In 1856, as the matter of African American enslavement heated to a boil in the cauldron of American politics, Abraham Lincoln freely admitted that “if all the earthly powers were given to me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.” Here Honest Abe fudged a bit of the truth. He, like most Republicans, had devised a solution to end slavery peaceably over time. James Oakes, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who recently received the Abraham Lincoln prize for his book “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States,” argues that Lincoln and other Republicans not only had a plan but had even given it a name: the Scorpion’s Sting. In his new book of the same name, Oakes places the history of this powerful image in the context of antislavery politics.

The Scorpion’s Sting refers to the fearsome arthropod that, when in mortal danger — for example, “surrounded by fire” — stings itself to death. Republican politicos believed that this striking image showed how Southern slavery would eventually self-destruct. Southern leaders took note. Sen. Robert Toombs, a leading secessionist, characterized the Republican strategy as “to pen up slavery within its present limits — surround it with a border of free States, and like the scorpion surrounded by fire, they will make it sting itself to death.”

As the enormous profitability of cotton in the Deep South caused the relocation of slaves from border states — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri — slavery would supposedly decline in those border states. A concomitant out-migration of runaways, of which Oakes says little, would further weaken border-state slavery. These twin migrations would open the border states to the possibility of emancipation, especially if a Republican-controlled federal government withdrew its support for slavery, repealing, for example, the Fugitive Slave Law and using federal patronage to support slavery’s opponents. The process would eventually bring Delaware and Maryland — where, in 1860, free blacks already outnumbered slaves — and perhaps Kentucky and Missouri into the free-labor camp. Meanwhile, by refusing to allow the expansion of slavery into the western territories, lawmakers would ensure that the slave states were surrounded by “a cordon of freedom.”

As slavery was isolated in the states of the Deep South, the antislavery majority might employ its numerical superiority to abolish slavery, and slave states — recognizing the hopelessness of their minority position — would themselves end slavery like a scorpion girded by fire.

So much for the theory and the best hopes of the antebellum Republicans. Once the war began, emancipation took a different course. Slaves set the process in motion by flooding through Union lines and offering their services to federal troops in exchange for freedom. Eventually Union soldiers — and then policymakers — took the deal and not only put fugitive slaves to work but also incorporated black men into the Union Army. The Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war for union into a war for freedom. The enlistment of some 180,000 black soldiers eroded slavery beyond the reach of Lincoln’s proclamation, and the 13th Amendment finally ended it. The process was hardly peaceable, as the war killed 750,000 soldiers and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. As Oakes concedes, things rarely go as planned.

‘The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War’ by James Oakes (W. W. Norton )

Still, Oakes takes the Scorpion’s Sting seriously and uses it to bolster his theory, fully developed in “Freedom National,” of the “depth and significance of the Republican Party’s threat to slavery on the eve of the Civil War.” One of “the points I want to make in these pages,” he emphasizes, is that “the scorpion’s sting was the radical policy, borrowed from the abolitionist movement, adopted in principle by the Republican Party in the 1850s, and substantially implemented during the first year of the Civil War.”

There is little evidence of that. Nor did most Republicans, including Lincoln, embrace emancipation until late in the summer of 1862, when its necessity became obvious to all but the most conservative Unionists. Given that much of the Republican Party — save for a small group that historians have dubbed the “Radicals” — resisted a formal end to slavery, Oakes’s claim that the sting was the radical policy is hard to sustain. What distinguished Republicans from abolitionists — including the vast majority of black people — was that the president’s party was willing to wait perhaps as long as 100 years, according to Lincoln’s estimate, for the scorpion to sting itself. This the abolitionists found morally and practically unacceptable. They demanded an immediate end to slavery, which wartime events eventually delivered. It was that which distinguished abolitionists and their Radical allies from the mass of antislavery Republicans.

But even if Oakes is wrong about which policy was the radical one, his book has much to recommend it. “The Scorpion’s Sting” 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. Most important, he reveals the real strengths and all-but-fatal limitations of the antislavery principles that Republicans carried into the war and perhaps explains why Lincoln, in describing the development of the federal policy toward slavery, admitted that he had not “controlled events, but [I] confess plainly that have events have controlled me.”

Ira Berlin is university professor at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations.”


Antislavery and the Coming
of the Civil War

By James Oakes

Norton. 207 pp. $23.95