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

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An award-winning historian illuminates the strategy for ending slavery that precipitated the crisis of civil war.
Surrounded by a ring of fire, the scorpion stings itself to death. The image, widespread among antislavery leaders before the Civil War, captures their long-standing strategy for peaceful abolition: they would surround the slave states with a cordon of freedom. They planned to use federal power wherever they could to establish freedom: the western territories, the ...

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

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An award-winning historian illuminates the strategy for ending slavery that precipitated the crisis of civil war.
Surrounded by a ring of fire, the scorpion stings itself to death. The image, widespread among antislavery leaders before the Civil War, captures their long-standing strategy for peaceful abolition: they would surround the slave states with a cordon of freedom. They planned to use federal power wherever they could to establish freedom: the western territories, the District of Columbia, the high seas. By constricting slavery they would induce a crisis: slaves would escape in ever-greater numbers, the southern economy would falter, and finally the southern states would abolish the institution themselves. For their part the southern states fully understood this antislavery strategy. They cited it repeatedly as they adopted secession ordinances in response to Lincoln's election.
The scorpion's sting is the centerpiece of this fresh, incisive exploration of slavery and the Civil War: Was there a peaceful route to abolition? Was Lincoln late to emancipation? What role did race play in the politics of slavery? With stunning insight James Oakes moves us ever closer to a new understanding of the most momentous events in our history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
James McPherson
“With the direct, forthright style that marks his writings, Oakes makes clear that the secessionists were right when they claimed that the rise of the Republican party foretokened the death of slavery if they remained in the Union…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.”
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.”
Allen C. Guelzo
“In four swift, clear strokes, James Oakes has rewritten the history of emancipation in the United States.”
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.”
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
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393239935
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/19/2014
  • Pages: 207
  • Sales rank: 275,758
  • 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 most recent book, Freedom National, won the Lincoln Prize and was a long-list selection for the National Book Award. He lives in New York City.

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