In This Review

The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War
The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War
By James Oakes
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, 208 pp

The antebellum debate over slavery in the United States revolved around more than just morality; generations of Americans vigorously debated the ways in which constitutional and international law applied to the “peculiar institution” of the South. In The Scorpion’s Sting, Oakes surveys the legal doctrines that enabled President Abraham Lincoln to envision and then enact the Emancipation Proclamation. Under the international laws of the day, countries at war could emancipate slaves with or without compensation to masters and could either establish or ban slavery in specific territories in treaties or as acts of policy. Thus, international law allowed Lincoln to override the constitutional protection of slaveholders’ property rights. The point is not merely one of antiquarian interest; the degree to which the provisions of international law affect the rights and responsibilities of the federal government is a controversial subject today. The Scorpion’s Sting will lead readers to reflect on the degree to which international law might hold significant implications for the American system of government.