The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

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4. Lysander Spooner and Other Antebellum Radicalism

  • Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
October 18, 2006

Tags U.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

Lysander Spooner in the antebellum period has been overlooked. He was a radical abolitionist lawyer. He wrote The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. William Lloyd Garrison felt the Constitution was a bloody pro-slavery compact.

Spooner felt that since there was no universal consent to the Constitution, then no authority existed, not even implied. Spooner looks to the text of the document alone and to natural law. Spooner has an interesting view. First, the fugitive slave clause does not contain the word slave. Neither service nor labor is necessarily slavery.  Second, the three-fifths clause interprets all other persons to mean slaves. But English law had used the word free to mean citizen. Thus, other persons would just mean resident aliens. Third, the importation of such persons… Spooner says nobody would look at those words and mean the slave trade. It would just mean the general importation of foreigners.

Fugitive slave laws were meant to give statutory standing to demand the return of runaway slaves. Passed in 1850, the slave laws were seen by some to violate some other parts of the Constitution. Federal commissioners determined whether the man who is found is indeed the man who appears in the claim. The fugitive was denied a jury trial. The federal commissioners were exercising judicial power, paid by a fee that earned them more only if they returned the person. This was perhaps a violation of the due process clause.

The Principles of ’98 said the states can nullify any law that was not constitutional. Here, states’ rights were used on behalf of liberty.

Lecture 4 of 14 from Tom Woods' The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History lecture series.

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