Ep. 81: Spooner & The Secret Six, with Phil Magness

Phil Magness breaks down Lysander Spooner’s radical activist lifestyle. 

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Phil Magness joins us this week to teach the radical nature of Lysander Spooner. Spooner’s legal career started in an apprenticeship under 2 lawyers and he was best known for his support for the Abolitionist movement. His philosophy of liberty heavily influenced his law practice as well as his activist lifestyle.

Who was Lysander Spooner? Is there a connection between his post office activism and his abolition activism? What radical politics did Spooner practice? What is the secret six? How does natural law relate to slavery?

Further Reading:

Two Treatises on Competitive Currency and Banking, written by Lysander Spooner

John Brown and the Secret Six, Massachusetts Historical Society

Related Content:

Cannibals All!, with Phil Magness, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

An Essay on the Trial by Jury: Juries vs. Representative Democracy, written by Lysander Spooner

Lysander Spooner on Natural Law, written by George H. Smith


00:09 Anthony Comegna: It’s genuinely hard to find a libertarian who does not love Lysander Spooner. I’ve met every kind of libertarian there is: The people who put their licenses in bags and hang them out the window for police officers when they get pulled over; the kind of libertarian who has a dream of fighting insurrectionary militia campaigns against the federals; and the kinds of libertarians who even disavow their Social Security numbers and live off the grid with odd jobs as much as possible. But everyone, no matter what kind of libertarian you are, everyone loves Lysander Spooner. Historian Phil Magness joins us again to talk about this most radical of libertarians. Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.


01:04 Anthony Comegna: Lysander Spooner, more or less, seems to have led the archetypical libertarian life. It’s hard to imagine a real actual person who led much more of an arche-typically libertarian life. So can you tell us a bit about his personal history?

01:24 Phil Magness: Yeah, so there’s the running joke, if there’s ever a libertarian that wants to film a biopic about somebody in libertarian history in the movement, Lysander Spooner is probably the ideal candidate of that. You could give a really swashbuckling tale of someone who, more or less, waged war on the government for a 50, 60-year stretch of his life. Basically from the very origins of his entry into adulthood, to almost the day he died, he’s taking up anti-status causes, and he’s doing so in very creative and subversive ways. Spooner is born in a farmhouse in Central Massachusetts out of an old Puritan family. We don’t know too much about his childhood other than he’s left a little bit of glimpses of autobiographical material from time to time. But what happens with Spooner is he comes under the tutelage of a pair of attorneys that try to raise him up through the law and give him instruction basically through the old apprenticeship system, the way that legal training used to be, and this is really the font of his first encounter with the state.

02:46 Phil Magness: The state of Massachusetts, at the time, had started passing a variety of regulations and licensing schemes of, if you wanted to practice law, you basically needed to go through a bunch of regulatory fulfillment as distinct from this older common law tradition of you go and apprentice effectively with a barred attorney. So, Spooner is encouraged by his two tutors that he’s working in their law office, to basically make a test case against the State of Massachusetts very early in his life. This is in the 1830s, when he’s active in this campaign, to essentially force his way into the legal profession without going through the regulatory hurdles that the State of Massachusetts had put up. So one of his first pamphlets is on this subject, and he effectively gets the state to stand down and admit him into the bar, into the court rooms. That’s a very first font of Spooner’s activism, and what we see from there is him taking up cause after cause after cause of basically railing against what he sees as injustices in law that are imposed by the government, and these can be some very small things. He thinks that government is the font of panoply in society.

04:09 Phil Magness: His next big crusade, for example, he goes into trying to free the postage system and introduce competition into it. The big one that he’s most famous for, which we can get into, is working in the Abolitionist Movement as a radical anti-slavery man, and he champions this cause for a good 20 years of his life. And then what we find is after the Civil War, after slavery is abolished, he turns to various other economic causes, but it’s a similar theme. He sees state monopoly of property, or state monopoly of money, or state monopoly of the legal system, as the mechanisms that introduce injustice and appropriation of wealth into society. So, he continues for the rest of his life as basically a crusader against these different causes in a very archetypical libertarian way.

05:07 Anthony Comegna: Now, I wanna go back to those two threads you mentioned about the Post Office and Abolitionism. And I wanna see if we can tie them together in his biography at all, because as you know, the post office was an early focal point of abolitionists. Campaigns of all different sorts and backlash against abolitionism. So there is this… Especially the incident in South Carolina in 1835, when the Charleston mob burned all the abolitionist mails and that touched off William Leggett’s conversion to abolitionism, among others after him. There were figures like Barnabas Bates, who was a Locofoco contemporary of Spooner, who was trying to do the same thing by reforming the mails. His big cause was to get postage rates down as far as possible and he wanted to do that with competition of many different kinds, reform of the postal system. And his purpose, Barnabas Bates’ purpose behind that, was to make it easier for abolitionists to use the mail and flood the mails with their material for a very cheap rate. I wonder, is there any connection that you can find between Spooner’s post office or postal activism against that monopoly and tie it to his abolitionism in any way?

06:34 Phil Magness: Yeah, absolutely. Spooner is famous for leading a crusade against the post office. This is his next major cause he takes up after he’s broken into the legal system. And what he does is, in the early 1840s, he founds a company called the American Letter Mail Company. It’s best to think of this as kind of like a 19th century FedEx. What they did is, they set up station offices in all the major cities along the East Coast. So you could go to the American Letter Mail Company in Boston, you purchase a stamp, put it on your package and there would be a carrier, that every week, would travel up, up and down the coast, dropping off that package from office to office. So the Boston office would carry to New York, pick up new packages, drop off packages bound for New York, move further down to Philadelphia, down to Washington DC, all the way down to Charleston. At least that was the idea behind the scheme.

07:32 Phil Magness: And the historical literature on this has focused on the market mechanism behind it. So postage rates are very high through the federal government and Spooner views this as his entry mechanism. He says, “I can do this for cheaper than the federal government does. So I’m gonna sell my booklet of stamps, cheaper than what the federal government does, to deliver mail along the same route. We’ll just do it through this distribution system of stationing offices and have a carrier move between them and we can out-compete them, and that will force through the competitive mechanisms, the federal government to lower its postage rate.”

08:09 Phil Magness: So he gets a lot of credit for that story, sometimes cited as the father of cheap postage in the United States. But the other context to it, is the one that you mentioned. In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson, in particular, really comes to champion this cause of viewing regulatory mechanisms over the post office as a means of keeping down what they call insurrectionary devices and insurrection really needs abolitionist literature. Literature that could incite either the slaves to revolt or incite other people in the South to push back against this institution. There are a number of famous incidents, you mentioned the one in Charleston, where mobs basically seize and burn and destroy abolitionist pamphleteering that’s sent through the US postage system to the South. This causes a national emergency, of sorts, in Congress.

09:05 Phil Magness: There’s legislation proposed to suppress the sending of seditious literature through the federal postage system, on account that it could foment a slave revolt. So abolitionists had seized on to this tactic as a way to get their message out. If you mail newspapers and pamphlets and letters, at random basically, to any name and identity that would exist in the postage books across the South, it’s kind of like mass mail political campaign, a political campaign today. Where throwing as much literature as you can into the mail, that’s how you get your message out. Well, this is seen as a threat to the slavery system, so both state and federal officials start to clamp down on this, through this ostensible public service of the post office. They start using it as a censorship-mechanism. And Spooner absolutely sees this. He mentions it in his pamphlets, that there is a threat to free speech at play with the way that the post office operates and censors it’s material. So, not only is he structuring the American Letter Mail Company as an economic competitor to the Post Office, to push rates down, he also sees it as something that’s willing to carry literature that’s legally suppressed through this government-run alternative. That subversion is automatically at play in his entire scheme and it gets into almost a direct foray into his next big cause, which is abolitionism.

10:39 Anthony Comegna: And I think historians probably know Spooner best as somebody who said that slavery is necessarily unconstitutional. It’s against the spirit and nature of the Constitution, because it denies individual sovereignty, which is against the natural law, and so it cannot be proper constitutional law. Now, I don’t wanna dwell too much on that because like I said, I think that’s what people best know Spooner for. But I’m way more interested in his radical, radical politics and social activism, and that to me is a forgotten element of the left libertarian past that people barely recognize or remember any more today. And the main subject for today is The Secret Six of John Brown.

11:31 Phil Magness: Sure. [chuckle]

11:32 Anthony Comegna: So let’s march up to that point. Talking about his early abolitionism, do we know exactly when he became an abolitionist, or was it always part of his Massachusetts upbringing?

11:44 Phil Magness: Yeah, it seems to be there in the Massachusetts upbringing. It comes out of the Massachusetts legal tradition, so this is somebody, if you dig deep into the legal history. So not only is he an anti-slavery man, who is famous for claiming slavery is unconstitutional, and sometimes libertarians struggle with his reasoning here, so I guess the… Just to briefly set it out, his entire argument is that slavery is on its face, incompatible with something that serves as a foundational document for a society, even if that document itself has… He would call them indirect nods to slavery. So like the US constitution refers to slavery at several places, but it never uses the word slave, it always refers to three-fifths of other persons, or a guarded language of that type. And Spooner, he said it is intentional, and kind of frames his argument on it, but he also sees slavery as something that’s inherently self-voiding of a legal system.

12:47 Phil Magness: So anti-slavery activism in a way is the font of his anarchism. The entire notion that a society could exist and sanction an institution that’s in the violation of natural law, such as slavery, would void the legitimacy of that society. It’d void the legitimacy of that government. So hence anarchism becomes a default so long as slavery is permitted to persist. Although he does draw on an English legal tradition, and he cites this story, so there’s the famous Somerset case in Great Britain of 1772, which kind of kick starts the abolitionist movement around the world, especially in the British order. And it’s a common law decision that rules… So there’s a Slave from Virginia that’s carried into England, and by his owner on a trip overseas, and some local anti-slavery men basically file an operative habeas corpus to free this slave that’s been brought into England, and they did so very creatively. They looked on the books, and they noticed that there’s nothing in the English constitutional order or system that establishes slavery as positive law.

14:00 Phil Magness: And the absence of that establishment means that by legal definition, Somerset the slave is free to go. Well, this tradition filters over into Massachusetts. So there’s an Articles of Confederation era legal decision that comes out of Massachusetts part of the constitution taking place that voids slavery in the commonwealth of Massachusetts on almost identical grounds to Somerset. They say, “Well, we never established this by a law,” the common law kicks in, and the common law upholds a certain type of natural law that voids slavery’s existence. That’s where slavery enters into Spooner’s legal tradition, he draws out of that type of thinking. Where it goes in the radical direction, is he sees it as such a fundamental violation of a natural law order that it’s almost a duty of an individual to resist it. It’s almost a duty of anyone who values a free society to oppose any and all type of slavery everywhere. So it’s a very universalistic form of anti-slavery activism, which gets him into quite a bit of tension with some of the other abolitionists who are arguing a more localized case-by-case approach, or are arguing a containment policy, which is what we see in the Republican party when it emerges in the 1850s and 1860s.

15:25 Anthony Comegna: What is his relationship to the political parties and the many different factions of the period, say from the… Let’s go 1840s and 1850s. What are his affiliations?

15:37 Phil Magness: He’s an anti-party man through and through. He actually kind of detests voting, although he does have a fairly complex relationship with that. The interesting connection that he has to political parties formally though, is his great book on The Unconstitutionality of Slavery is adopted by his friend, Gerrit Smith as a political platform. And Gerrit Smith runs for several political offices; he’s a Liberty Party, a third party, candidate for president in 1848, I believe, and then eventually gets himself elected to Congress in the 1850s. And Smith is a similar old-school radical New England abolitionist. He’s based in New York. Smith is personally wealthy, and he uses his family’s wealth as basically to be a patron of anti-slavery causes, and a patron of anti-slavery thinkers. And Spooner is one of those that comes into connection with him.

16:43 Phil Magness: So Smith is influenced by this doctrine by this book, and even though Spooner himself is not saying, “Well let’s run a national political campaign on the unconstitutionality of slavery”, you have someone like Gerrit Smith who is taking up that cause and saying, “Well let’s adapt it into our own political message, and make this the platform on which we run.” Smith is a better known figure than Spooner in the sense that he’s a more visible, prominent abolitionist on the political scene of the United States for about 20 years. He’s also one of the core members of the Secret Six, and in a way becomes a patron of Frederick Douglass at many points in this time, so there’s another political dissemination of Spooner himself. Douglass undergoes the conversion in the late 1840s or early 1850s from being a Garrisonian, someone who views the Constitution as a pact with slavery, to being a Spoonerite. And there are several speeches where Douglass says, “I’ve been convinced by the eminent legal thinker Lysander Spooner that slavery is indeed incompatible with the Constitution, and that’s what we build our political platform on.”

17:57 Anthony Comegna: And by the end of the 1850s, Spooner publishes at least two broadsides, advocating that white Northerners gang up together, arm themselves, invade the South, break the slaves’ chains, free as many as possible, put the chains on the planters, and chastise them until they give up slavery.

18:17 Phil Magness: Right. [chuckle] So it’s kind of like an ordered slave revolt that he’s advocating. Very much a radical direction that he’s moved in, but it’s that philosophy of liberty that’s underlying both of them. He’s actually somewhat similar to another Black abolitionist of this era, Henry Highland Garnet, in his prescriptive approach. And Garnet is famous as a free Black Northerner who campaigns and crusades against slavery. He gives a speech in the 1840s where he declares, “Let your motto be resistance. Resistance, resistance, resistance.” And this is directed to the slaves of the South, and Garnet’s message to them is, “Take your case to your master. Plead that by natural right you are to be free. And if he frees you he will be fulfilling his moral duty as a human being, his moral recognition. If he doesn’t free you, he may strike you down. But if he does, resist that. And let your spilled blood effectively be the tool of resistance.” So it’s a very pessimistic outlook in the sense that it’s welcoming a slave revolt in a way, but it’s also a realistic outlook in saying that these people are not willing to negotiate to leave their institution voluntarily. And Spooner is very much of that mindset, so in the 1850s, 1858 is the Big Scheme, he authors a series of pamphlets and broadsides, and his intent is to mail them around the country, to paper them across the South.

20:08 Phil Magness: One of them actually is an appeal to the non-slave owners, the free whites of the South, to join in the scheme. And he tries to use moral suasion to convince everyone that receives this into believing that slavery is a wrong, and it’s not only a wrong but it’s also their own individual moral duty to stand against that wrong. And in so doing through that intellectual moral instruction that he’s provided by his pamphlet, to order and instigate a revolt that forcibly unchains the slaves, that forcibly frees the slaves off the plantation system and turns the institution around and gets their masters. But also notice that there’s always that appeal to human decency to the masters to change their ways. So you know, “We’ll shackle you in return as a means of freeing our slaves, but you can come over to the right side, and no harm felt. See the error of your ways and admit it and end this institution, and life will be good again.” [chuckle] So it is a little bit Utopian in that sense…

21:18 Phil Magness: This is very much a Spoonerite approach to how to handle the slavery problem. As you can tell, this is a very, very radical solution and there are other not only Southerners that are horrified by the fact that he’s publishing these things. There are other abolitionists that are saying, “Wait a minute, we wanna achieve our anti-slavery goals through a very incremental gradualist political approach rather than just upheaval of the entire system.” So they view this as kind of undermining their cause because it’s too radical. The one person that doesn’t though is John Brown and that’s where we get into Spooner’s complex relationships with that element of actual slave revolt style abolitionism.

22:10 Anthony Comegna: Right. And now, when I’ve been doing my reading in the period, I’ve seen some historians, very few, but some, have mentioned Spooner directly as somebody involved in the Secret Six to some degree, although it’s fairly hazy, as to what exactly his role was, but most people leave him out entirely. And I believe if you go to the Wikipedia page on this, he’s not mentioned whatsoever. So it sort of speaks to the general sense of a lack of knowledge about what exactly Spooner did, what role he played in this John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry. Could you tell us exactly what were his connections to the Secret Six?

22:55 Phil Magness: Yeah, so the Secret Six refers to a group of six financiers and abolitionists from the North who basically provided the financial backing and a little bit of the logistic infrastructure behind John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. And it’s an interesting eclectic group. There are two members in particular that are friends with and very closely connected to Spooner. So there’s the physical connection and that’s Gerrit Smith who we mentioned, the wealthy abolitionist, he’s one of the financiers at the Brown scheme. And the second is more of a Massachusetts friend of Spooner and this is a minister by the name of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He’s another great classical liberal type Unitarian minister from New England, ran in Spooner’s circle. Spooner served as his attorney on a couple of different cases connected to abolitionism in the early 1850s, and runs in that circle.

23:56 Phil Magness: So Smith and Higginson, and four others are the main financiers behind the Brown conspiracy, which as we know, famously launches a raid on the federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry and is actually quickly suppressed by the US military, before it really takes root. Brown has a fairly similar vision to Spooner of trying to incite a slave revolt across the South being a distributor. That’s why they target the arsenal, is to acquire the arms and then spread them across the countryside. Brown is more radical, yet, if you can imagine this, than Spooner in the sense that he’s ready to pull the trigger now whereas Spooner’s argument was always, “We need instruction in the philosophy of the free society to convince people that this revolt is the right thing first.” That’s why Spooner is the intellectual pamphleteer. Brown is, “seize the arsenal and pass out the guns.” And what happens, it’s just through sheer coincidence of history Spooner’s writing these pamphlets in the late 1850s and 1858, he’s about to publish one and he shows it to his friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson and says, “I’m about to mail this across the South, it’s my new abolitionist campaign. Will you take a look at it and tell me what you think?” And Higginson reads it, knowing what Brown is about to do and he’s kind of like “Oh crap, you’re about to announce what we’re intending to launch here.”

25:27 Phil Magness: So Higginson arranges for a meeting with Spooner in a coffee house in Boston, I believe it was, where they have a conversation, and we only know of this through a couple letters that reference the conversation. So he writes a letter to Spooner and says, “I read your pamphlet. You need to come with me effectively be at the coffee house at 10:00 AM this morning. I have someone you need to meet.” And there’s [25:50] ____ an encounter where Spooner does meet with John Brown, and learns of the conspiracy. He doesn’t jump in full-fledged as someone that can really do anything to launch the conspiracy while it takes off, but he’s aware of it and has a little bit of reservation ‘cause again, he’s the intellectual, he thinks we need to lay out the intellectual case for revolt first and foremost, before we actually pull the trigger and engage in the revolt. But John Brown as we know, proceeds anyway, with the Secret Six support. Spooner learns of this through the Secret Six. He helps them out in two ways. The first is being an attorney, he says, “If any of you get into trouble with the law, I’ll serve as your counsel, I’ll file the motions in court, and will defend you.” So he goes back to his legal trade, his main profession, as a mechanism to protect the Secret Six.

26:47 Phil Magness: The second thing he attempts to do is after Brown is captured, after Brown is imprisoned and put on trial and is awaiting his execution, Spooner, actually tries to devise a mercenary scheme that’s willing to go into the South, sail up the James River into Richmond and basically, spring Brown from jail and if not that, take a southern official hostage, effectively use that as the trade-off to spring Brown from prison. So, he sees an injustice in the arrest of Brown, even though he sees Brown’s scheme as half-baked and premature. There are several letters where he actually writes Higginson, devising this plan and one of them says that, “If we can raise enough money. If we get $1000 apiece, possibly, even up the payment to 2000, we can hire 25 mercenaries that can sneak in in the middle of night and spring Brown from prison or if not do that, we can actually force their hand by taking someone hostage, effectively.”

28:00 Phil Magness: Actually, he’s got this very elaborate scheme, sends it to Higginson. Higginson responds and is like, “Wait a minute, no, I don’t think this will work because mercenaries are of notorious low ethics.” Higginson says, he doesn’t think that the mercenaries will stick to their resolve, basically, at the first resistance, they’ll just take the money and run or flip sides and reveal it. So, Spooner is kind of the hard liner. Higginson, by this point, even though he backed the Brown raid, has become a pragmatist and urges Spooner to back down from this plan. So, they never really launch a mercenary raid to free John Brown from prison. Again, this is… By the way, one of the things why if there’s any Libertarian filmmakers out there, there should be a Lysander Spooner biopic, is to tell the story of the aborted mercenary raid to free John Brown. There’s one of the elements, the connection that emerges to the Secret Six but it’s a rear-guard action, after the conspiracy’s also been launched.

29:02 Phil Magness: One final thing I’ll note is that in 1860 Spooner’s pamphlet has been printed. It’s been disseminated across the South and other areas of the country, arguing that we still need to proceed in the slave revolt. He actually continues to work in [29:17] ____ this thing after the Brown conspiracy. One of the copies of it makes its way into the hands of the Governor of Virginia, Henry Wise. When Spooner printed it, it’s of course, anonymous. He doesn’t put his name on the copies. He just wants the plan to be out there and Governor Wise issues this public decree, thinking that he’s found the core document that proves the Northern Abolitionists are behind the Brown conspiracy and we can bring them to justice for insurrection and treason and sedition, but he doesn’t know who the author is.

29:54 Phil Magness: So, he does this public announcement and right after the word of it gets into the newspapers, Spooner pulls out his pen and writes a letter to Governor Wise and says, “Dear Governor, I am the person you’re looking for, there’s not a court in Massachusetts that would indict me for it. So, try your best to come at me.” Is basically the message of the letter and nothing ever really comes at it. Wise backs down and then, of course the Civil War breaks out. So, it’s all pushed by the wayside but that’s the last hurrah of Spooner’s contribution that has a connection to the Secret Six.

30:32 Anthony Comegna: Now you make me think maybe instead of a biographical film, we need a fantasy where his escape attempt with John Brown works out and they go to lead that slave revolt after all.

30:49 Phil Magness: That’s like an Inglorious Bastards of the Civil War.

30:51 Anthony Comegna: Exactly, yeah, that would be very cool.

30:53 Phil Magness: All part of the history.

30:54 Anthony Comegna: Yeah.


30:57 Anthony Comegna: Now, I wonder though, did it ever… Or when was it public knowledge that he had something to do with the Brown raid? Because people wanted them all hanged for treason.

31:08 Phil Magness: It comes out around 1860, there’s enough conversation that you can connect him to it. The one thing that really keeps attention away from him personally, is that there are attempts to bring some of the other Secret Six “To justice”. So, there are attempts to prosecute them. Gerrit Smith, his friend, basically ends up pleading insanity to develop a legal strategy to resist any attempts to prosecute him. Smith is probably the most prominent of the Secret Six. He’s a former US Congressman, had been a national political figure, and there is an actual attempt to indict him in serious substantial ways as a collaborator of Brown. A few of the others, actually flee the country or flee into other areas of the United States, where they cannot be brought under the court system. Higginson, kind of, bunkers down in Massachusetts where he’d used the local court system which is very aligned with abolitionism as sufficient to protect him. But Spooner himself is at least one step removed that he doesn’t attract enough attention that he is personally imperiled by it, other than sticking the middle finger up at Governor Wise, but by then the country is heading head first into the Civil War. It is a mooted point by the time that anyone could do anything about it.

32:43 Anthony Comegna: Now at this point in the show, we have covered, a bit too extensively perhaps, we’ve covered contemporaries of Spooner’s like George Fitzhugh and Hinton Helper, who are both other extreme examples of radical thinkers from the time and radical doers too, in their own way. I wonder if you could take a couple of minutes to compare someone like Spooner with folks like Fitzhugh and Hinton Helper.

33:16 Phil Magness: Yeah, yeah, so probably the closest comparison is their style of disseminating their messages, all three of them are pamphleteers, they’re incredibly productive writers, they draw various sources of income from selling their pamphlets or putting small journalism pieces out in magazines that they get paid for. And they’re relative contemporaries, so they live in about the same period. Fitzhugh, of course, being the radical pro-slavery advocate that tries to extend the slave system to the entire society. He sees this as an ordering system for society, but his approach is very similar. He writes two book-length pamphlets, Sociology for the South and Cannibals All, that are arguing his case. He disseminates them, not only across the South but into the North. So one of the things Fitzhugh does, he’s actually famous of the pro-slavery theorists of being the one guy that’s willing to actually go to the North and debate the abolitionists and he does, I believe it’s in 1855. He travels up to the North and engages in an exchange with both Gerrit Smith and Wendell Phillips, who’s another Boston-based abolitionist, very public exchange. Spooner, in the sense, is kind of like the foil to that. He’s the northern abolitionist that’s very willing to send his material South or [34:42] ____ from the South, as we’ve just talked about.

34:45 Phil Magness: Stylistically there’s a bit of similarity. This taps into an older, lost art of social action that we no longer see today, the pamphleteer, or it’s morphed into other things, I guess they do it on blogs and Twitter today or something would be the closest parallel. But you have intellectual figures that aren’t necessarily connected to a specific institution like a university or a research outfit, but nonetheless, engage in legal theorizing or political theorizing or social theorizing and they take their message to other intellectuals in the form of pamphlets and very elaborate sophisticated arguments in pamphlets. So both Spooner and Fitzhugh knew that. Hinton Rowan Helper, very similar. He’s a southerner by birth that views slavery as an evil of society. He views it as a wrong that exists around him. And he blames it for some of the economic malaise that afflicts the South, the lack of industrialization, but he’s also much more wedded to a racial vision of uplift for the white man.

36:00 Phil Magness: Hinton Rowan Helper is effectively what we would call a radical colonizationist. He wants the blacks freed but he wants them moved off the continent. And his whole motive for doing this is much more rooted in, he thinks slavery is inflicting a wrong, economically, on free white Southerners, the poor whites of the south, than the blacks themselves that are affected by slavery. Even though he does believes it’s a wrong, it’s an injustice to them, but the racial mode is more aligned with his own class, his own group than with the actual victims of slavery itself. But again, he’s a pamphleteer and he’s also someone that’s willing to take his case across the country. He moves to the North, he publishes his material in the North and then sends it South and causes all sorts of rage and backlash from the sway voters that he’s attacking.

36:55 Phil Magness: So the style is very similar between these three figures. What does differ is that Spooner has a more enduring intellectual legacy because he’s not just an anti-slavery theorist, he’s not just wedded to the issue of slavery, he’s actually articulating a full philosophy of human liberty. And slavery just happens to be the big issue of the 20 or so odd year period that he’s at the height of his political writing and the height of his political philosophizing. But you can take a Spooner pamphlet on monetary policy from the 1870s or a Spooner pamphlet on theories of government from the 1880s, you can find the same themes of human liberty, and an appeal to natural rights that you’d find in an 1840 or 1850 pamphlet, that he wrote against slavery. So there’s a universal dimension that’s not present in these other guys unless you wanna call Fitzhugh kind of a forerunner to the off-right, which actually I think there is some case for through the Carlylean connections he as… But someone like Spooner is a much broader thinker, than just slavery alone, even though he is as radical as one can get short of John Brown on the slavery issue.

38:12 Anthony Comegna: A couple of other things strike me. They all three make explicit class appeals, but Spooner’s is clearly the classical liberal version of class, that the government is the great exploiter, and the mass of humanity is its victim. The other two are not so concerned about it, like that. It’s interesting, too, that both Fitzhugh and Spooner have politics that are terribly unpopular and ineffective, but Hinton Helper and his sort of xenophobic populism is very, very popular politically. But yet, both him and Fitzhugh die in obscurity and Spooner like you said, is the only one who leaves a genuine intellectual remnant. He leaves a circle of followers and admirers around somebody like Benjamin Tucker, who just absolutely adore his legacy. And that seems intensely important to me as a way of linking Spooner very directly to the modern libertarian movement that we know. And I wonder if then, you could close this off by telling us about your current project working with Lysander Spooner.

39:28 Phil Magness: So as I mentioned, Spooner does not go away after the Civil War, and in fact, other than his anti-slavery treatise Unconstitutionality of Slavery, he’s probably best known today for this little pamphlet goes by the name of No Treason or The Constitution of no Authority, and this is his reflection on what the Civil War has done to the constitutional order. He’s perfectly happy that slavery has ended, but he’s asking the question, “At what expense socially, did the route we take to ending it accomplish that end.” He’s very concerned that basically the state, the government, which had been the enabler of slavery since time immemorial is now suddenly taking credit for freeing the slaves, because just through chance that the way this war turned out, it became a political convenience for them to do it. So that’s his big message. So again, anti-statism is present, he sees the state as a mechanism of social ill, what he does after the war though, in addition to continuing to extend this political philosophy in an individualistic, anarchist direction, he also turns to economic matters.

40:40 Phil Magness: In my current project which is a book we’re just releasing this month through American Institute for Economic Research. It’s gonna be on our classic reprint series. I located and found a series of pamphlets that Spooner wrote in 1876 through roughly 1877, so about a two-year period, in the late 19th century, where he lays out a very complex monetary theory of basically introducing monetary competition, against that great monopolist that’s the source of all social ills, the United States Government. So he sees the federal government as a continuation of this monopolistic tradition he’s been fighting all his life. So 1840, the government monopolized the postal system. Since time immemorial the government had monopolized the labor system, by instituting slavery, giving it legal sanction. After the Civil War he says, “Government monopolizes the production and issuance of currency.” And what happens in this pamphlet is, he lays out an elaborate theory for what we might consider a 19th century Bitcoin. He wants private actors to be able to issue competitive currencies of their own and basically tie these to better products than what the federal government is able to offer.

42:09 Phil Magness: ‘Cause he see the federal government as prone to political manipulation of its currency to debt finance what it wants to do and the victims are always the holder of the currency, so society at large is deprived of an economic say in it’s main monetary instrument because the federal government has monopolized it and turned it toward these corrupt and economically susceptible political ends. So, it’s almost Public Choice Theory, early Public Choice Theory meets radical monetary competition. And what Spooner did, is in 1876, is he began publishing the series of monetary tracks in a magazine that was edited by one of his friends in the Boston area, it’s called The New Age. The editor was a fellow intellectual by the name of JML Babcock, ran in the same circles as Spooner and Tucker and ended up putting together a very sophisticated economic doctrine that uses the historical example of Scottish Free Banking. So anyone that studied the monetary project at CATO, you probably know about Scottish Free Banking. Spooner does a historical analysis to Scottish Free Banking and says, “This is our model for introducing monetary competition into the United States” and basically lays out a theory of how it would work and how it would solve some of the credit crisis that had caused economic depressions and recessions in his own day. The big one being the panic of 1873.

43:41 Phil Magness: He wrote this pamphlet, it was known in his day, it’s cited in several newspapers. But after Spooner died, it kind of fell by the wayside and it was believed for many, many years that the only existing copy of this pamphlet belonged to his mentee, and protege, Benjamin Tucker. Tucker inherited Spooner’s papers from his estate and kept them for many years to try and keep that torch alive, but Tucker had a very unfortunate incident right after the turn of the 20th century. He owned a bookstore, where he kept all of his massive collection of pamphlets and 19th century legal individualistic anarchism, including Spooner’s papers, and the bookstore went up in flames. There was a fire that destroyed his collection. So, it’s always been thought that this pamphlet, this great monetary track that we knew in other references had been lost to history.

44:38 Phil Magness: What it turns out to be, is that a few surviving copies of this newspaper, he serialized it in for, did manage to make it through the ages. Although they’re in incomplete form. So there’s no single library in the United States that has a full run of this newspaper called “The New Age.” And what I did is, I went through and I found all the different library collections that had bits and pieces of “The New Age” and pieced back together the serialized form. Now we have a 200-page Lysander Spooner treatise on free banking and competitive currency, that basically lays out his theory of how that type of a system would work. And we’re putting it back into print for the first time since 1876.

45:26 Anthony Comegna: Phil Magness is Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. Definitely keep your eyes out for his latest book on Lysander Spooner, “Two Treatises on Competitive Currency and Banking.” Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.