I missed noting Lysander Spooner’s 205th birthday yesterday, but politics professor Helen Knowles didn’t. You can check out her remembrance here and her new article about Spooner, Seeing the Light: Lysander Spooner’s Increasingly Popular Constitutionalism. Here’s the abstract:
In recent years, the rise in academic interest in “popular constitutionalism” has been accompanied by scholarly efforts to identify examples from American history that support that movement’s normative claims about the ills of judicial supremacy. Should antislavery constitutionalists receive substantive discussion in this historical narrative? This article uses the writings of Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) (who authored the most extensive argument that slavery was unconstitutional) to demonstrate the complexities of answering this question. Nineteenth century abolitionists who wrote about the Constitution were constantly confronted with judges unwilling to act for liberty and justice. However, this did not result in an automatic acceptance of the need to issue a popular constitutionalist call to ‘take the Constitution away from the courts.’ Many, such as William Lloyd Garrison, adhered to an anti-constitutionalist position – advocating destruction of the nation’s supreme law. Lysander Spooner was no Garrisonian, but he also did not become a popular constitutionalist until the late 1850s. Not until the decision in Dred Scott did he finally decide to abandon his earlier belief in greater judicial involvement in the interpretive conversation about the meaning of the Constitution.
In my article, Whence Comes Section One? The Abolitionist Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment, I discuss Spooner at length, but also the many other “constitutional abolitionists” who, unlike him, turned to politics to advance their antislavery agenda — first, by forming the Liberty Party, then the Free Soil Party, and finally the Republican Party. Folks who saw Lincoln know that it was the Republican Party’s first president and a Republican Congress that adopted the Thirteenth Amendment making slavery unconstitutional, in part, so the courts would not later reverse Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and return the freedman to servitude.
There is much about which to be critical of Lincoln — and certainly more critical that Doris Kearns Goodwin in her excellent book, Team of Rivals, on which the Spielberg film was based. Goodwin obviously fell in love with her subject. But the movie shows the pervasive racism that the abolitionists had to overcome to form a political party that was such a threat to the slave power that it chose to succeed from the Union rather than live a single day under Republican antislavery policies. It was constitutional abolitionists like Theodore Dwight Weld, Alvan Stewart, Charles Dexter Cleveland, William Goodell, Benjamin Shaw, James Birney, Joel Tiffany, Horace Mann, Lewis Tappan, Gerrit Smith, Byron Paine, Frederick Douglass and, in particular, Salmon Chase who developed and promulgated the constitutional platform that came to be the core of the new Republican Party. These men did not agree about everything, but most shared in common their high regard for the antislavery constitutionalism of Lysander Spooner.
Happy Birthday, Lysander.