‘The Scorpion’s Sting: antislavery before Civil War’

Ira Berlin in The Washington Post:

BookIn 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.”

More here.