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Historian James Oakes Speaks at Hamilton

James Oakes
James Oakes

Distinguished author and Professor James Oakes of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York was the featured speaker of a lecture sponsored jointly by the Hamilton College Dean of the Faculty and History Department on Oct. 3. Oakes gave attendees a sneak preview of his most recent book, The Scorpion’s Sting: Anti-Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War, which will be published in May of next year.

The origination of the title of his book was a topic of particular interest; after all, what does a scorpion have to do with slavery and the civil war? Although nearly all Americans have some basic knowledge of the American Civil War, few are familiar with the pre-war origins of anti-slavery policies and sentiments. Oakes explained that before the Civil War, anti-slavery leaders hoped to put an end to slavery by cultivating an environment in which pro-slavery states would abolish slavery voluntarily. In other words, their strategy called for the institution of slavery to be the cause of it’s own demise in the same way that “the scorpion stings itself to death when surrounded by a ring of fire.”

Interestingly enough, this “scorpion-sting” strategy to end slavery was considered a radical policy during that time; emancipation of the slaves in the form of military emancipation, on the other hand, was not. Military emancipation was never intended to be an abolitionist program, although it’s results suggest otherwise. It was, however, regarded as a conventional idea and seen as no more than a military necessity. Stretching back to the time of the American Revolution, the British and Continental armies often tried to outdo one another by promising freedom to all rebel-owned slaves as payment for joining the army and fighting against the opposing side.

At the same time, Oakes discussed the idea that war was the unavoidable key to emancipating the slaves. Although Lincoln and the Republicans publicly championed that the goal of the Civil War was to restore the union, they used the war as a means to bypass Constitutional restrictions prohibiting the emancipation of slaves; this was their true intention Oakes suggested.

At the end of his lecture, Oakes signed books and answered the audience’s remaining questions. Besides his newest book, he is the author of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861 – 1865 (2012), The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007), Making a Nation: The United States and Its People (2001), Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (1990), and The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982).

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