Sunday, August 24, 2014

What We're Reading: New History Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, by James Oakes

James Oakes's last book, Freedom National (which won the Lincoln Prize and was reviewed for this blog last year), was an important book that traced the legal demise of slavery in the United States. It gave the reader background about the legal precedents and natural law arguments that were the foundation of anti-slavery legal thought prior to the Civil War. In that book, Oakes's major focus was on the period of rapid change that occurred during the Civil War years, particularly as it pertained to emancipation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This is a much shorter book that in some ways feels like a prequel to Freedom National. The reader may get the sense that it is a miscellany of topics the author felt did not quite fit organically into that major work. But although the essay topics are various in The Scorpion’s Sting, Oakes has integrated them successfully into a cohesive narrative.

In this book, Oakes examines in greater detail the history of arguments that had been advanced over military emancipation, in particular the philosophical and treaty conflicts between the British and Americans that came about as a result of slaves seeking their freedom by fleeing to areas that were under military control by the British, in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. There is an interesting analysis of John Quincy Adams's seemingly conflicting views on the subject over the years. The Seminole War in Florida also brought the issue of military emancipation into the national debate. Oakes argues that the revolutionary thing about Union emancipation was that, unlike the uses of emancipation in previous conflicts, it employed military emancipation not just as a weapon of war but as a means of ending slavery.

Oakes also reminds us, importantly, about the racial nature of American slavery and the implications this had on the political and legal debates surrounding both the enslaved and the status of hundreds of thousands of free blacks in America. Could a black man be a citizen in America? Because of the racial nature of American slavery, a defense of slavery had to offer more than just a justification that a man could be held in bondage as property. As Oakes writes, “To justify slavery then, it was not enough to defend the sanctity of property rights, you also had to explain why only black people should be treated as property.” Oakes makes the interesting suggestion that hardened Southern racial attitudes may have deprived the South of a military resource that might have saved the Confederacy. Historically, many societies that had a slave population offered manumission as a reward to slaves who would take up arms in the cause of their masters. The Confederacy could never bring itself to raise a force of black soliders by this means.  It decried the Union arming emancipated black men as soldiers.  Those soldiers played a crucial role in the Union victory.

The international community had a poor understanding of the
Constitutional constraints faced by anti-slavery activists, and
as a consequence thought that those against slavery in America
were not deeply committed to its abolition. Harriett Beecher Stowe
explained the Constitutional situation and the political strategy of
the anti-slavery movement in America to her British “sisters”
in an article she wrote for the January,1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The major achievement of this short book, however, is Oakes's succinct and lucid account of the political strategy of the anti-slavery movement in America, providing proof that both sides of the divide clearly understood this strategy. It is embodied by the metaphor of the scorpion’s sting, the idea that a scorpion, girt by fire, will eventually sting itself and die. The wall of fire, or the encirclement of the slave South by a cordon of freedom, was the political strategy of the anti-slavery movement. It was based on an understanding that slavery in the South needed to expand in order to survive, and also needed the support of the Federal government. Keeping slavery out of the territories and demanding that the Federal government not provide support to what anti-slavery forces saw as a state-created institution would, it was believed, economically destroy and politically isolate slave power, ultimately resulting in the demise of slavery in America. Both anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces understood this. This was the “peaceful” alternative to war that the anti-slavery forces offered to what had become irreconcilable differences over slavery and its future in the United States. It was rejected in the summer and fall of 1860 by the slave states.

Oakes's exposition is deft, the historical evidence for his argument is well researched and brilliantly marshaled, and his thesis here is utterly convincing. This book is an essential primer for understanding the causes of the Civil War and the political events that followed in the wake of the declaration of hostilities. It is likely to become a college course classic.

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