The best books about John Brown the abolitionist

David S. Reynolds Author Of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
By David S. Reynolds

The Books I Picked & Why

John Brown

By W. E. B. Du Bois

John Brown

Why 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.”


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

By Louis A. Decaro Jr.

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

Why 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.


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

By John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd

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

Why 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.


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Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

By Evan Carton

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

Why 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.


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

By H. W. Brands

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

Why 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.


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