Lysander Spooner (19 January 1808 14 May 1887) was a libertarian, individualist anarchist, entrepreneur, political philosopher, abolitionist, supporter of the labor movement, and legal theorist of the 19th century. He is also known for competing with the U.S. Post Office with his American Letter Mail Company, which was forced out of business by the United States government. He has been identified by some contemporary writers as an anarcho-capitalist, while other writers and activists believe he was anti-capitalist for vocalizing opposition to wage labor.
Later known as an early individualist anarchist, Spooner advocated what he called Natural Law or the "Science of Justice" wherein acts of initiatory coercion against individuals and their property were considered "illegal" but the so-called criminal acts that violated only man-made legislation were not.
He believed that the price of borrowing capital could be brought down by competition of lenders if the government de-regulated banking and money. This he believed would stimulate entrepreneurship. In his Letter to Cleveland, Spooner argued, "All the great establishments, of every kind, now in the hands of a few proprietors, but employing a great number of wage labourers, would be broken up; for few or no persons, who could hire capital and do business for themselves would consent to labour for wages for another." Spooner took his own advice and started his own business called American Letter Mail Company which competed with the U.S. Post Office.
With the encouragement of his legal mentors, Spooner set up his practice in Worcester after only three years, openly defying the courts. He saw the three-year privilege for college graduates as a state-sponsored discrimination against the poor and also providing a monopoly income to those who met the requirements. He argued that such discrimination was "so monstrous a principle as that the rich ought to be protected by law from the competition of the poor." In 1836, the legislature abolished the restriction. He opposed all licensing requirements for lawyers, doctors or anyone else that was prevented from being employed by such requirements. To prevent a person from doing business with a person without a professional license he saw as a violation of the natural right to contract.
After a disappointing legal career - his radical writing seems to have kept away potential clients - and a failed career in real estate speculation in Ohio, Spooner returned to his father's farm in 1840.
Postal rates were notoriously high in the 1840s, and in 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company, which had offices in various cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.. Stamps could be purchased and then attached to letters which could be sent to any of its offices. From here agents were dispatched who travelled on railroads and steamboats, and carried the letters in hand bags. Letters were transferred to messengers in the cities along the routes who then delivered the letters to the addressees. This was a challenge to the United States Post Office's monopoly. As he had done when challenging the rules of the Massachusetts bar, he published a pamphlet titled "The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails." Although Spooner had finally found commercial success with his mail company, legal challenges by the government eventually exhausted his financial resources. He closed up shop without ever having had the opportunity to fully litigate his constitutional claims. The lasting legacy of Spooner's challenge to the postal service was the 3-cent stamp, adopted in response to the competition his company provided.
Spooner challenged the claim that the text of the Constitution supported slavery. Although he recognized that the Founders had probably not intended to outlaw slavery when writing the Constitution, he argued that only the meaning of the text, not the private intentions of its writers, was enforceable. Spooner used a complex system of legal and natural law arguments in order to show that the clauses usually interpreted as supporting slavery did not, in fact, support it, and that several clauses of the Constitution prohibited the states from establishing slavery under the law. Spooner's arguments were cited by other pro-Constitution abolitionists, such as Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, which adopted it as an official text in its 1848 platform. Frederick Douglass, originally a Garrisonian disunionist, later came to accept the pro-Constitution position, and cited Spooner's arguments to explain his change of mind.
From the publication of this book until 1861, Spooner actively campaigned against slavery. He published subsequent pamphlets on Jury Nullification and other legal defenses for escaped slaves and offered his legal services, often free of charge, to fugitives. In the late 1850s, copies of his book were distributed to members of Congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, a slavery proponent, praised the argument's intellectual rigor and conceded it was the most formidable legal challenge he had seen from the abolitionists to date. In 1858, Spooner circulated a "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, calling for the use of guerrilla warfare against slaveholders by black slaves and non-slaveholding free Southerners, with aid from Northern abolitionists. Spooner also participated in an aborted plot to free John Brown after his capture following the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
In 1860, Spooner was actively courted by William Seward to support the fledgling Republican Party. An admitted sympathizer with the Jeffersonian political philosophy, Spooner adamantly refused the request and soon became an outspoken abolitionist critic of the party. To Spooner, the Republicans were hypocrites for purporting to oppose slavery's expansion but refusing to take a strong, consistent moral stance against slavery itself. Although Spooner had advocated the use of violence to abolish slavery, he denounced the Republicans' use of violence to prevent the Southern states from seceding during the American Civil War. He published several letters and pamphlets about the war, arguing that the Republican war aim was not the overthrow of slavery, but rather to maintain the Union by force. He blamed the bloodshed on Republican political leaders such as Secretary of State Seward and Senator Charles Sumner, who often spoke out against slavery but would not attack it on a constitutional basis, and who pursued military policies seen as vengeful and abusive.
Though denouncing its embrace of slavery, Spooner sided with the Confederate States of America's right to secede on the basis that they were choosing to exercise government by consent - a fundamental constitutional and legal principle to Spooner's philosophy. The North, by contrast, was trying to deny the Southerners their inherent right to be governed by their consent. He believed they were attempting to coerce the obedience of the southern states to a union they did not wish to enter. He believed that Compensated Emancipation was a preferable way to end slavery, something many nations had done. He argued that the right for states to secede derives from the same right of the slaves to be free. This argument was not popular in the North or South once the war started, as it was contrary to the government positions held on both sides.
The Union government's actions during the war caused Spooner to radicalize his views to an anarchistic view. In response, Spooner published one of his most famous political tracts, No Treason. In this lengthy essay, Spooner argued that the Constitution was a contract of government (see social contract theory) which had been irreparably violated during the war and was thus void. Furthermore, since the government now existing under the Constitution pursued coercive policies that were contrary to the Natural Law and to the consent of the governed, it had been demonstrated that document was unable to adequately stop many abuses against liberty or to prevent tyranny from taking hold. Spooner bolstered his argument by noting that the Federal government, as established by a legal contract, could not legally bind all persons living in the nation since none had ever signed their names or given their consent to it - that consent had always been assumed, which fails the most basic burdens of proof for a valid contract in the courtroom.
Spooner widely circulated the No Treason pamphlets, which also contained a legal defense against the crime of treason itself intended for former Confederate soldiers (hence the name of the pamphlet, arguing that "no treason" had been committed in the war by the south). These excerpts were published in DeBow's Review and some other well known southern periodicals of the time.
In January 2004, Laissez Faire Books established the Lysander Spooner Award for advancing the literature of liberty. The honor is awarded monthly to the most important contributions to the literature of liberty, followed by an annual award to the author of the top book on liberty for the year. The annual "Spooner" earns $1,500 cash for the winning author.
Conversely, proponents of market socialism cite Spooner for his opposition to wage labor. Spooner's criticism of capitalists and their use of private defense contracts came to be known in his later writings. In No Treason he wrote, "[a]ny number of scoundrels, having money enough to start with, can establish themselves as a 'government'; because, with money, they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort more money; and also compel general obedience to their will.
Spooner's "The Unconstitutionality of Slavery" was cited in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case which struck down the federal district's ban on handguns. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, quotes Spooner as saying the right to bear arms was necessary for those who wanted to take a stand against slavery.