The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War

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Overview

A Washington Post Notable Work of Nonfiction for 2014.The image of a scorpion surrounded by a ring of fire, stinging itself to death, was widespread among antislavery leaders before the Civil War. It captures their long-standing strategy for peaceful abolition: they would surround the slave states with a cordon of freedom, constricting slavery and inducing the social crisis in which the peculiar institution would die. The image opens a fresh perspective on antislavery and the coming of the Civil War, brilliantly ...

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The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War

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Overview

A Washington Post Notable Work of Nonfiction for 2014.The image of a scorpion surrounded by a ring of fire, stinging itself to death, was widespread among antislavery leaders before the Civil War. It captures their long-standing strategy for peaceful abolition: they would surround the slave states with a cordon of freedom, constricting slavery and inducing the social crisis in which the peculiar institution would die. The image opens a fresh perspective on antislavery and the coming of the Civil War, brilliantly explored here by one of our greatest historians of the period.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/20/2014
Oakes (Freedom National) takes an in-depth look at political attitudes toward slavery at the brink of the Civil War. His title refers to a strategy most Republicans—sometimes overtly, sometimes secretly—supported, of gradual abolition by surrounding slave states with a “cordon of freedom” so that eventually slavery would “sting itself to death,” like a scorpion in a circle of fire. As any American with a basic knowledge of history knows, however, what actually occurred was the outbreak of Civil War and, in time, the Emancipation Proclamation. Oakes examines the latter document in the context of the tradition of military emancipation, as well as the philosophical arguments underlying debates about slavery—of the right to freedom versus the right to property. While occasionally repetitive, Oakes is thorough in his explanations and research. Since the book focuses on such a narrow moment in American history, however, it works best for those already well-versed in Civil War and American history. (May)
Andrew Delbanco - New York Review of Books
“Oakes makes a distinctive contribution—by reconstructing the antislavery strategy that, in his view, forced slave owners into rebellion even at the risk of losing everything they were determined to defend… He writes about the war with a distinctive combination of satisfaction and sorrow.”
John Stauffer
“James Oakes has brilliantly reframed our understanding of the Civil War. It is no surprise that Oakes is the first scholar to recover the meaning of the scorpion's sting; his close readings of political documents, delivered in his lucid, elegant style, are virtually unrivaled.”
Douglas L. Wilson
“A fitting follow-up to Oakes's game-changing study, Freedom National, shedding further light on how the antislavery movement laid the groundwork for emancipation.”
Library Journal
★ 03/01/2014
In this readable and indeed riveting book, Oakes (Distinguished Professor, history, CUNY Graduate Ctr.) encapsulates but also extends arguments from his Lincoln Prize-winning Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 to show the contested meanings of "freedom" that developed from the Revolutionary era through the Civil War. He emphasizes that antislavery advocates believed that freedom was national, the birthright of the republic and the promise of the revolution, and that, although they acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery as a local institution, government could and should surround it with a cordon of freedom so that slavery would die because it could not grow. Like a trapped scorpion, the institution would then sting itself to death. But such a hoped-for peaceful abolition did not occur, which led to military emancipation. The idea of liberation through war was long established and practiced in American history. What was new, Oakes argues, was universal emancipation through military means. The Civil War caused that to happen, with radical implications for governmental power and the nature of freedom. Oakes's book also is a troubling account of slavery's resilience, which required violence to end it, a reality that has implications for freedom today as much as it explains civil war a century and a half ago. VERDICT Essential for anyone wanting to know how and why emancipation came about as it did. [See Prepub Alert, 11/18/13.]—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-15
Addresses Oakes (Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, 2012, etc.) delivered for the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University are the basis for this book about the attempts to eliminate slavery while avoiding war in the United States.The metaphor of the scorpion stinging itself to death when surrounded by fire was widely used, but that doesn't bear repeating it quite so frequently. A good deal of this book is unnecessarily repetitious but still worth the read. Abolitionists felt that surrounding the slave states with a cordon of free states would destroy slavery. Since the Constitution forbade federal interference in state policies such as slavery, no one ever stated that the Civil War was fought over slavery; it was fought to prevent its expansion into the free territories. The author ably explores the history of the basic difference between the abolitionists and pro-slavers: the view that slaves are mere items of property. All sides accepted the fact of military emancipation under which freedom was promised to slaves who would change loyalties. During the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars and the Civil War, it was accepted that the laws of war entitled belligerents to free slaves. The question was: What was allowed by the treaty that ended each war? The Treaty of Paris of 1783 contained an article requiring the English not to carry away "Negroes or other property." The debate revolved around the fact that the "property to be returned" after the conflict included slaves who had been granted freedom. To return slaves "still on shore" for re-enslavement was considered unacceptable, but demands for compensation were still debated years afterward.A wordy yet interesting book that clearly shows the deep divisions that were the real causes of the Civil War.
Ira Berlin - Washington Post
“Offers the best explication of the long history by which
Americans embraced the legitimacy of military emancipation,
and it offers great insight into the debate over which took precedence: the natural right to property or the natural right to freedom.”
James McPherson
“If any reader still questions whether the Civil War was about slavery, this book overcomes all doubts.”
Eric J. Sundquist
“Incisive, imaginative, surprising, completely original—everything that one would expect from the most eminent historian of emancipation.”
Alan Taylor
“In clear prose and with searing insight, James Oakes recovers the moral urgency and strategic vision behind the Republican drive to undermine the slave system. A work of great depth and empathy.”
Allen C. Guelzo
“In four swift, clear strokes, James Oakes has rewritten the history of emancipation in the United States.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393239935
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/19/2014
  • Pages: 207
  • Sales rank: 213,383
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

James Oakes is the author of several acclaimed books on slavery and the Civil War. His history of emancipation, Freedom National, won the Lincoln Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award. He is Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

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