The Scorpion’s Sting


This outstanding book by James Oakes is a follow-up to his ground-breaking Freedom National.  In this book, Professor Oakes explains the Republicans’ antislavery strategy.  They were determined to build a “cordon of freedom” around the slave states by cutting off the expansion of slavery and ensuring any new state coming into the Union would be a free state.  As Professor Oakes tells us, there was a federal consensus that the Federal government had no power to affect slavery in the states where it existed.  “That disclaimer is important because it tells us what Republicans would not do to undermine slavery, but it does not tell us what they would do.” [p. 23]  In a debate in Congress, Sherrard Clemens of Virginia asked Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a Radical Republican, whether or not he supported the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  “Stevens answered that he had voted against the law, that he favored either its repeal or its modification, that in his ‘political’ opinion it was ‘unconstitutional’–though as long as it remained on the books, Stevens added, ‘I shall not resist its execution.’  Clemens then asked Stevens to confirm a statement he had once made, to the effect that the purpose of the Republican Party ‘was to encircle the slave States of this Union with free States as a cordon of fire, and that slavery, like a scorpion, would sting itself to death.’ ” [p. 24]  Clemens pressed the issue, asking ” ‘if his policy is carried out, whether to-day, to-morrow, or fifty years hence; if not a single new slave State is admitted into the Union; if slavery is abolished in the District of Columbia, in the Territories, in the arsenals, dockyards, and forts; if, in addition to that, his party grasps the power of the Presidency, with the patronage attached to it … –whether; if he did all this, would he not carry out the full extent of the remarks which he made, that he would have slavery surrounded like a camp in a prairie or a scorpion with fire, and if it would not sting itself to death?’ ” [p. 24]  Stevens answered coyly that he couldn’t predict the future, but Clemens had described the Republican strategy.  “That was the point of the metaphor about the scorpion–eventually, it would kill itself–and nobody knew that better than Thaddeus Stevens.  For by 1860 the scorpion’s sting had become a popular literary device for capturing the process by which the opponents of slavery expected it to die.  Although the federal government would do all it could to encourage them, the states themselves would eventually abolish their own slave systems.  The sooner the better.” [p. 25]  This was seen as the way to peacefully get rid of slavery, making violence such as John Brown’s insurrection unnecessary.

Key to Republican ideology was the idea that freedom was national but slavery was sectional.  Slavery could only exist through positive law in the states in which it existed.  Where such law didn’t exist, where the Constitution only ruled, freedom was the natural condition.  This was particularly true for territories.  “In those areas, where no state governments existed and hence no state laws had created slavery, the Constitution alone was sovereign.  Because the Constitution proclaims that ‘no person shall … be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law,’ the federal government was obliged to assume universal freedom in all areas under its direct jurisdiction.” [p. 28]  Because Congress had the Constitutional power to govern the District of Columbia, “virtually all Republicans believed that Congress could abolish slavery in Washington, D. C.” [p. 30]  Republicans also believed the federal government had to act aggressively against the Atlantic slave trade, and many of them believed Congress had power to shut down the coastal slave trade as well.  “For most, but not all, Republicans, freedom national meant that the fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution should be enforced locally.  Antislavery politicians made much of the fact that there was no enforcement provision in the clause itself, a conspicuous absence.” [p. 31]  This meant that only states could enforce that clause and the federal government couldn’t.  This was the underpinning of the Personal Liberty Laws some northern states passed.

Professor Oakes gives us an excellent analysis of the Crittenden Compromise and identifies how it was really no compromise at all but rather was a statement of proslavery ideology.  In discussing the banning of slavery from the territories, he tells us, “We’ve heard it so often it’s become a cliché:  the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about the extension of slavery into the territories–a very different thing.” [p. 51]  However, he points out “The point of the scorpion’s sting was to surround slavery until it killed itself, and crucial to that project was banning slavery from the territories.  Viewed in this light, the familiar cliché might easily be reversed:  the Civil War was only superficially a dispute over slavery in the territories; in reality it was a fundamental conflict over slavery.” [p. 52]

He traces the development of the doctrine of self-ownership, “which included a proprietary claim to your own labor and the fruits of your own labor.  That’s where all property came from, hence the right of property itself originated in the universal, natural right of freedom–freedom defined as self-ownership.” [p. 60]  This was a foundation of the decision by Lord Mansfield, chief justice of the Court of King’s Bench in England, in the Somerset case.  “There was no natural or common-law right of property in man, Mansfield ruled.  On the contrary, slavery was so complete a violation of the natural right to freedom that only ‘positive’ law could create slavery.” [p. 61]  This also was one of the basic tenets of the antislavery position in the United States.

In another chapter, Professor Oakes discusses slavery in the United States as being a racial conflict.  “To be sure, within the slave states where there was little disagreement over slavery, there was consequently little debate over race beyond the question of whether blacks were created as a separate species or an innately inferior category of human beings.  But between antislavery Northerners and proslavery Southerners and between northern Democrats and northern Republicans, the debate over slavery spilled over into a corresponding debate over racial equality and inequality in the United States.”  [p. 79]  Two fundamental questions were at the center of these debates:  “Does the promise of universal freedom in the Declaration of Independence apply to whites and blacks alike?  Republicans said yes, northern Democrats and white Southerners said no.” [p. 80]  And, “Were blacks citizens?  Although these two questions clearly grew out of the debate over slavery, strictly speaking both were about specific forms of racial equality.  Indeed, the citizenship question could only arise in relation to free blacks because, except for a handful of the most radical abolitionists, nearly everyone agreed that slaves were not citizens by definition.” [p. 80]

Professor Oakes also talks about military emancipation, and presents a powerful case that there was ample historical precedent to show that military emancipation in wartime was an accepted, legal practice recognized by both the United States and the international community at large.  Confederate denunciations of emancipation, then, are shown to be extremist positions without basis in law or precedent.

In the Epilogue, Professor Oakes discusses how the British failed to understand the first thing about the conflict in the United States, using Harriet Beecher Stowe as his vehicle for this.  “It was November 1862 and Harriet Beecher Stowe was frustrated.  Not with the progress of the Union war effort, or with President Lincoln’s supposedly slow path to emancipation, but with the failure of the British to understand what was going on in the United States.  They were misreading Lincoln’s speeches.  The Republican Party confused them.  They didn’t grasp the Constitution.  The British couldn’t see that the Civil War was and had always been a war over slavery.  And having so deeply misunderstood the full meaning of the war, they were unable to recognize any of the impressive antislavery policies already implemented by Lincoln and the Republicans.” [p. 166]  This frustration led her to write an article explaining things to the British in the January 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine.  Professor Oakes goes on to explain the misunderstandings the British, and incidentally, many modern-day Americans, had regarding the war, explains why they were misunderstandings, and corrects those misunderstandings.

I highly recommend this book.  It is truly outstanding and makes a terrific supplement to Professor Oakes’ earlier Freedom National.  It includes information that wasn’t included in the earlier book and continues to correct our misunderstandings of the antislavery ideologies and actions of Lincoln and the Republicans.

You can see a discussion of the book between Professor Oakes and Professor Edna Green Medford here:



  1. Kenneth Almquist · · Reply

    Harriet Beecher Stowe’s explanation of Lincoln’s approach to slavery begins on page 125 of the Atlantic Monthly article mentioned in the review.

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