Biography from The Collected Works of Lysander Spooner, by Charles Shively, © 1971 by M&S Press.

Title Pages
Chapter 1  [PDF]
Chapter 2 [PDF]
Chapter 3 [PDF]
Chapter 4 [PDF]
Chapter 5 [PDF]
Chapter 6 [PDF]
Chapter 7 [PDF]
Chapter 8 [PDF]
Chapter 9 [PDF]
Chapter 10 [PDF]

Chapter 1

Lysander Spooner came from the flintly farmland of rural New England. He was born January 19, 1808, on his father's farm near Athol, Massachusetts, the second child and second son in a family of six sons and three daughters. Not a single word has survived from Lysander's hand about his father, Asa Spooner (1778-1851); the father evidently was of strong authority. In the tradition of rural New England, he was, according to a family genealogist, “a man of great independence and individuality of character.” [1]

Asa Spooner was in turn the son of Wing Spooner, a captain in the Revolutionary War, who brought to his family many of the reform impulses of the eighteenth century. Asa was a lone advocate of temperance, which, when first introduced found only one other supporter in the Athol area. Although a favorite reform of religious societies, temperance owed most of its original impetus to the eighteenth century deists.

We can only speculate about Asa’s religious opinions generally, but that he was no orthodox Puritan may be seen by the names he chose for his two oldest sons. Instead of a Biblical or a Christian name such as his own, Asa gave to his oldest son the name of Leander, a pagan character, who swam the Hellespont to make love to Hero, a priestess of Sestos. The second son was named Lysander; Lysander was the admiral of Sparta who destroyed the Athenian Beet, ending the Peloponnesian War.

With nine children, Lysander's mother, Dolly (Brown) Spooner (1784-1845), had little time to be anything but a mother. Lysander remembered her as “one of the kindest of mothers and one of the best of women.”  She seems to have been more orthodox in her religion than her husband; we may imagine that Lysander had his own family in mind when, in Deist's Reply to the Alleged Supernatural Evidences of Christianity (1836), he complained that only women were gullible enough to believe the New Testament stories. Lysander’s oldest sister, Abigail, served many years as a missionary to the Ojibway Indians for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a largely Congregational group. Although more orthodox in the religious sense, such missionary work was as much an effort toward reform as was temperance and abolition. [2]

Both the men and women of the Spooner family agreed on abolition. Lysander recalled at his mother’s death that she and the whole family had been “ardent abolitionists for years.” And after rushing sixty miles from Boston to be at her deathbed, Lysander counted it “no slight consolation” that his mother had seen in print his Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845). “During those [last] two days, she was too sick to talk much,” Lysander wrote a friend, “but she expressed great pleasure that my book was out and that it was thought likely to do so much good.” [3]

The life and social traditions of the family were in many ways what they had been for two centuries in New England. Hard work, discipline, poverty, and hardship, were a common heritage. Since the seventeenth century, children had often been sent to live with another family so, that paternal affection would not weaken the desired rigorous discipline. Lysander’s younger brother, William, lived with an uncle in New Hampshire from his seventh to sixteenth year, and then was on his own.

Lysander did not leave the family household and was, consequently, obligated to repay his father for having fed and reared him. From his sixteenth to his twenty-fifth year, Lysander was bound by a formal agreement to work on the family farm and, after the fashion of an apprenticeship, the father was to provide food, lodging, and “good educational advantages.” Whatever Lysander learned was sufficient to enable him to teach school for a short time. Later he worked as tutor for a wealthy farmer’s children in nearby Winchendon, Massachusetts.

Once his obligations to his father were completed, Lysander was on his own much as his brother William was several years before. William worked as a store clerk in Vermont, and saved enough money to move to Boston where he served in a counting house until he was able to open his own business as a dealer  in  hides  and  leather.  When William had gone to Boston, he did not have money for clothing, and he was given nothing, by his family, but his temperance and frugality were rewarded with splendid success. William Spooner eventually became one of the largest tanners in the country, and he was the first President of the New England Shoe and Leather Association, a philanthropist, an officer in the Boston Board of Trade, and a completely successful businessman. His was a model life for any New England boy, and Lysander Spooner was always to have a living sermon of success right in his own family.
Lysander intended to be as successful as his brother when he left the family farm and went to nearby Worcester; he too worked in a store, and he too did clerical work—in the office of the Registrar of Deeds in Worcester. His year’s service there saw him become a careful and “very reliable” examiner and executor of titles.  The next step was into the law and, in 1833, Lysander began his legal studies in the offices of John Davis (1787-1854).  An eminent politician, Davis was shortly elected governor and served several terms; later, he was a United States Senator (1835-40; 1845-53), and he was long prominent in the national councils of the Whig party.  As Davis spent much time out of Worcester, Spooner probably learned most of his law from a distinguished jurist, Charles Allen (1797- 1869).  Allen was then state senator from Worcester, and he later served many years as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  Davis and Allen must have been impressed with Spooner’s ability, as it was a mark of some favor for a lawyer to allow a young man to study in his office.

The influence of Davis and Allen on Spooner was by no means small; they were conservative, judicious, and above all, rigorously logical. In their offices, Spooner mastered the fine art of legal reasoning, ever to mark his own writings. Men of independent judgment, Davis and Allen both were strong foes of slavery long before abolition became a popular cause in Massachusetts. Davis was one of two senators who refused to vote for a declaration of war against Mexico in 1845. Allen became a Free Soil congressman in 1848. Moreover, as Spooner grew older, he came to model his life on that of the older Davis. What an observer said of Davis, might later have been said of Spooner; he was called “a great white bear,” possessed of an awkward and impressive dignity. [4]

The rule of Massachusetts courts required a student to study in a lawyer’s office before admission to the bar—three years was required of a college graduate; but for a non-graduate, five years were required.  In those days a college education was purely classical; it offered a lawyer no advantage other than ornament and polish.

Believing this rule discriminated against the “well-educated poor,” Spooner set out to test the legality of the provision. Although Davis had graduated from Yale, and Allen from Harvard, they encouraged their young protégé to set up his own practice in defiance of the rules. Spooner printed cards which read: “Lysander Spooner, offers to the public his services in the Profession of the Law. Offices in the Central Exchange. Worcester, April 8, 1835.” [5] To justify this action, Spooner published a petition in the Worcester Republican, August 26, 1835, which was sent to each member of the Massachusetts General Court. Inasmuch as John Davis was then Governor and Charles Allen was a state senator, Spooner already had two important men on his side, and it was no surprise that the restriction was voted down easily in the 1836 legislative session. Spooner’s petition, “To the Members of the Legislature of Massachusetts,” certainly was not the only force to bring about the change, but it did crystalize the prevailing sentiment. Spooner’s principal plea was that every man should be given an equal chance to prove himself. He argued that “no one has yet ever dared advocate, in direct terms, so monstrous a principle as that the rich ought to be protected by law from the competition of the poor.”

While mastering the law, Spooner also found time to read general theology and philosophy. From his study he emerged a skeptic and boldly attacked Christianity and the Bible in The Deist’s Immortality, and an Essay on Man’s Accountability for his Belief (1834), and The Deist’s Reply to the Alleged Supernatural Evidences of Christianity (1836). He showed his legal training in approaching these disputed theological questions: axiomatically, he accepted the proposition that “Our minds are so constituted that they are convinced by evidence.” The traditional evidences used to support Christianity are here set down and judged.     As a result, Christ is dismissed as a charlatan, and the Bible as an unreliable set of old wives’ tales (if not outright lies).  Clergymen knew all this, Spooner argued, but they use their offices for prestige and an easy living.  His pamphlets were intended to “awaken opposition to the Clergy and Christianity” because they “delude and enslave the imaginations of the young . . . and . . . make men dupes, fools, slaves, cowards, bigots, and fanatics . . .” (In proof of the latter point, he cited contemporary revivalists and Joseph Smith.)

Such outspoken language must have marked Spooner, among his Worcester associates, as the village atheist. True, he was a “deist”—one who believed in God; true, the Unitarians no less than Spooner desupernaturalized Christ. But other critics of traditional dogma were soft and gentlemanly—ever solicitous of their opposition. Spooner was uncompromising and harsh with clergymen and believers. Many men doubtless agreed with Spooner’s position, but they would never publicly say so. There was a tacit agreement among gentlemen that religion kept people in their place, and that without restraint they would become virtual wolves. Such arguments must have reinforced Spooner’s determination to unmask the hypocrisy.

Spooner’s attack on the clergy identified him at once as a radical. Such an identification would not draw clients to his office.  In large measure, men in Worcester trusted each other on the basis of mutual respectability, which was measured mainly by church membership; indeed, members of the same church often voted for and traded with one another. Many may have had religious doubts but, in the interest of good business, they said nothing to offend their potential customers.

Business in Worcester, moreover, was only moderate even for the faithful; rural New England was then beginning its long period of decline. The more fertile regions in the West were sending their crops to market through facilities such as the Erie Canal. Consequently, Spooner found no prosperous future in Worcester; in fact, he was not able to make enough money in his first year as a lawyer to pay his living expenses.

In March, 1836, Spooner applied to Albert Gallatin, then president of the National Bank of New York City, for a job as bank clerk. Gallatin obliged, but Spooner did not stay out the year; in a few months he accumulated enough money to leave for the booming promised land of overnight wealth, the American West.


[1] Thomas Spooner, Records of William Spooner of Plymouth, Mass. and his Descendants
(Cincinnati, 1883), I, 345.
[2] Ibid.; Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, October 27, 1845. Spooner Papers, New
York Historical Society.
[3] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, October 27, 1845. Spooner Papers, New York
Historical Society.
[4] “Charles Allen,” National Cyclopedia of American Biography, IX: 186; “John Davis,” Dictionary of  American Biography; Spooner, Records, 581-2; Benjamin Tucker,  “Our Nestor Taken From Us,” Liberty, May 28,  1887.
[5] Worcester Republican. The card appears May 13, 1835, and ran regularly until the
Spring of 1836.


Chapter 2

America boomed during the 1830’s as canals opened vast new areas for settlement. Utica, Rochester, and Buffalo led the expansion along the Erie Canal which, when finished in 1825, connected Lake Erie with the Atlantic Ocean. With the lake open to commerce, every conceivable landing place along the shore became a center for settlement and speculation. Among the more permanent sites were Cleveland, at the head of the Cuyahoga River; Sandusky, at the head of the Sandusky River, with a landing point on Sandusky Bay; and finally, Toledo, at the head of the Maumee River. Geographically and chronologically during the 1830’s, the boom passed through each of these towns in a seemingly unending and inevitable line of western progress.

Speculators vied to make fortunes by buying up land just in front of the settlers. Everyone carried a map and claimed to be an expert at identifying the future metropolises of the West. These would inevitably arise—at a rapids—at a junction of rivers—at a junction of a river and a lake—at any sort of junction. A writer in the American Review recalled the situation:

“On all the rivers village plots were found staked out at intervals of two or three miles; not only every inland county, but every remote township, had its village, and often scores of them, in which land was sold by the foot and inch, at prices varying from one hundred to twenty thousand dollars per acre—the land the while worth barely the government price of one dollar and a quarter.” [1]

Every plot was to become a city and, although it might lack a single building or settler, would be surveyed into lots, which were sold again and again among speculators throughout the country. This continuous sale created an illusion of growth and prosperity; the illusion ended abruptly during the panic of 1837.

Lysander Spooner came to this booming Ohio country a year before the panic. In 1836 the center of the speculative hurricane was the Maumee River Basin, and Spooner, like many others, went there in search of fortune. At the time, the area had few farmers and virtually no commerce; there was only the Maumee River flowing gently into Lake Erie. Here was a better than average site for speculation; at the time, it was not clear which location would be the dominant metropolis of the area, but a great metropolis was inevitable since a river and a lake joined. By hindsight, we can single out Toledo as the important city at the mouth of the Maumee, but when Spooner arrived there were twelve separate villages along a fifteen mile stretch at the river mouth; many, such as Port Lawrence, Vistula, Manhattan, and others, have long since been abandoned or absorbed into metropolitan Toledo. [2]

Besides the struggle to locate the lake port, there was a contest to find the upriver terminus—where water travel ended and land transportation would begin—such a site would naturally become a great commercial center. A speculator (subsequently disappointed) recalled his visit to the Maumee area in 1835; a land salesman took him up the river. After the boat was grounded, the salesman:

“made his way through a mile and a half of marsh grounds, —Very rich, as he said—till we came to a bend in the river where some twenty acres were just being cleared, half of it lying level with the Maumee.  ‘This is the spot, gentlemen,’ said he, mounting a log: ‘a most desirable locality. No great city can ever rise between Toledo and this point . . . it is the head of navigation on the Maumee . . .’” [3]

Lysander Spooner joined a friend, Hezekiah Hosmer (later chief justice of Montana Territory), in search of the head of navigation along the Maumee. First they visited an old Count at Toledo who cast their horoscopes. “What a laugh we had,” Hosmer later wrote, “at the appearance of the Old Count.” But they doubtless welcomed the man’s prediction that they would succeed in their ventures as they went upriver. Although the Maumee was reputedly navigable, Hosmer and Spooner walked the eleven miles upriver from Toledo, making their way through mud and forests to Perrysburg. At Perrysburg on the south bank, and likewise at Maumee City on the north bank, everyone expected a city to grow because a series of rapids began there and continued for several miles upriver forcing commerce in most cases to cross overland. A series of rapids on the Ohio River had earlier established Louisville; speculators reasoned that the same development must inevitably occur on the Maumee.  The belief was that at the upper end of the Maumee Rapids there should be prospects for a great city. Speculators had surveyed and laid out two towns, Providence on the north bank and Gilead on the south, which promised to have a future like Louisville. In 1837, Spooner bought eighty acres on the Maumee; this purchase comprised the whole city of Gilead. [4]

Gilead never became  a great city; today renamed Grand Rapids, it has only a few hundred inhabitants. The center of the trading area eventually became nearby Defiance, where the Aglaise River joins the Maumee. But neither Spooner, the old man with the horoscope, nor anyone else were sure in 1837 which site would rise and which would fall.  Gilead had an outstanding advantage in its position at the beginning of the rapids, since boats were forced to stop there. From Gilead the river was more or less clear for over one hundred miles upriver until one reached Fort Wayne, Indiana, site of the portage from the Maumee to the Wabash. Moreover, there were islands at Gilead which provided suitable locations for mills—a most important consideration in those days before industrial steam power. All the early New England factories were located on river sites such as Gilead and, in 1838, Spooner wrote that, “Two extensive saw mills, and one flouring mill have already been erected thereon,” and he expected “many others would speedily be erected . . .” (Spooner vs M’Connell) How could Spooner fail to become wealthy? In 1836 virtually everyone was succeeding; no one had yet failed. “Do you recollect,” Hosmer later wrote, “how rich you intended to be out of the avails of that wonderful city of Gilead?” [5]

There was an immediate prospect of advantage for Gilead; like every speculator in the West at that time, Spooner had hopes that a canal would touch his site. Such had happened again and again in upstate New York along the Erie Canal, where prosperous cities arose overnight from the mud. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other states all hoped to repeat the success of New York. In Ohio, the prospect was to connect Lake Erie and the Ohio River; every city anywhere between those two bodies of water hoped the canal would run through (or better, end in) their town.

The canal prospects for the Maumee Basin were indeed good. As early as 1820, Ohio had established a Board of Canal Commissioners (in 1836 renamed Board of Public Works), which had recommended in 1825 that two canals be built—one from Cleveland to the Muskingham, another from the Maumee to Cincinnati. The northern [sic] terminus of what eventually became the Miami and Erie Canal was deliberately left vague, and the act of 1825 which appropriated money for the canal provided only for actual construction from Cincinnati to Dayton. Nonetheless, there was always the possibility that the Miami and Erie Canal might end at Gilead.
An even more immediate prospect existed for Gilead. Indiana had planned another canal from the Wabash to the Maumee River, which received a donation of public land from Congress in 1824.  The Wabash and Erie was finished by 1835 to Fort Wayne, at the head of the Maumee River. The site of Gilead was then further enhanced because one could travel by river from Gilead to Fort Wayne, and then pass through the canal to the Wabash River and Mississippi basin.

In the session of 1836-1837, the Ohio legislature provided for the completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal through Ohio.  In the Spring of 1837, the canal commissioners determined the route for the Wabash and Erie from the Indiana line to Lake Erie and began letting contracts for construction. In May, the acting commissioner received “proposals” for construction of the canal from Manhattan (then a competitor of Toledo and subsequently eliminated) to the “Head of the Rapids,” i.e. Gilead. In October he received “proposals” for construction from the “Head of the Rapids” to the Indiana line. As a result of these negotiations, Gilead not only did not become a prominent site, but a dam was proposed about three miles upstream to supply backwater to feed the canal.  Thus Gilead would be excluded not only from the canal but from the navigation of the Maumee. Defiance, on the other hand, would receive a great boom from the canal which would make the Maumee more navigable, and they would obtain access to the canal. Although the engineers of the Wabash and Erie Canal had made proposals, the actual digging had not begun.  Spooner’s Gilead site was by no means defeated; the Wabash and Erie Canal was not finished until 1843 and, in the meantime, pressure could be brought to bear upon the canal commissioners to change the route [6]

Spooner turned to the law. In the West, the main business of every lawyer was the handling of land claims, titles, and transfers; each lawyer made his money in speculation upon the currency of land titles.  Generally, these same lawyers-land speculators became the leading politicians of the state, and the state legislatures spent most of their time handling questions of canal routes, location of county seats or even the state capital, and charters of incorporation for groups speculating in land. Time after time, by-passed cities turned to their state capitals for relief; generally, they got something.

Spooner, however, was not in a strong political position; for one thing, Gilead was virtually uninhabited. Rather than seek aid from state authorities, Spooner turned to the federal district court in Columbus, where he sought an injunction against the building of any dams across the Maumee. Since he had not been admitted to the Federal court, Spooner was represented by Swayne and Brown, a prominent Ohio firm of lawyers, politicians, and land-speculators.  Payment for their services was fixed largely in Gilead land lots.

In the case of Spooner vs M’Connell, et al, the litigants argue that Ohio could not legally obstruct the Maumee River with a dam. Whether the argument belonged to Swayne & Brown, or to Spooner is unclear, but it has the unmistakable mark of Spooner’s legal reasoning. As in most of his writings, an act of the government is found to be unconstitutional.

Basically, his position rested on two points: (1) the grant in the Northwest Ordinance retained all navigable streams for the federal government, and (2) the Supreme Court decision, Gibbons vs Ogden (1824), had established that the federal government had exclusive control over interstate commerce and navigation. An injunction, therefore, was sought against the Board of Public Works to prevent their obstruction of the Maumee River with a dam. Although an individual could not sue a state (Eleventh Amendment), Spooner attempted to circumvent this prohibition by seeking an injunction against the individual members of the Board. Justice John McLean, sitting as judge of the 7th Circuit, granted an injunction until the whole court could consider the case. In the January term (1839), the Supreme Court removed the injunction and dismissed Spooner’s appeal.

The injunction was probably intended to force the Board of Public Works to include Gilead in the route of the canal. By delaying construction, the injunction might provide enough nuisance value for that purpose, and indeed, the dam’s construction was delayed several years.

While these legal arguments were being heard in court, the whole area suffered a blow from which it did not recover for decades. The Panic of 1837 had struck first in the East, as bank after bank went under, but its paralyzing effects were only slowly felt in Ohio. Speculation and canal plans (which in large part were responsible for the Eastern failures) continued until 1839, when everyone went under. Some states went bankrupt (such as Illinois and Michigan), and Ohio in 1839 suspended all work on their canals. Even after recovery, the era of canal speculation faded because railroads were then pushing forward and would eventually replace the canals. Gilead, like many another paper town, disappeared, and even those towns which succeeded, like nearby Defiance, never quite rose to their promised grandeur. In 1843, the Wabash & Erie canal opened and passed through Defiance; and, in 1845, the Miami and Erie joined the Wabash at Defiance. This grand juncture could have as well been at Gilead; but, even so, Defiance never became the great city envisioned. In 1825 Defiance had less than twenty residents; in 1840, less than a thousand, in 1850 less than seven thousand, and even today less than fifteen thousand.  In the whole Maumee Valley, only Toledo, and perhaps Fort Wayne, came anywhere near equaling [sic] the dreams of their projectors. [7]

Spooner lost everything at Gilead, but the loss was not really great. Everyone lost, which made the sting of defeat more sufferable, and Spooner had little to begin with. The lands were purchased largely with very small down payments and very large promises to pay; everything was mortgaged; even down payments were made with mortgages. And before President Jackson issued the Specie Circular in July of 1836, government land could be bought with bank notes based only on these mortgages. But even bank notes were scarce; in the Maumee Valley there was no chartered bank until 1834, and it was the only one in the area. Most people got along without bank notes or specie; they simply gambled on each other’s promissory notes. When the whole system collapsed, in the Spring of 1839 in the Maumee Valley, everyone had virtually what they began with—nothing.

Lysander Spooner returned to his father’s farm in Athol, where he was living in July of 1840. In his experiences he had found a new understanding of the subtleties of finance and banking. Quickly, he undertook to convert the world to a new banking system that would prevent such catastrophes as the Panic of 1837.


[1] “Commercial Delusions— Speculations,” reprinted in Charles N. Glaab, The American City, A Documentary History (Homewood, Illinois, 1963), 148.
[2] J. W. Weatherford, “The Short Life of Manhattan, Ohio,” Ohio Historical Quarterly,
LXV (October, 1956), 376-398.
[3] Glaab, The American City, 156.
[4] Hezekiah Hosmer to Lysander Spooner, November 27, 1861. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library.
[5] Ibid.; Charles E. Slocum, History of the Maumee River Basin (Defiance, Ohio,  1905),
pp. 456-460 contains a topographical account of site.
[6] Lee Newcomher, “Construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, XLVI (April, 1937), 199-207; H. S. Knapp, History of the Maumee Valley (Toledo, 1872); and Harry N. Scheiber, Ohio Canal Era, A Case Study of Government and the Economy, 1820-1861 (Athens, Ohio, 1969).
[7] Ibid.; Reginald C. McGrane, The Panic of 1837 (Chicago, 1924), 123f.

Chapter 3

How did it happen, Lysander Spooner wondered, that the country had been so financially exuberant in 1836, and almost bankrupt by 1840? Returned to his father’s farm, he set out to discover—from his own experience—why there was so much failure in a country of seemingly unlimited land, resources, and human ingenuity.

Since the failure was so evident in banks, they were closely scrutinized. Most Americans blamed the depression of 1837 on the Second Bank of the United States (if they were Democrats), or on Andrew Jackson (if they were Whigs). The Jacksonians often argued that the only sound circulating medium was hard specie, and they denounced all paper—whether currency, bonds, mortgages, stock- as evils by which the rich exploited the poor. Some Jacksonians were less sweeping and blamed the failure only on the fact that banks were a government monopoly, and they argued that free competition in banking would end the country’s fiscal problems. The Whigs generally believed that the failure of 1837 could be traced directly to Jackson’s Specie Circular of 1836, requiring government agents to accept only specie in payment for public lands, and to his attack on the Bank itself. [1]

Lysander Spooner’s analysis is remarkably independent of these party battles. In his economic writings—as in all his work—he struggled for universal truth. Spooner claimed that his principles “are just in themselves—they are the principles of natural law . . .” And he argued that, “Natural law, in regard to all human rights, is capable of being ascertained with nearly absolute certainty.” (Poverty, p. 63) These laws were to Spooner as clear and certain as mathematical principles and, hopefully, would be indisputable.

Spooner summarized his banking and currency ideas in a communication to the Worcester Palladium, July 15, 1840. Although the full details did not appear until 1861 (A New System of Paper Currency), his legal defense of the system, Constitutional' Law Relative to Credit, Currency and Banking, appeared in 1843, and Poverty, Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure, appeared in 1846. Together, these works provide principles worked out in detail for a completely voluntary political economy, one capable of functioning without governmental intervention, and without coercion, public or private.

Anarchists have always found it easy to describe the evils of government; the difficult problem has been to develop or even to describe practical ways in which a non-coercive system might function.

Spooner provides both a banking system and a system of currency. Because the government now controls and issues all our currency, we tend to separate currency from private banking. In Spooner’s time, the government issued no paper currency at all, and banks printed their own money; these bills, in one, five, ten, and larger denominations, circulated in the community, and supposedly were redeemable in specie. Banks were often defined by their power to issue notes. In 1839, Daniel Webster had asked, “What is that, then, without which any institution is not a bank, and with which it is a bank?” Webster answered, “It is the power to issue promissory notes with a view to their circulation as money.” [2]

The problems in such a system were many: notably, fluctuating values, speculation, fraud, and bankruptcy. But there were also deficiencies in the alternate “hard-money” system, based only on gold and silver coin. Tending to impede investment, trade, and expansion, such a currency was deflationary. In the United States (especially in the West) this problem was aggravated by the chronic shortage of coin; there was seldom enough to carry on ordinary business. [3]

To provide a freely operating economy with a medium of exchange, Spooner suggested a system which he believed would provide a currency of almost unchanging value, and which would still be completely flexible to expand and to contract with trade. Amasa Walker, a Boston business man, dismissed the system as “modern alchemy,” yet he was amazed at its detail and consistency. [4]

Essentially, Spooner sought the most stable commodity in the community, land; from this he structured his banking and currency system. Land was chosen not because it was peculiarly valuable in the way gold was, but simply because it was generally so stable. In Considerations for Bankers and Holders of United States Bonds (1864), Spooner suggested that banks could also be founded on railroad stock or even upon government bonds. (Considerations for Bankers, pp. 9-10)

A bank’s assets would consist of $100,000 worth of mortgages or some other type of indebtedness. Trustees would accept this paper and would issue interest-paying Primary Stock to the owners; to the public and to debtors they would issue Circulating Stock, and would charge interest. Should the bank fail, holders of the stock would not be left penniless (as they normally were); they would, essentially, foreclose on the mortgages and receive a share in the primary assets of the bank. If the bank had been so unwise as to issue too much currency, holders of the currency would gain full control of the mortgages.

Growing out of local needs, and controlled by local people, Spooner's system is autonomous and completely separated from the state. Previous government regulation had allowed only certain individuals, through incorporation and limited liability, to escape the payment of their debts. “If such bank charters are valid,” Spooner maintained, “their effect is to give to individuals the advantage of two legal natures- one favorable for making contracts, the other favorable for avoiding the responsibility of them, when made.” (Constitutional Law, p. 21) Spooner argues that all banking charters are unconstitutional for they violate the natural right of all men to make free contracts. Moreover, the legislature, in granting special favors to some and none to others, abuses its powers. Anyone could open a bank under Spooner’s system. “It leaves,” he says, “the business of furnishing a currency open to free competition.”

Spooner’s number one selling point was that, “The system would furnish, at all times, an abundant currency.” (Ibid., p. 14) Free competition would increase the number of banks and, thereby, the amount of money in circulation. Almost until the twentieth century, the United States suffered (as the colonies had) from a lack of money. There were never sufficient funds for all the needs of the country. Spooner’s system was intended to remedy that need.

Spooner’s banking and currency system provided suggestions to eliminate virtually all flaws evident in the American business system. Since it was practical and detailed, he hoped businessmen would respond to its superior features and quickly adopt the system. But Spooner had a much larger aim in view than helping businessmen; he believed he had laid the grounds for a complete system of economic justice.

In Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure (1846), Spooner indirectly describes what he conceives to be a perfect society. In the good state each man would possess his own workshop or farm; each could work hard and prosper. Men were held in poverty primarily by their inability to borrow money in order to establish themselves in either a shop or a farm. Spooner has little vision of the industrial revolution, mass production, or an enslaved working class. In his experience, large scale industry was yet to be established. Could he have read the future, a future of might and wealth accompanied by extremes of wealth and poverty, he would have rejected it. An even distribution of wealth was much more important than an increase of the country's overall wealth. Social Justice, in Spooner's view, should not be subordinated to the Gross National Product.

“The luxury, the vices, the power, and the oppressions of the overgrown rich. and of those who are becoming such at the expense of other men's rights, are probably much greater evils than the simple poverty of the poor would be, if it were the result of natural and necessary causes.” (Poverty, p. 41)

The final achievement of an equitable economy would be a harmonious society, where all were truly equal and where class conflict did not exist. Most of the existing class antagonism arose, Spooner thought, from differences in wealth. Men can only act justly toward those with whom they share similar experiences and have had close social ties; such bonds of sympathy cannot exist between the rich and the poor. The two classes are at odds because they lack “sufficient personal acquaintance, and sufficient similarity of experiences with each other, to awaken their sympathies, and thus soften or avert the collision of their feelings, interests, and rights.” Unless men can have “an approximation to equality in their pecuniary conditions” there will be class war. (Poverty, p. 46)

Even though their excess wealth might lead to social conflict, vice, and oppression, “the overgrown rich” would not voluntarily relinquish their advantages.

Spooner believed change could come through the courts. The rich are rich because they have a monopoly on money given them by the state; their prerogatives are protected by legal tender laws. If the courts would overthrow such privilege, justice could be restored.

All regulation of the currency, Spooner argued, was unconstitutional because it impaired the individual’s right of free contract. Outside the consent of contracting parties, any encumbrance on a contract violated the fundamental reason for forming societies—to protect property. The right to make and the obligation to fulfill contracts provided the bedrock of civilization. Abandon it, and there could be no law, no justice, no civilization. Without it, no property could be safe.

These principles of justice and natural law were already established in American constitutional law. Spooner begins Constitutional Law Relative to Credit, Currency and Banking (1843), with the statement that “The Constitution of the United States, (Art. 1, Sec. 10), declares that ‘No state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.’” On this basis alone, the courts should overthrow all governmental interference with the currency, and allow a free banking system.

Spooner believed the courts had to enforce his interpretation, or else to admit that no contract was valid or secure. He underestimated the ability of jurists to live with inconsistencies, and he had too great a faith in the neutrality of judges. They were usually no less in the pay of the wealthy than other government officials. In Trial by Jury (1852), Spooner recognizes this more clearly and turns from the judges and lawyers to the jury in order to see justice done. Eventually, in Revolution (1880), he turned to direct action. But he never abandoned or lost faith in the validity of his ideas of natural law and justice.


1 Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America (Princeton, 1957), passim.
2 Harry E. Miller, Banking Theories in the United States before 1860 (Harvard, 1927), 12.
3 Hammond, Banks and Politics; J. Van Fenstermaker, The Development of American Commercial Banking: 1782-1837 (Kent, Ohio, 1965), 65f; Charles C. Huntington, “A History of Banking and Currency in Ohio Before the Civil War,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, XXIV (July, 1915), 235-533.
4 Amasa Walker, “Modem Alchemy,” Banker’s Magazine and Statistical Register, new series, XI (December, 1861), 407-416.

Chapter 4

Sorely disappointed by his Ohio prospects, Lysander Spooner sought out another avenue to wealth and freedom in the heart of America’s expansive business world, New York City. While America’s business had greatly expanded, the United States Postal Service had stagnated. Secure from competition and, with its vast patronage, a favorite child of politicians, the post office had remained untouched by the growth of the country. While canals, turnpikes, and even a few railroads had cheapened and hastened transportation, the cost of postage remained the same. During the 1840’s people responded through political protests by groups of citizens and by several state legislatures. Another response was to violate the law. Although it was illegal for individuals to “take up, receive, order, dispatch, carry, convey or deliver any letter or letters, packet or packets, other than news­ papers for hire or reward . . . ,” means were found to circumvent the government. One ingenious trick was to send a newspaper at the cheaper rate with a message indicated in underlined letters or words. Another method was to send a package of letters as merchandise by an express company. [1]

Postal inspectors attempted to prosecute violators, and in 1842, they thought they had a big catch, Adams & Company. Great care was taken in prosecuting the case in the hope it would discourage others. However, the feelings of both the court and of the people in New York City were against the Post Office. When the case of United States vs. Adams & Company went to the jury in November, 1843, the judge ruled that under postal law it was illegal for anyone to set up a stagecoach or other company to transport the mail, but the law had not forbidden commissioned passengers from carrying mail. The jury, therefore, found the company not guilty because “there is no law to convict them.”[2] (The decision of this jury may have provided the seed for Spooner's subsequent Trial by Jury.)

In response to such a favorable decision, a number of companies formed to carry letters. Such companies required virtually no capital; an agent needed only to pay passage on a steamboat or a stage, and at half the government price of 12 cents a letter, he could make a profit and provide a better and speedier service. As America’s cities were smaller then, an agent could personally deliver the letters, while the government required their customers to claim letters at the post office. These new companies understandably prospered.

Among companies responding to the opportunity was Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company. His operation was similar to the other companies, but he went about his business more openly. Indeed, before beginning, he sent a personal letter, informing the Postmaster General (January 11, 1844), that he proposed "soon to establish a letter mail [company] from Boston to Baltimore. I shall myself remain in this city, where I shall be ready at any time to answer to any suit . . ." [3] Accompanying the letter was a copy of Spooner’s pamphlet, The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails. When his company began business on the 23rd of January, Spooner openly advertised in all the major newspapers, soliciting business. The American Letter Mail Company printed its own stamps, hired agents, and was soon conducting a busy trade. Indeed, in a few short months, the private mail companies had engrossed the bulk of the service between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

In his advertisements, Spooner announced his intention to “test the constitutional right of free competition, in the business of carrying letters.” And in his pamphlet of 1844, he argued that the people had “a natural right” to work and to acquire property, which no legislature could abrogate. (p. 6) Earlier Spooner had challenged the notion that the people had no rights and the government had all the rights when he argued against the licensing of lawyers by the state. A government's control of lawyers was made by usurpation, not by right. Similarly, in its control of the mail, the government usurped the rights of men.

Spooner’s attack might appear quixotic today, because the post office survived his attack. But in 1844, the attack appeared feasible; only a few years before the United States Bank monopoly had been destroyed. Some states even instituted free banking systems. If banks were liberated, why not post offices?

The Congress and the Postmaster General were alarmed by this challenge. Although there was no political division on the issue, there was a sectional difference. President Tyler was a Virginian, and most of the Congressional committees as well as a majority of Congress came either from the South or from the newly developed West. The American Post Office used the lucrative revenues between the large Eastern cities to support the post offices in the South and West. These were never self-supporting because of the small volume of mail and great distances between settlements. Should Spooner’s challenge be successful, postal service in these distant areas could be maintained only by increased postage or by increased taxes—both strongly opposed in those areas. Consequently, the government attack on Spooner was vigorous and prompt. Little effort was made to answer Spooner’s legal arguments; it was simply assumed, without question, that the government rightly exercised its power. Precedent had established the monopoly, and those enjoying that monopoly saw no reason to question precedent.

Hoping to drive Spooner out of business without raising any constitutional questions, the Postmaster General resorted to some extra-legal measures. Transport companies were told that they would lose their government contracts unless they stopped carrying American Letter Mail Company mail. Although the case of an agent arrested in Baltimore was under appeal in the District Court, the government continued to arrest other agents. Under a barrage of such harassing legal actions, the company could not survive; for all practical purposes it had ceased to exist by July, 1844. Nonetheless, sitting in Circuit Court, Supreme Court Justice Story ruled in June, 1844, that it was an open question “whether the United States had any exclusive right to establish post office and post routes.” [4]

The pressure on the Post Office for reform could not be ended by driving competition from the field. The revenues of the Post Office continued to decline while the population and commerce of the country rose. The English reform of 1840, which had reduced all postage to a penny an ounce anywhere in the British Isles, left Americans completely unhappy with rates which were as high as twenty-five cents for a single sheet going over four hundred miles. The English system had shown that the lower rate initially reduced the postal receipts, but that this was soon offset by the increased volume of mail, which hardly raised the cost of operations at all.

The American Congress responded to the depressing loss of customers to Spooner’s company by reducing postage. In an act passed March 3, 1845 postal rates were nearly halved. The act was so successful in increasing the business of the Post Office and in eliminating competition, that Congress was able to reduce the postal rates again in 1851.

Driven out of business, Spooner lost interest in postal reform until his attention was called to a campaign launched in 1848, which ultimately led to the second reduction of postal rates in 1851.

In 1848, the Friends of Cheap Postage in the City of New York, not only launched a campaign to further reduce postal rates, but also to raise money to support Barnabas Bates as a leader among New York postal reformers. The friends of Bates argued that he should be rewarded in the same way the English had rewarded Rowland Hill, with a voluntary subscription. [5]

Lysander Spooner learned of the Bates subscription through his close friend, Samuel Sewall, a successful Boston businessman.  At the time Spooner was living in total poverty, and after his role in reducing postal rates, he felt that he was more deserving than was Bates.

Early in 1849, Spooner had proof sheets of his pamphlet, Who Caused the Reduction of Postage in 1845?, and he sent these to five of the largest merchants in Boston, but without response.  Somewhat discouraged, he wrote to his friend Gerrit Smith in hope of hiring several prominent lawyers to give their opinion on his constitutional argument, but Smith was unenthusiastic and unwilling to supply the needed two hundred dollars. Nonetheless, his Boston friends, Samuel Sewall, Robert Apthrop, and others encouraged Spooner and provided for publication of his pamplet [sic] in 1850. [6] 

Who Caused the Reduction of Postage seems to have had little effect. In Boston, few merchants supported Spooner; they were only encouraged not to support Bates. Spooner visited New York City in the spring of 1851, but Bates already had a head start there. Joshua Leavitt wrote that he and other New York reformers felt no obligation to Spooner; he had entered a business for profit, and lost. In May of 1851, somewhat discouraged, Spooner wrote a friend that Bates and his supporters had “acquaintances and friends in the city to aid them, before my claims were made known—That seems to be of a piece with all my fortune—The World seems determined to starve me to death, and I suspect it will succeed in doing so.” [7]


[1] John B. McMaster, History of the People of the United States (New York, 1910), VII, 114f.
[2] “Report of the Postmaster General, 1843,” U. S. Documents, House Reports, 28th Congress, 1st Session. 431: 624.
[3] Lysander Spooner to Charles Wickliffe, January 11, 1844. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[4] Lindsay Rogers, The Postal Power of Congress, A Study in Constitutional Expansion (Baltimore, 1916), 41f.
[5] Barnabas Bates, A Brief Statement of the Exertions of the Friends of Cheap Postage in the City of New York (New York, 1848).
[6] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, November 8, 1849. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[7] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, May 11, 1851. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.

Chapter 5

After his post office venture failed, Lysander Spooner returned to the family farm in Athol, where he took up the question of slavery. Anti-slavery sentiment was strong in the area; rural New England had few economic or social ties with the South. There had been an anti-slavery strain in Puritanism, and in the backcountry the Puritan religious animus (if not doctrine) had remained strong. As early as 1700, Joseph Sewall had written The Selling of Joseph, in opposition to slavery. The impact of the Revolution was likewise still strong. During the Revolution slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts. The state supreme court ruled in 1783 that by declaring all men equal the preamble of the state constitution had made slavery illegal.

From such a background, it is not surprising that Spooner and his whole family became “ardent abolitionists.” Too much of an individualist, Spooner never joined any particular organization. Instead, he undertook to attack slavery through legal arguments. He believed it was unnecessary to prove slavery wrong—most people already felt this—what was needed was a legal strategy to end the “peculiar institution.” With the proper brief, he believed he could demonstrate the illegal basis of slavery and show that all property would be in jeopardy if property in man were continued.

In September, 1844, Spooner requested help from Gerrit Smith, the wealthy philanthropist and abolitionist living in upstate New York. Asking support to complete a work on the unconstitutionality of slavery, Spooner explained that he had for some years been collecting facts and arguments on the subject. “But several long absences in the West,” he wrote, “combined with poverty, and a want of access to the necessary references, have thus far prevented the accomplishment of the design.” As proof of his abilities, Spooner enclosed a copy of his Unconstitutionality of the Law Relative to Banking, Currency, and Money (1843), and asked for three months’ living expenses for research in Boston. Smith responded immediately with money and encouragement. [1]

To understand Smith's ready response we must understand the politics of the abolition movement. Boston and, in general, New England, were under the influence of William Lloyd Garrison, a man of vision and eloquence. Garrison, however, as a tactician was rigid, unready to stand for any compromises with evil. In 1840, he split from the New York and Mid-West abolitionists. They wanted to enter politics, nominate and elect candidates, and to use government as a vehicle for abolishing slavery. Garrison stuck to his ideal of moral suasion and wanted nothing to do with a government which embraced slavery and slaveholders. In a statement that quickly became notorious, Garrison declared the United States Constitution was a “covenant with death, an agreement with hell." He burnt a copy on the Boston Common.

Gerrit Smith must have been particularly pleased to receive an offer from Spooner to prove that the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document. Such a demonstration would strike at the heart of the Garrisonian position and provide justification for further political organization. The New York abolitionists were, moreover, eager to retain whatever ties they could with New Englanders.

Spooner himself belonged to a loosely organized group of non-Garrisonians in New England. They have been neglected because Garrisonians so often wrote the history of the abolition movement. The group included George Bradburn, a state legislator from Nantucket, and later a newspaper editor in Cleveland and in Lynn, Massachusetts. He was Spooner’s lifelong and closest friend; (at Bradburn’s funeral in 1880, Spooner read a eulogy and was a pallbearer). Richard Hildreth, historian and author of The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836), along with his wife accepted Spooner into their family circle. Nathaniel P. Rogers (1794-1846), editor of the New Hampshire Herald of Freedom, would undoubtedly have been more important had he lived longer.

These men shared a dislike for churches and clergymen. Rogers held a particularly notorious view. If the Bible supported slavery, he argued, the Bible would have to yield in favor of freedom. Spooner, of course, had contempt for the Bible, Christianity, and for religion in general. Hildreth with a Benthamite utilitarian and no friend of any church. At the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, Bradburn had opposed “introducing any such words as ‘Christian,’ ‘Religious,’ and the like, by which persons of any religion whatever, or of no religion whatever, should be excluded from the Anti-Slavery platform.[”] [2] Garrisonians also had anti-clerical tendencies, but more from antinomianism than from skepticism. Stephen Foster, for instance, a close associate of Garrison, had written a vitriolic attack on the clergy, The Brotherhood of Thieves (1843). But Spooner, Hildreth, and to a lesser degree the others, despised religion itself; they took their inspiration not from the Bible, Christianity, or even from brotherly love—but from the rationalism of the eighteenth century—a rationalism crystalized in the Declaration of Independence and in the United States Constitution.

That human beings are born with the inalienable quality of freedom underlies all of Spooner’s arguments. For him “it is a self-evident truth that . . . all men are naturally and rightfully free.” (p. 266) Nathaniel Rogers outlined the principle in The Herald of Freedom (September 8, 1838). “A man cannot be a subject of human ownership;” Rogers argued, “neither can he be the owner of humanity. There is a clear and eternal incompetency on both sides . . . A man cannot alienate his right to liberty and to himself, — still less can it be taken from him.” (p. 15) Of course, men can be bound and imprisoned, but this does not make them non-human (that imprisonment may dehumanize a person is another question). A human, according to Rogers, “can’t be property any more than he can be a horse, or a literal ass.” Spooner too argued that “the principle of natural law, which makes a calf belong to the owner of the cow, does not make the child of a slave belong to the owner of the slave . . . because both cow and calf are naturally subjects of property; while neither men nor children are naturally subjects of property.” (p. 129) There is a certain eternal, inalienable quality in being human; just by being born, a man is free. [3]

Few Southerners would object to such eighteenth century principles as natural law, freedom, individualism, equality, and democracy. Even today we often associate Fourth-of-July oratory with the South. What the Southerners would not admit was that slaves were human beings or persons; n their mind slaves were property like cattle. Indeed, they used all the principles of natural law and reason to defend their rights of property in men and women. In a letter to Spooner in 1851, Senator James Mason of Virginia argued that slavery “is a form of property (in the case of African slaves,) originating in Africa, and when brought into the colonies of North America simply recognized as property by the common law.” To defend owning human beings, Senator Mason thus used the same principles as Spooner, natural law, common law, and the generally accepted principles of justice. [4]

Although appealing to the Bible and to natural law, the Southerners’ most common defense for slavery was legal. Calhoun, Mason, and others, rested their defense of slavery on the United States Constitution and believed their case airtight. (Garrison and other abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips agreed.) In challenging the slaveowners’ interpretation of the Constitution, Spooner thus met the enemy on what was taken to be their strongest ground.

Spooner’s argument in the Unconstitutionality of Slavery rests on the logic and reason of abstract law and not on historical or sociological evidences. His method is thus the same as the Southerners, who had been trained in the same legal tradition (Blackstone mainly). “The Constitution itself,” according to Spooner, “is the same now that it was the moment it was adopted. It cannot have been altered by all the false interpretations that may have been put upon it.” (p. 218) John C. Calhoun could not have agreed more; his argument on the union recognized no changes in its character even though the number of states had more than doubled and the original thirteen were no longer a majority.

In a triumph of creative legal reason, Spooner followed John Marshall and Daniel Webster in arguing that the Constitution created a new citizen­ ship- a national citizenship quite distinct from state citizenship. The idea was based largely on the preamble which used the words “We the people” instead of “We the states of the union.” Going beyond Webster and Marshall, Spooner argued that the phrase “people” included all men, women, and children, living in the country at the time (in 1789), and their posterity; within that group he included people with black skin. Chief Justice Taney specifically disposed of this argument in his decision in the Dred Scott case ( 1857); Taney ruled that a Negro had never been and could never become a citizen of the United States. Although historically false (Black citizens had participated in founding the United States government), Dred Scott became the law of the land until overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment, which begins: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Spooner’s second important argument is his application of the rights of citizenship to all persons. He is careful not to claim too much for the federal government, but he does insist that certain provisions and benefits of the Constitution apply to all people born within the United States. The poll tax, right of commerce, post office service, military protection, right to bear arms (self-defense), protection of contracts, eligibility to be President, trial by jury, and the privilege of habeus [sic] corpus—all are included in the Constitution. Moreover, the Constitution guarantees to each citizen a republican form of government. “A slave government,” Spooner argues, “is an oligarchy; and one too of the most arbitrary and criminal character.” (p. 106) Spooner’s view of the constitutional rights of citizens was also written into the Fourteenth Amendment which declared:

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

One corollary of Spooner's argument did not become part of our law—the right of the people to resist an unconstitutional law. The right of the people to resist the usurpations of their government, Spooner wrote, “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.” Who should judge whether a citizen in rebellion has behaved unconstitutionally? Spooner argued that only a jury of peers could decide such a question. The power of resistance should not be circumscribed because it was the people’s only real security.

“Nothing but the strength of the people, and a knowledge that they will forcibly resist any very gross transgression of the authority granted by them to their representatives, deters representatives from enriching themselves, and perpetuating their power, by plundering and enslaving the people.” (Defence for Fugitive Slaves, p. 30).

Assailed by usurpation—the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the Kansas­Nebraska Act (1854), the Dred Scott decision (1857), and other government favors to slaveholders— the only recourse for the enslaved was resistance. In his first edition of the Unconstitutionality of Slavery ( 1845), Spooner defended the natural right of slaves to bear arms and “if from the inefficiencies of the laws, it should become necessary,” to use these arms “in defense of their own lives or liberties.” (p. 98) Moreover, Spooner had argued that those aggrieved in one state had a right to contract protection and alliance with friends in other states. “Such contracts for mutual succor and protection,” he wrote in 1845, “are as fit and proper as any other political contracts whatever; and are founded on precisely the same principle of combination for mutual defense” as the constitution itself. (Unconstitutionality of Slavery, p. 107)

In Defence for Fugitive Slaves (1850), Spooner argued that, “The rescue of a person, who is assaulted, or restrained of his liberty, without authority of law, is not only morally, but legally, a meritorious act;” everyone should “go to the assistance of one who is assailed by assassins, robbers, ravishers, kidnappers, or ruffians of any kind.” (p. 27) This right was legally recognized by the constitutional guarantee to bear and use arms.

In a broadside printed in 1858, Spooner spelled out how such a right could be exercised. First, groups should form in the North to send arms, aid, and even to fight in the South. Groups of Black citizens in the South should also “form themselves into bands, build forts in the forests, and there collect arms, stores, horses, everything that will enable them to sustain them-selves, and carry on their warfare upon the Slaveholders.” Such guerrilla forces could (until the anti-slavery forces were strong enough for outright war) capture, strip and Bog individual slaveowners, in front of their slaves in order to undermine the master's authority. These forces, North as well as South, could live by robbing the slaveowners.

“The state of slavery is a state of war, in this case it is a just war, on the part of the negroes- a war for liberty, and recompense of injuries; and necessity justifies them in carrying it on by the only means their oppressors have left them. In war, the plunder of enemies is as legitimate as the killing of them; and stratagem is as legitimate as open force.”

The broadside (on one side was “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery,” addressed largely to persons in the free states, and on the other side, “To the Non-Slaveholders of the South,” a call for alliance), was hastily withdrawn at John Brown’s request because it might forewarn Southerners. Since Brown wrote very little about his incursion into Virginia, Spooner's broad­ side and writings on slavery offer an understandable and very possible con­ text for events at Harper’s Ferry.

John Brown was certainly familiar with Spooner’s work. Gerrit Smith, Spooner’s benefactor, had been very close to Brown, supplying funds for his stays in Kansas and for the Harper’s Ferry raid. Smith made a point of sending his friends copies of Spooner’s Unconstitutionality of Slavery. John Brown and Spooner met in Boston shortly before Harper’s Ferry. And although he was told little about the details of the raid beforehand, Spooner had confidence in its success and, after the raid, admired Brown as a model of just action. [5]

When John Brown failed and was imprisoned, Lysander Spooner made another proposal for a guerrilla action. He suggested the capture of Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, who could be held as a hostage for Brown's release. Spooner planned an attack by sea through the Chesapeake Bay and James River; this area was already a haven for runaway slaves, smugglers, and others outside the law. A group could reach Richmond, the state capital, and kidnap the governor on his evening walk; once out to sea, they would be relatively safe. John LeBarnes wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson, November 15, 1859, "L[ysander] S[pooner] called upon me yesterday. His idea has certainly the merit of audacity.” [6]

In those desperate times, Higginson and Barnes actually found a boat and crew, but lack of money stalled their plans. Anti-slavery men of wealth were not willing to donate ten or fifteen thousand dollars for such a risky scheme. Those most favorable to Brown were expecting warrants for their arrest any moment; some fled to Canada, others repudiated Brown; Gerrit Smith had a breakdown. To moderate abolitionists, the immediate effect of Brown's action was shocking; his raid suited neither the politicians nor the Garrisonian non-resistors. To most abolitionists, Brown was better a dead martyr than a living menace. Even if money had been forthcoming, Higginson pointed out that the boat's captain and crew were mercenaries and could “make twice as much money by betraying” as by serving Brown's friends. [7] Spooner’s idea, along with similar projects in Ohio and New York, failed to materialize. Although rumors of these expeditions alarmed Virginians, John Brown was hanged without incident on December 2, 1859.

In heartily approving Brown's methods, Spooner separated himself dramatically from the Garrisonians who called for moral suasion. His judgment of politicians, however, remained consistent: politicians were only self-serving thieves. Spooner no more than John Brown expected justice through legal channels.

There were several parties dedicated to anti-slavery action. The Liberty Party entered the elections of 1840 and 1844 with presidential candidates. In 1845, Spooner tried to get the Liberty Party’s name changed to “Constitutionalist” in support of his own theories, but failed. In 1847, he wrote that he could not belong to the Liberty Party “until it comes up to my principles,” i.e. “founding government on natural law.” (December 5, 1847) For the Liberty Party’s successor, the Free Soil Party, founded in 1848, Spooner had even greater contempt. “Its ideas,” he wrote, “are all fogyish, and tame, and cowardly. It is led by a few old stereotypes, or rather fossilized Whigs . . .” [8] Spooner’s scorn seemed to accelerate as the political power of the anti-slavery politicians grew. The Republicans, organized in 1845, drew his wrath in an 1860 pamphlet, Address of the Free Constitutionalists to the People of the United States. “The Republicans,” he wrote “are double-faced, double-tongued, hypocritical, and inconsistent to the last degree.” (p. 41) They opposed slavery only outside the United States where it did not exist and where, Spooner argued, we had no control; within the United States, where we had jurisdiction, they supported slavery wherever established. The election of 1860 was thus “a mere contest of hypocrisy, rhetoric, and fustian and a selfish struggle for the honors and spoils of office.” (p. 42)

From the Garrisonian viewpoint, Wendell Phillips had attacked Spooner’s arguments in an 1847 pamphlet, Review of Lysander Spooner's Essay “The Unconstitutionality of Slavery.” Phillips argued that, “Mr. Spooner’s idea is practical no-governmentism. It leaves every one to do what is right in his own eyes.” (p. 10) Thomas Earle, Liberty Party vice-presidential candidate in 1840, also responded: “Force or numbers must,” he wrote, “of necessity, be the ultimate law giver, and I think it would be far from an improvement to permit the supreme court to make the law in conformity to its own view of justice . . .” One must choose between force or numbers, or “society would collapse at once into anarchy.” [9] Phillips believed in the power of moral suasion and non-resistance to drive power and numbers into shame. Thomas Earle believed one should obtain power through numbers by being elected to office. Both men, consequently, believed that political power would be the final means of abolishing slavery.

In contrast to these men, Spooner’s position is all the more striking. He believed no laws on the subject of slavery were necessary, because legislatures had no control over the subject. Men were by nature free; if we say Congress can make slavery illegal, we must accept a corollary that they can also make slavery legal. “Congress,” Spooner argued, “have no such power.” (Unconstitutionality of Slavery, p. 275)

Slavery, as most injustice, had originated in human laws. The laws of men generally tended to obscure and confuse natural law, which by itself was able to settle most legal questions. With the exception of some regulations, “The whole object of legislation,” said Spooner, “is to overturn natural law, and substitute for it the arbitrary will of power;” in other words, “to destroy men’s rights.” (Ibid., p. 142) To suppose government impractical under natural law (as Phillips and Earle do) is, according to Spooner, to assume “first, that government must be sustained whether it administers justice or injustice; and, second, that its commands must be called law, whether they really are law or not.” (Ibid., p. 144)

Edicts of kings, votes of legislatures, or even the vote of all the people in the world could not establish natural law. Justice could be reached only through reason. Most men erred in their reasoning because they were encumbered by selfish or limited interests. Being free of encumbrances, Spooner believed he had reached the truth. Having mastered the natural law, he vowed to advocate it whenever or wherever he could find an audience, because natural law should rule all men in or out of office. [10]

Although he believed the principles of natural law were simple, clear, and comprehensible, Spooner shared something of the lawyer's prejudice against laymen. Various campaigns were undertaken to send copies of the Unconstitutionality of Slavery to all congressmen and eventually to all lawyers. And in a moment of despair, Spooner wrote in 1857, “The idea of going to the people at large on this question seems to me utterly futile. The mass of them have neither time nor inclination for such investigations . . .” Nonetheless he believed that although not industrious and well-informed, these masses once convinced of justice “would march up to the cannon’s mouth in defense of the principles of my argument, if the lawyers all told them they were sound . . .” [11]

Spooner’s 1857 prediction was uncannily sound; superficially at least, one million men died because their lawyers disagreed on the interpretation of the Constitution. The Civil War, however, never aroused Spooner’s enthusiasm as John Brown’s adventure had. He felt the war was fought on the false issue of union; it should have been fought squarely on the issue of slavery. In 1864, he published an analysis of the war in Letter to Charles Sumner.  Spooner argued that:

“the slaveholders would never have dared, in the face of the world, to attempt to overthrow a government that gave freedom to all, for the sake of establishing in its place one that should make slaves of those who, by the existing constitution, were free.” (pp. 2-3)

By defending their own freedom, rather than slavery, Southerners gained a great psychological and moral advantage that carried them through four years of war. In agreeing that the Constitution protected slavery, and by proposing compromises in 1861 to prevent succession, Sumner and others only weakened the moral position of the North. Against the Northern politicians, generally, Spooner charged that “upon your heads, more even, if possible, than upon the slaveholders themselves, (who have acted only in accordance with their associations, interests, and avowed principles as slave­ holders) rests the blood of this horrible, unnecessary, and therefore guilty, war.” (Letter to Sumner, p. 3)



[1] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, September 8, 1844. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library.
[2] Frances Bradburn, Memorial of George Bradburn (Boston, 1883), 245.
[3] Nathaniel P. Rogers, A Collection from the Newspaper Writings of Nathaniel P. Rogers, John Pierpont, ed. (Concord, N. H., 1847), 15, 129.
[4] J. M. Mason to Lysander Spooner, February 24, 1851. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library.
[5] Lysander Spooner to O. B. Frothingham, February 26, 1878. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library.
[6] John LeBames to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, November 15, 1859. Higginson Papers, Boston Public Library.
[7] Thomas Wentworth Higginson to Lysander Spooner, November 28, 1859. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library.
[8] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, December 5, 1847, and April 19, 1854. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[9] Thomas Earle to George Bradburn, April 12, 1846. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[10] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, December 5, 1847. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[11] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, September 10, 1857. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.

Chapter 6

Before all else, Lysander Spooner remained a lawyer. Whatever his subject of concern—religion, banking, slavery, or politics—he approached it as a lawyer. Although Spooner maintained something of a law practice throughout his life, his was not the usual lawyer’s career. For one thing, he remained in continuous poverty. His writings, even the widely read works against slavery, seldom returned living expenses. In 1849, he estimated that he had subsisted for the previous five years on only two hundred dollars a year. Opportunities were available. His friends were unanimous in feeling that his legal talent applied to a conventional law practice could earn a fortune. And friends could have obtained for him a civil service (or rather political patronage) job in the Boston custom house. “But,” Spooner objected in a letter to Gerrit Smith, “I should consider it less dishonest to go upon the highway and make my living by force than to get it in . . . these ways—for I should then, in addition to the robbery, practice the fraud of pretending to do it legally.” [1]

That Spooner possessed a fine legal ability can be seen in the cases in which he did provide legal counsel. Liberty and justice were always involved. The earliest example (of which we have few details) is his defense in the 1840’s of some Worcester area Millerites, who believed the world was ending. They had been arrested on vagrancy charges and refused to retain a lawyer. Spooner voluntarily defended them and successfully obtained their release. [2]

Spooner also volunteered legal arguments for John Webster, who was tried for the murder of Professor George Parkman of Harvard. Spooner did not know Webster and did not defend him in court, but he did publish Illegality of the Trial of John W. Webster (1850). This pamphlet questioned the justice of capital punishment and denounced the discrimination practiced in the selection of Webster’s jury. Spooner neither saved Webster from hanging nor convinced Massachusetts of the injustice of its hanging laws. Nonetheless, his defense, logical and concise, is an example of the truest kind of legal argument, one in favor of justice.

Similarly impressive and somewhat more successful were Spooner's efforts in defense of fugitive slaves and their friends who defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The first case involved William L. Chaplin, who was arrested with others in Maryland by Washington, D. C. police, for helping two slaves of Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens to escape. Chaplin’s bail was set at nineteen thousand dollars by Maryland authorities, and at six thousand dollars by Washington authorities. Spooner was retained to defend Chaplin; Chaplin turned out, however, to be something of a scoundrel. He jumped bail and went to New York with a lady friend; the abolitionists were left to pay his forfeited bail money. Spooner resigned from the case in understandable ill-humour. [3]

Except in the Chaplin case, Spooner never received a fee or appeared in court on behalf of victims of the fugitive slave act; he did, however, provide free counsel and advice in several cases. In 1853, he sent Lewis Tappan arguments that were used in the case of Jane Trainer, a minor. Abolitionists in New York hoped to save her from slavery by arguing that all children were born free and could not inherit the status of slave. [4] James Birney wrote from Cincinnati for legal advice to answer Judge John McLean's ruling in circuit court upholding the Fugitive Slave Act. [5] And in 1860, Spooner himself brought the case of John Anderson to Gerrit Smith’s attention. Anderson, a fugitive slave had killed a farmer in upstate New York, who was trying to capture him; Anderson escaped to Toronto, and the United States began extradition proceedings. At Spooner’s urging, Gerrit Smith travelled to Toronto and provided Anderson aid. Anderson remained safe in Canada so the legal question could never be tried in the British courts, “whether there be any English law that would make it murder for a man to kill another who was attempting to seize him as a slave?” [6]

Spooner wrote an account of Passamore Williamson's case in the Liberator, which showed his concern for the arrogation of judicial power to the government. Judge Kane had imprisoned Williamson because he would not give evidence regarding his help to a fugitive, and Williamson’s rights not to incriminate himself were denied. He was sent to prison without a jury trial, and in fact without a sentence, “until he shall purge himself of the contempt by making true answers to such interrogations as the honorable court shall address to him . . .” [7] To Spooner this was no better than Star Chamber justice. Much later, Spooner defended his old abolitionist friend Thomas Drew in another contempt case- for being in contempt of the Massachusetts state legislature. Again, Spooner argued that if any government had power to imprison a citizen at will, such a government did not deserve a citizen’s obedience.

Repulsed by the injustices of the law as practiced by judges and lawyers—particulary [sic] in the cases of the fugitive slave act—Spooner, in the summer of 1851, began work on his masterpiece, Trial by Jury. He had already written extensively on the unconstitutionality of laws on currency, slavery, and capital punishment. Discouraged by the failure of any court to uphold his arguments, Spooner now abandoned the legal fraternity, in the main, and turned to the community at large- to the people who would sit on juries and who would or should decide right and wrong. Published in the late fall of 1852, Trial by Jury provided a legal brief for the rights of the people against the government.

Having given up on the judiciary, Spooner in Trial by Jury essentially abandons the United States Constitution. In a letter to Gerrit Smith, he later argued that the Constitution could not be supported by “honest men who know its true character.” Spooner felt at liberty, nonetheless, “to interpret the constitution, on those points wherein it is right, and then appeal to those, who profess to be governed by it, to act up to their own standard.” [8] Although he cites constitutional provisions protecting jury trial, Spooner attempts in Trial by Jury to define a more basic, more universal law- by which the Constitution itself can be judged. In this search, he turned to the Magna Carta—the great foundation of English and American common law, and the guarantor of trial by jury.  Generally, the American lawyer’s attitude toward our Constitution resembles the Protestant’s attitude toward the Bible: supposedly everything there is pure and complete; accretions and deviations must be seen as heretical. Spooner rejected the Constitution (much as he rejected the Bible and Christianity), but the Protestant habit of mind prevailed. In the Magna Carta, he found, as had leaders in the Reformation, the pure form, the true law. Trial by jury, as sanctified by King John in 1214, had an impure and imperfect reign, for (like the early church) evil men perverted it. As early as 1285, the English government abrogated the principles of Magna Carta; since that time, according to Spooner's analysis, English jury trials have been illegal imitations of the true process of justice.  (Trial by Jury, p. 148)

Such an enshrinement of the Magna Carta was no more ancestor worship or antiquarianism than was the Reformation. Even if the Magna Carta could have been shown to be a fake, Spooner would not have been perplexed. He turned to that document because he hoped to find ensconced there basic law—before government and history had had an opportunity to twist justice into unjust forms. The true law was not in the document but the document enunciated the true, universal law. Magna Carta had existed long before 1214: “For centuries before the charter was granted,” Spooner wrote, “its main principles constituted ‘the Law of the Land,’— the fundamental and constitutional law of the real, which the kings were sworn to maintain.” (Trial by Jury, p. 201) The charter only declared and protected the laws of nature. The document itself was not sacred, but it was a source where we could see the flow of justice unencumbered by excrescences.

Magna Carta showed that even “in that dark age,” with “the comparative infancy of other knowledge,” men could clearly grasp “the principles of natural equity.” It was a “beautiful and impressive illustration” that men’s minds have “clear and coincident ideas of the elementary principles, and the paramount obligation, of justice.”  (Trial by Jury, p. 85)

Spooner had a clear notion of “the principles of natural equity;” these were spelled out in his early writings—particularly in parts of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845-1847), which are reprinted in Trial by Jury. His ideas on natural law—of its expression in the common law and common sense, and of its self-evidence- were all widely accepted. These were cornerstone principles of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and are prominent in Blackstone, the Bible for American lawyers. Principles of natural law are also prominent in the works of the many writers on “natural” and “moral” philosophy who dominated American thought and education before the Civil War.

Spooner’s use of these ideas is in many ways orthodox; however, his arguments on the jury—based upon these ideas—arrives at some unusual conclusions. Spooner argues that the jury should be taken randomly from among all citizens, and that it should judge not only a person's guilt or innocence, but also the guilt or innocence of the laws under which a man is charged. The jury would be judge both of law and of fact, and it alone should set sentences. Judges' opinions could be heard, but they must themselves be judged by the jury.

Rather than simply applying laws, juries would become in essence “courts of conscience;” the conscience does not need to be instructed by legal research or arcane wisdom. Spooner showed this to be true in the early courts in operation prior to Magna Carta—these were “courts of conscience, in which the juries were sole judges, administering justice according to their own ideas of it.” (Trial by Jury, p. 78)

Among nineteenth century moral philosophers, “conscience” was an important, even preeminent, concept. Francis Wayland, in The Elements of Moral Science (1835), described the conscience as the judiciary branch of the moral life, which restrains:

"our appetites within such limits that the gratification of them will injure neither ourselves nor others; and ... restricts the pursuit of happiness within such limits as shall not interfere with the happiness of others." [9]

The judgments or decisions of this faculty are not difficult to comprehend: “we are all endowed with conscience, or a faculty for discerning a moral quality in human actions, impelling us towards right and dissuading us from wrong:" moreover, "the dictates of this faculty are felt and known to be of supreme authority.” [10]

The conscience of the community was embodied as fully in twelve randomly chosen members as it could be in any institution. Unlike all court officials, jury members were free from government pay; and thus freed, their consciences could better judge whether the government had restrained itself within limits of natural justice. The government would not be able to force anyone into obedience by seizing either their person or their property without conviction by a jury.


[1] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, June 25, 1849. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[2] Liberty, May 28, 1887.
[3] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, April 23, 1850. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society. William R. Smith to Gerrit Smith, February 2, 1851. Smith Papers, Syracuse University Library.
[4] Lewis Tappan to Lysander Spooner, May 28, 1853. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[5] James Birney to Lysander Spooner, August 18, 1853. Spooner Papers, New York His­ torical Society.
[6] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, January 1, 1861. Spooner Papers, New York Histori­ cal Society.
[7] Lysander Spooner, "Kane and Williamson," Liberato-r, November 9, 1855.
[8] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, March 12, 1856. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[9] Francis Wayland, The Elements of Moral Science, Joseph Blau, ed. (Harvard, 1963), xliii, 58.
[10] Ibid., 74.

Chapter 7

Having presented ideas on banking, slavery, and the law, Spooner still remained poor, continuously threatened with poverty. America seemed unwilling to reward him for his contributions.  His fate was not singular; in the nineteenth century, scientists, writers, and inventors, could seldom support themselves from their research and writing. Their income came from teaching, law, medicine, or some similar time-consuming work. Joseph Henry (1794-1878), for instance, made fundamental contributions in the physical sciences, notably in understanding electromagnetism; he supported himself teaching, and later with a government job as director of the Smithsonian Institution. [1]

With his longest (and incomplete) work, The Law of Intellectual Property (1855), Spooner intended to guarantee a living for those working with their minds. He argued that the English and American copyright laws protecting authors, and patent laws protecting inventors, were inadequate and unconstitutional. They were inadequate because they failed to protect a citizen’s right to his intellectual property; they were unconstitutional because they deprived citizens of their property.

His argument followed Trial by Jury in tracing the rights of intellectual property back to the common law; existing laws are dismissed, and “the law of intellectual property” is established from first principles. Essentially the idea is that productions of the mind, no less than productions of the hands, are property. Like life and liberty, property is one of these inalienable and self-evident natural rights. Existing laws are unconstitutional because they confiscate the thinker’s production and without his or her consent give it to others. With their property rights secured, men of intellect could then be sure of a living for their work.

Beyond the natural justice of restoring inherent rights to the intellect, Spooner hoped his work would encourage writing and invention in the interest of the people. The intellect was capable of “defending, enlightening, enriching, and elevating” everyone. “It is poor economy,” he wrote, “on the part of the common people, to attempt by stealing their [intellectual workers’] knowledge, instead of buying it, to defraud intellect of its wages.” If unpaid, men of thought will serve those who will pay—oppressive governments, monopolists, armies, and other established powers; intellectuals themselves will then become agents of oppression. (Law of Intellectual Property, p. 240)

Although Spooner’s theory of knowledge may seem somewhat crude (“knowledge is property”), his sociology of knowledge is quite modern and accurate: those thinkers who serve the status quo are richly rewarded, those who serve humanity are impoverished, if not worse treated. “Thus legislators, judges, lawyers, editors, teachers of all kinds, physicians, and soldiers are continually selling their knowledge- and, perhaps, quite as frequently their ignorance and falsehoods—for money.” (Letter to Scientists and Inventors, p. 7) Spooner wanted to eliminate these frauds and replace them with those who would “enlighten, enrich, and liberate all mankind.”

In the 1850's, hard-pressed for money and unable to finish The Law of Intellectual Property, Spooner turned to mechanical inventions (which he had praised so amply).

For one of his ideas he received a patent from the government: “#15,021, Improvement in Elastic Bottoms for Chairs and other articles—patented June 3, 1856.” [2] Spooner wrote his friend George Bradburn:

“I have great confidence that it is going to be valuable. I wish I had the money for it now, that I might give my attention to other things. The world is ‘famishing for lack of knowledge,’ which I could give them; and I every day reproach myself for being engaged in such commonplace business as making money, or getting a living.” (May 25, 1856)

Since the world failed to appreciate his genius or to buy his books, Spooner hoped they might buy his beds and chairs. “If I should establish a good reputation for beds and chairs,” he continued, “that may prove such a stepping stone to public favor, that I may hope to resume my profession of author, philosopher, reformer, and oracle . . .” [3]

In search of financial support for the manufacture of his patented elastic bottoms, Spooner turned to his friend and more successful inventor, Elias Howe. Howe was himself hardly established in the 1850’s; he had invented the sewing machine in 1845, but could find a market for the invention only in England. Moreover, he had to suffer a long court battle over his patent rights, which were resolved in his favor only in 1854. Thus, when Spooner applied to him for help, Howe had little spare capital to advance. At first Howe seems to have bought an option on Spooner’s patent (although he was late in making his payment), but eventually, in the fall of 1857, he wrote Spooner not to count on him. Later Spooner experimented with paint; again he turned to Howe for support. Whatever the details of the transaction, Spooner emerged feeling cheated and wrote a pamphlet, “The Sewing Machine Fraud.” Fortunately, this seems never to have been printed and not to have survived in manuscript. “Suffer he must,” wrote Smith, “from your unmeasured vituperation—but more from your merciless logic.” Understandably, this matter ended Spooner's friendship with Elias Howe. [4] 

Failing as an author and as an inventor, Spooner turned next to business, and in 1863 he organized the Spooner Copyright Company. The company was incorporated to sell Spooner’s banking ideas to those who wished to open a bank under his system as expounded in New System of Paper Currency (1861). The “Articles of Association of the Spooner Copyright Company for Massachusetts,” provide a practical demonstration of Spooner’s Law of Intellectual Property. Those who would use the banking ideas would pay a one percent fee for use of the “invention.” The ideas themselves, as property, were capital for the company. The company was legally incorporated with trustees and charter, but evidently not a single customer was ever found.

Ironically, Spooner came into some money through a strange libel suit prosecuted by Gerrit Smith. The New York Democratic Vigilant Association (Buchanan supporters) attempted to blame John Brown's attack on Smith, to whom they attributed Spooner's 1858 manifesto, “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery.” They published their attack in the New York Herald, October 27, 1859, and as a pamphlet. [5] Gerrit Smith sued them for libel because they had falsely linked him with Spooner’s broadside; he had seen it only months after publication and had then feared it would be “laughed at as a ‘joke’ . . . .” [6] It was true that Smith had contact with John Brown, but the evidence the Association used to prove an alliance was largely false.

Smith retained several attorneys in the case, but Lysander Spooner was his chief lawyer. By his own testimony, Spooner was in the best position to prove the falseness of charges against Smith. In the long legal maneuverings, however, Spooner proved to be quite impatient and threatened to resign several times because Smith did not take his advice exactly as offered. A member of the committee libeling Smith was in the diplomatic corps, and whether he could be sued in the New York courts was unclear. Smith’s other lawyer, Charles Sedgwick, wanted to drop the issue, but Spooner believed the case should be pushed to the Supreme Court if necessary. When his advice was not followed, he offered his resignation. Spooner wrote Smith that he was acting “not from wounded pride, but from a feeling of the inutility, and unprofitableness and even impertinence of my offering arguments, that were to produce no effect.” [7] Smith, however, convinced him to stay on and in fact did follow many of Spooner’s recommendations.

The Vigilant Association had made their accusations in the hopes of discrediting the Republican party and particularly William Seward, the Republican candidate for governor. Once the election had ended with Seward's victory, they were eager enough to settle out of court. Smith settled for costs and lawyers' fees- most of which went to Spooner. The two thousand dollar fee was a minor fortune for him since he managed to live on about two hundred dollars a year. Gerrit Smith wrote, “From the bottom of my heart do I rejoice that a good Providence has at last brought round to you some recompense for your invaluable services in the cause of freedom and of sound sense. Little did we forsee [sic] this way of your getting pay for writing your admirable books.” [8]



[1] “Joseph Henry,” Dictionary of American Biography.
[2] Commissioner of Patents, Report, 1856, II, 305; Ill, 458.
[3] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, May 25, 1856. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[4] Gerrit Smith to Lysander Spooner, November 8, 1861. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society. There are several cryptic letters between Spooner and Howe in both the New York Historical Society and the Boston Public Library
[5] Their work can be followed in the Herald, October 19, October 20, October 21, October 22, and October 27, 1859.
[6] Gerrit Smith to Lysander Spooner, February 2, 1859. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.  For accurate evidence of Smith's connection with John Brown, see the preface by Boyd B. Stutler in the new edition of the Provisional Constitution and Ordinances of the People of the United States (Weston, Mass., 1969).
[7] Lysander Spooner to Gerrit Smith, August 29, 1860. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[8] Gerrit Smith to Lysander Spooner, October 25, 1860. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.

Chapter 8

With the end of the Civil War, America passed over a great watershed. After 1865, the government grew larger and ever more powerful; agriculture became less significant than industry. Cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston grew to mammoth size; the frontier line between white and Indian civilizations dissolved. Railroads spanned the continent; new industries such as steel, rubber, and oil grew ominously larger.

The world Spooner was born into had changed. He welcomed the inventions, the expansion, and the progress. The persisting poverty, he believed, could be eliminated through his New System of Paper Currency (1861). Virtually every occasion provided an opportunity for him to expand his economic ideas. Reconstruction, the lawlessness in the Montana gold fields, a fire in Boston, discontent in the West, and the severe economic depression from 1873 to 1879-all these elicited letters and pamphlets from him.

With the war barely ended, Spooner submitted an article to the leading periodical in the South, DeBow’s Review—“Proposed Banking System for the South” (August, 1866). Here he claimed that adoption of his system would instantly double the value of all real property in the South. “It would at once establish credit in the North and in England, and enable her [the South] to supply herself with everything she needs.” Social ends would be realized, too, because “the benefits of this increased wealth, industry and credit would not be monopolized by the whites, but would be liberally shared in by the blacks as a necessary result from the increased demand for their labor.” [1]

The article struck an immediate response from correspondents through­ out the South who wrote for copies of his New System of Paper Currency (1861). Kenneth Rayner of Raleigh, North Carolina, was typical of many. Rayner saw hope in Spooner's bank, “inasmuch as all I have left from the wreck of the war is valuable real estate lying in No. Ca. – Tenn. – Arkansas – and Mississippi.” [2]

Spooner also sought out leaders in the West in hopes of seeing his land bank adopted there. His old friend from Ohio days, Hezikiah Hosmer, had continued buying and selling Western land, and in 1866 was in Virginia City, Montana,—a gold rush area. Hosmer was Chief Justice of Montana Territory, but spent most of his time speculating in gold claims. In reply to Spooner, he wrote: “I hope it will be successful for if I fail in quartz, after a year’s longer residence here, I want to return to the states, and I hope you will have something for me to do there.” [3]

Another old friend, once a fellow boarder in Boston, Daniel McFarland, was travelling westward—after he barely escaped conviction in a notorious murder trial in New York. McFarland had travelled through Ohio, Indiana, Colorado, Wisconsin, Arkansas and other Western states. Spooner sent him a pamphlet and wrote, “The system would be worth everything to the West if they would adopt it.” Without evidently understanding the difference between Spooner’s and the government’s paper money, McFarland replied that he had “become what they call a ‘Greenbacker.’ I am for an entire paper currency and nothing else unless silver for small change, as a matter of convenience.” [4]

When a large part of Boston burned down in 1872, Spooner quickly published A New Banking System: The Needful Capital for Rebuilding the Burnt District (1873). In the Depression of 1873 (which lingered into 1879), he put out a series of short pamphlets—Our Financiers (1877), Law of Prices (1877), Gold and Silver (1878), and Universal Wealth (1879). But his arguments aroused little stir and few hopes. Except for some friends in Boston, such as Benjamin Tucker or Josiah Warren, these works were ignored.

Spooner’s economic theories were no more out of date or inadequate than Greenback ideas. But the latter were more popular—particularly among the politicians—because they called for an extension of government. Greenbackers wanted the government to control currency so that prices would be high, interest rates low, and debts deflated. Those who had wealth opposed any move toward inflation; yet they used the government to uphold the gold standard, which they believed essential to their prosperity. Spooner’s plan called for no government action; therefore, his ideas had no appeal to office­ holders or to those seeking office, regardless of whether they represented the possessors or the dispossessed.

As his ideas failed to gain acceptance, Spooner increased his attack on the government. He saw individual rights squashed by the factories, by the political machines, and by the monopolies; consequently he sharpened his call for justice. Daniel McFarland wrote in 1886, “I take you to be an anarchist of moral suasion; am I right? or rather that you would advocate the abolition of all human laws that Natural Law might work unimpeded.” [5]

What is probably Spooner’s most memorable writing appears in his anarchist pamphlets. Faced with the evils of Reconstruction—special favors to business, military occupation of the South, corruption, and abandonment of abolitionist ideals- Spooner put out a series of sharp pamphlets—No Treason, numbers one and two (1867) and number six (1870). Intravening numbers were never written.) Spooner’s analysis of Reconstruction is sound and sensible. He says, 

“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 . . .” (No. VI, p. 58)

These were only slogans used to compel “the people to pay the cost of the war” and to support a government they did not want. Rebellion, Spooner urged, was “No Treason.” Indeed, rebellion itself, or a government in crisis, was a sign of a dysfunctional [sic] if not a tyrannical regime; in either case, it was best ended and replaced with something better.

Although lacking formal ties before 1870 with other American anarchists, Spooner knew many of them well. Stephen Pearl Andrews, whose Science of Society (1852) summarized so many anti-state ideas, corresponded with Spooner and, in 1847, contributed money which helped Spooner to finish The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. [6] His ties with Josiah Warren—“The First American Anarchist”—were even closer. After utopian experiments in Ohio, Indiana, and New York, Warren returned in 1863 to the metropolitan Boston area and remained there until his death in 1874. Many years later, Clarence Lee Swartz (another anarchist activist and publisher) recalled that “during, the last months of Warren’s life . . . , he, [Edward] Linton, [another anarchist], and Spooner were a notable trio together.” [7] Moreover, Spooner’s own Trial by Jury (1852), and his No Treason (1867, 1870), became almost classic anarchist works.

Before the 1870’s many different individuals had attacked state power, but there was no anarchist “movement” as such. The main impetus to organize arose form [sic] the disastrous depression of 1873, which seemed to highlight the failures of both industry and government. The railroads—often used to illustrate the triumph of American enterprise—suddenly collapsed in virtual bankruptcy. The country was beset by strikes which by 1877 seemed to augur a civil war between industry and labor. The United States government—so vigorously praised by politicians—looked ludicrous during Grant's presidency, and the disputed presidential election of 1876 did nothing to restore confidence in the system.

Benjamin Tucker brought several anarchists together in the Boston area. As a student at M.I.T. (1870-1873), Tucker was converted to Warren’s individualist ideas, and he dropped out of college to study Proudhon. In a climate of criticism and disappointment a group, which included Spooner, gathered around Tucker. Older men such as Ezra Heywood or William B. Greene, as well as younger men—Victor Yarros, Joseph Labadie, or Tucker—joined in denouncing state power.

Their first publication was The Radical Review, a short-lived periodical of four numbers (1877-1878), which Tucker edited during the depression. It included three articles by Spooner on problems of the economy. Tucker followed with another periodical of wider circulation, the anarchist newspaper Liberty, which began in 1881 and ran almost continuously until 1908.

These men shared certain distinctive principles not adhered to by others in the anarchist movement. For one thing, they did not engage in bombings or assassinations. Yet, they often defended assassins, and sometimes approved philosophically of violent revolution. The first page of Liberty’s first issue (August 6, 1881), featured a picture of the assassin of Czar Alexander II, and included a defense of Russian nihilism. Spooner himself wrote several articles defending Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield. He denounced the politicians and editorial commentators: “That anyone has a right to be so insane as to kill a president, is what they cannot comprehend . . .” [8] (December 24, 1881). Because of patronage and graft, presidents were understandably vulnerable to revenge and murder.  To mourn a president’s passing more than another person’s is to assume he has some special divinity the rest of us lack. Spooner also defended the martyrs at Haymarket Square—arguing that they were not receiving a fair trial—and suggesting legal points that might lead to their release. [9]

Although Tucker’s group might be lukewarm toward acts of terror, they differed only to a degree on the question of violence from anarchists such as Johann Most (1846-1906), Alexander Berkman (1870-1936), and Emma Goldman (1869-1940). The critical distinction between the two groups came on the question of socialism.

Tucker and his group staunchly defended bourgeoise [sic] values; they strictly opposed any social or community control of property. Spooner, for instance, wrote in 1886 that:

“the right of property is the right of supreme, absolute, and irresponsible dominion over anything that is naturally a subject of property,—that is, of ownership. It is a right against all the world.” (Cleveland, pp. 32-33)

Johann Most and his group were socialists who envisioned a collective community in which values such as property would disappear. A writer in Liberty condemned Most as “a Communist sailing under the Hag of Anarchism. . . .” [10] Spooner would doubtless have agreed, but he did not live to follow the long feud between the socialist and individualist anarchists; when he died in 1887, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were still in their teens.

In his final years, Spooner found inspiration, a platform and an audience in Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty. He regularly contributed topical and current articles on Guiteau, the Supreme Court, Andover Theological Seminary, polygamy, fast proclamations, Chinese Gordon, and the Haymarket demonstration. Spooner could be in turn scornful, ironic, and humorous. His scathing attack on the hypocrisy of Benjamin Butler's fast proclamation, or his analysis of Republican laws on polygamy, are worthy of H. L. Mencken. In July, 1882, Spooner wrote:

“If Congress were really waging an honest war against unchaste men, or even unchaste women, or even religious hypocrites and imposters, they would not need to go to Utah to find them. And the fact that they do go to Utah to find them—passing by the hundreds of thousands of vicious persons of both sexes at home, and the religious hypocrites that are not supposed to be very scarce anywhere—is proof of their hypocrisy; and of their design to make political capital for themselves, by currying favor with bigots and hypocrites, rather than to promote chastity on the part of either men or women.”

Spooner’s letters to Thomas F. Bayard, his letter to Grover Cleveland, and his essay “Natural Law,” go beyond mere day to day commentary and attempt to lay out a comprehensive political and economic philosophy. (These were all published in Liberty and were reprinted as pamphlets: Natural Law, 1882; Letter to Bayard, 1882; and Letter to Grover Cleveland, 1886.) Each work is necessarily incomplete—the letters because they simply respond to speeches by Bayard and Cleveland; Natural Law because it is only “Part I” (twenty-two pages) of a projected series. Nonetheless, when taken together with the No Treason pamphlets (1867-1870) and Trial by Jury (1852), they provide an outline of Spooner’s philosophy of government.

The key question for an anarchist is how to combine complete individual freedom with some form of effective social co-operation.

Spooner answered that community service and other social action could be realized voluntarily. He argued that “under the principle of individual consent, the little government that mankind need, is not only practicable, but natural and easy . . .” (No Treason, No. 1, p. 14) To be free, a government must rest on the consent of everyone who participates in it. Any government can call itself free, and it is to those who voluntarily support it. But when a government resorts to force and coercion—no matter how just or noble the cause—it becomes a tyranny to those compelled to support it “against their will.” (No Treason, No. II, pp. 12-13)

Spooner’s system of voluntary government would rest on the two ancient principles of English liberty—no taxation without representation and trial by jury. Although never developed fully, Spooner's views on taxation are quite clear. A government, as any other institution, must depend “on purely voluntary support.” (Letter to Cleveland, p. 71) Taxes would be given by the people, not taken from them; if a citizen disapproved of his government, he could simply withhold taxes.

There would be, of course, little need for government under Spooner’s system. He called for an immediate end to the state monopolies over currency, post offices, and administration of justice. Such services could be best performed by voluntary stock companies. As many companies as the market would bear could be organized and, in the competition, a citizen could shop for the cheapest and most effective service. What government remained would evidently be broken into smaller subdivisions with its functions clearly distinguished; a citizen could then pay only for those services he used.

Although Spooner wrote a whole book on Trial by Jury (1852), he left his ideas on voluntary justice as incomplete as those on taxation. The book had been largely historical and only hinted at a true judicial system; Spooner had hoped to bring it up to date and to add a section on voluntary justice.  In 1871, he wrote a correspondent thanking him for details on Louisiana's laws. “In a future publication,” he promised, “I intend to give various instances, in which governments or associations for the maintenance of justice have been sustained by purely voluntary action.” [11] In A Letter to Cleveland (1886), Spooner expected each person could be “his own judicial or executive” agent, and he explained how conflicts between different individuals could be worked out. One could negotiate a written contract with others to establish: “An association for the maintenance of justice,” which “should be formed upon the same principle as a mutual fire or insurance company . . . .” (p. 105) An individual who had litigation would have no more expense than one devastated by fire, if he belonged to an association.

Problems of justice might seem insurmountable in our present society, with its crimes, murders, and rapes. But Spooner believed a proper economic system founded on his voluntary banking-currency ideas would eliminate such injustices. Beyond these conflicts, there were thousands of civil cases involving property disputes. Spooner argued that these were the result of too much state legislation; throw out all the established laws, depend on simple natural law, and most litigation could be settled more quickly and simply.

His system admittedly depended on the existence of a natural law. Today we are rather skeptical of such law; our behaviorists and psychoanalysts have shown how seldom men follow principles of reason. Before rejecting Spooner’s ideas of natural law, we might ponder carefully his alternatives: either there are normative standards making justice possible, or there are no standards but force and violence. He laid it out clearly:

“If there be, in nature, no such principle as justice, there is no moral standard, and never can be any moral standard, by which any controversy whatever, between two or more human beings, can be settled in a manner to be obligatory upon either; and the inevitable doom of the human race must consequently be to be forever at war; forever striving to plunder, enslave, and murder each other; with no instrumentalities but fraud and force to end the conflict.” (Natural Law, p. 15)

In passing from the present to the better society, Spooner believed a revolution would probably be necessary, and he believed that revolution would be based on people awakening to a true understanding of natural law. Present government was illegal, with no more right to rule than a band of pirates or thieves. When men recognized this farce, they would rise in united revolution. Spooner began as a lawyer and to the very end, as Tucker noted in his obituary, he expected “that his next pamphlet would capture the lawyers and through them the world.” [12] His hope rested not in lawyers themselves but in natural law—a subject available and self-evident to all people. Once the people awoke to their rights, they would kill their rulers. If natural law was fully understood, revolutionaries when brought to trial could appeal beyond the government officials, beyond the legislatures, and beyond the judges, to the people sitting in the jury boxes.


[1] Lysander Spooner, “Proposed Banking System for the South,” DeBow’s Review, new series, II (August, 1866), 155.
[2] Kenneth Rayner to Lysander Spooner, April 27, 1867. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[3] Hezekiah Hosmer to Lysander Spooner, September 23, 1866. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[4] Lysander Spooner to Daniel McFarland, February 6, 1879; Daniel McFarland to Lysander Spooner, February 16, 1879. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[5] Daniel McFarland to Lysander Spooner, July 12, 1886. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[6] Lysander Spooner to Stephen Pearl Andrews, March 31, 1847.  Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[7] C.L.S., "The First American Anarchist," Liberty, XV (April, 1906), 53.
[8] James J. Martin, Men Against the State (DeKalb, Illinois, 1953), 216.
[9] Liberty, December 24, 1881.
[10] Liberty, December 11, 1886.
[11] Lysander Spooner to John A. Thomson, March 15, 1871. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[12] Liberty. May 28. 1887.

Chapter 9

In 1881, Daniel McFarland, Spooner’s friend, wrote how “painfully sorrowful and maddening, Lysander, to reflect that you, who have worked so hard and given so much valuable thought to the world, have been kept in poverty . . . .” [1] From earliest youth to his very death, Spooner dreamt of success; but always he lived nearly destitute. His law practice, speculation in Ohio lands, the post office venture, the many books and pamphlets, the patents, the landbank, the copyright company, and his other efforts, each left Spooner as poor as when he began.

Except while living in his father's home in Athol, Spooner lived in a boarding house situated in Boston within a few blocks of the Boston Athenaeum. His existence was indeed spare. In Poverty (1846), Spooner scorned luxuries and frivolity; clearly he enjoyed none. His ideal was the simple life. “Purity,” he wrote, “dwells with moderate competence, with the simple board, with the modest garb, and with cheerful industry.” Yet he deplored the “toil, oppression, insult, neglect, and loneliness” which continually led the young “to fall sacrifices to . . . the enticements of the libertines.” (Poverty, p. 50) Spooner escaped such snares; but he never entirely escaped the “toil, oppression, insult, neglect, and loneliness” that are the common heritage of poor people.

Poverty aggravated Spooner’s already flinty disposition. He was gruff, direct, and impatient with any hypocrisy. His correspondence includes cantankerous and not entirely creditable disputes with friends who failed to understand him. Gerrit Smith was a friend of long standing; the association was never entirely harmonious, and after more than two decades of close association, Spooner told Smith to return all his letters and never to write again. Smith replied November 6, 1863, “Your letter came last evening finding me in poor health. It kept me awake nearly all the night. How shall I account for such a letter? I supposed that you numbered me amongst your truest friends.” [2]

Poverty, however, cannot explain all of Spooner’s dour and grouchy traits. Much of his disposition can be traced to family and regional folk­ ways. His younger brother, William Brown Spooner (1809-1880), shared many of Lysander’s attitudes. Although nominated for mayor of Boston and for Congress, William refused ever to run, saying, “I have been quite actively interested in public matters, but have generally preferred my private independence to public positions, which are too often obtained by sacrifice of one’s personal self-respect.” [3] William Spooner finally entered politics only to ensure enactment of prohibition in Massachusetts, and he resolutely scorned fame and publicity. Interestingly, there is no record of contact between the brothers who both lived in Boston.

Spooner’s friends were few, but those few recognized his integrity and remained loyal. George Bradburn, for instance, came to know him in the 1840’s. Their association continued until Bradburn’s death in 1879 Spooner’s long correspondence (approximately one hundred letters survive with Bradburn provides considerable detail concerning his personal life—particularly his friendship with the families of Dr. George Hoyt and Richard Hildreth. [4]  In these letters, Spooner on occasion shows his stoic compassion. After the Hildreths lost their youngest child, Spooner wrote “He was a most lovely child in disposition, always happy, always playful always affectionate. They have a beautiful daguerreotype of him. . . He was taken to Deerfield to be buried.” [5]  When Bradburn died, Spooner consoled Frances Bradburn, served as a pallbearer, and wrote a memorial for the Boston Transcript. [6]

In an age which virtually invented “romance,” Spooner found love difficult. Lacking any taste for sentimentality, he saw marriage as a legal contract without the emotional overtones of romance; in Considerations for Bankers (1864), Spooner asked, “If a handsome and spirited young man has promised marriage with a young and beautiful woman, have Congress power to enact that he may tender a decrepit old man in his stead?” (p. 47) Beyond being a legal contract—sacred in the same way any legal contract would be- marriage also provided a defense against “lewdness.” (Lady's novels, following Richardson’s Pamela, despite their tears and sighs, say the same thing.) Spooner claimed his banking system would end licentiousness “by making marriage nearly universal, and by inducing it in early life.” Poverty prevented many marriages and created a large pool of unmarried persons; in New England this was especially true, because so many men had moved West. With economic handicaps removed, no one would need to remain single, and with everyone married—the “desire of matrimony” is “strong and universal”—all temptation would be removed. The principal source of “libertinism” (both among married and single men and women) was “the unnatural and solitary state of large numbers of both sexes.” (Poverty, pp. 51-52)

Understandably, Lysander Spooner’s courting was no more successful than his other ventures. He was friendly with Mrs. Elizabeth Sargent during the 1840’s. George Bradburn wrote Spooner of his first meeting with Mrs. Sargent and her “better half”: “Were she a Miss, I'm not sure but she’d soon be unmissed by you. . . .” A year later Bradburn wrote consoling Spooner because he had not been able to see Mrs. Sargent. “Ah, I suspect her worse half does not care to have her where you are! ‘Twas bad policy, babbling your notions of divorce in his hearing!” [7] Spooner’s view of the contractural [sic] nature of marriage led him to stress the rights of women, which included divorce. Each woman, he argued, has a “natural, inherent, inalienable right, as a human being, to direct her own labor, control her own earnings, make her own contracts, and provide for the subsistence of herself and her children.” (Letter to Cleveland, p. 65)

Mrs. Sargent eventually separated from her husband and established herself independently in Boston. She was a woman of accomplishment; some of her writings were published, and she supported herself by pencil sketches and portraits. A bohemian by standards of the 1840’s, her reputation worried Spooner. From the farm in Athol, he wrote to George Bradbum—“. . . has she done anything for which her friends in Boston blame her? We hear some stories here, which do not sound like truth, when spoken of her—and we are anxious to hear the other side of the story.” [8] To assuage his qualms, Mrs. Sargent moved for a time to the Athol area, to be near him. Eventually she obtained a divorce, but by then her affections for Spooner had cooled and she married a mutual acquaintance, William Brackett.

During the 1850's, Spooner underwent a far more traumatic love experience. He engaged to marry a teacher, Mary Booth—“quite an attractive person; graceful, & intellectual, with grand blue eyes, & a spiritual face.” They were to be married as soon as Spooner had saved enough money to buy a house. In 1855, Miss Booth grew impatient and cut off the engagement, saying she had to return home to care for her mother. A mutual friend wrote Spooner that Mary had found him important only as “the means of giving her a home,” and that she “was something of a coquette, willing enough to hold on to S[pooner] until she should be offered a man who could house her . . .” [9] After their break in 1855, Spooner could not bring himself to write Mary Booth for two years. In a long and painful letter, he then wrote: “The idea that, after I had loved you devotedly for years and after you had professed so much love for me, you should suddenly refuse to write me . . . seemed to me very heartless and indeed very insulting.” [10]

The break with Mary Booth coincided with Spooner’s work on The Law of Intellectual Property (1855), which was never completed or published. Spooner went into a depression and developed trouble with his leg, which forced him to use crutches. After two bad years, he wrote Mary that, “. . . during the last year my health was very poor—so poor at times that Dr. Hoyt thought it was going to fail altogether, and that I should not live long.” The doctor called for complete rest from writing, declaring that Spooner was suffering from “too much mental labor and excitement.” [11]

In these grim years Spooner turned from writing to making inner-spring beds and chairs. After he was able once more to write to Mary Booth, and after the Dred Scott decision, in 1857, Spooner resumed his researches and his writing. He told Mary she was “heartless” and “insulting.” To the Supreme Court’s decision that black people never could be citizens, he responded with his “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery” (1858), calling for immediate raids on slaveholders and the overthrow of established governments. Following his unhappy courtship of Mary Booth, Spooner shows considerably less sympathy for the existing social system, and a stronger emphasis upon revolution. His judgment that society was neither decent nor just was reenforced by his failure to find happiness in that society.

Spooner never entirely gave up on prospects for courtship and marriage; his papers contain letters from Lizzie Doten, a medium, in the 1860’s; and from Virginia Vaughn, a lecturer on poetry, in the 1870’s. [12] But he seems to have slipped into the life of a bachelor with relative ease and comfort.

Having passed his fortieth birthday in 1858, he settled—to use his own words—into the role of “author, philosopher, reformer, and oracle.” In the obituary written for Liberty, Benjamin Tucker described Spooner as “Our Nestor Taken From Us”:

“On any day except Sunday, for as many years back as the present writer can remember, a visitor at the Boston Athenaeum Library between the hours of nine and three might have noticed, as nearly all did notice, in one of the alcoves overlooking Tremont Street across the Old Granary burying-ground, the stooping figure of an aged man, bending over a desk piled high with dusty volumes of history, jurisprudence, political science, and constitutional law, and busily absorbed in studying and writing. 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.” [13]

In his last years, Spooner represented the ripened seed of wisdom; he was the seer among those he knew, a mastercraftsman of the intellect.

With his long white hair and beard, Lysander Spooner filled this majestical [sic] role for nearly thirty years. He went regularly to the Athenaeum from his nearby room until just a few weeks before his death. Nearly eighty years old, he seemed ageless, unchanged and unchangeable. As symptoms of his physical failure surrounded him, he now was “bitterly hostile to all schools of medicine,” and finally saw a doctor only three days before dying. Tucker notes that “with a firmness always characteristic of his life, he declined to describe his symptoms or to accept either advice or medicine.” The Boston Globe described him “gradually sinking under the combined influence of rheumatism and bilious fever.” Benjamin Tucker evidently was at his side as he sank into unconsciousness:

“He died at one o'clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, [1887], in his little room at 109 Myrtle Street, 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 ago.” [14]

Boston anarchists gathered for the funeral and saw Spooner decently buried in Forest Hills Cemetery. They saved their larger tribute for a memorial meeting on Sunday, May 29, 1887, in Wells Hall—lecturing place of spiritualists, phrenologists, reformers, and other unorthodox speakers. A table with all of Spooner's available writings for sale was set up. Theodore D. Weld and George W. Searle spoke on behalf of Spooner’s abolitionist efforts. Henry Appleton and J. M. L. Babcock praised his economic writings. Others praised the anarchist works. A letter was read from Victor Drury, Knights of Labor leader in New York City; Drury noted that Spooner was the last to die in the trio of old friends which had included Edward Linton and Josiah Warren. Finally, being a movement meeting, they passed four resolutions commemorating Spooner's work. The last one read:

“Resolved: That, while he fought this good fight and kept the faith, he did not finish his course, for his goal was in the eternities; that, starting in his youth in pursuit of truth, he kept it up through a vigorous manhood, undeterred by poverty, neglect, or scorn, and in his later life relaxed his energies not one jot; that his mental vigor seemed to grow as his physical powers declined; that although, counting his age by years, he was an octogenarian, we chiefly mourn his death, not as that of an old man who has completed his task, but as that of the youngest man among us,—youngest because, after all that he had done, he still had so much service that the best we can do his memory is to take up his work where he was forced to drop it, carry it on with all that we can summon of his energy and indomitable will, and as old age creeps upon us, not lay the harness off, but following his example and Emerson’s advice, ‘obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime.’” [15]


[1] Daniel McFarland to Lysander Spooner, August 10, 1881. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[2] Gerrit Smith to Lysander Spooner, November 6, 1863. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[3] Thomas Spooner, Records of William Spooner of Plymouth, Mass. and his Descendant (Cincinnati, 1883), I, 588.
[4] George Hoyt, a lawyer from Athol, in 1859 at the age of 21, was sent to Charleston, West Virginia, as counsel for John Brown. See Villard, John Brown (Boston, 1910), p. 484. Most probably he was the son of Dr. George Hoyt, Spooner's doctor and friend.
[5] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, April 15, 1853. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[6] Frances Bradburn, Memorial of George Bradburn (Boston, 1883), 245f.
[7] George Bradburn to Lysander Spooner, October 26, 1845; April23, 1846. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[8] Lysander Spooner to George Bradburn, April 3, 1846. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[9] George Bradburn to Lysander Spooner, September 14, 1857. Spooner Papers, New York Historical Society.
[10] Lysander Spooner to Mary [Booth], n.d. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library. This is a draft of a letter or perhaps several letters; on the basis of letters to and from George Bradburn, Mary's last name can be provided and the date fixed sometime in 1857 for the Boston Public Library letter(s).
[11] lbid.
[12] Virginia Vaughn to Lysander Spooner, April 8, 1872, March 22, 1886; Lizzie Doten to Lysander Spooner, February 24, 1860. Spooner Papers, Boston Public Library.
[13] Liberty, May 28, 1887.
[14] Ibid., Boston Globe, May 15, 1887.
[15] Liberty, June 18, 1887.

Chapter 10

Through his youth and in his old age Lysander Spooner followed the voice of freedom. He never faltered in his quest for and his defense of liberty. From his first writing against the Massachusetts law licensing lawyers (1835), to his last work, A Letter to Cleveland (1887), the theme of non-coercion runs constant. Force always conflicted with human freedom, wherever he looked. It kept man enslaved, maintained post office monopoly, guided the military, and was the eternal watchword of government. In place of force, in place of coercion, Spooner sought to substitute an entirely voluntary system of human relations.

Understandably, the outlines of Spooner’s visionary society are incomplete and fragmentary, but he went further than most writers in his time in searching out practical, concrete plans to give substance to his vision. His two most important “inventions” were his currency system and his outline of trial by jury. The former seems hopelessly dated today, but it was framed from the best economic ideas then current. His Trial by Jury, on the other hand, still offers a practical way “law” can be realized in a no-government, anarchist community. Groups of peers would voluntarily assemble, assess blame, damages, and punishment. They would be entirely autonomous—responsible to no state or outside institution; the jury would be a genuinely representative sampling of the community, with each member responsible only to his own conscience. Thus the jury could express “the will of the people” in a much more direct and effective way than “representative” governments.

Spooner himself was a model for the good citizen, a man unencumbered by responsibilities to state or society. In some ways he was a representative man of the nineteenth century; his life was a remarkable series of careers: Deist, lawyer, bank clerk, western land speculator, businessman, abolitionist, inventor, legal writer, economist, and anarchist. He showed what an individual alone could do; he showed how an individualist should live.

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—the dominance of one race over others, of men over women, of heterosexual over homosexual, of rich over poor, of old over young, of teacher over pupil, of the educated over the uneducated, of the ruler over the ruled. 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.