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Securing the 'Blessings of Liberty' for All: Lysander Spooner's Originalism


Helen J. Knowles


Skidmore College

June 28, 2010

New York University Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 5, p. 34, 2010

Abstract:     
On January 1, 1808, legislation made it illegal to import slaves into the United States; eighteen days later, in Athol, Massachusetts, Lysander Spooner was born. In terms of their influence on the abolition of slavery, only the first of these events has gained widespread recognition. The importance of Spooner's reading of the U.S. Constitution as a document that did not sanction slavery has been overlooked; his abolitionist work continues to be disparaged as the incoherent ramblings of an unserious polemicist. As this essay demonstrates, this conclusion about Spooner's mid-nineteenth century work, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, is unfortunate, because his observations about the relationship between law and individual liberty are timeless.

Drawing on his writings (including a previously unpublished manuscript) and voluminous correspondence, with supporting material from abolitionist newspapers and periodicals, I focus on Spooner's contribution to a mid-1840s debate about constitutional interpretation. Spooner's natural-rights based reading of the Constitution's original meaning never matched the popularity of fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips's emphasis on the Framers' original pro-slavery intentions. Phillips won the day with conclusions that seemed to vindicate the Garrisonian condemnation of the Constitution as a "covenant with death, and an agreement with hell." However, Phillips's conclusions about the law were underpinned by a misleading emphasis on political history. They could not match the fiercely logical, and legal emphasis of Spooner's conclusions. In this respect, only Spooner offered an approach faithful to the Constitution's guarantee to protect the "Blessings of Liberty."

I bring the article to a close with a short twenty-first century postscript that shows the potential for Spooner's unpublished views on the Bill of Rights to play an important role in the debate about whether, in light of the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restricts the actions of the state and local governments.

THIS IS THE FINAL, PAGINATED VERSION OF THE ARTICLE.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 29

Keywords: slavery, abolition, originalism, legal theory, legal history, libertarianism, constitutional interpretation, Second Amendment, Bill of Rights, District of Columbia v. Heller, McDonald v. Chicago

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Date posted: January 31, 2009 ; Last revised: June 28, 2010

Suggested Citation

Knowles, Helen J., Securing the 'Blessings of Liberty' for All: Lysander Spooner's Originalism (June 28, 2010). New York University Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 5, p. 34, 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1335500

Contact Information

Helen J. Knowles (Contact Author)
Skidmore College ( email )
815 North Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
United States
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