Lysander Spooner (1808 - 1887) was an American political philosopher, abolitionist, and legal theorist of the 19th century. He is best known for his role in the abolitionist movement to end slavery and for his contributions to the political philosophy of individualist anarchism
Spooner was born on a farm in Athol, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1808, and died "at one o'clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, 1887 in his little room at 109 Myrtle Street, surrounded by trunks and chests bursting with the books, manuscripts, and pamphlets which he had gathered about him in his active pamphleteer's warfare over half a century long." -- from Our Nestor Taken From Us by Benjamin Tucker
Later known as an early individualist anarchist, Spooner advocated what he called Natural Law — or the Science of Justice — wherein acts of actual coercion against individuals and their property were considered "illegal" but the so-called criminal acts that violated only man-made legislation were not.
Early Years & the Postal Monopoly
His activism began with his career as a lawyer, which itself violated local Massachusetts law. Spooner had studied law under the prominent lawyers and politicians, John Davis and Charles Allen, but he had never attended college. According to the laws of the state, college graduates were required to study with an attorney for three years, while non-graduates were required to do so for five years.
With the encouragement of his legal mentors, Spooner set up his practice in Worcester after only three years, openly defying the courts. He saw the two-year privilege for college graduates as a state-sponsored discrimination against the poor. He argued that such discrimination was "so monstrous a principle as that the rich ought to be protected by law from the competition of the poor." In 1836, the legislature abolished the restriction.
After a disappointing legal career — for which his radical writing seemed to have kept away potential clients — and a failed career in real estate speculation in Ohio, Spooner returned to his father's farm in 1840.
Postal rates were notoriously high in the 1840s, and in 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company to contest the United States Postal Service's monopoly. As he had done when challenging the rules of the Massachusetts bar, he published a pamphlet entitled, "The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails". Although Spooner had finally found commercial success with his mail company, legal challenges by the government eventually exhausted his financial resources. He closed up shop without ever having had the opportunity to fully litigate his constitutional claims. The lasting legacy of Spooner's challenge to the postal service was the 3 cent stamp, adopted in response to the competition his company provided. The action earned him his nickname of the "Father of Affordable Postage."
Spooner attained his greatest fame as a figure in the Abolitionist movement to abolish slavery. His most famous work, a book entitled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, used a complex system of legal and natural law arguments to challenge the institution of slavery in the United States. The book was published in 1846 to great acclaim among many abolitionists but criticism from others. It helped to precipitate a split in the abolitionist movement over the issue of the Constitution surrounding whether the document was pro-freedom or pro-slavery. Spooner's pro-freedom argument was embraced by Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and the Liberty Party, which adopted it as an official text in its 1848 platform. Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison took the opposing view, which held that the Constitution was an immoral pact with slavery.
From the publication of this book until 1861 Spooner actively campaigned against slavery. He published subsequent pamphlets on Jury Nullification and other legal defenses for escaped slaves and offered his legal services, often free of charge, to fugitives. In the late 1850's copies of his book were distributed to members of congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Brown of Mississippi, a slavery proponent, praised the argument's intellectual rigor and conceded it was the most formidable legal challenge he had seen from the abolitionists to date. Spooner also participated in an aborted plot to free John Brown after his capture after the Harper's Ferry Raid .
In 1860 Spooner was actively courted by William Seward to support the fledgling Republican Party. An admitted sympathizer with the Jeffersonian ideology, Spooner adamantly refused the request and soon became an outspoken abolitionist critic of the party. To Spooner, the Republicans were hypocrites for purporting to oppose slavery's expansion but refusing to take a strong, consistent moral stance against slavery itself. He also opposed the coercive means by which the Republicans sought to prevent the south from seceding during the American Civil War. Spooner published several letters and pamphlets about the war, which he called evil and violent. He blamed the bloodshed on the Radical Republicans and particularly Senator Charles Sumner, who often spoke out against slavery but would not attack it on a constitutional basis and who pursued military policies seen as vengeful and abusive.
Though denouncing its embrace of slavery, Spooner sided with the Confederate States of America's right to secede on the basis that they were choosing to exercise government by consent - a fundamental constitutional and legal principle to Spooner's philosophy. The north, by contrast, was trying to deny the southerners their inherent right to be governed by their consent. He believed they were attempting to coerce the obedience of the southern states to a union that they did not wish to enter.
Spooner harshly condemned the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. Though he approved of the fact that Black slavery was abolished, he criticized the North for failing to make this the purpose of their cause. Instead of fighting to abolish slavery, they fought to "preserve the union" and, according to Spooner, to bolster business interests behind that union. Spooner believed a war of this type was hypocritical and dishonest, especially on the part of Radical Republicans like Sumner who were by then claiming to be abolitionist heroes for ending slavery. Spooner also argued that the war came at a great cost to liberty and proved that the rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence no longer held true - the people could not "dissolve the political bands" that tie them to a government that "becomes destructive" of the consent of the governed because if they did so, as Spooner believed the south had attempted to do, they would be met by the bayonet to enforce their obedience to the former government.
Reacting to the war, Spooner published one of his most famous political tracts: No Treason, a three part pamphlet that argued the Constitution was a contract of government (see social contract theory). This contract, he argued, had been irreparably violated during the war and was thus void. Furthermore, since the government now existing under the Constitution pursued coercive policies that were contrary to the Natural Law and to the consent of the governed, it had been demonstrated that document was unable to adequately stop many abuses against liberty or to prevent tyranny from taking hold. Spooner bolstered his argument by noting that the Federal government, as established by a legal contract, could not legally bind all persons living in the since none had ever signed their names or given their consent to it - that consent had always been assumed, which fails the most basic burdens of proof for a valid contract in the courtroom.
Spooner widely circulated the No Treason pamphlets, which also contained a legal defense against the crime of treason itself intended for former Confederate soldiers (hence the name of the pamphlet, arguing that "no treason" had been committed in the war by the south). These excerpts were published in DeBow's Review and some other well known southern periodicals of the time.
He wrote and published extensively, producing works such as "Natural Law or The Science of Justice" and "Trial By Jury." In "Trial By Jury" he defended the doctrine of "Jury Nullification," which holds that in a free society a trial jury not only has the authority to rule on the facts of the case, but also on the legitimacy of the law under which the case is tried, and which would allow juries to refuse to convict if they regard the law they are asked to convict under as illegitimate.
Lysander Spooner died in 1887 at the age of 79. He had influenced a generation of abolitionists and anarchists, including Benjamin Tucker who published Spooner's obituary in the journal Liberty.
References and external links
Last updated: 05-07-2005 15:27:16
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04