by Helen J. Knowles*
On January 1, 1808, legislation made it illegal to import slaves into the United States.1 Eighteen days later, in Athol, Massachusetts, Lysander Spooner was born. In terms of their influence on the abolition of slavery, only the first of these events has gained widespread recognition. The importance of Spooner’s reading of the U.S. Constitution as a document that did not sanction slavery has been overlooked, and his abolitionist work continues to be disparaged as the incoherent ramblings of an unserious polemicist.
As this essay demonstrates, this conclusion about Spooner’s mid-nineteenth century work, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, 2 is unfortunate because his observations about the relationship between law and individual liberty are timeless. Drawing on his writings (including a previously unpublished manuscript) and voluminous correspondence, with supporting material from abolitionist newspapers and periodicals, I focus on Spooner’s contribution to a mid-1840s debate about constitutional interpretation. Spooner’s natural rights–based reading of the Constitution’s original meaning never matched the popularity of fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s emphasis on the Framers’ original pro-slavery intentions. Phillips won the day with conclusions that seemed to vindicate the Garrisonian condemnation of the Constitution as a “covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.”3
However, Phillips’s conclusions about the law were underpinned by a misleading emphasis on political history. They could not match the fiercely logical and legal emphasis of Spooner’s conclusions. In this respect, only Spooner offered an approach that was faithful to the guarantee, that appears in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, to protect the “Blessings of Liberty.”4
I bring the article to a close with a short twenty-first century postscript that shows the potential for Spooner’s unpublished views on the Bill of Rights to play an important role in the debate about whether, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, 5 the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restricts the actions of the state and local governments. The content of the postscript took on added significance when in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it had granted certiorari in McDonald v. Chicago. 6
* Assistant Professor of Political Science, State University of New York at Oswego; B.A., Liverpool Hope University College; Ph.D., Boston University. This article draws on material from papers presented at the annual meetings of the Northeastern Political Science Association and the New England Historical Association, and builds on ideas originally discussed at the Institute for Constitutional Studies (ICS) Summer Seminar on Slavery and the Constitution and an Institute for Humane Studies Annual Research Colloquium. For their input on my arguments about Lysander Spooner’s constitutional theory, I am grateful to Nigel Ashford, David Mayers, Jim Schmidt, and Mark Silverstein. Special thanks go to Randy Barnett who, several years ago, introduced me to Spooner, the “crusty old character” (as someone once described him to me) with whom I have since embarked on a fascinating historical journey into constitutional theory. I am also indebted to the ICS seminar participants (particularly Paul Finkelman, Maeva Marcus, and Mark Tushnet) for their comments and suggestions and to the participants in the Liberty Fund workshop on Lysander Spooner’s theories (particularly Michael Kent Curtis and Larry Solum) for prompting me to think about Spooner’s work in a variety of different ways. Finally, I would like to thank the staff of the American Antiquarian Society, the Rare Books Department of the Boston Public Library, and the Houghton Library and University Archives at Harvard University for their excellent research assistance.
1 Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, ch. 22, 2 Stat. 426 (1807).
2 LYSANDER SPOONER, THE UNCONSTITUTIONALITY OF SLAVERY (1860), reprinted in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF LYSANDER SPOONER, VOL. IV: ANTI-SLAVERY WRITINGS (Charles Shively ed., M & S Press 1971). This work originally appeared in two separately published parts in 1845 and 1847; the 1860 reprinting that appears in THE COLLECTED WORKS is the most complete edition of these parts brought together in a single volume. In the 1860 reprinting, Part First occupied pages 1–132, Part Second pages 133–277.
3 DOCUMENTS OF UPHEAVAL: SELECTIONS FROM WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON’S THE LIBERATOR, 1831–1865, 216 (Truman Nelson ed., 1966) [hereinafter DOCUMENTS OF UPHEAVAL].
5 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2821–22 (2008) (holding that “the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense”).
6 See McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 48 (2009). McDonald will address whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment against state and local authorities, after the 7th Circuit declined to extend the Second Amendment to state and local gun control efforts. See NRA of Am., Inc., v. City of Chicago, 567 F.3d 856 (7th Cir. 2009).
More from Lysander Spooner
- A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery
- Natural Law
- Our Financiers: Their Ignorance, Usurpations and Frauds
- The Constitution of No Authority
- The State versus the Highwayman
- The Unconstitutionality of Slavery
- Vices Are Not Crimes Introduction by Murray Rothbard with e-book in .pdf file format.
- A Biography of Lysander Spooner