The best abolitionism books

7 authors have picked their favorite books about abolitionism and why they recommend each book.

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Inhuman Bondage

By David Brion Davis,

Book cover of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner David Brion Davis was an unequaled scholar of American slavery, and this is one of his most important works. It describes in galvanizing detail the full arc of North American slavery, the emergence of African American culture, the evolution of anti-Black racism, and the abolitionist movement. It is unique in explicitly focusing on White people’s dehumanization of enslaved Africans.


Who am I?

I’ve been studying dehumanization, and its relationship to racism, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, for more than a decade. I am the author of three books on dehumanization, one of which was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction, an award that is reserved for books that make an outstanding contribution to understanding racism and human diversity. My work on dehumanization is widely covered in the national and international media, and I often give presentations at academic and non-academic venues, including one at the 2012 G20 economic summit where I spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.


I wrote...

On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

What is my book about?

The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again--that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche--deeper than prejudice itself--leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

The Crooked Path to Abolition

By James Oakes,

Book cover of The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

Some people assume that Lincoln at first faintly disapproved of slavery but did not think of abolishing it until the chance was almost forced upon him. Oakes argues, rather, that he hated slavery from the outset and held that the Constitution viewed it as temporary, something deplorable and to be disparaged. Armed with this knowledge, he was able in practice to strike at it whenever opportunity made that possible.


Who am I?

In high school (the best time for doing this) I read the first two volumes of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. A year or so later I made my first trip on an airplane (Saint Louis to Detroit) and an easily recognizable Sandburg was one of the few passengers on our small commercial prop-plane. I was too shy to approach him, but I did sidle up the aisle to see what he was reading or writing (nothing that I could make out). He had boarded the plane alone, but there was a small party meeting him when we landed. I suppose it was Sandburg’s poetic approach to Lincoln that made me alert to the President’s astonishing feel for the English language.


I wrote...

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

By Garry Wills,

Book cover of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

What is my book about?

When, later, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks and got a doctorate in that field, I was surprised at the rhetorical and logical rules that Athenians formulated, rules that Lincoln, with little schooling, grasped intuitively. With an almost miraculous appropriateness, Lincoln gave a funeral oration over the graves at Gettysburg that resembles the Athenian addresses in honor of their fallen military men of the preceding year. The religious ceremonies at the Greek cemetery (Kerameikos) were like the Transcendental cult of nature in the new scenic cemeteries (like Gettysburg) that were replacing the old church graveyards.  Lincoln spoke into a charged air that let him make his brief but powerful address call his audience back to the real meaning of the Constitution.

John Brown

By W.E.B. Du Bois,

Book cover of John Brown

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.”

Who am I?

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.

Fire from the Midst of You

By Louis A. Decaro Jr.,

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

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.

Who am I?

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.

Patriotic Treason

By Evan Carton,

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

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.

Who am I?

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.

The Zealot and the Emancipator

By H.W. Brands,

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

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.

Who am I?

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.

The Agitators

By Dorothy Wickenden,

Book cover of The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

Wickenden’s three agitating friends were Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Coffin Wright, women who likely first connected through their work on the underground railroad. Of this estimable trio, Tubman remains the most well-known to history as the formerly enslaved woman who regularly risked her life to guide enslaved people out of bondage before and during the Civil War. Seward, the wife of Lincoln’s secretary of state, used her wealth and power to fight for the rights of Blacks and women. Wright, a Quaker, was the sister of Lucretia Mott, and the two of them helped plan the first women’s rights conference, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Wickenden skillfully excavates existing source material to craft this compelling group biography.

Who am I?

My expertise: I specialize in writing about scrappy women in American history. I started with a trilogy of nonfiction history books about American women in the Philippine Islands who lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II. Then I found a biographical subject that combined the fascinating topics of war and suffrage, so I wrote Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights. The next woman who grabbed my attention was a big name in Hollywood in the 20th century. Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans is due out in 2022. 


I wrote...

Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights

By Theresa Kaminski,

Book cover of Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights

What is my book about?

In late 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Walker the Medal of Honor in recognition of the incomparable medical service she rendered to the United States Army during the Civil War. To date, she remains the only woman so honored. After the war, Walker joined the more well-known Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their efforts to secure support for women’s suffrage. But due to conflicts over ideology and tactics, the doctor soon found herself unwelcome in the movement. Walker quickly became a divisive figure, and her contributions almost disappeared to history.

Frederick Douglass

By Benjamin Quarles,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass

Written at a time when the racist belief that Black authors could not be trusted to write African-American history was still prevalent even in the upper echelons of academia, this deft 1948 portrait of Douglass launched the career of Benjamin Quarles, the pioneering African-American historian whose body of work (including The Negro in the American Revolution and Lincoln and the Negro) transformed thinking about the role African-Americans played in the formation of the United States.


Who am I?

I am a writer and editor living in Cork, Ireland. I have a PhD in history from University College Cork and am the author of four books, including two on the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I have been fascinated by Douglass ever since I discovered he travelled through Ireland as a young man, a tour that coincided with the onset of the Great Irish Famine. Douglass will also appear in the book I am currently writing, ‘Freedom’s Exiles’: The Poets, Plotters and Rebels and Who Found Refuge in Victorian Britain.


I wrote...

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

By Laurence Fenton,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass in Ireland

What is my book about?

Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1845, having decided to leave America after the publication of his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass spent four transformative months in Ireland, filling halls with eloquent denunciations of slavery and sharing a stage with the great Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell –who christened him ‘the black O’Connell of the United States’. Douglass delighted in the openness with which he was received in Ireland, but was also shocked at the poverty he encountered.

This compelling account of the celebrated abolitionist’s tour combines a unique insight into the formative years of one of the great figures of nineteenth-century America with a vivid portrait of a country on the brink of famine.

Young Frederick Douglass

By Dickson J. Preston,

Book cover of Young Frederick Douglass

An evocative account of the young Douglass and the Maryland world into which he was born. Originally published in 1980 but recently re-released, this is a beautiful book that delivers much more than the title suggests. It is also the book that finally pinpointed the correct month and year in which Douglass was born – February 1818. Those who enslaved people often kept such precious, deeply personal information away from those they enslaved - it was a sign of power, one minor manifestation of the many inquities of slavery.


Who am I?

I am a writer and editor living in Cork, Ireland. I have a PhD in history from University College Cork and am the author of four books, including two on the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I have been fascinated by Douglass ever since I discovered he travelled through Ireland as a young man, a tour that coincided with the onset of the Great Irish Famine. Douglass will also appear in the book I am currently writing, ‘Freedom’s Exiles’: The Poets, Plotters and Rebels and Who Found Refuge in Victorian Britain.


I wrote...

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

By Laurence Fenton,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass in Ireland

What is my book about?

Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1845, having decided to leave America after the publication of his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass spent four transformative months in Ireland, filling halls with eloquent denunciations of slavery and sharing a stage with the great Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell –who christened him ‘the black O’Connell of the United States’. Douglass delighted in the openness with which he was received in Ireland, but was also shocked at the poverty he encountered.

This compelling account of the celebrated abolitionist’s tour combines a unique insight into the formative years of one of the great figures of nineteenth-century America with a vivid portrait of a country on the brink of famine.

Cloudsplitter

By Russell Banks,

Book cover of Cloudsplitter

What makes this immense novel (768 pages) so engrossing is that we get a very inside view of the great (or demonic—depending on your perspective) figure of John Brown. Told by his son Owen, the novel gives us both a panoramic view of Brown, his vision of slavery, his tumultuous times, and his quest to eradicate slavery by any means, as well as a very intimate portrait of the myth of John Brown as opposed to man and father.  


Who am I?

I’m the author of seven novels, including Soul Catcher, a Booksense and Historical Novels Review selection; A Brother’s Blood, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and an Edgar Award Finalist; The Blind Side of the Heart, A Dream of Wolves, and The Garden of Martyrs, a Connecticut Book Award finalist and made into an opera. My historical novel Beautiful Assassin won the 2011 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction. I’ve also published a collection of his short stories, Marked Men, in addition to over 50 short stories in national journals.  I was the founding editor of two magazines, American Fiction and Dogwood, as well as the founder and former director of Fairfield University's MFA Creative Writing Program. I’ve just completed a new historical novel set during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.


I wrote...

Soul Catcher

By Michael C. White,

Book cover of Soul Catcher

What is my book about?

Augustus Cain is a man with a past he wants to forget, a present without prospect or fortune, and an uncertain future marred by the loss of his most prized possession: the horse that has been his working companion for years. He is also a man haunted by a terrible skill—the ability to track people who don’t want to be found. Rosetta is a runaway slave fueled by the passion and determination only a mother can feel.  Her flight is her one shot at freedom, and she would rather die than return to the living hell that she has left behind.

In the perilous years before the Civil War, the fates of these two remarkable people will intertwine in an extraordinary adventure—a journey of hardship and redemption that will take them from Virginia to Boston and back—and one that will become an extraordinary test of character and will, mercy and compassion. It is an odyssey that will change them both forever.

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