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'The Pen is Mightier than the Sword': Lysander Spooner’s Constitutional Response to Increasing Abolitionist Violence in the 1850's

Helen J. Knowles

Skidmore College

September 1, 2009

Like many other abolitionists, during the 1850's Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) began to infuse the advocacy of violent responses to slavery into his antislavery arguments. However, this Massachusetts native did so by maintaining a decidedly hands-off approach. Instead of oratorical bluster or physical confrontation, Spooner continued to adhere to his lifelong strategy of using written treatises and/or essays of constitutional interpretation and legal logic in order to convey his thoughts. Paying particular attention to his 1858 broadside entitled “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery (and) to the Non-Slaveholders of the South” (the timing of whose publication John Brown’s supporters considered dangerously inflammatory), this paper asks whether the tendencies towards increased militarism and advocacy of the use of violence changed or weakened the legal bases of the “unconstitutionality of slavery” arguments that Spooner made in the 1840s.

Drawing on Spooner’s works and correspondence, I reach the conclusion that his invitations to violence were just that, invitations. They were, as was the case for so many abolitionists, responses to government actions that had the effect (both perceived and real) of further entrenching Slave Power. They did not in any appreciable manner affect Spooner’s belief that rigid and logical adherence to the rule of natural law and justice could prevail – if only the U.S. Constitution were correctly interpreted.

This is a version of a paper that will be presented at the “John Brown Remembered: 150th Anniversary of the Raid on Harpers Ferry" conference in Harpers Ferry, WV, October 14-17, 2009

Number of Pages in PDF File: 42

Keywords: slavery, anarchism, originalism, constitutional theory, legal history, abolitionism

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Date posted: September 3, 2009  

Suggested Citation

Knowles, Helen J., 'The Pen is Mightier than the Sword': Lysander Spooner’s Constitutional Response to Increasing Abolitionist Violence in the 1850's (September 1, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1465876 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1465876

Contact Information

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