19 May 2010

Lysander Spooner - No Treason

I just finished reading Spooner's "No Treason" in print form (also available in its entirety online) and have to admit to being impressed by his argument that we are governed by a constitution of no authority. Spooner was a man of many talents- entrepreneur, abolitionist, proponent of individualist anarchism and philosopher. In addition, he was well known in his home state of Massachusetts as an excellent examiner of real estate titles which is something near and dear to my heart as it is how I make a living. "No Treason" isn't a difficult read, in fact you can quickly get through it in an afternoon although a second, and third, reading is necessary to pick up some of the nuances of the work. Spooner's language is clear and concise as he lays out a devastating attack on the very document that rests at the heart of the American system of government- the constitution.

The impetus for the work was the Civil War. Although Spooner was a staunch abolitionist, he was attempting to make the case that the South had legally seceded from the United States and that the leaders (and soldiers) in the southern cause, could not be legally tried and executed for treason. Spooner's argument rested on two pillars. First, the constitution itself (which names treason as a capital offense) was itself invalid because it was never consented to by the citizens alive at that time (or today, in fact.) The document was not properly executed, signed and assented to and would not pass muster as even a simple contract (in this argument I see Spooner's background as an examiner of real estate titles coming to the forefront.) Moreover, when the constitution was ratified, it was not ratified by the entire population since it excluded blacks, women and non-property owning whites. Second, since the south gave proper notice to the north of its plans for secession, and did not hide its intentions, it was therefore hypocritical of the north to ignore the fact that the declaration of independence clearly made the case for the populace having the right to secede from a nation that no longer represented their interests.

The number who actually consented to the Constitution of the United States, at the first, was very small. Considered as the act of the whole people, the adoption of the Constitution was the merest farce and imposture, binding upon nobody.

The women, children, and blacks, of course, were not asked to give their consent. In addition to this, there were, in nearly or quite all the States, property qualifications that excluded probable one half, two thirds, or perhaps even three fourths, of the white male adults from the right of suffrage. And of those who were allowed that right, we know not how many exercised it.

Spooner discounted the theory that we were all taught in school, that the north fought to free the slaves, and instead saw the influence of big business and war profiteers as driving the north towards inevitable conflict (does any of this sound familiar ?) In addition, once the war began the authority of the government no longer rested on the consent of the populace, it rested on force.

On the part of the North, the war was carried on, not to liberate slaves, but by a government that had always perverted and violated the Constitution, to keep the slaves in bondage; and was still willing to do so, if the slaveholders could be thereby induced to stay in the Union.
The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.

I find Spooner's arguments to be pretty thought provoking and I wouldn't be too quick in dismissing his works. Are we as citizens of the U.S. bound by the constitution ? Did the men who ratified the constitution have the right to bind their descendants to this document ? If not, what does that mean ? I'm not a legal scholar, but I would imagine that Spooner's position supports the view that the constitution is an evolving document (should it be ratified by every generation ?) rather than an absolute authority that can't be modified. If the constitution has no authority, the entire bedrock upon which the government rests is nothing more than quicksand and it has no right to assert control over any part of our lives. Food for thought to say the least.

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