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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 132

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This is the grave of Lysander Spooner.

Born in 1808 in Athol, Masschusetts, Spooner never went to college but nonetheless studied with some of his state’s top lawyers and became one of the leading philosophers of mid-19th century America. His first public action was to attack the Massachusetts state law mandating that non-college educated lawyers study under practicing lawyers for five years instead of three for college graduates. Daring the state to defend the law, he hung his shingle out in Worcester. Massachusetts rescinded the law in 1836. None of that fancy book learnin’ for no American lawyers.

This early incident summed up much about Spooner’s career. Today considered an intellectual father of libertarianism, Spooner strongly believed in abstract ideas of natural law that the state wanted to take away, such as requiring licensing to be accepted into a profession. He feared a government of any size, particularly one that would regulate the workplace. As such, he was an early articular of the free labor principle that would come to dominate mid-19th century politics, believing that self-employment was the most noble of work relationships but also that individuals signed a contract with each other when they agreed to become employer and employee and no state should have the ability to intervene in that. To prove his point, Spooner decided to issue stamps that would compete directly with the U.S. Postal Service. By challenging that monopoly, he hoped to create competition in mailing. What it really did was force him out of business when he could not pay the legal fees.

Spooner became more famous for his abolitionism, in particular his 1845 book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. He argued that the Constitution did not permit slavery, which is absurd, as anyone reading the text should see. Fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips found it so at the time. Yet his arguments, rooted in natural law, did have their followers, influencing Frederick Douglass, who eventually turned toward Spooner’s ideas. He was just not an intellectual though. He actively worked to foment slave rebellions, was friends with John Brown, and directly challenged the South by calling for guerilla warfare against slavery.

When the Civil War came, Spooner’s philosophy left him in a messy place. Although William Seward, an admirer, tried to get him to join the Republican Party, Spooner considered the Republicans sellouts for only standing against the expansion of slavery and not the institution itself. On the other hand, he thought the Northern attempt to force the South back into the Union was unconstitutional and that those states had every right to leave. So he became a sort of left opponent to the Civil War, arguing that the natural right of slaves to be free was one and the same as the natural right of states to be free. He was intellectually isolated by this time, as you can tell. This did not improve as the war went on. He continued to attack the repression of liberty that the Civil War brought and that people such as Charles Sumner were dishonest hypocrites. He moved closer to anarchism during the war, publishing tracts arguing that the Constitution was now void because it could not apply to anyone other than the men who signed it and that any government attempting to use the precepts of the Constitution in the present was repressing liberty. As such, he argued that Confederates were not committing treason in defense of slavery, even though they had left the Union to perpetuate slavery, which Spooner abhorred.

He continued down this line of thought in his late life, arguing for the principle of jury nullification that would allow juries to reject laws they thought repressive of liberty. He published in anarchist journals until his death in 1887. His arguments continue to be cited by right-wing extremists today. Antonin Scalia cited Spooner in his opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller that overturned Washington’s handgun restrictions, noting his arguments that handguns were necessary to free slaves. As if Scalia would have actually cared about the repression of African-Americans.

Lysander Spooner is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

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