Lysander Spooner

January 19, 1808 - May 14, 1887

 

Source: Wikipedia

 

Lysander Spooner was an American individualist anarchist, political philosopher, essayist, pamphlet writer, Unitarian Christian abolitionist, supporter of the labor movement,legal theorist, and entrepreneur of the nineteenth century. He is also known for competing with the U.S. Post Office with his American Letter Mail Company, which closed after legal problems with the federal government.

Life overview

Spooner was born on a farm in Athol, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1808, and died on May 14, 1887, in Boston.

Spooner advocated what he called Natural Law – or the "Science of Justice" – wherein acts of initiatory 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

Legal career

Spooner's activism began with his career as a lawyer, which itself violated 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, defying the courts.He regarded the three-year privilege for college graduates as a state-sponsored discrimination against the poor and also providing a monopoly income to those who met the requirements. He argued that "no one has yet ever dared advocate, in direct terms, 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.He opposed all licensing requirements for lawyers, doctors or anyone else that was prevented from being employed by such requirements.To prevent a person from doing business with a person without a professional license he saw as a violation of the naturalright to contract.

After a disappointing legal career – his radical writing seems 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.

American Letter Mail Company

Being an advocate of self-employment and opponent of government regulation of business, Spooner started his own business called American Letter Mail Company which competed with the U.S. Post Office. Postal rates were notoriously high in the 1840s,and in 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company, which had offices in various cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.Stamps could be purchased and then attached to letters which could be sent to any of its offices. From here agents were dispatched who traveled on railroads and steamboats, and carried the letters in hand bags. Letters were transferred to messengers in the cities along the routes who then delivered the letters to the addressees.

This was a challenge to the United States Post Office's monopoly.As he had done when challenging the rules of the Massachusetts Bar Association, he published a pamphlet titled "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. A law enacted in 1851 that strengthened the federal government's monopoly finally put him out of business. The lasting legacy of Spooner's challenge to the postal service was the three-cent stamp, adopted in response to the competition his company provided.

Abolitionism

Spooner attained his greatest fame as a figure in the abolitionist movement. His most famous work, a book titled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, was published in 1845. Spooner's book contributed to a controversy among abolitionists over whether the United States Constitution supported the institution of slavery. The "disunionist" faction, led by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, argued the Constitution legally recognized and enforced the oppression of slaves (as, for example, in the provisions for the capture of fugitive slaves in Article IV, Section 2). They also cited the frequent appeals to Constitutional compromise by Southern politicians, who insisted that protection of the "peculiar institution" was part of the sectional compromise on which the Constitution was based.The disunionists thus argued that keeping the free states in a political union with the slave states made the citizens of the free states complicit in the slave system, and denounced the Constitution as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell".  More generally, Wendell Phillips disputed Spooner's notion that any unjust law should be held legally void by judges.

Spooner challenged the claim that the text of the Constitution permitted slavery.Although he recognized that the Founders had probably not intended to outlaw slavery when writing the Constitution, he argued that only the meaning of the text, not the private intentions of its writers, was enforceable. Spooner used a complex system of legal and natural law arguments in order to show that the clauses usually interpreted as supporting slavery did not, in fact, support it, and that several clauses of the Constitution prohibited the states from establishing slavery. Spooner's arguments were cited by other pro-Constitution abolitionists, such as Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, which adopted it as an official text in its 1848 platform. Frederick Douglass, originally a Garrisonian disunionist, later came to accept the pro-Constitution position, and cited Spooner's arguments to explain his change of mind.

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 1850s, copies of his book were distributed to members of Congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Albert Gallatin 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. In 1858, Spooner circulated a "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery", calling for the use of guerrilla warfare against slaveholders by black slaves and non-slaveholding free Southerners, with aid from Northern abolitionists.Spooner also "conspir[ed] with John Brown to promote a servile insurrection in the South", and participated in an aborted plot to free Brown after his capture following the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (Harper's Ferry is now part of the state of West Virginia).

In 1860, Spooner was actively courted by William Seward to support the fledgling Republican Party.  An admitted sympathizer with Jeffersonian political philosophy, 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. Although Spooner had advocated the use of violence to abolish slavery, he denounced the Republicans' use of violence to prevent the Southern states from seceding during the American Civil War. He published several letters and pamphlets about the war, arguing that the Republican objective was not to eradicate slavery, but rather to preserve the Union by force. He blamed the bloodshed on Republican political leaders, such as Secretary of State William H. Seward and Senator Charles Sumner, who often criticized slavery but would not attack it on a constitutional basis, and who pursued military policies seen as vengeful and abusive.

Although he denounced the institution of slavery, Spooner recognized the right of the Confederate States of America to secede as the manifestation of government by consent, a constitutional and legal principle fundamental to Spooner's philosophy; the Northern states, in contrast, were trying to deny the Southerners that right through military force. He "vociferously opposed the Civil War, arguing that it violated the right of the southern states to secede from a Union that no longer represented them".  He believed they were attempting to restore the Southern states to the Union, against the wishes of Southerners. He argued that the right of the states to secede derives from the natural right of slaves to be free. This argument was unpopular in the North and in the South after the War began, as it conflicted with the official position of both governments.

Views on economics and self-employment

Spooner believed that it was beneficial for people to be self-employed so that they could enjoy the full benefits of their labor rather than having to share them with an employer. He argued that various forms of government intervention in the free market made it difficult for people to start their own businesses. For one, he believed that laws against high interest rates, or "usury", prevented those with capital from extending credit because they could not be compensated for high risks of not being repaid: "If a man have not capital of his own, upon which to bestow his labor, it is necessary that he be allowed to obtain it on credit. And in order that he may be able to obtain it on credit, it is necessary that he be allowed to contract for such a rate of interest as will induce a man, having surplus capital, to loan it to him; for the capitalist cannot, consistently with natural law, be compelled to loan his capital against his will. All legislative restraints upon the rate of interest, are, therefore, nothing less than arbitrary and tyrannical restraints upon a man's natural capacity amid natural right to hire capital, upon which to bestow his labor...The effect of usury laws, then, is to give a monopoly of the right of borrowing money, to those few, who can offer the most approved security".

Spooner also believed that government restrictions on issuance of private money made it inordinately difficult for individuals to obtain the capital on credit to start their own businesses, thereby putting them in a situation where "a very large portion of them, to save themselves from starvation, have no alternative but to sell their labor to others" and those who do employ others are only able to afford to pay "far below what the laborers could produce, [than] if they themselves had the necessary capital to work with."Spooner said that there was "a prohibitory tax – a tax of ten per cent. – on all notes issued for circulation as money, other than the notes of the United States and the national banks" which he argued caused an artificial shortage of credit, and that eliminating this tax would result in making plenty of money available for lendingsuch that: "All the great establishments, of every kind, now in the hands of a few proprietors, but employing a great number of wage labourers, would be broken up; for few or no persons, who could hire capital and do business for themselves would consent to labour for wages for another".

Reconstruction

Spooner harshly condemned the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. Though he approved of the abolition of slavery, 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 associate business interests with 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 Independencewere no longer 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 have their obedience to the former government enforced with military action.

The Union government's actions during the war caused Spooner to espouse individualist anarchism. He published a series of political tracts, No Treason, the most famous of which is No Treason No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority. In this lengthy essay, Spooner argued that the Constitution was a contract of government (see social contract theory) which could not logically apply to anyone other than the individuals who signed it, 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 that document could not adequately stop many abuses against liberty or prevent tyranny. 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 nation since none had ever signed their names or given their consent to it – that consent had always been assumed, which fails one of 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 De Bow's Review and in some other well-known southern periodicals of the time.

Anarchism

George Woodcock describes Spooner's essays as an "eloquent elaboration" of Josiah Warren and the early American development of Proudhon's ideas, and associates his works with that of Stephen Pearl Andrews.Woodcock also reports that both Lysander Spooner and William Batchelder Greene had been members of the socialist First International

Later life and death

Spooner's tombstone, he is interred in the historic Forest Hills Cemetery

Spooner continued to write and publish extensively during the decades following Reconstruction, 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. This doctrine would further allow juries to refuse to convict if they regard the law by which they are asked to convict as illegitimate. He became associated with Benjamin Tucker's anarchist journal Liberty, which published all of his later works in serial format, and for which he wrote several editorial columns on current events.He argued that "almost all fortunes are made out of the capital and labour of other men than those who realize them. Indeed, except by his sponging capital and labour from others".

Spooner died on May 14, 1887, at the age of 79 in his residence, 109 Myrtle Street, Boston.  Benjamin Tucker arranged his funeral service and wrote a "loving obituary", entitled "Our Nestor Taken From Us", which appeared in Liberty on May 28, and predicted "that the name Lysander Spooner would be 'henceforth memorable among men'".

Influence

Spooner's influence extends to the wide range of topics he addressed during his lifetime. He is remembered primarily for his abolitionist activities and for his challenge to the Post Office monopoly, which had a lasting influence of significantly reducing postal rates. Spooner's writings contributed to the development of both left-libertarian and right-libertarian political theory in the United States, and were often reprinted in early libertarian journals such as the Rampart Journaland Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought.His writings were also a major influence on Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard and right-libertarian law professor and legal theorist Randy Barnett.

In January 2004, Laissez Faire Books established the Lysander Spooner Award for advancing the literature of liberty. The honor is awarded monthly to the most important contributions to right-libertarian literature, followed by an annual award to the winner.

In 2010, LAVA created the Lysander Spooner (Book of the Year) Award, which has been awarded annually since 2011.The LAVA Awards are held annually to honor excellence in books relating to the principles of liberty, with the Lysander Spooner Award being the grand prize award.

Spooner's The Unconstitutionality of Slavery was cited in the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down the federal district's ban on handguns. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, quotes Spooner as saying the right to bear arms was necessary for those who wanted to take a stand against slavery.It was also cited by Justice Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion in McDonald v. Chicago the following year.

Spooner is frequently cited in the science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein.

 

 

Quotes by Lysander Spooner

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“Those who are capable of tyranny are capable of perjury to sustain it.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“A man is no less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“And yet we have what purports, or professes, or is claimed, to be a contract—the Constitution—made eighty years ago, by men who are now all dead, and who never had any power to bind us, but which (it is claimed) has nevertheless bound three generations of men, consisting of many millions, and which (it is claimed) will be binding upon all the millions that are to come; but which nobody ever signed, sealed, delivered, witnessed, or acknowledged; and which few persons, compared with the whole number that are claimed to be bound by it, have ever read, or even seen, or ever will read, or see.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“If taxation without consent is not robbery, then any band of robbers have only to declare themselves a government, and all their robberies are legalized.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“That no government, so called, can reasonably be trusted, or reasonably be supposed to have honest purposes in view, any longer than it depends wholly upon voluntary support.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“If the jury have no right to judge of the justice of a law of the government, they plainly can do nothing to protect the people against the oppressions of the government; for there are no oppressions which the government may not authorize by law.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“A man's natural rights are his own, against the whole world; and any infringement of them is equally a crime; whether committed by one man, or by millions; whether committed by one man, calling himself a robber, or by millions calling themselves a government.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life...The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful. The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber...Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful 'sovereign,' on account of the 'protection' he affords you.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“No man can rightfully be required to join, or support, an association whose protection he does not desire.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“If any man's money can be taken by a so-called government, without his own personal consent, all his other rights are taken with it; for with his money the government can, and will, hire soldiers to stand over him, compel him to submit to its arbitrary will, and kill him if he resists.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“The Constitution says: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." The meaning of this is simply We, the people of the United States, acting freely and voluntarily as individuals, consent and agree that we will cooperate with each other in sustaining such a government as is provided for in this Constitution. The necessity for the consent of "the people" is implied in this declaration. The whole authority of the Constitution rests upon it. If they did not consent, it was of no validity. Of course it had no validity, except as between those who actually consented. No one's consent could be presumed against him, without his actual consent being given, any more than in the case of any other contract to pay money, or render service. And to make it binding upon any one, his signature, or other positive evidence of consent, was as necessary as in the case of any other-contract. If the instrument meant to say that any of "the people of the United States" would be bound by it, who did not consent, it was a usurpation and a lie. The most that can be inferred from the form, "We, the people," is, that the instrument offered membership to all "the people of the United States;" leaving it for them to accept or refuse it, at their pleasure.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“The only idea they have ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this--that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“...only those who have the will and the power to shoot down their fellow men, are the real rulers in this, as in all other (so-called) civilized countries; for by no others will civilized men be robbed, or enslaved.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years. Neither are a people any the less slaves because permitted periodically to choose new masters. What makes them slaves is the fact that they now are, and are always hereafter to be, in the hands of men whose power over them is, and always is to be, absolute and irresponsible.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“If there be such a principle as justice, or natural law, it is the principle, or law, that tells us what rights were given to every human being at his birth; what rights are, therefore, inherent in him as a human being, necessarily remain with him during life; and, however capable of being trampled upon, are incapable of being blotted out, extinguished, annihilated, or separated or eliminated from his nature as a human being, or deprived of their inherent authority or obligation.” 
 Lysander Spooner

 

“One essential of a free government is that it rest wholly on voluntary support. And one certain proof that a government is not free, is that it coerces more or less persons to support it, against their will. All governments, the worst on earth, and the most tyrannical on earth, are free governments to that portion of the people who voluntarily support them. And all governments—though the best on earth in other respects—are nevertheless tyrannies to that portion of the people—whether few or many—who are compelled to support them against their will. A government is like a church, or any other institution, in these respects. There is no other criterion whatever, by which to determine whether a government is a free one, or not, than the single one of its depending, or not depending, solely on voluntary support.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“A government that can at pleasure accuse, shoot, and hang men, as traitors, for the one general offence of refusing to surrender themselves and their property unreservedly to its arbitrary will, can practice any and all special and particular oppressions it pleases.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.” 
 Lysander Spooner, Vices Are Not Crimes

 

“The Constitution certainly supposes that the crime of treason can be committed only by man, as an individual. It would be very curious to see a man indicted, convicted, or hanged, otherwise than as an individual; or accused of having committed his treason otherwise than as an individual. And yet it is clearly impossible that any one can be personally guilty of treason, can be a traitor in fact, unless he, as an individual, has in some way voluntarily pledged his faith and fidelity to the government. Certainly no man, or body of men, could pledge it for him, without his consent; and no man, or body of men, have any right to presume it against him, when he has not pledged it, himself.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“So these villains, who call themselves governments, well understand that their power rests primarily upon money. With money they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort money. And, when their authority is denied, the first use they always make of money, is to hire soldiers to kill or subdue all who refuse them more money.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“That no government, so called, can reasonably be trusted for a moment, or reasonably be supposed to have honest purposes in view, any longer than it depends wholly upon voluntary support.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“Man, no doubt, owes many other moral duties to his fellow men; such as to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, protect the defenceless, assist the weak, and enlighten the ignorant. But these are simply moral duties, of which each man must be his own judge, in each particular case, as to whether, and how, and how far, he can, or will, perform them. But of his legal duty—that is, of his duty to live honestly towards his fellow men—his fellow men not only may judge, but, for their own protection, must judge. And, if need be, they may rightfully compel him to perform it. They may do this, acting singly, or in concert. They may do it on the instant, as the necessity arises, or deliberately and systematically, if they prefer to do so, and the exigency will admit of it.” 
 Lysander Spooner, The Lysander Spooner Reader

 

“Previous to the war, there were some grounds for saying that—in theory, at least, if not in practice—our government was a free one; that it rested on consent. But nothing of that kind can be said now, if the principle on which the war was carried on by the North, is irrevocably established. If that principle be not the principle of the Constitution, the fact should be known. If it be the principle of the Constitution, the Constitution itself should be at once overthrown.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

“The pretense that the "abolition of slavery" was either a motive or justification for the war, is a fraud of the same character with that of "maintaining the national honor." Who, but such usurpers, robbers, and murderers as they, ever established slavery? Or what government, except one resting upon the sword, like the one we now have, was ever capable of maintaining slavery? And why did these men abolish slavery? Not from any love of liberty in general—not as an act of justice to the black man himself, but only "as a war measure," and because they wanted his assistance, and that of his friends, in carrying on the war they had undertaken for maintaining and intensifying that political, commercial, and industrial slavery, to which they have subjected the great body of the people, both black and white.” 
 Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 

Quote source: goodreads

Books and Other Writings by Lysander Spooner

Photo: Unsplash / Joao Silas / CC0

  • No Treason: The Consitution of No Authority

  • The Unconstitutionality of Slavery

  • Vices Are Not Crimes

  • Works of Lysander Spooner

  • Natural Law: The Science of Justice

  • Essay on the Trial by Jury

  • The Lysander Spooner Reader
    (with Jeffrey A. Tucker)

  • A New Banking System - The Needful Capital for Rebuilding the Burnt District

  • A Letter to Grover Cleveland on His False Inaugural Address, The Usurpations and Crimes of Lawmakers and Judges, and the Cosequent Poverty, Ignorance, and Servitude of the People

  • A Letter to Thomas F. Bayard

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