Lysander Spooner

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The
19th-century individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker called Lysander
Spooner “our Nestor,” a Greek name denoting “wisdom.”
The 20th-century libertarian Murray Rothbard referred to Spooner
as “the last of the great natural rights theorists … the
last of the Old Guard believers in natural rights.”

Natural-rights
or natural-law theory, as espoused by Spooner, is based on the idea
that justice and just laws are inherent in nature – in the
nature of man and of reality. Thus, rights can be discovered and
they can be codified through documents such as the Constitution.
Rights cannot be created by man or by human agencies such as government.
Rather they emerge through reason and in the process of resolving
social conflicts. For example, the idea of self-ownership –
that every person has a natural jurisdiction over his own body –
emerged as a resolution to the conflict over slavery in America.

The modern
reader knows Spooner from the reprints of his work. Many of them
include a photograph that reflects a sense of the inner man. The
photo echoes a description Tucker once offered of his mentor. He
wrote,

… A visitor at the Boston Athenaeum Library … might have noticed
… the stooping figure of an aged man, bending over a desk piled
high with dusty volumes of history, jurisprudence, political science,
and constitutional law…. Had the old man chanced to raise his
head for a moment, the visitor would have seen, framed in long and
snowy hair and beard, one of the finest, kindliest, sweetest, strongest,
grandest faces that ever gladdened the eyes of man.

Lysander Spooner
was born in rural Massachusetts on January 19, 1808, and named after
Lysander of Sparta, the admiral who destroyed the Athenian fleet
during the Peloponnesian War. The first 25 years of his life were
spent on his family farm and gave little hint of the later Spooner,
whom many considered a radical among radicals. But his family contained
seeds of radicalism. Spooner later described them as “ardent
abolitionists,” meaning they advocated the immediate cessation
of slavery.

At 25, Spooner
went to work in the office of the Registrar of Deeds in Worcester,
a nearby town. There, a growing passion for legal theory led him
to the law offices of John Davis and Charles Allen,both of whom
were well-respected and influential jurists in Massachusetts. They
became his mentors.

Three years
later, Spooner launched his first attack on an unjust law. Massachusetts
required would-be lawyers who had college degrees to study in a
law office for three years before applying to the bar. Those without
a degree had to study for five years. Spooner considered the discrepancy
to constitute an unjust discrimination against the “well-educated
poor,” of whom he was a member. Thus, he opened an unlicensed
practice and successfully petitioned the General Court to repeal
the offending statute.

Tucker later
commented on Spooner’s first encounter with statute law:

… Already the details and formalities and absurdities and quackeries
…seemed but so much cobweb which he must brush away in order
to obtain a closer view of those fundamental veracities and realities
which he called the principles of natural justice….

Spooner’s
Massachusetts law practice did not flourish, possibly because some
people in the community were alienated by his deism. That is to
say: without denying the existence of God, Spooner rejected the
supernatural and authoritarian aspects of religion. Moreover, he
openly attacked the clergy and some Church teachings. His pamphlet
The
Deist’s Immortality, and an Essay on Man’s Accountability
for His Belief
(1834) states,

If a man read the narratives of the miracles said to have been performed
by Jesus, and his mind be perfectly convinced that the evidence
is insufficient to sustain the truth of such incredible facts, his
moral sense does not require him to go farther – it acquits
him in refusing his assent.

This theme
ran consistently through Spooner’s work: Questionauthority;
decide for yourself.

Spooner next
set up practice in Ohio but as the historian James J. Martin observed,
“The career of Spooner the jurist is far less important than
that of Spooner the critic of the Constitution and legislative processes.”
Thus, his writings, not his legal career, are a proper focus.

Spooner and
economics

From Ohio,
Spooner continued to write deist tracts and also published his first
constitutional analysis of an issue. The pamphlet Constitutional
Law, Relative to Credit, Currency, and Banking (1843) opens,
“The Constitution of the United States, (Art. 1, Sec. 10,)
declares that ‘No State shall pass any law impairing the obligation
of contracts.’” It continues by examining the restrictions
placed on currency and banking and demonstrating those acts to be
unconstitutional. They are also against natural law. “To issue
bills of credit, that is, promissory notes, is a natural right.”

The economic
Panic of 1837 undoubtedly directed Spooner’s interest toward
financial matters, if only because it caused him to lose everything.
Returning to the family farm, he must have pondered how the economy
could collapse so quickly. A later pamphlet, Poverty:
Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure
(Part First, 1846), offered
his vision of a perfect economic arrangement within society, an
arrangement that could be achieved through what he called seven
“economical propositions.”

First and
fundamentally: Every man should own the fruits of his own labor.

Second: To
own these fruits, “each man should be his own employer, or
work directly for himself.”

Third: To
do so, he must “have materials, or capital, upon which to bestow
his labor.”

Fourth: A
man without capital should be free to obtain it on credit through
contract at whatever rates are offered.

Fifth: To
obtain a viable rate of interest, “It is necessary that free
banking be allowed.”

Sixth: Credit
should be based on what a man has – that is, his property –
and not on what he has not – that is, his future earnings,
thus allowing him to pay a debt in full when it came due.

Seventh: “Creditors
should have liens upon the property of their debtors.”

To modern
ears, Spooner’s economic theories sound antiquated and flawed.
Perhaps this is because he wrote prior to modern developments such
as large-scale industry. And, indeed, it is Spooner’s works
on political theory and jurisprudence that have survived the test
of time. Nevertheless, it is necessary to briefly explore an area
to which Spooner himself directed so much attention – economic
theory.

His approach
to economics rested on two beliefs: people have an absolute claim
to their own labor; and, people have a right to contract freely
without government interference. He opposed government monopolies
on all forms of business, especially with respect to the issuing
of currency.

Why was the
right to issue private currency of primary importance to Spooner?
Part of the reason was, as stated in Poverty, he believed
private currency and unregulated banking were necessary conditions
for working people to emerge from poverty. Even low interest rates,
if they were fixed by law, acted to deny some laborers the ability
to pursue credit.

For example,
if a laborer had only risky capital to pledge against a loan, then
low rates prohibited him from paying the higher rate required to
offset the risk. Thus, any control on credit and interest rates
– even measures sold to the public as “labor friendly”
– actually worked to the workers’ disadvantage. In other
words, to put credit under the control of a banking elite killed
the ability of the poor to rise economically.

Money and banking

Another reason
Spooner stressed economic theory is the historical context in which
he lived. Decades after the Panic of 1837, he witnessed the Union
– the Northern States – pass a series of laws intended
to finance the Civil War it was waging against the South (1861–1865).
Through the Legal Tender Acts, Congress required everyone to accept
its bills as legal tender despite their declining value in the marketplace
relative to gold. Through the National Banking Act of 1863, Congress
guaranteed the notes of authorized bankers and legally protected
them from liability for debt. A national tax of 10 percent for all
money not authorized by Congress was also established. Through such
measures, Spooner believed that Congress held a de facto and unlawful
monopoly over the most important industry to the American economy
– banking.

He also believed
that that monopoly infringed on the right of individual persons
to contract in at least two ways. First, private individuals were
prevented from issuing private money to those who wished to accept
it. Second, bankers were freed from personal liability through the
act of incorporation.

Spooner did
not view banks as collective entities or impersonal mechanisms.
Instead, he believed that the specific men who ran the banks should
be held personally responsible and legally liable for their policies.
In his work A New Banking System (1873), Spooner explains,

The “National” system so called … is, in truth, only
a private system; a mere privilege conferred upon a few, to enable
them to control prices, property, and labor; and thus swindle, plunder,
and oppress all the rest of the people.

As early as
1843, in Constitutional Law, Relative to Credit, Currency, and
Banking, Spooner advocated the issuance of private currency
as the right of every person. He considered the popular argument
that government was actually ensuring people access to money by
prohibiting private competition to be as absurd as saying that government
provided people with food by refusing to allow individuals to grow
their own vegetables.

Spooner’s
economic theories were meant to provide a practical blueprint for
working people to achieve economic independence and prosperity.
Thus, his tracts address the real and pressing problems he saw around
him. For example, the work entitled A New Banking System
is subtitled The Needful Capital for Rebuilding the Burnt District,
a reference to a fire that had devastated part of Boston.

Spooner and
mail delivery

Spooner’s
personal business ventures were also practical, while, at the same
time, expressing a defiance of government regulation. In 1844, he
founded the American Letter Mail Company to deliver mail from Boston
to New York and, later, to Philadelphia and Baltimore as well. At
that time, the federal government was trying to establish and enforce
a monopoly on the delivery of all mail other than newspapers. But
private mail companies were persistent; they carried bags of mail
on boats or stagecoaches, which they delivered far faster than the
government and for a fraction of the price. Companies like Spooner’s
even printed their own private stamps.

True to form,
Spooner issued a pamphlet contesting the government’s “right”
to a monopoly on any aspect of the mail. The
Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress, Prohibiting Private
Mails
(1844) opened, “The Constitution of the United
States (Art. 1. Sec. 8.) declares that ‘the Congress shall
have power to establish post-offices and post roads.’”
But the authority to establish something, Spooner argued, was quite
different from the authority to prohibit others from doing the same.
The Constitution granted no exclusivity to the national government.

The federal
government responded by cutting the price of its postage almost
in half. A congressional act also levied heavy fines on private
mail delivery. Tucker explained,

… As the carrying of each letter constituted a separate offence,
the government was able to shower prosecutions on him [Spooner]
and crush him out in a few months by loading him with legal expenses.

The American
Letter Mail Company was driven out of business.

Nevertheless,
Spooner derived clear satisfaction from having pressured the government
into lowering the cost of a stamp. His pamphlet Who
Caused the Reduction of Postage? Ought He to Be Paid?
(1850)
states of himself, “Mr. Spooner has been the principal, and
by far the most efficient agent in effecting the reduction of postage.”
Many agreed with Tucker when he dubbed Spooner the “father
of cheap postage in America.”

Spooner and
slavery

After the
collapse of his company, Spooner once again retired to the family
farm, where he quickly became immersed in the issue of slavery,
which had emerged as the great moral issue of the day.

Spooner’s
first work on slavery, The
Unconstitutionality of Slavery, Part First
, appeared in
1845 with “Part Second” following in 1846. The pamphlet
caused an immediate stir within the abolitionist movement and brought
Spooner into prominence as a radical reformer. The leading abolitionist,
William Lloyd Garrison, had long argued that the Constitution should
be discarded as a pro-slavery document. Indeed, the masthead of
Garrison’s anti-slavery periodical, The Liberator, declared
the Constitution to be a “covenant with death, an agreement
with hell.”

By contrast,
Spooner defended the Constitution. He argued along legal lines that
slavery contradicted the fundamental principles of the Constitution,
which extended the protection of rights to all persons. He wrote,

The first rule, in the interpretation of the constitution, as of
all other laws and contracts, is, “that the intention of
the instrument must prevail.”

And the intention
of the Constitution made it an anti-slavery document. In so arguing,
Spooner did not take a more moderate political position than Garrison.
Arguably, he was more radical. For example, the first edition of
Unconstitutionality defended the right of slaves to use guns
“in defense of their own lives and liberties.”

Defending
the Constitution placed Spooner firmly on one side of a debate raging
within abolitionism, and it won him financial support from the philanthropist
Gerrit Smith. Non-Garrisonian abolitionists wanted to preserve the
Constitution and to use political means in order to challenge slavery.

Thus, Spooner’s
writings became campaign material for the Liberty Party, which had
been formed in 1840 from the memberships of the American and foreign
anti-slavery societies.

Spooner’s
arguments made such a deep impression within anti-slavery ranks
that Garrisonian abolitionists scrambled to answer them. Wendell
Phillips attempted to refute Unconstitutionality with a pamphlet
entitled “Review of Lysander Spooner’s Essay ‘The
Unconstitutionality of Slavery’” (1847). Nevertheless,
anti-slavery activists, including the famed black orator Frederick
Douglass, defected to “political” abolitionism largely
because of Spooner’s influence.

Spooner’s
work drew attention partly because of its unusual approach. Abolitionists
commonly appealed to the Bible, which he eschewed. Slavery advocates
commonly pointed to the law, especially to the Constitution, and
Spooner not only met them on their own ground, he bested them.

Spooner’s
other anti-slavery writings include A Defence for Fugitive Slaves
(1850), A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery (1858), To
the Non-Slaveholders of the South (1858), and Address of
the Free Constitutionalists to the People of the United States
(1860). Through these writings, his evolution towards anarchism
becomes clear. To some, it seemed clear from the beginning. For
example, in responding to Unconstitutionality, Phillips had
remarked, “Mr. Spooner’s idea is practical no-governmentism.
It leaves every one to do what is right in his own eyes.” (One
term for an “anarchist” in those days was a “no-government
man.”)

The evolution
can be seen from the writing of Unconstitutionality, in which
Spooner defends the right of slaves to armed resistance against
oppressors, to A Defence for Fugitive Slaves, in which he
extends that argument to all individuals. In the latter, he states,

This right of the people, therefore, to resist usurpation, on the
part of the government, is a strictly constitutional right.
And the exercise of the right is neither rebellion against the constitution,
nor revolution – it is a maintenance of the constitution itself,
by keeping the government within the constitution. It is also a
defence of the natural rights of the people, against robbers and
trespassers, who attempt to set up their own personal authority
and power….

Thus, the
right of an individual or of a people to reject government and to
rebel against it is recognized by the Constitution itself.

Who decides
whether natural rights or the Constitution have been breached by
the government? Spooner maintained,

If
an indictment be found, the jury who try that indictment, are
judges of the law, as well as the fact. If they think the law
unconstitutional, or even have any reasonable doubt of its constitutionality,
they are bound to hold the defendants justified in resisting its
execution.

The right of
people to defend themselves against the usurpation of government
was the central theme of Spooner’s next major work, An
Essay on the Trial by Jury
(1852), which some consider his
masterpiece. Benjamin Tucker stated the gist of Trial by Jury:
“No man should be punished for an offence unless by the unanimous
verdict and sentence of twelve men chosen by lot from the whole
body of citizens to judge not only the facts but the law, the justice
of the law, and the extent of the penalty”; and “The gradual
encroachment of judges upon the rights of juries” renders “the
latter practically worthless in the machinery of justice.”

Spooner believed
that a jury should judge the justice of laws as well as the facts
of cases and then base its verdict on either judgment. Juries should
also determine the extent of punishment or penalties. If a guilty
verdict required unanimity from 12 randomly chosen people, then
the jury system would be more likely to serve as an effective brake
upon unjust laws because it was unlikely that 12 disinterested people
would agree to act unjustly against a stranger or neighbor.

Spooner’s
Trial by Jury allows a minority of one to veto the verdict
of the majority. Although this may seem like minority rule, the
minority can only negate law, not enact it. The single juror can
only prevent a guilty verdict, not enforce one. Thus, the single
juror is able to prevent legal damage, not inflict it.

The prospect
of a juror’s veto particularly appealed to Spooner, who had
written on the unconstitutionality of laws regarding slavery, the
mail, currency, and capital punishment. On these matters, public
opinion often differed significantly from the law. Thus, the jury
could constitute a much-needed “court of conscience” that
expressed the common sense and decency of the ordinary person. Of
course, judges would never support the transfer of power from their
hands into those of the people. Accordingly, Spooner turned his
focus away from “authorities” and toward the common man.

He also turned
away from a single-minded focus on the Constitution. Instead, he
looked at the broader tradition of codified natural law into which
the Constitution fell as merely one example. He turned to the common
law. In doing so, he searched for a form of justice not based on
authority but on universal truths.

Thus Trial
by Jury draws heavily on the Magna Carta, an early 13th-century
document signed by King John, which acted as a charter of liberties
through which the English nobility protected itself against the
power of the Crown. The document is widely viewed as a milestone
in the evolution of human liberty. One of the protections established
by the Magna Carta was trial by jury. Spooner stated,

That the trial by jury is all that has been claimed for it … is
proved both by the history and the language of the Great Charter
of English Liberties, to which we are to look for a true definition
of the trial by jury, and of which the guaranty for that trial is
the vital, and most memorable, part.
Slavery and
the Civil War

As with economic
theory, Spooner’s approach to justice extended beyond analysis
into practice. In October 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and
several followers seized the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s
Ferry and were captured after a gun battle in which people were
killed. Spooner suggested that supporters of Brown kidnap the governor
of Virginia and trade him for the imprisoned abolitionist. The unrealized
plan not only expressed Spooner’s contempt for politicians
but also his lack of confidence that the judicial system would render
justice. Brown was hanged.

In 1861, the
Civil War erupted. Spooner’s hatred of slavery did not lead
him to join with most abolitionists, who supported the North. Even
William Lloyd Garrison abandoned his pacifist views. Garrison later
became critical of Lincoln’s clear desire to preserve the Union
at almost any cost; he believed the focus should be on abolishing
slavery. By contrast, Spooner never thought the war was being fought
for freedom or justice.

In a later
essay, No Treason No. 1 (1867), Spooner commented,

On the part of the North, the war was carried on, not to liberate
slaves, but by a government that had always perverted and violated
the Constitution, to keep the slaves in bondage; and was still willing
to do so, if the slaveholders could be thereby induced to stay in
the Union.

Spooner also
offered an economic analysis of the war in which he argued that
Northern business interests supported the conflict in order to control
Southern markets.

No Treason
– which competes with Trial by Jury as Spooner’s
magnum opus – undoubtedly sprang from the soul-searching that
was occasioned by the Civil War. The world as Spooner knew it had
been turned on its head. The historian Joseph Stromberg observes
that Spooner “grew up in a largely free society whose constituent
republics were united on the basis of consent. By the time he died
in 1887, he had seen the central state strengthened by fire and
sword, 1861–1865, and the union shifted to a basis of naked force.”

The naked
force did not end with the war. The reconstruction of the South
crushed individual rights and stifled dissent. To Spooner, the war
and its aftermath constituted the crushing of the very idea of “government
by consent.”

Government
by consent means that every person who pays taxes or provides a
service to the state must render his consent in order for the exchange
to be just. Without such consent, the “exchange” is actually
brute force that the government imposes upon the individual. Otherwise
stated, if people pay taxes or offer a service because they fear
the consequence of not doing so, then the state is no better than
a robber who says, “Your money or your life.” Or, as Spooner
phrased it, government becomes “a mere conspiracy of the strong
against the weak.”

Consent and
the Constitution

Until the
Civil War, Spooner had labored to integrate the principles of the
Constitution with those of natural law. No Treason abandoned
that attempt. He now rejected the idea that anyone was obliged to
respect the Constitution. Such an obligation arose only from consent
that only free persons could render, and no one living person had
consented to the Constitution.

The first
No Treason – subtitled The Suppression of the Rebellion
Finally Disposes of the Pretence That the United States Government
Rests on Consent – was intended as the first of six pamphlets.
But only two more appeared: No. II: The Constitution (1867),
and No.
VI: The Constitution of No Authority
(1870). In introducing
VI, Spooner noted that Nos. III, IV, and V did not exist but he
did not explain their absence.

The brief
“Introductory” to the series ends with a pointed observation.
Before the war, there had been some grounds for claiming that –
in theory, at least – government rested on the principle of
consent. “But nothing of that kind,” Spooner wrote, “can
be said now.”

He claimed
that, because of the war, the principle on which the government
and the Constitution rested was “the principle on which the
war was carried on by the North,” namely, that “men may
rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government
that they do not want”:

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.

Thus, the
series aimed at nothing less than overthrowing the moral and legal
authority of the Constitution.

No Treason
No. 1 asks what government by consent implies. Spooner first
analyzes the most common form of consent on which governments rest:
that is, the consent of the strong or the majority through which
power is imposed on the weak or the minority. He raises several
objections to this process, the most basic one being,

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.

The “principle
that the majority have a right to rule” merely divides government
into “two bodies of men” – masters and slaves –
and, so, cements constant conflict into society.

Why was the
series entitled No Treason? No. II repeats the only definition
of that word offered by the Constitution: “Treason against
the United States shall consist only in levying war against them,
or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
Spooner concludes that the definition should be interpreted “like
all other criminal laws, in the sense most favorable to liberty
and justice.” He examines the word’s “true and legitimate
meaning in our mother tongue.” Treason means a breach of allegiance
that “necessarily implies treachery, deceit, breach of faith.
Without these, there can be no treason.”

The so-called
crime of treason makes sense only if the accused lives within a
government’s claimed jurisdiction and only if he has rendered
allegiance to be governed. If not, then the charge is specious because
it is impossible to breach a loyalty that has never been given.
Moreover, Spooner argues that the government properly assumes the
burden of proving that consent has been rendered and is still in
effect: that is, not withdrawn or expired. He observes, “Even
those who actually voted for the adoption of the Constitution, did
not pledge their faith for any specific time; since no specific
time was named … during which the association should continue.”

No Treason
No. VI is subtitled The Constitution of No Authority.
It opens, “The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation.
It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between
man and man.” But the current Constitution does not even purport
to fit that description. “It purports, at most, to be only
a contract between persons living eighty years ago.” Spooner
concludes,

If, then, those who established the Constitution, had no power to
bind … their posterity, the question arises, whether their posterity
have bound themselves? If they have done so, they can have done
so in only one or both of these two ways, viz. by voting, and paying
taxes.

Spooner now
explains why voting cannot collectively bind “the people”
or even a particular individual to the Constitution. A rough listing
of the points in his argument is as follows:

  • The act
    of voting can bind only those who vote.

  • Most people
    do not vote in any given election; many people never vote. Therefore,
    they have not consented.

  • To be binding,
    a vote must be “perfectly voluntary” yet a “very
    large number” vote in self-defense.

  • Taxation
    is compulsory and many vote only to prevent their money from being
    used against them.

  • Votes for
    unsuccessful candidates cannot be binding.

  • A secret
    vote provides no legal evidence by which to bind any particular
    voter to the Constitution.

Of voting
Spooner concludes, “So far, therefore, as voting is concerned,
the Constitution, legally speaking, has no supporters at all.”
Of taxes, he observes, “The payment of taxes, being compulsory,
of course furnishes no evidence that any one voluntarily supports
the Constitution.” Therefore, he concluded,

Inasmuch
as the Constitution was never signed, nor agreed to, by anybody,
as a contract, and therefore never bound anybody, and is now binding
upon nobody; and is, moreover, such an one as no people can ever
hereafter be expected to consent to, except as they may be forced
to do so at the point of the bayonet, … it is unfit to exist.

Spooner completes
his journey from defending the Constitution to dismissing it.

Spooner’s
legacy

Spooner’s
legacy was preserved largely by younger radicals of the day who
viewed him as a mentor, especially Benjamin Tucker. Upon Spooner’s
death, Tucker purchased his printed pamphlets and unpublished manuscripts
from the estate. Thereafter, he offered the pamphlets for sale in
his periodical Liberty (1881–1908) and donated the proceeds
to the Spooner Publication Fund that he established to print and
promote his Nestor’s manuscripts.

Tucker’s
influence on Spooner and his legacy cannot be overstated. He set
the context that allowed Spooner’s ideas to be preserved. Prior
to the 1870s, radical individualism did not exist as a movement.
While he was a student at M.I.T. in the early 1870s, Tucker acted
as a focal point around which a group of radicals including such
“veterans” as Spooner, Josiah Warren, William B. Greene,
and Ezra Heywood gathered. Tucker’s first periodical appeared
in 1877; The Radical Review lasted through four issues and
included three essays by Spooner. A full-blown movement emerged
with the publication of Tucker’s second periodical, Liberty.

More than
any other outside influence, Spooner set the original anti-statist
tone for Liberty. During the periodical’s first years,
Tucker published Spooner’s classic but lengthy work on natural
rights, “A Letter to Grover Cleveland, on His False, Absurd,
Self-contradictory, and Ridiculous Inaugural Address,” in 19
installments.

Liberty
also ran original pieces by Spooner, sometimes under a pseudonym,
sometimes under his own name, for example, his short essay entitled
“A Letter to Thomas F. Bayard: Challenging His Right –
And That of All the Other So-Called Senators and Representatives
in Congress – To Exercise Any Legislative Power Whatever over
the People of the United States.” Tucker’s occasional
co-editor, Victor Yarros, prepared what he called “an abridgement
and rearrangement” of Trial by Jury, which ran in serialized
form under the title “Free Political Institutions: Their Nature,
Essence, and Maintenance.”

Spooner’s
life revolved around “the political” – pounding out
theory and its implementation – and there seemed to be little
room left for “the personal.” He never married and his
personal life is something of a mystery or a blank. Consider the
issue of women. Politically, Spooner was a sort of early feminist;
he argued that the rights of women derive from the same source as
the rights of a man – a shared humanity – and are identical
to those of a man. But, personally, he seemed to display little
interaction with or interest in women; perhaps an early romance
and engagement that ended badly had made him a confirmed bachelor.
Whatever the reason, Spooner had no children. He accumulated no
wealth other than devoted friends and the ideas that were his constant
companions.

Tucker, who
was present, described his mentor’s final moments: “He
died at one o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, [1887]
in his little room … surrounded by trunks and chests bursting
with the books, manuscripts, and pamphlets which he had gathered
about him in his active pamphleteer’s warfare over half a century
long.” Spooner was 79 years old.

In his loving
obituary entitled “Our Nestor Taken From Us” (Liberty,
May 28, 1887), Tucker wrote that the name Lysander Spooner would
be “henceforth memorable among men.” His prediction has
not come to pass in a wide sense. But neither have Spooner’s
name and work been forgotten. Recent years have seen a revival of
interest in Spooner, including publication of The
Lysander Spooner Reader
and the flowering of websites dedicated
to reprinting his work.

In the excellent
biographical essay that opens The
Collected Works of Lysander Spooner
(1971), Charles Shively
observes of Spooner,

In
our time, both his example and his ideas concerning the absolute
inadequacy of force and of government remain relevant. The liberation
movements of our day are particularly concerned to end coercion
and dominance…. In place of these slave-master relationships,
there is a search for forms of cooperation among equals. In this
search Spooner was a pioneer and a prophet.

February
11, 2006

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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