Monday, October 28, 2019

Lysander Spooner

Massachusetts was a hotbed of intellectual, political, and philosophical thought in the 19th century. Amid the many philosophers, writers, and statesmen from the commonwealth, Lysander Spooner is often forgotten or overlooked in favor of other Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. However, Spooner’s writing was cited in Constitutional amendments and court decisions both then and now. He remains a vital figure in the early history of American anarchism, and an integral member of the once vibrant community of Bostonian anarchists.

Lysander Spooner

Lysander Spooner was born in Athol, Massachusetts on January 19, 1808. After working on his father’s farm, he studied law under John Davis, future Governor of Massachusetts and U.S. Senator. However, at that time law students who had not attended a college were required to study for two extra years, even though a college education was largely based on the humanities and did not provide a legal background. He started his own practice after three years of study despite this law, and published a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature in the Worcester Republican about the social inequality in legal education in 1835.

Spooner believed strongly in natural law, that is the unwritten body of universal moral principles that underlie the ethical and legal norms by which human conduct is sometimes evaluated and governed, as opposed to positive law, the written rules and regulations of a government. He was considered a radical, especially after he wrote several pamphlets critical of Christianity, and his legal career suffered as a result. He left Worcester and moved to Ohio to try his hand at land speculation, but unfortunately failed due to the economic impact of the Panic of 1837.

This financial crisis inspired much of Spooner’s economic writing. In Constitutional Law Relative to Credit, Currency and Banking (1843), Poverty, Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure (1846) and A New System of Paper Currency (1861), he created an anarchist banking system and basis for paper currency. While different political factions in the United States were arguing about whether currency should be based on gold and silver, Spooner’s banking system was structured around land. He believed that this would be far more stable and completely independent from the government, which would allow individuals to borrow money more freely with which to establish themselves. Ultimately, according to Poverty, Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure, this would result in an even distribution of wealth in a harmonious society where class conflict did not exist. Further, this society absolutely did not include slave labor.

Constitutional law, relative to credit, currency and banking (1843)
by Lysander Spooner. Part of the State Library's collections.
These ideas regarding free markets and competition led Spooner to his next venture in 1844: he moved to New York City and established the American Letter Mail Company. The U.S. Post Office had a legal monopoly on letter carrying, and its rates were notoriously highly in the mid-1800’s. People were getting more and more creative in order to avoid the high costs of sending letters and packages, some even sending newspapers with the message underlined throughout different articles as newspaper delivery was exempt from the government law. However, in 1843, federal case United States vs. Adams & Company (1843) confirmed that while it was illegal for anyone to set up a company to transport mail, it was not forbidden for commissioned passengers to carry mail. Private businesses, including Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company, were thus founded and prospered in competition to the expensive U.S. Postal Service. Spooner openly advertised his company, which thrived on a postal route between Baltimore and Boston, and published a pamphlet challenging the U.S. Post Office’s legal monopoly entitled The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails (1844). Because of this high publicity, the Postmaster General legally targeted the American Letter Mail Company, and eventually the federal government enacted a law in 1851 that further strengthened their postal monopoly. However, postage rates did dramatically decrease as a result of their competition with private letter carrying companies and remained that way after the 1851 legislation. Spooner continued to fight for postal rate reduction, but did not receive credit from his contemporaries, even publishing a pamphlet in his defense entitled Who Caused the Reduction of Postage in 1845? (1850), which was generally ignored.

Lysander Spooner’s pamphlet
Who caused the reduction of postage?: Ought he to be paid? (1851).
Part of the State Library's collection.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these failings, Spooner was not discouraged. After moving back to Massachusetts, he focused on the question of slavery. His entire family had been ardent Abolitionists, and he used his legal education to attack the institution of slavery through legal arguments. While many individuals believed that slavery was morally wrong, Spooner believed he could prove that it was legally unconstitutional. This would undermine many politicians from the South who believed that the U.S. Constitution upheld slavery and could be a way to use government to end slavery entirely. He obtained financial support from Gerrit Smith, a wealthy philanthropist and abolitionist living in upstate New York, so he could focus on researching and writing this treatise. In The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845), Spooner argued that the preamble “We the people” included all in the United States regardless of skin color, and thus that those bound in slavery were therefore citizens that could claim the all the rights and benefits as White citizens. His arguments would later be written into the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War.

Spooner further wrote that if a law was unconstitutional, it was the duty of a citizen to resist that law. He continued to apply this concept to slavery in Defence for Fugitive Slaves (1850), stating that it was legally and morally correct to escape slavery and for others to assist those escaping slavery. In Plan for the Abolition of Slavery (1858), he called for the use of guerilla warfare against slaveholders. His writing would inspire many Abolitionists, including John Brown, whose 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia attempted to initiate an armed slave revolt. However, the Abolitionist movement was highly factionalized, and Spooner was attacked by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both prominent Abolitionists who believed in moral suasion, while Spooner himself attacked prominent anti-slavery politicians like Charles Sumner and William H. Seward for supporting a vengeful war based on maintaining the Union rather than ending slavery. Once the Civil War broke in 1861, Spooner denounced the North’s military action against the South, stating that the Confederate States had the legal right to secede from the Union.

The front page of A plan for the abolition of slavery (1858)
by Lysander Spooner. Part of the State Library's collections.

Lysander Spooner continued to write and publish works through the end of his life, especially regarding his ideas regarding banking systems independent of government and other doctrines such as jury nullification. He became friends with notable early American anarchists such as Clarence Lee Swartz and Benjamin Tucker, who created Liberty, an anarchist periodical newspaper for which Spooner wrote articles regularly. He remained in Boston for the rest of his life and was a regular at the Boston Athenaeum until his death in 1887. He is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Boston.

Further reading

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff

Monday, October 21, 2019

November Author Talk: Richard W. Judd

“Was Henry a Hippie? Locating Thoreau in a Changing Modern World”
An Author Talk with Richard W. Judd
Wednesday, November 6, 2019—Noon to 1:00pm
State Library of Massachusetts—Room 341, Massachusetts State House

On Wednesday, November 6, the State Library will welcome renowned environmental historian Dr. Richard W. Judd, author of the recent book, Finding Thoreau: The Meaning of Nature in the Making of an Environmental Icon. Please join us for Dr. Judd’s talk, “Was Henry a Hippie? Locating Thoreau in a Changing Modern World.”

Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s most widely-recognized authors, but at the time of his death in 1862, he was relatively unknown as a writer. In his book Finding Thoreau, Dr. Judd details Thoreau’s reversal of fortune over the years, from obscurity to fame as an environmental icon. By studying how critics in different ages responded to Thoreau’s writings, this well-researched book explores the ways in which the concepts of the environment and nature have evolved in American culture over the decades.

Dr. Judd is the author of numerous books and articles on the topics of conservation and environmental history, focusing especially on Maine and northern New England. Recently retired, he spent over three decades as a Professor in the History Department at the University of Maine. He has also served as the editor on a number of projects, including Historical Atlas of Maine, the Journal of Forest History, and the periodical Maine History.

The State Library’s author talks are free and open to all. For more information, please visit our website at

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Monday, October 7, 2019