Eulogy for Lysander Spooner by Benjamin R. Tucker

From Liberty, issue of May 28, 1887

On almost 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. But, however impressed by the sight, few realized that they had been privileged with a view of one whose towering strength of intellect, whose sincerity and singleness of purpose, and whose frank and loving heart would endear him to generations to come; still fewer suspected that each sentence flowing gently from the quill in those slowly stiffening fingers was powerfully contributory to the resistless sweep of a flood of logic and of scornful wrath destined to engulf the ill-founded structure of a false society. Such, nevertheless, was the truth. But he will add no more to its might. For the past month his familiar form has been missing from its accustomed place, and the habitués of the Library will never see him there again. For he is dead. His name was Lysander Spooner, a name henceforth memorable among men.

He died at one o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, 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 long. For a year or more he had been visibly declining physically and had been unable to move about without the aid of a crutch, and on the second day of the present month he sank into a bilious fever from which he never recovered. Almost bitterly hostile to all schools of medicine and confident in his knowledge of his own constitution, he refused to suffer a doctor’s presence until three days before his death, and even then, with a firmness always characteristic of his life, he declined to describe his symptoms or to accept either advice or medicine. Nor would he pay heed to the solicitations of those who, assured that his recovery was hopeless, besought him to make some disposition of his precious manuscripts. “Oh! I shall get up to attend to that,” he would answer in his weak but ever cheerful voice. He gradually lapsed into an unconscious state, which lasted some twenty-four hours, and then he died without a struggle. Some time or other the story of this glorious life of eighty years will be told in detail as it deserves. Here neither time, space, nor material permit me more than a hasty glance at certain phases of it.

It began on a farm in Athol, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1808, and on this farm, belonging to his father, young Spooner spent his boyhood and a few years of his manhood. At the age of twenty-five, equipped with such learning as a country-school education then afforded, he went to Worcester, where he obtained a clerkship in the Registry of Deeds. His year’s experience in that office, coupled with his painstaking and methodical nature, made him a very reliable conveyancer and examiner of titles, in which capacity, however, he seldom had occasion to act in after life. On throwing up his clerkship, he began to read law in the office of John Davis, a celebrated member of the Worcester bar, and later studied in the office of Charles Allen, who is counted among the foremost of Massachusetts lawyers. Probably these men of talent little imagined what a giant intellect was developing under their eyes. Indeed, it is more than likely that their hopes were slight regarding the future of a young man to whom already the details and formalities and absurdities and quackeries of statute law seemed but so much cobweb which he must brush away in order to obtain a closer view of those fundamental veracities and realities which he called the principles of natural justice, whose mind had begun to soar from the realms of pettifoggery into those of high philosophy, and who, instead of perfecting himself in the art of bleeding a client, was devoting himself to writing his first pamphlet, entitled, “A Deist’s Reply to the Alleged Supernatural Evidences of Christianity.” This pamphlet and another issued soon afterwards, “The Deist’s Immortality, and an Essay on Man’s Accountability for His Belief,” are the earliest and the crudest products of his mind, but they give evidence of decided mental independence and a striking bent for original thought. For this alone are they now valuable. The method of assailing superstition has been so revolutionized by the theory of evolution and the progress of science that the argument used in these pamphlets, written before 1835, seem antiquated and some of them absurd. But their author never realized it. He died as he had lived, an old fashioned deist believing in a future life, and utterly ignorant of the great mass of evidence and logic which has lately reduced the ideas of God and immortality to such phantoms that men of sense are nearly unanimous in refusing to waste their thoughts upon them. In the sphere of religion and theology his younger and more active disciples had little in common with him beyond sharing his bitter scorn of priestcraft and all religious institutions.

As indicative of his attitude towards priests and churches the following anecdote is pertinent as well as interesting. At the time when the Millerite craze was at its height, and the end of the world was expected momentarily, some of the believers abandoned all work and neglected their crops, in view of the approaching catastrophe. At Athol several of these were arrested on a charge of vagrancy, the complaint being made by the more orthodox sects. The prosecution secured lawyers from adjoining towns and prepared to crush the victims, who were non-resistant, would employ no counsel, and had to be carried bodily into court. Mr. Spooner was present, and at the critical moment pointed out a flaw in the indictment which set the prisoners free. The orthodox were highly indignant at this result and one of the ministers said to Mr. Spooner:

“What do you get for your conduct in this matter?”

“The satisfaction,” answered Mr. Spooner, in a tone of sarcasm so subtle that probably the minister did not appreciate it, “of doing everything in my power to establish the Christian religion.”

But his spirit of rebellion against injustice did not show itself in connection with religious liberty alone. His first act as a lawyer was to defy and break the law. At that time Massachusetts statutes required three years’ extra study from men not college-bred as a condition of admission to the bar. In disregard of this provision Mr. Spooner opened a law-office in Worcester, and this bold step, enforced by an argument which he printed and circulated among the members of the legislature, secured the repeal of the obnoxious law forthwith. Thus he vindicated his right to practise. But his career as a lawyer never amounted to much. The propensities which showed themselves during his studies grew stronger and stronger, and, realizing that he was born for bigger work, he set the law aside. After six years’ residence in Ohio, during which, in cooperation with Noah H. Swayne, afterwards a justice of the United States Supreme Court, he made an unsuccessful attempt to restrain the State Board of Public Works from draining the Maumee River, a navigable stream, he returned to the East to make what turned out to be one of the most important moves of his life.

Among the evils from which the country then suffered, even to a greater extent than at present, was the government monopoly of the postal business and the consequent enormous rates of postage. In opposition to this outrageous violation of liberty Mr. Spooner took his first step in economic reform. He saw that the evil could be remedied by competition, and he tried to convince the people that the government had no right to monopolize the carriage of mail matter. But his arguments had no effect. So, remembering his success in defying the law when seeking admission to the bar, he determined to defy it again. Accordingly, in 1844, he started a private mail between Boston and New York, and soon extended it to Philadelphia and Baltimore, charging but five cents a letter between any of these points, — a very much smaller sum than the government was then charging. The business was an immediate success and rapidly extending. But as the carrying of each letter constituted a separate offence, the government was able to shower prosecutions on him and crush him out in a few months by loading him with legal expenses. His aim was to get one case before the Supreme Court, but the officials were too shrewd to let him do that. Others, who had followed his example, were treated likewise. Nevertheless the matter had created such a stir, and Mr. Spooner had obtained so many acknowledgements from congressmen of the superiority of his system, that the following year public sentiment compelled a large reduction in the government rates of postage. That Mr. Spooner by his bold course conferred an immense benefit upon mankind no one can gainsay, and he certainly deserves the title of “father of cheap postage in America.” But this was not the victory that he aimed at; this was not the victory that still remains to be won. What Mr. Spooner struck at was the monopoly, and that stands to this day, more firmly rooted than ever, and fostering a multitude of evils which competition would remedy at once. The people have been dissuaded from demanding its abolition by the successive reductions that have been thrown at them as sops. When one of the daily papers proposed, therefore, a few days ago, — meaning well, no doubt, — that Mr. Spooner’s head be put upon the next new postage stamp, in effect it insulted Mr. Spooner. He maintained to the day of his death — and the most experienced expressmen agree with him — that there is profit in carrying letters all over the United States at one cent each, and that the government monopoly of the business alone prevents the people from enjoying such a boon. If anything, then, could make him turn in his grave, it would be the consciousness of the fact that his likeness was being used in a way to jointly glorify himself and the monopoly which he worked so hard to destroy.

Mr. Spooner owes his chief reputation as a publicist to a pamphlet which, despite its great ability, is not by any means his most important work. “The Unconstitutionality of Slavery” at once made him prominent in the abolition conflict, and for some years his fame was considerable. Garrison and his followers had been conducting their agitation on the theory that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document and should be trampled under foot. When Spooner came forward, therefore, with a wonderfully strong legal argument to show that slavery was unconstitutional, it naturally excited much attention. Those who were in favor of abolishing slavery by political methods — among them Gerrit Smith and Elizur Wright — strongly endorsed the doctrine, and the book became the textbook of the Liberty Party. Wendell Phillips did his best to answer it, but as a logician Phillips was to Spooner as a pygmy to a giant. The battle raged fiercely until events forced the anti-slavery struggle to turn upon another issue, and the palm of victory has never been awarded. It should be borne in mind that the question was one of interpretation simply; the authority of the Constitution as such was not under discussion; if it had been, Spooner’s opposition to it would have been far more radical than Garrison’s. Besides this pamphlet Mr. Spooner wrote two others in connection with the anti-slavery conflict, — “A Defence of Fugitive Slaves” and an “Address to the Free Constitutionalists.”

Mr. Spooner was a staunch advocate of the jury system as the best method of administering justice, — not the jury system of today, but that originally secured by Magna Charta. On this subject he wrote an exhaustive legal work entitled “Trial by Jury,” in which he maintained that no man should be punished for an offence unless by the unanimous verdict and sentence of twelve men chosen by lot from the whole body of citizens to judge not only the facts but the law, the justice of the law, and the extent of the penalty, and that the gradual encroachment of judges upon the rights of juries had rendered the latter practically worthless in the machinery of justice. Much that he advocated in this volume has already prevailed in Illinois and some other States. The book closes with a denial of the right of compulsory taxation.

Of all the pamphlets which he wrote that which received the largest circulation was one which appeared anonymously under the title “Revolution.” In it he treated the Irish land question in his most vigorous style, putting his thought in the form of a letter to the Earl of Dunraven. He submitted the manuscript to a prominent Irishman in Boston, who was so delighted with it that he consulted other Irishmen in New York, as a result of which an edition of one hundred thousand copies were printed. A copy was sent to each member of the English aristocracy, to each member of the House of Commons, and to every official of any note in the British dominions, and the balance of the edition was distributed in the democratic centres of England and Canada with the exception of a few that were sent to Ireland. It was the intention of the Irishmen who did this to continue such propagandism, and Mr. Spooner engaged to write a series of pamphlets for the purpose, but something interfered to prevent the execution of the plan. I remember that I read the second of the series in manuscript, but I believe it was never printed.

Other of his works exist in the same unfinished state. Lacking the means to publish an entire treatise at once, he would frequently print the first chapter separately and label it “Part I.” Then, before getting time to write or money to print a second chapter, some new subject would absorb his attention and the old work would remain unfinished.

Many of his pamphlets were first printed in journals or magazines, sometimes serially. In the “Radical Review” first appeared the three following: “Our Financiers: Their Ignorance, Usurpations, and Frauds,” “The Law of Prices: A Demonstration of the Necessity for an Indefinite Increase of Money,” and “Gold and Silver as Standards of Value.” In the “New Age,” the weekly edited by J.M.L. Babcock a dozen years ago, appeared “What is a Dollar?” and an uncompleted serial, “Financial Impostors.” And in “Liberty”, as my readers will remember, appeared his latest and unquestionably greatest work, the “Letter to Grover Cleveland,” his “Letter to Thomas F. Bayard,” and his masterly argument against woman suffrage, reprinted from the “New Age.” I may also now reveal the fact that many of the ablest editorials in these columns were written by Lysander Spooner. He was the author of the editorials signed “O,” printed within the last year, and of the following in earlier numbers: “Distressing Problems” (No. 7); “Guiteau’s Malice” (No. 10); “Guiteau’s Devilish Depravity … and Guiteau’s Wit” (No. 11); “Justice Gray” and “The Guiteau Experts” (No. 12); “Andover Theological Seminary” (No. 20); “War upon Superstitious Women” and “The Forms of Law” (No. 24); “Ben Butler’s Piety” (No. 34); “The Troubles of Law-Making in Massachusetts” (No. 40); “The Death of Chinese Gordon” (No. 59); “Elizur Wright,” (No. 70). At times he wrote parts of works which appeared under others’ names. For instance, the long argument against prohibition entitled “Vices are not Crimes” embodied in Dio Lewis’s book on the temperance question was Mr. Spooner’s work, and so was a part of George W. Searle’s article on “Chief Justice Taney” in the “National Quarterly Review” for April, 1865. Relying on my memory for the titles of such of his pamphlets as have not yet been mentioned in this hasty sketch, doubtless I have failed to include numerous important ones in the following list: “Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure”; “Illegality of the Trial of J.W. Webster”; “Considerations for Bankers and Bondholders”; “A New System of Paper Currency”; “Universal Wealth”; “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority”; “The Law of Intellectual Property” (the only positively silly work which ever came from Mr. Spooner’s pen); and “Natural Law.” In addition to these, he left trunks full of manuscripts on a great variety of subjects, which his friends intend to put into print as soon as they are able.

I should be carrying coals to Newcastle were I to restate Mr. Spooner’s teachings here. Whatever he may have called himself or refused to call himself, he was practically an Anarchist. His leanings were Anarchistic from the first, and, though he worked in earlier years in the direction of attacking certain phases of government, he saw later the necessity of levelling his most powerful guns against the governmental principle itself. To destroy tyranny, root and branch, was the great object of his life. He was in perfect agreement with the central teachings of this paper, — that there is nothing so important as liberty, and that now and here there is no liberty so much needed as the liberty to issue money. And how he defended these doctrines! There is not one among us who can write with such crushing force. His greatest strength lay in his power of keen and discriminating analysis. He was a master of deductive logic. His was what he was wont to call a legal mind, the only order of mind of which he had any appreciation. It was one of the peculiar weaknesses of this great man that, despite his intense gratification at finding any new believer in his theories, he had little mental sympathy with those who arrived at them by processes distinct from his. He entirely failed to recognize the substantial identity of Herbert Spencer’s political teachings with his own simply because Spencer reaches his conclusions by totally different methods. That philosopher’s broad inductions made no impression on him. “He’s no lawyer,” he would say. For lawyers of the better type his predilection was strong. Upon these he relied largely for the world’s regeneration.

His remarkably sanguine temperament never failed him, and he was always sure that his next pamphlet would capture the lawyers and through them the world. It was amusing to listen to his comments upon men. He thought John Stuart Mill greatly overrated. “When I read Mill,” said he to me one day, “I am always reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words to the katydid: ‘Thou sayst an undisputed thing in such a solemn way.'” His contempt for Charles Sumner he could find no words to express, and to such a trimmer as Henry Wilson he refused his hand when he met him. Wendell Phillips was a man of noble heart who didn’t know how to think, and Jesus Christ was an ambitious upstart who wanted to be King of the Jews, and who, with that end in view, delivered the Sermon on the Mount as a political stump speech.

I am at the end of my space, and have not said half that I had in mind. It would be easy to fill this number of Liberty with gossip and reminiscence concerning this delightful character, with eulogy of his surpassing powers and virtues, with criticism of his limitations. But I must not do it, I need not do it. Does not his work speak for him as I cannot? It is ours, my readers, to continue that work as he began it. And we shall not have rendered him his full reward of praise unless it shall be said of us, when we in turn lay down our arms and lives, that we fought as good a fight as he and kept the faith as he did.

Let this poor tribute end, then, here. On Sunday next, May 29, at half past two o’clock, in Wells Memorial Hall, 987 Washington Street, Boston, worthier words will be spoken in honor of the dead philosopher at a special memorial service, in which Theodore D. Weld, Henry Appleton, J.M.L. Babcock, Thomas Drew and E.B. McKenzie will take part, thus supplementing the funeral service of Tuesday, May 17, — the day of the burial at Forest Hills, — when addresses were delivered by Mr. Babcock, Parker Pillsbury, and M.J. Savage.

— Benjamin R. Tucker
Boston, Massachusetts