On the Other Hand...

by Jim Davies

Genius, Concealed


He was probably the greatest Massachussets lawyer of all time, and though that may not now seem to be saying much, his Century was not the present but the previous one, when lawyers had rather more respect for justice than today; and the mind and writings of Lysander Spooner, Esquire, are absolutely awesome.

I've just gotten through two short works of his, and for the second time in a year I found myself unable to read more than a few pages at a time. The reason on the first occasion was that the book (Rummel's "Death by Government") gave such an appalling picture of the horrible things governments do to human beings that I felt almost ill if I read it in more than small doses. The reason in the case of Spooner's work was that I suffered some intellectual overload.

He is devastating in his logic, relentless in his reasoning. The works I read were quite short, but wholly astonishing. One was but a few pages long; a "A Letter to Thomas F Bayard"; and the other, itself only 47 pages, was perhaps his masterwork, called "No Treason; the Constitution of No Authority". Let me just tell you about the Letter.


Long before corresponding with Senator Bayard, Lysander Spooner had gained fame as an Abolitionist - reasoning from first principles and natural law that no man has any right to own another. By 1882, when this Letter was written, the Civil War was long over, though Spooner had (with perfect consistency) opposed it vigorously; for slavery should not have been abolished by means of enslaving and killing people. That is the background of this remarkable man.

Thomas Bayard was a Democratic Senator from Delaware, and at the time was being written to by both Spooner and by one Lyman Abbott, who was about as far from Spooner's viewpoint as one could get, for he favored an even bigger role for the Federal Government than any Pol of his day would contemplate. Bayard was therefore being pulled in both directions, though Spooner won on points. The published "Letter" is just one of a series, and comes after Bayard had written to Abbott (who had suggested all politicians were crooked) to say that "it is at least possible for a man to be a legislator... and yet be an honest man."

That has a familiar ring, does it not? - in our own day lawyers, politicians and used-car dealers compete for the honor of being at the bottom of the heap in public esteem, and there was this US Senator, 115 years ago, feeling obliged to protest that, dishonest though some politicians might be, it was "at least possible" for some of them to be honest! A little joke, to ease the tension. We can imagine any Pol today, protesting in a similar manner. Plus ca change. Well, Spooner showed him no mercy. He started his 1882 Letter to Bayard by taking his joke seriously, and blowing it clean out of the water. Just savor this opening paragraph:

"The proposition implies that you hold it to be at least possible that some four hundred men should, by some process or other, become invested with the right to make laws of their own - that is, laws wholly of their own device, and therefore necessarily distinct from the laws of nature, or the principles of natural justice; and that these laws of their own making shall be really and truly obligatory upon the people of the United States; and that therefore, the people may rightfully be compelled to obey them."

Just by re-stating Bayard's little protest and stripping it bare, Spooner in these few words begins to demolish the whole fiction that government has any right to exist or to write any laws whatever! Merely to state the contrary notion is to ridicule it, to reveal it to be as absurd as it is obscene.


Later in the Letter, Spooner comes to grips with the claim that government has some authority by virtue of the US Constitution; and he scorns that also:

"If [arbitrary and irresponsible dominion...over fifty millions of people] cannot be justified, [how can you] act as a legislator, under the Constitution of the United States, and yet be an honest man?

"To say that the arbitrary and irresponsible dominion, that is exercised by Congress, has been delegated to it by the Constitution... is the height of absurdity; for what is the Constitution? It is, at best, a writing that was drawn up more than ninety years ago; was assented to at the time only by a small number of men; generally those few white male adults who had prescribed amounts of property... one in twenty of the population.

"Those men have been long since dead. They never had any right of arbitrary dominion over even their contemporaries; and they never had any over us..."


Now, often in this column I point out how politicians quite casually trample on the very rights that the Constitution is supposed to guarantee us; it is most certainly a marvellous stick with which to beat them, for they all pretend to respect it and even swear to obey it. But the fact is that even the few powers it does delegate to government are not valid and never were; Spooner once again lays bare how absurd it is to suppose government has any validity whatever. Take a look at it; it purports to be written by "We the People", but was actually written by a couple of dozen politicians! - admittedly a great deal more honest and enlightened than any two dozen you could find today. But even if it had been signed by everybody then living, how could they possibly sign away any of the rights of people not then even born, including ourselves?

Little wonder Spooner is not taught in government schools. If he was, the very ground on which those expensive dinosaurs exist would be cut from under them.

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