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The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War [Kindle Edition]

James Oakes
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Casual American-history buffs will quietly lay this book aside, while serious students of the events and attitudes toward slave emancipation in the decades before the outbreak of the Civil War will find it, pick it up, and enthusiastically consider its provocative arguments. Esteemed historian Oakes’ basic premise is this: abolitionists did not plan on a war to effect the end of slavery. They believed that a “cordon of freedom,” a ring of slave-free states and territories surrounding slave-holding areas, would exert enough antislavery pressure to eventually bring about slavery’s abolition. Why that concept did not work and why, once secession pulled the nation apart, and warfare erupted, what indeed worked was military emancipation are great and greatly complicated ideas Oakes airs with clear thinking and precise prose. One particularly fascinating aspect of his presentation is his recapitulation of the prewar disagreement over a fundamental question that greatly impacted one’s view of slavery, “Did the natural right of property take precedence over the natural right to freedom?” --Brad Hooper


“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.” (James McPherson)

“Incisive, imaginative, surprising, completely original—everything that one would expect from the most eminent historian of emancipation.” (Eric J. Sundquist)

“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.” (Alan Taylor)

“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.” (Douglas L. Wilson)

“In four swift, clear strokes, James Oakes has rewritten the history of emancipation in the United States.” (Allen C. Guelzo)

“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.” (John Stauffer)

“An in-depth look at political attitudes toward slavery at the brink of the Civil War.” (Publishers Weekly)

Product Details

  • File Size: 1073 KB
  • Print Length: 208 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (May 12, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #335,433 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Start, Muddled Finish June 26, 2014
I think the Booklist reviewer got it completely right. If you are a casual Civil War buff or are more concerned with the military aspects of the conflict rather than the political, cultural and philosophical ones, this book is probably not for you. On the other hand, if legal and philosophical fine points are your daily bread, you'll likely gobble it up with gusto. After briefly explaining that most anti-slavery Americans put their hopes into a policy of containment that would cause the institution to wither and die, the author spends most of his book detailing fine points concerning the treaties that ended the American Revolution and the War of 1812. These provisions had to do with American slaves emancipated by British forces and demands by the former owners for a return of their "property" or compensation for its loss. Debates over these issues, both between Americans and British people and among Americans themselves helped lay the groundwork for U.S. emancipation as it eventually occurred in practice.

I found the book interesting in the beginning, but by the end of the first third, repetition began to set in for me, and while the overall thrust of the book casts an interesting perspective on the intellectual run up to the Civil War, I confess I found the second half to be a long-winded exercise in going over the same points again and again. Following that good first half, the book just withered away for me.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
In the years leading up to the American Civil War, why did the question of slavery become so completely intractable? In this fascinating book, author James Oakes explains that the two sides rightly saw what Abraham Lincoln had explained, that the nation could not continue half slave and half free. That is to say, that either slavery must exist everywhere in the nation, or it would fail where it did exist. Early on, the abolitionists had suggested that if the slave states could be ringed with free states, that it would quickly die out, the way that a scorpion ringed with fire would stink itself to death. This was a powerful metaphor that grabbed the attention of both the North and the South.

Overall, I think that the author does do a great job of showing how philosophically deep the question of slavery ran, and why the nation could not be a partial slave state. The book is relatively short, but is a very interesting and thought-provoking read. If you are interested in the American Civil War, and want to understand it even better, then get this book. I highly recommend it!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The first three chapters offer a very strong analysis of the Republicans and slavery, slaves as property, and race and slavery. The final chapter on wartime emancipation, which goes back to the War for Independence, unfortunately searches for a point. In addition, the final chapter inexplicably fails to examine military emancipation during the Civil War (the subject of Oakes's Freedom National).
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellen! A treat! July 7, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The first chapter is disappointing as it seems a long and convoluted way of stating the obvious. However, the rest of the book is first rate.
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