The Abolitionist Secessionist?

By March 8, 2016March 2nd, 2023Review Posts

“To live honestly is to hurt no one, and give to every one his due.”-Lysander Spooner

Lysander Spooner was a Boston legal scholar and philosopher during the nineteenth century. What makes this man of Massachusetts valuable to the legacy of the Southern tradition is that Spooner was a consistent proponent of Jeffersonian Classical Liberalism*. There are two characteristics that are the most prominent to Lysander Spooner and his works. The first is his strong individualist personality. The second is his uncompromising dedication to the use of reason and evidence in the formation of his conclusions. Spooner would never shy from controversy in the name of defending morals or logic, and this dedication makes his works stimulating and often enjoyable for anyone of any degree of interest in studying them. Lysander Spooner was indeed a great philosopher and scholar both in his and our time.

Spooner published writings on nearly every subject, from economics, to religion, to copyright law. He even set out on an entrepreneurial venture of a private mail company to compete with the United States Post Office. To chronicle Spooner’s career in its entirety is beyond the scope of this work. This work will focus on two of Spooner’s positions, his position on slavery and his position on the war between the North and South.

Lysander Spooner was an abolitionist, but he was unique amongst other opponents of slavery in the North. Spooner didn’t believe that extra-legal or violent measures were necessary to end slavery. Instead he turned one of slavery’s biggest defenses against itself. Slavery was often claimed to be protected under the Constitution, leading to fiery activists like William Lloyd Garrison to claim that the Constitution was a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with Hell”. Spooner disagreed with such sentiment and wrote a detailed essay in 1840 titled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery where he uses his characteristically analytical legal interpretation to prove by peaceful and lawful means that slavery should be done away with. It has even been reported that after reading Spooner’s arguments, Frederick Douglas changed his views on the Constitution from those of Garrison to be in agreement with Spooner. The arguments Spooner makes are (in brief summary) that the Constitution must be read literally, and that arguments based upon hidden intent or implication on the part of the Founding Fathers’ words were illegitimate; from this principle, Spooner argued that since slavery wasn’t explicitly protected under the Constitution it couldn’t be defended as if it were. Spooner also claimed that because the Constitution was designed for the defense of human liberty, it could be argued that if it had to be used in a debate regarding slavery; it could only be used against the institution. Spooner would perform a similar analysis of the Constitution decades later (this will be explained later on). It is important to note that the literal interpretation of the words of the Constitution was championed by Thomas Jefferson, as opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s theory that the Constitution had implied powers that could be inferred almost arbitrarily by any politician who happens to interpret the document in a specific manner.

Like other abolitionists, Spooner disagreed with the Fugitive Slave Act, and would attempt to provide lawyers with legal loopholes in the law to help protect escaped slaves from being returned to their owners.  Spooner did deviate from his desire for peaceful abolition when he supported John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Spooner even went as far as to propose a plan for abolitionists to kidnap the governor of Virginia, in order to facilitate a prisoner exchange for Brown. The plan for an uprising against the slave owners  was of course, never executed, but it is evidence of one of the periods of Spooner’s life where his intellectual prowess led him to frustration and arguably even desperation with the people of his time. It is also important to note, that Spooner consistently emphasized the importance of appealing to the non-slave owners in the South in order to foster friendship, and to detach abolitionist ideals from their perception as being geographic antagonism.

There is no question of Spooner’s dedication to the abolitionist cause, a moral crusade that he defended with the utmost zeal and determination. Due to this, it will probably surprise many readers that on the outset of the War Between the States, Spooner defended the Confederate States of America. In much contrast to other abolitionists and war hawks in the North, Spooner despised the Republican Party, and the Union war effort. He argued that the war wasn’t over slavery, but for the Northern politicians to maintain an illegitimate dominion over the South. He openly criticized the members of the Republican party before and during the war. In a letter to William H. Seward dated in 1860, he recounts that Senator Albert Brown of Mississippi reacted to The Unconstitutionality of Slavery by saying, “the book is ingeniously written. No mere simpleton could ever have drawn such an argument. If his premises were admitted, I should say at once that it would take a Herculean task to overthrow his argument.” Spooner, attacking the Republican’s desire to protect slavery while attempting to gain abolitionist social support, gives Seward this statement; “Thus an open advocate of slavery from Mississippi, virtually makes more concessions to the antislavery character of the constitution, than a professed advocate of liberty, from New York…” Spooner also stated that the Republicans were “double­faced demagogues” and that he desired to “embarrass” their plans to “ride into power on the two horses of Liberty and Slavery”.  In 1864 Spooner wrote a letter to Charles Sumner where he challenges him on the same point. He criticizes Sumner as being a concessioner for slavery, while boasting of being in favor of abolition. He even cites a conversation that was reported to him by an associate of his where Sumner claimed that Spooner’s arguments put forth in The Unconstitutionality of Slavery were correct. But since Sumner never attacked slavery on a constitutional basis, and favored making war with the South, Spooner, in this letter calls him a “deliberately perjured traitor to the constitution, to liberty, and to truth.” He also states that the Republican’s refusal to attack slavery through constitutional arguments “placed the North wholly in the wrong, and the South wholly in the right.” Spooner, despite his temporary support for John Brown, had believed that violence was not necessary to abolish slavery (especially violence against non-slaveholders which comprised the majority of the Confederate population!). Spooner thunders upon Sumner and all of history with this sentence; ”You, and others like you have done more, according to your abilities, to prevent the peaceful abolition of slavery, than any other men in the nation…”. Spooner’s letters to Sumner and Seward offer an important perspective for anyone interested in the Jeffersonian tradition in American history as well as an abolitionist perspective on the role of slavery in the War Between the States. The letters show not just hypocrites in American politics, but a also a man whose dedication to truth transcended the comfort of social convenience, and popular politics.

Lysander Spooner’s quest for justice was far from finished. In the years after the war, Spooner wrote a series of essays that offered a methodical analysis of the current nature of the United States Constitution, and of the Union that had supposedly been preserved. There were six essays, but essays three through five are now lost to history, the titles that we have now are; No Treason (1), No Treason: The Constitution (2), and No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority (6). These essays are perhaps the finest examples of Jeffersonianism in Spooner’s work. A few summaries are necessary to emphasize this point.

The first essay offers a critique of the Northern point of view for the war. The essay is as scathing as his words to the previously mentioned Republican senators. For example, he contested the proclamation that the Union saved the idea of voluntary government and self-determination, a claim that was championed by Abraham Lincoln himself in his Gettysburg Address. Spooner wrote in No Treason,  “the late war has practically demonstrated that our government rests upon force – as much so as any government that ever existed.” and “In proportion to her wealth and population, the North has probably expended more money and blood to maintain her power over an unwilling people, than any other government ever did.” The general theme of Spooner’s argument in this essay is, that a government of consent necessarily means the consent of every individual human being that is to live under that government is required for that government to be called voluntary and free and that it is the right of every individual to terminate any voluntary association with each other if they have the desire to do so. This principle could extend to individuals acting in concert i.e., States seceding from the Union.  He concludes this essay with, “…the principle of individual consent, the little government that mankind need, is not only practicable, but natural and easy; and that the Constitution of the United States authorizes no government, except one depending wholly on voluntary support.”

This conclusion to the first essay is expanded upon in the second essay. In this piece, Spooner provides arguments that conclude that the Constitution and the government it prescribes are only valid and just if it depends exclusively upon voluntary support. He prefaces his argument by describing the preamble to the Constitution in this way, “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.” He chooses to emphasize the idea that individuals, not the States, ratified the Constitution, with the purpose of saying that even if this were the case, the Lincolnian argument still is invalid and unjust even if it is conceded that the Constitution wasn’t ratified by the States. He argues that, “Any one man, or any number of men, have had a perfect right, at any time, to refuse his or their further support; and nobody could rightfully object to his or their withdrawal.” Thus, he argues that secession or dissolution is an intrinsic human right. Spooner, also validates the Southern argument though, he follows up the previous quote with this statement, “On the other hand, if we say that the adoption was the act of the States, as States, it necessarily follows that they had the right to secede at pleasure….” Furthermore, Spooner argued in this essay that Southerners were innocent of treason against the United States, and he compared them with the American revolutionaries of 1776.

The sixth essay entitled, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority is the longest and hardest hitting essay. He spends nearly the first half of the essay making arguments as to how the Union had become illegitimate. He even includes a legal argument for those who served as Confederate soldiers designed to help them exempt themselves from oaths pledging loyalty to the federal government. This is in striking similarity to his work in finding legal loopholes in the Fugitive Slave Act decades earlier. This and other arguments that he wrote in this series of essays were published in Southern magazines, like De Bow’s Review. Spooner’s arguments regarding the Union, and government itself, are intricate and complex in scale and substance, and will not be discussed further here. What will be emphasized is the second half of the essay, which elaborates upon what Spooner argued, was the true nature of the War Between the States. Spooner explicitly states that, “The pretense that the “abolition of slavery” was either a motive or justification for the war, is a fraud…” He declares that the Union was motivated solely to exploit the Southern economy for the benefit of the corrupt Northern businesses that were the real power behind the Republican Party. Spooner argues that slavery could have been abolished peacefully, the war could have been prevented and, “a thousand times nobler union than we have ever had would have been the result.” If the abolitionist, Lysander Spooner’s support for Southerners was ever in doubt before, one could be satisfied with his final barrage against the Northern view of the war, “All these cries of having “abolished slavery,” of having “saved the country,” of having “preserved the union,” of establishing “a government of consent,” and of “maintaining the national honor,” are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats – so transparent that they ought to deceive no one – when uttered as justifications for the war, or for the government that has succeeded the war, or for now compelling the people to pay the cost of the war, or for compelling anybody to support a government that he does not want.”

Lysander Spooner was a forcible personality in his own time. But his influence is still felt today, most prominently amongst modern Libertarians like Tom Woods (author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History). His essay, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery was cited in the, District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court case as evidence in favor of preventing the ban of handguns. Spooner offers an important perspective for those who want to understand Southern history and the history of the War Between the States. The nature of the philosophy he advocated also serves to prove the universality of many of the principle that are held by the Southern Tradition. Considering just these examples from a lifelong career of Spooner’s battles for advancing freedom, it is no mystery as to why his gravestone in Massachusetts bears the title, “Champion of Liberty”.

*Lysander Spooner never explicitly gave a name to any ideology that he purported, only citing Natural Law and universal principles in his works, but these universal principles and axioms, namely those of individual rights, property rights, and self-determination are all integral to Jeffersonian thought. In addition to this, a man named Benjamin Tucker, a close associate of Spooner, identified the principles that he and Spooner advocated for as “unterrified Jeffersonianism.”


No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

No Treason: The Constitution

No Treason

Spooner’s Letter to Sumner

Spooner’s Letter to Seward

Wikipedia entry for Lysander Spooner

Lysander Spooner Biography

Matt De Santi

Matt De Santi is a high school senior in California interested in the Southern tradition.

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