religious and social context of a nation steeped in racism, showing his roots in…


Book cover of The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

David S. Reynolds Why did I love this book?

This skillfully edited anthology of contemporary responses to Brown lets us experience firsthand the controversies surrounding Brown during his lifetime. Reprinted in this volume are dozens of 19th-century writings--letters, speeches, articles, poems, diary entries--that demonstrate just how central John Brown was to the cultural and political life of his time. Included in the book are writings about Brown by some of the century's most notable people: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Henry Ward Beecher, Jefferson Davis, Herman Melville, Stephen Douglas, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo, and Karl Marx, to name a few.

By John Stauffer (editor), Zoe Trodd (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tribunal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When John Brown led twenty-one men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, he envisioned a biblical uprising of millions of armed bondsmen, thus ridding the nation of the scourge of slavery. The insurrection did not happen, and Brown and the other surviving raiders were quickly captured and executed. This landmark anthology, which collects contemporary speeches, letters, newspaper articles, journals, poems, and songs, demonstrates that Brown's actions nonetheless altered the course of American history.

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd have assembled an impressive and wide-ranging collection of responses to Brown's raid: Brown's own…


Book cover of Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

David S. Reynolds Why did I love this book?

Engagingly written, this book humanizes John Brown by portraying him as a man “of deep, varied, and sometime conflicting capacities.” Carton describes Brown’s family, business failures, friendships, and deep Calvinistic faith. By fledging out the human picture, Carton challenges simple categorizations of Brown as bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, or criminally insane. Carton places Brown against the background of debates over politics, slavery, and racial issues.

By Evan Carton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Patriotic Treason as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With a combination of scrupulous original research, new perspective, and a sensitive historical imagination, Patriotic Treason vividly recreates the world in which John Brown and his compatriots lived as well as the biography of John Brown and the history of the events leading up to the Civil War. Evan Carton narrates the dramatic life of the first U.S. citizen committed to absolute racial equality. In defiance of the culture around him, Brown lived, worked, ate, and fought alongside African Americans. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule, he collaborated with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Martin…


Book cover of The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom

David S. Reynolds Why did I love this book?

This dual biography contrasts two approaches to toppling slavery: vigilante violence, represented by John Brown; and the political approach, taken by Abraham Lincoln. Brands shows how Lincoln recoiled from Brown’s militant strategy in the interest of getting elected even though he shared Brown’s hatred of slavery. Although Lincoln initially condemned Brown’s violence, as commander in chief he directed a war that witnessed carnage that even John Brown couldn’t have imagined.

By H.W. Brands,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Zealot and the Emancipator as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the acclaimed historian and bestselling author: a page-turning account of the epic struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln—two men moved to radically different acts to confront our nation’s gravest sin.

John Brown was a charismatic and deeply religious man who heard the God of the Old Testament speaking to him, telling him to destroy slavery by any means. When Congress opened Kansas territory to slavery in 1854, Brown raised a band of followers to wage war. His men tore pro-slavery settlers from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Three years later,…


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By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

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What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


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