Lysander Spooner

Lysander Spooner (January 19, 1808 – May 14, 1887) was an American political philosopher, essayist, pamphlet writer, Unitarian, abolitionist, individualist anarchist, legal theorist, a member of the socialist First International[1] and entrepreneur of the 19th century.

Lysander Spooner
Born(1808-01-19)January 19, 1808
Athol, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedMay 14, 1887(1887-05-14) (aged 79)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
SubjectPolitical philosophy
Notable worksNo Treason, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery

Spooner was a strong advocate of the labor movement and anti-authoritarian and individualist anarchist in his political views. His economic and political ideology has often been identified as libertarian socialism and mutualism.

Spooner's most famous writing includes the seminal abolitionist book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery and No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority which opposed treason charges against secessionists. He is also known for competing with the Post Office with his American Letter Mail Company. However, it was closed after legal problems with the federal government.


Early life

Spooner was born on a farm in Athol, Massachusetts on January 19, 1808 and died on May 14, 1887 in Boston.[2] Spooner's parents were Asa and Dolly Spooner. One of his ancestors, William Spooner, arrived in Plymouth in 1637. He was the second of nine children. His father was a deist and it has been speculated that he purposely named his two older sons Leander and Lysander after pagan and Spartan heroes, respectively.[3]:viii

Spooner's activism began with his career as a lawyer which itself violated Massachusetts law.[4] Spooner had studied law under the prominent lawyers, politicians and abolitionists John Davis, later Governor of Massachusetts and Senator; and Charles Allen, state senator and Representative from the Free Soil Party.[3]:viii However, he never attended college.[5] 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.[5]

With the encouragement of his legal mentors, Spooner set up his practice in Worcester, Massachusetts after only three years, defying the courts.[5] 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".[5] In 1836, the legislature abolished the restriction.[5] He opposed all licensing requirements for lawyers, doctors or anyone else that was prevented from being employed by such requirements.[6] For Spooner, to prevent a person from doing business with a person without a professional license was a violation of the natural right to contract.[7] Spooner advocated natural law, or what he called the science of justice, wherein acts of initiatory coercion against individuals and their property, including taxation, were considered criminal because they were immoral while the so-called criminal acts that violated only man-made arbitrary legislation were not necessarily criminal.[8] After a disappointing legal career and a failed career in real estate speculation in Ohio, Spooner returned to his father's farm in 1840.[5]

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 Post Office, whose rates were notoriously high in the 1840s.[9] In 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company, which had offices in various cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City.[10] 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 which then delivered the letters to the addressees. This was a challenge to the Post Office's legal monopoly.[9][11]

As he had done when challenging the rules of the Massachusetts Bar Association, Spooner 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 reduction in letter postage from 5¢ to 3¢ in response to the competition his company provided.[12]


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 Constitution supported the institution of slavery. The disunionist faction led by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips argued that the Constitution legally recognized and enforced the oppression of slaves as in the provisions for the capture of fugitive slaves in Article IV, Section 2.[13][14] More generally, Phillips disputed Spooner's notion that any unjust law should be held legally void by judges.[15]

Spooner challenged the claim that the text of the Constitution permitted slavery.[16] Although he recognized that the Founding Fathers had probably not intended to outlaw slavery when writing the Constitution, Spooner argued that only the meaning of the text, not the private intentions of its writers, was enforceable. He 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.[16] Spooner's arguments were cited by other pro-Constitution abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, whose twenty-second plank of the 1849 platform praised Spooner's book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. 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.[17]

From the publication of this book until 1861, Spooner actively campaigned against slavery.[18] He published subsequent pamphlets on jury nullification and other legal defenses for escaped slaves and offered his legal services to fugitives, often free of charge.[19] In the late 1850s, copies of his book were distributed to members of Congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Albert G. 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.[20] 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 (now part of the state of West Virginia).[21]

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 yet would not attack it on a constitutional basis and who pursued military policies seen as vengeful and abusive.[22][23]

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. In contrast, the Northern states were trying to deny the Southerners that right through military force.[24] 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.[21] 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.[22] This argument was unpopular in the North and in the South after the Civil War began as it conflicted with the official position of both governments.[25]

Later life and death

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 American individualist anarchist journal Liberty which published all of his later works in serial format and for which he wrote several editorial columns on current events.[26] 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".[27]

Spooner defended the Millerites, who stopped working because they believed the world would soon end and were arrested for vagrancy.[3]:viii

Spooner was relatively well known and spent much time in the Boston Athenæum.[3]:xv He died on May 14, 1887 at the age of 79 in his nearby residence at 109 Myrtle Street, Boston.[28] He never married and had no children.[29] 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'".[30]

Political views

Anarchist George Woodcock describes Spooner's essays as an "eloquent elaboration" of American anarchist Josiah Warren and the early American development of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's ideas and associates his works with that of American individualist anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews.[31] Woodcock also reports that both Spooner and William Batchelder Greene had been members of the socialist First International.[32]

As an individualist anarchist, Spooner advocated for pre-industrial living in communities of small property holders, such that they could pursue life, liberty, happiness and property in mutual honesty without ceding responsibility to a central government. He felt that an expansive government created virtual slaves and its demands of obedience expropriated the role of the individual. By letting the government make and enforce laws, he contends that Americans "have surrendered their liberties unreservedly into the hands of the government". In addition to his extra-governmental post service and views on abolitionism, Spooner wrote No Treason in which he contends that the Constitution is neither a contract nor a text to which citizens are bound. He argued that the national Congress should dissolve and let citizens rule themselves as he held that individuals should make their own fates.[33]

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, saying the following:

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.[34]

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".[35] 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 lending.[35] Furthermore, Spooner was opposed to wage labor, wanting that social relationship destroyed by turning capital over to those who work in it as associated producers and not as wage slaves, saying:

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.[36]

Spooner's opposition to wage labor is why he is considered a libertarian socialist and also why he was a member of the First International.[32]


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.[37]

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 Journal[38] and Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought.[39] His writings were also a major influence on Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard and right-libertarian law professor and legal theorist Randy Barnett. While recognizing such influences, An Anarchist FAQ argues against the idea of Spooner as one precursor to anarcho-capitalism, stating that he was a "left-libertarian who was firmly opposed to capitalism", whose "vision of a free society was fundamentally anti-capitalist".[40] Iain MacSaorsa argues that Spooner was an "anti-capitalist, prefering to see a society of self-employed farmers, artisans and cooperating workers, not a society of wage slaves and capitalists" as he "was opposed to wage labour, wanting that social relationship destroyed by turning capital over to those who work in it, as associated producers and not as wage slaves".[41]

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.[42] In 2010, the Libertarian, Agorist, Voluntaryist and Anarch Association of Authors and Publishers (LAVA) created the Lysander Spooner Award for Book of the Year which has been awarded annually since 2011.[43] 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.[44] It was also cited by Justice Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion in McDonald v. Chicago, another firearms case, the following year.[45]

In the alternate history novel The Probability Broach (part of the North American Confederacy series) by L. Neil Smith in which the United States becomes a libertarian state after a successful Whiskey Rebellion and the overthrowing and execution of George Washington by firing squad for treason in 1794, Spooner served as the 14th President of the North American Confederacy from 1860 to 1880.


Virtually everything written by Spooner is contained in the six-volume compilation The Collected Works of Lysander Spooner (1971). The most notable exception is Vices Are Not Crimes, not widely known until its republication in 1977.[3]:xv

Archival material

There are collections of letters written by Spooner in the Boston Public Library and the New York Historical Society.[3]:viii–ix

See also


  1. Woodcock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Melbourne: Penguin. p. 460.
  2. Tucker, Benjamin (1887). "Our Nestor Taken From Us".
  3. Shone, Steve J. (2010). Lysander Spooner, American Anarchist. Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0739144503.
  4. Smith, George H. (1992). The Lysander Spooner Reader. Fox and Wilkes. p. viii.
  5. McKivigan, John (1999). Abolitionism and American Law. pp. 66–67.
  6. "Biography". Archived from the original on June 30, 2012. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  7. Spooner, Lysander (1843). Constitutional Law, Relative to Credit, Currency and Banking. p. 16.
  8. Spooner, Lysander (1882). "Natural Law, or the Science of Justice".
  9. "The Challenge To The U.S. Postal Monopoly, 1839–1851". Archived from the original on May 10, 2012. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  10. McMaster, John Bach (1910). A History of the People of the United States. D. Appleton and Company. p. 116.
  11. Adie, Douglas (1989). Monopoly Mail: The Privatizing United States Postal Service. p. 27.
  12. Goodyear, Lucille J. (January 1981). "Spooner vs. U.S. Postal System". American Legion Magazine. Archived from the original on October 19, 2012. Retrieved October 25, 2012.
  13. Barnett, Randy E. (February 22, 2010). Whence Comes Section One? The Abolitionist Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment. Rochester, New York: Social Science Research Network.
  14. "Donald Yacovone, Massachusetts Historical Society: "A Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell"". Archived from the original on December 29, 2010. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  15. Phillips, Wendell (1847). Review of Spooner's Essay on the Unconstitutionality of Slavery.
  16. "The Unconstitutionality of Slavery". Archived from the original on July 28, 2012. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  17. Cf. Douglass, Frederick (1852). "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?".
  18. "Letters by Lysander Spooner". Archived from the original on June 30, 2012. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  19. "Lysander Spooner, An Essay on the Trial by Jury (1852)". Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  20. "Lysander Spooner – Plan for the Abolition of Slavery". Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  21. Raico, Ralph. "Neither the Wars Nor the Leaders Were Great". Ludwig von Mises Institute. March 29, 2011. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  22. "Lysander Spooner, Letter to Charles Sumner (1864)". Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  23. "Spooner's Fiery Attack on Lincolnite Hypocrisy by Thomas DiLorenzo". November 26, 2004. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  24. The Lysander Spooner Reader, by George H. Smith, pp. xvii and further
  25. Smith, George H. (1992). The Lysander Spooner Reader. p. xix.
  26. "Lysander Spooner, Tucker & Liberty". Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  27. Quoted in Martin, James J. (1953). Men Against the State. p. 173.
  28. "One of the Old Guard of Abolition Heroes, Dies in His Eightieth Year After a Fortnight's Illness". Archived from the original on July 18, 2009. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  29. "Biography — Lysander Spooner". Retrieved December 3, 2018.
  30. McElroy, Wendy. "Lysander Spooner, Part 2". The Future of Freedom Foundation. November 1, 2005. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  31. Woodcock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Melbourne: Penguin. p. 434.
  32. Woodcock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Melbourne: Penguin. p. 460.
  33. Gay, Kathlyn; Gay, Martin (1999). "Spooner, Lysander". Encyclopedia of Political Anarchy. ABC-CLIO. pp. 193–195. ISBN 978-0-87436-982-3.
  34. Spooner, Lysander (1846). Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure. Boston: Bela Marsh.
  35. Spooner, Lysander (1886). "A Letter to Grover Cleveland, on His False Inaugural Address, the Usurpations and Crimes of Lawmakers and Judges, and the Consequent Poverty, Ignorance, and Servitude of the People".
  36. Quoted from Spooner's "A Letter to Grover Cleveland, on His False Inaugural Address, the Usurpations and Crimes of Lawmakers and Judges, and the Consequent Poverty, Ignorance, and Servitude of the People" (1886) by Eunice Minette Schuster. Native American Anarchism. p. 148.
  37. Krohn, Raymond James (Summer 2007). "The Limits of Jacksonian Liberalism: Individualism, Dissent, and the Gospel of Andrew According to Lysander Spooner". Journal of Libertarian Studies. 21 (2): 46–47.
  38. Spooner, Lysander (1870). No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. "A Letter to Thomas F. Bayard". Rampart Journal. 1 (1). Introduction by Martin, James J. (Spring/Fall 1965). Rampart Journal. 1 (3).
  39. Spooner, Lysander (1882). "Natural Law, Or the Science of Justice". Reprinted in Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought (Winter 1967).
  40. An Anarchist FAQ. "Lysander Spooner: right-"libertarian" or libertarian socialist?". June 18, 2009. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  41. MacSaorsa, Iain. "The Ideas of Lysander Spooner — Libertarian or libertarian socialist?". December 3, 2009. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  42. "Lysander Spooner Award". Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  43. LAVA "First Annual LAVA Awards". The Libertarian, Agorist, Voluntaryist & Anarchs Authors and Publishers Association. November 13, 2010. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  44. Scalia, Antonin. "District of Columbia v. Heller 554 U. S. ____ – US Supreme Court Cases from Justia & Oyez". Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  45. Thomas, Clarence. "Mv. Chicago". Retrieved June 24, 2012.

Further reading

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