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Apr 28, 2017

Dio Lewis on Lysander Spooner and Prohibition

Smith discusses Lewis’s rare insights on Spooner’s personal life, and his libertarian case against prohibition.

In his obituary of Lysander Spooner (Liberty, May 28, 1887) the anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker wrote:

He died at one o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, in his little room at 109 Myrtle Street [Boston], 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.

The trunks and chests mentioned here ended up in Tucker’s warehouse, which also housed his printing press and stock. Tragically, the warehouse burned down in 1908 and destroyed everything inside. Tucker was unable to recover financially, so the fire ended the publication of Liberty, which was the cornerstone of the radical individualist-libertarian movement in America. Equally as tragic was the loss of Spooner’s collection of unpublished manuscripts, correspondence, and other personal material. Without this material it has been impossible to write a detailed biography of Spooner. We know little about his personal life and preferences, but some information was provided by Dio Lewis (1823-1886), Spooner’s friend and personal physician in later life.

Dio Lewis was a homeopathic physician who stressed the importance of exercise, sunlight, proper diet and other natural factors in the prevention and cure of diseases. In his many books—including New Gymnastics, Our Digestion, Weak Lungs, Chastity—we find a fair amount of sound advice sprinkled with only a minimal amount of quackery, at least by nineteenth-century standards. The relevant book for our purpose is Talks About People’s Stomachs, published in 1870. Here we find two discussions of Lysander Spooner. Although these passages have nothing to do with Spooner’s political views, I have never seen them quoted or cited in any published discussion of Spooner, so I hereby quote them for their historical interest alone.

It appears that Spooner and Lewis first met during the 1860s, when Spooner was seeking medical advice. As Lewis wrote (p. 216):

My Boston friend, Lysander Spooner, the author of that matchless argument upon the antislavery character of the Constitution of the United States, and of several ingenious and original papers upon government and banking, came to me several years ago in broken health. He seemed completely spent and crippled. For reasons which I will not here detail I advised the Sun-Cure. He was directed to lie down upon a mattress in an attic room, where the sun could fall upon his nude person, to continue this daily, and on each day two hours or more. A few months gave him a new lease of life, and although he was advanced in life at the time, he has since (now eight years) continued to enjoy better health than for many years.

Mr. Spooner cherishes the deepest interest in the subject of sunshine in its relations with health. Always zealous in every good word and work, he has collected from many sources striking illustrations of the power of the direct rays of the sun in restoring health, but still more in developing beauty and vigor. A number of the subjoined facts he has recently handed to me for the pages of this work.

After Spooner provided Lewis with numerous sources from journals about the beneficial effects of sunlight, Lewis quoted those sources in his book.

Lewis’s other discussion (pp. 131-32) deals with Spooner’s eating habits.

Lysander Spooner, referred to in another place, is now sixty-two years of age. Up to fifty he ate three meals a day, then for nine years two meals, and now for three years one meal a day. Mr. Spooner has suffered a good deal from stomach troubles during his life, and, indeed, until the adoption of the one meal system. Now he is bright and cheerful as a boy, and has a skin like a baby’s. I do not know another man of his age so youthful in spirit.

I scarcely know a better thinker than Mr. Spooner, while his honesty has passed into a proverb. After his complete experiment, he is warm and explicit in his testimony. He is confident that if workers of all classes would rise early from an eight hours’ sleep and digestion, they would be ready for a day’s work without further eating. As evening came on he would have them rest for an hour, perhaps drink a glass of water, and then quietly and slowly fill the stomach with plain, substantial nourishment. Then sleeping and digesting, they again prepare themselves for a day’s work, without any division of force between the brain and muscle and the stomach. During the day the stomach asks for nothing, the brain and muscle have it all their own way.

As I said, these passages are of no significance in regard to Spooner’s political beliefs and activities, but they do provide rare glimpses into his personal life. They also help to explain the origin of Spooner’s friendship with Lewis, and why he agreed to write Part Second of Lewis’s important book Prohibition: A Failure: or, The True Solution of the Temperance Question (1875). In his introduction to Spooner’s anonymous contribution—titled “Vices are not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty”—Lewis wrote:

In this argument, the distinction between vice and crime is fundamental. It is important that this distinction should be stated tersely, and in the technicalities and formulas of the lawyer.

I have, therefore, requested a legal friend to do it for me. And he has kindly contributed the following essay, which seems to me to cover the whole ground, and to show the correctness of the principle in all its applications. It seems to me to be not only a clearly legal statement of the question, but also a truly philosophical view of a man’s relations to government, and to his fellow-men; and to show that on no other principle can there be any such thing as personal liberty, or rights of property, except such as mere arbitrary power may see fit to concede.

Vices are not Crimes owes it modern revival to Carl Watner, who, during the 1970s, read Benjamin Tucker’s attribution of the piece to Spooner and then tracked down Lewis’s book. (See the concluding paragraph of my last essay.)  It was first published as a separate booklet by Janice Allen (TANSTAAFL, 1977). As brilliant as Vices are not Crimes may be—it is far better, for example, than J.S. Mill’s similar discussion in On Liberty (2nd ed., 1859)—we should not overlook the importance of Dio Lewis’s own contributions to Prohibition: A Failure. Though little known today, even among libertarian scholars, this book is a libertarian classic in its own right, apart from Spooner’s contribution.

For decades Lewis wrote and lectured against the consumption of any alcohol, calling it a “poison.” As he put it in Prohibition: A Failure:

Alcohol is a poison, and should not be taken into the stomach in any form, or under any circumstances….For thirty years I have advised total abstinence for both sexes, all ages, and in all conditions of health. I have uniformly advised members of churches to shun the Lord’s Supper, until unfermented wines are furnished.

This position was shared by many temperance reformers, almost all of whom advocated the compulsory prohibition of alcohol. Dio Lewis was a rare exception. Despite his extreme views on alcohol consumption, Lewis condemned in no uncertain terms any prohibitory laws against the manufacture, distribution, or consumption of alcohol (provided we are talking about mentally competent adults). By the time Lewis published his book in 1875, prohibition had been in effect in Massachusetts for around 20 years, after legislators had applied the “Maine Law” of 1851 to their own state. This was not only a violation of individual rights, according to Lewis, it was also a hindrance to the cause of temperance.

I believe the Prohibitory Law is a great obstacle in the path of the temperance movement, and that further progress is impossible until the law is abolished. While we are waiting for the constable to do the work, we cannot employ with the needed fervor those social, moral, and religious forces which alone can triumph over human vices.

I believe this dependence upon law to be an incubus which must be shaken off.

Lewis expressed his complete agreement with the political philosophy of Lysander Spooner. We see this in the contempt Lewis expressed for politicians, most of whom plunder the people for their own gain.

It is constantly complained that the best citizens will not accept political office. It is true; and, as people become more and more enlightened, rich, and independent, it will be more and more difficult to secure first-class citizens to serve in any political office. We have not had a first-rate man as President of the United States in forty years; I mean, first-rate in culture and morals. All of which means this, and only this: that political office, as an occupation, is far below the highest level of the private citizen’s life.

All this corruption grows out of the attempt on the part of the legislature to do what they have no business with. Let them confine themselves to providing methods of punishing criminals, and leave the people’s business to the people themselves, and they would quickly win the confidence and respect of the public, and all this miserable lobbying, and jobbery, and corruption would cease.

The manufacturers and sellers of alcoholic drinks were a favorite target of prohibitionists. The tavern owner was condemned in much the same terms that drug dealers are vilified today—as a cancer in the social body that should be rooted out and eliminated. (For the record, both Lewis and Spooner did not believe that potentially harmful drugs should be outlawed, any more than alcohol should be. Their consumption may be a vice, but it should not be a crime.) Lewis therefore devoted considerable space to vindicating the legal innocence of the manufacturers and distributors of alcohol. The following passages are typical:

A CRIME is any act which one man, with evil intent, commits upon the person or property of another, without his consent. If one person, with evil intent, lay his finger upon another, without the latter’s consent, it is a crime. All crimes may be justly punished by law. A vice is any injurious act or passion in which a person indulges himself. Malice, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, avarice, ambition, falsehood, indolence, cowardice, drunkenness, gluttony, &c, &c, are vices. Vices are not justly punishable by law. They are amenable to reason alone. If A assists B to indulge in a vice, and A uses no fraud, and B is compos mentis and fully consents, A is guilty of no crime. If A be a cook, and makes for B rich and delicious dishes, and B indulges his appetite to such an extent that he becomes sick and dies, A is guilty of no crime, but is, at the worst, an accomplice in a vice. If A be a vender of alcoholic drinks, and sells B intoxicating drinks at his solicitation, A is guilty of no crime, but, at the worst, is an accomplice in a vice. B’s indulgence in the strong food or in the strong drink, either of which may ruin him, is not a crime punishable by law, but only a vice amenable to reason alone; so A is guilty of no crime, but only of being an accomplice in a vice, amenable to reason alone.

A crime must possess three features.

  1. There must be at least two persons — the actor and the victim.
  2. The act must be committed with evil intent.
  3. The act must be committed without the consent of the victim.

If, in the case of the rum-seller, we assume a secret purpose to destroy his victim (a something which never exists; for he would be glad if the drink left no bad effects, as it would greatly enhance the character and profits of the business), but, supposing there were a secret purpose to destroy his customers, there would be no crime, unless there was fraud, or unless the drinkers were compelled to swallow their drinks.

There used to be a law here in Massachusetts against preaching infidelity, and another against any disrespectful words of Jesus Christ, another against travelling on Sunday, another against smoking in the streets, another against playing cards, another against usury, &c., &c.; and now we have had one for twenty years against the sale of intoxicating liquors. The most of these laws have been repealed; the rest of them are stone dead. Such offences belong to vices, and cannot be cured by law.

I have no doubt the conservatives were honest when they foretold all sorts of ruin to follow the abolition of the usury laws. But at length the people had the sense to see that when two men sit down together to make a bargain about the lending of money, they are exercising a natural right, with which no man, or body of men, has any right to interfere.

And exactly so we have had a prohibitory liquor law for twenty years, and now the people have concluded that when two men meet and make a bargain about the sale of a glass of rum, they are exercising a natural right, with which no man, or body of men, on earth has any right to interfere by force or law.

Dio Lewis had much more to say about the injustice and impracticality of prohibition. I shall examine a few more of his arguments, and the arguments of Lysander Spooner, in my next essay.

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