The Scorpion’s Sting: A Book Summary

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery And The Coming Of The Civil War by James Oakes 

Book Summary 

Republicans after the 1860 presidential election were honestly confused about why the South would want to secede.  Abraham Lincoln wrote to his former colleague (and the future Vice President of the Confederacy), Alexander Stephens, trying to convince him of the good faith of the Republicans.  Republicans would not interfere with state control of slavery.  

Many still are confused about why the election of Abraham Lincoln was so earth-shattering that it led to secession and the Civil War.  Some today criticize Lincoln as rather disappointing on race matters, making racist statements, and even considering the colonialization of blacks.  

James Oakes explains that the true threat was the Republican Party’s goals, now with the backing of the presidency of the United States.  Republicans accepted that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to interfere with slavery in the states.  But, this left many other ways to go after slavery, including the territories, the nation’s capital, and the high seas.

Republicans had a core belief that slavery was wrong and that black people had certain rights. This was a basic disagreement between them and their opponents.  Republicans planned to surround the slave states with freedom. The slave states would be “like the scorpion surrounded by fire” and it would ultimately “sting itself to death.”  

Slavery ultimately ended as a result of the Civil War, including the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.  Republicans at first expected slavery would end in a more peaceful way.  Wartime emancipation (freedom of slaves) did occur in the past but on a much smaller scale.  The war itself came because the South feared the future.  

Defenders of slavery had a reason to fear.  The threat was real. This book helps to explain why, why the Civil War came, and the perspectives of each side of those behind the conflict.  

Some Ideas and Takeaways 

The Civil War continues to be a major concern after all these years.  C-SPAN regularly has programming about various aspects of the war.  The causes and implications of the war continue to divide us.  Racial issues remain a very hot-button topic in classrooms.  

James Oakes helps to provide useful historical context.  We can look at history and be misled quite easily.  A look at the famous Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debates might appear to show two people not too different.  Did not Lincoln say that he felt blacks were not fit to vote, be on juries, or marry white people?  Is not Lincoln just a racist?

The book digs deeper and shows how Republicans accepted basic equality between whites and blacks.  For them, the Declaration of Independence had no implicit exception. “All men are created equal” with basic rights, including the right to one’s own labor.  The concept of “property in man” was absurd.  Slavery was immoral and should be limited as much as possible.   

The basic disagreement over slavery and the status of blacks helps to explain the many disputes in antebellum (pre-war) America.  For instance, the Constitution seems to say that Congress has “exclusive” control over the nation’s capital.  States were allowed to ban slavery.  

So, why did slave owners argue it would be unconstitutional to ban slavery there?  They believed the Constitution protected property rights, which for them included slaves.  They believed in “property in man.”  The Bill of Rights denies the federal government the power to deprive property without due process of law.  They felt it was disrespectful to argue otherwise.  

The book in an extended chapter also gives useful context to the emancipation of slaves in the Civil War.  The Declaration of Independence strongly criticized Great Britain for encouraging “domestic insurrections.”  Nonetheless, freeing slaves as a war strategy was accepted as a matter of laws of war.  The dispute in the United States ultimately was much more minor in scope, concerning what England promised in the treaty after the end of the war.  

From the beginning, there was a strong belief that once slaves were freed during a war it was immoral and unjust to enslave them once more.  On the other side, the self-interest of slave owners and a pragmatism that ignored racial justice disagreed.  The battle in the 1780s and 1790s over slaves taken by the British was a type of preview of later battles.   

This question arose during a war with the Seminoles in the 1830s.  In the end, it was accepted by the U.S. government that slaves that they freed for helping them remained free.  The slaveowners who disagreed were in the minority.  Civil War emancipation was not shocking on principle.  It was shocking because of the scope and completeness it ultimately entailed.  

We need to fully understand the perspectives and biases of each side.  Their disputes are not truly in the past, especially when Florida now has a policy where the “good side” of slavery must be taught to students.  James Oakes helps us in this effort.   

What I Liked And Disliked 

James Oakes is a good writer and has a down-to-earth style.  I found the book engaging and a crisp read.  The subject is somewhat academic, but the writing is not. 

Three of the chapters of the book are a product of lectures by the author.  They are not meant to be comprehensive studies of the subject matter.  This is a helpful thing for the general reader.  You can find these subjects covered in more detail in his other works.  

Personally, the Internet has encouraged my appreciation for summaries of subjects, which is also basically our business plan.  There is a lot of material out there to learn about and shorter summaries allow you to learn about more things.  Lectures in book form provide a means to cover sizable ground in a short period of time.  A well-composed lecture is a precious resource.  

There are pluses and minuses involved in a book of this more limited type.  A reader who is not as familiar with the subject matter might feel they came in the middle of a film.  The book is not too bad in that respect.  But, my previous knowledge of the subject did help some. 

I appreciated the long chapter on “Wars Over Emancipation.”  The emancipation of slaves during the Civil War is often somewhat misunderstood, including the role of Congress.  The chapter provides an extended discussion that shows us that wartime emancipation had a long history.  

The book has no photographs other than a colorful cover photograph that quite fits the title.  This is unfortunate.  Photographs, charts, and other media help the reader.  

Those who find this book interesting might like The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery by Don Fehrenbacher.  The book ends with a similar message that the 1860 elections threatened a coming “scorpion sting.”  

About the Author

James Oakes is currently a history professor at the City University of New York, previously teaching at Princeton and Northwestern University.  He was born in the Bronx (yay).  He is a leading historian in 19th-century America, particularly on the history of slavery.  
James Oakes is the author of several books.  His books include The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, and The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.The Scorpion’s Sting is one of his shorter books.