Spooner disabuses us of the notion that paying taxes or voting is equivalent to offering one’s consent to be governed.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Lysander Spooner was never one to respect a piece of unjust legislation. As we saw in an earlier number, Spooner began his legal career by violating a Massachusetts statute which required lawyers to possess a college degree. While he triumphed on that occasion, his next major foray into civil disobedience met with mixed results. In 1844, Spooner began operation of the American Letter Mail Company with the purpose of competing with the United States Postal Service. He believed Congress had no right to monopolize letter‐carrying and considered all such statutes unconstitutional. As Benjamin Tucker explained, “he started a private mail service between Boston and New York, and soon extended it to Philadelphia and Baltimore, charging but five cents a letter between any of these points, a very much smaller sum than the government was charging.” His wild success was the very cause of his undoing, as each letter carried with it a separate violation of the so‐called law. Though the advocates of postal monopoly succeeded in shuttering the American Letter Mail Company and stifling the potential for a challenge from the courts, Spooner provided sufficient market competition to drive down the cost of stamps significantly. “That Mr. Spooner by his bold course conferred an immense benefit upon mankind no one can gainsay,” Benjamin Tucker wrote, “But this was not the victory he aimed at; this was not the victory that still remains to be won.”
Given the fiery radicalism of Spooner’s entire life, one could easily be shocked by the magnitude of it all and it would be a shame if we remembered him simply as a postal pirate. Spooner explored the outermost fringes of American political life through his association with abolitionism. While many politically active abolitionists and anarchist Garrisonians insisted that the Constitution allowed slavery, Spooner famously argued that a nation’s fundamental laws cannot contradict the natural law. Because slavery was contrary to Nature, any legislation establishing it was unjust and therefore null and void. Spooner dispensed with the doctrine of “original intent,” arguing that constitutional provisions must be read to conform with natural law first and foremost. Any justifiable interpretations of the text must refer not to the ideas of the men who wrote it, but to the rights and duties of those who are party to it. He also alleged that because the Constitutional Convention met in secret to draft the document, because no one ever actually signed it, and because there is no way to know what voters thought they were voting for, the Constitution cannot properly be construed to limit or deny any individual’s rights.
Spooner developed this argument in The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845), and over the next decade his regard for higher laws than the Constitution showed itself stronger than ever. During the late 1850s, Spooner developed a plan to invade the South with private military companies, free and arm the slaves, and chastise their former masters into submission to a new order of equal rights. When John Brown launched his unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859, Lysander Spooner was one of his “Secret Six” conspirators funding and supporting the operation from the east. Spooner opposed the Civil War, but not because he romanticized the South. If the North was beholden to corporate and banking interests, the South was a brutal regime of wealth extraction through forced labor and racial terrorism. Spooner wished neither would truly prevail. Several years after Appomattox, Spooner wrote “No Treason, Number Six,” his greatest contribution to the process of breaking apart state monopolies and ending tyrannical government of all sorts.
The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children. It is not only plainly impossible, in the nature of things, that they could bind their posterity, but they did not even attempt to bind them. That is to say, the instrument does not purport to be an agreement between any body but “the people” then existing; nor does it, either expressly or impliedly, assert any right, power, or disposition, on their part, to bind anybody but themselves…
No Treason, No. 6: The Constitution of No Authority
So when a man says he is planting a tree for himself and his posterity, he does not mean to be understood as saying that he has any thought of compelling them, nor is it to be inferred that he is such a simpleton as to imagine that he has any right or power to compel them, to eat the fruit. So far as they are concerned, he only means to say that his hopes and motives, in planting the tree, are that its fruit may be agreeable to them.
So it was with those who originally adopted the Constitution. Whatever may have been their personal intentions, the legal meaning of their language, so far as their “posterity” was concerned, simply was, that their hopes and motives, in entering into the agreement, were that it might prove useful and acceptable to their posterity; that it might promote their union, safety, tranquility, and welfare; and that it might tend “to secure to them the blessings of liberty.” The language does not assert nor at all imply, any right, power, or disposition, on the part of the original parties to the agreement, to compel their “posterity” to live under it. If they had intended to bind their posterity to live under it, they should have said that their objective was, not “to secure to them the blessings of liberty,” but to make slaves of them; for if their “posterity” are bound to live under it, they are nothing less than the slaves of their foolish, tyrannical, and dead grandfathers.
It cannot be said that the Constitution formed “the people of the United States,” for all time, into a corporation. It does not speak of “the people” as a corporation, but as individuals. A corporation does not describe itself as “we,” nor as “people,” nor as “ourselves.” Nor does a corporation, in legal language, have any “posterity.” It supposes itself to have, and speaks of itself as having, perpetual existence, as a single individuality.
Moreover, no body of men, existing at any one time, have the power to create a perpetual corporation. A corporation can become practically perpetual only by the voluntary accession of new members, as the old ones die off. But for this voluntary accession of new members, the corporation necessarily dies with the death of those who originally composed it.
Legally speaking, therefore, there is, in the Constitution, nothing that professes or attempts to bind the “posterity” of those who establish[ed] it.
If, then, those who established the Constitution, had no power to bind, and did not attempt to bind, their posterity, the question arises, whether their posterity have bound themselves. If they have done so, they can have done so in only one or both of these two ways, viz., by voting, and paying taxes.
Let us consider these two matters, voting and tax paying, separately. And first of voting.
All the voting that has ever taken place under the Constitution, has been of such a kind that it not only did not pledge the whole people to support the Constitution, but it did not even pledge any one of them to do so, as the following considerations show.
1. In the very nature of things, the act of voting could bind nobody but the actual voters. But owing to the property qualifications required, it is probable that, during the first twenty or thirty years under the Constitution, not more than one‐tenth, fifteenth, or perhaps twentieth of the whole population (black and white, men, women, and minors) were permitted to vote. Consequently, so far as voting was concerned, not more than one‐tenth, fifteenth, or twentieth of those then existing, could have incurred any obligation to support the Constitution.
At the present time, it is probable that not more than one‐sixth of the whole population are permitted to vote. Consequently, so far as voting is concerned, the other five‐sixths can have given no pledge that they will support the Constitution.
2. Of the one‐sixth that are permitted to vote, probably not more than two‐thirds (about one‐ninth of the whole population) have usually voted. Many never vote at all. Many vote only once in two, three, five, or ten years, in periods of great excitement.
No one, by voting, can be said to pledge himself for any longer period than that for which he votes. If, for example, I vote for an officer who is to hold his office for only a year, I cannot be said to have thereby pledged myself to support the government beyond that term. Therefore, on the ground of actual voting, it probably cannot be said that more than one‐ninth or one‐eighth, of the whole population are usually under any pledge to support the Constitution…
4. As taxation is made compulsory on all, whether they vote or not, a large proportion of those who vote, no doubt do so to prevent their own money being used against themselves; when, in fact, they would have gladly abstained from voting, if they could thereby have saved themselves from taxation alone, to say nothing of being saved from all the other usurpations and tyrannies of the government. To take a man’s property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent to support the Constitution. It is, in fact, no proof at all. And as we can have no legal knowledge as to who the particular individuals are, if there are any, who are willing to be taxed for the sake of voting, we can have no legal knowledge that any particular individual consents to be taxed for the sake of voting; or, consequently, consents to support the Constitution.
5. At nearly all elections, votes are given for various candidates for the same office. Those who vote for the unsuccessful candidates cannot properly be said to have voted to sustain the Constitution. They may, with more reason, be supposed to have voted, not to support the Constitution, but specially to prevent the tyranny which they anticipate the successful candidate intends to practice upon them under color of the Constitution; and therefore may reasonably be supposed to have voted against the Constitution itself. This supposition is the more reasonable, inasmuch as such voting is the only mode allowed to them of expressing their dissent to the Constitution.
6. Many votes are usually given for candidates who have no prospect of success. Those who give such votes may reasonably be supposed to have voted as they did, with a special intention, not to support, but to obstruct the execution of, the Constitution; and, therefore, against the Constitution itself.
7. As all the different votes are given secretly (by secret ballot), there is no legal means of knowing, from the votes themselves, who votes for, and who votes against, the Constitution. Therefore, voting affords no legal evidence that any particular individual supports the Constitution. And where there can be no legal evidence that any particular individual supports the Constitution, it cannot legally be said that anybody supports it. It is clearly impossible to have any legal proof of the intentions of large numbers of men, where there can be no legal proof of the intentions of any particular one of them.
8. There being no legal proof of any man’s intentions, in voting, we can only conjecture them. As a conjecture, it is probable, that a very large proportion of those who vote, do so on this principle, viz., that if, by voting, they could but get the government into their own hands (or that of their friends), and use its powers against their opponents, they would then willingly support the Constitution; but if their opponents are to have the power, and use it against them, then they would not willingly support the Constitution.
In short, men’s voluntary support of the Constitution is doubtless, in most cases, wholly contingent upon the question whether, by means of the Constitution, they can make themselves masters, or are to be made slaves.
Such contingent consent as that is, in law and reason, no consent at all.
9. As everybody who supports the Constitution by voting (if there are any such) does so secretly (by secret ballot), and in a way to avoid all personal responsibility for the acts of his agents or representatives, it cannot legally or reasonably be said that anybody at all supports the Constitution by voting. No man can reasonably or legally be said to do such a thing as assent to, or support, the Constitution, unless he does it openly, and in a way to make himself personally responsible for the acts of his agents, so long as they act within the limits of the power he delegates to them.
10. As all voting is secret (by secret ballot), and as all secret governments are necessarily only secret bands of robbers, tyrants, and murderers, the general fact that our government is practically carried on by means of such voting, only proves that there is among us a secret band of robbers, tyrants, and murderers, whose purpose is to rob, enslave, and, so far as necessary to accomplish their purposes, murder, the rest of the people. The simple fact of the existence of such a band does nothing towards proving that “the people of the United States,” or any one of them, voluntarily supports the Constitution.
For all the reasons that have now been given, voting furnishes no legal evidence as to who the particular individuals are (if there are any), who voluntarily support the Constitution. It therefore furnishes no legal evidence that anybody supports it voluntarily.
So far, therefore, as voting is concerned, the Constitution, legally speaking, has no supporters at all.
And, as a matter of fact, there is not the slightest probability that the Constitution has a single bona fide supporter in the country. That is to say, there is not the slightest probability that there is a single man in the country, who both understands what the Constitution really is, and sincerely supports it for what it really is.
The ostensible supporters of the Constitution, like the ostensible supporters of most other governments, are made up of three classes, viz.: 1. Knaves, a numerous and active class, who see in the government an instrument which they can use for their own aggrandizement or wealth. 2. Dupes – a large class, no doubt – each of whom, because he is allowed one voice out of millions in deciding what he may do with his own person and his own property, and because he is permitted to have the same voice in robbing, enslaving, and murdering others, that others have in robbing, enslaving, and murdering himself, is stupid enough to imagine that he is a “free man,” a “sovereign”; that this is “a free government”; “a government of equal rights,” “the best government on earth,”2 and such like absurdities. 3. A class who have some appreciation of the evils of government, but either do not see how to get rid of them, or do not choose to so far sacrifice their private interests as to give themselves seriously and earnestly to the work of making a change.
The payment of taxes, being compulsory, of course furnishes no evidence that any one voluntarily supports the Constitution.
1. It is true that the theory of our Constitution is, that all taxes are paid voluntarily; that our government is a mutual insurance company, voluntarily entered into by the people with each other; that that each man makes a free and purely voluntary contract with all others who are parties to the Constitution, to pay so much money for so much protection, the same as he does with any other insurance company; and that he is just as free not to be protected, and not to pay tax, as he is to pay a tax, and be protected.
But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: “Your money, or your life.” And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.
The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
The proceedings of those robbers and murderers, who call themselves “the government,” are directly the opposite of these of the single highwayman.
In the first place, they do not, like him, make themselves individually known; or, consequently, take upon themselves personally the responsibility of their acts. On the contrary, they secretly (by secret ballot) designate some one of their number to commit the robbery in their behalf, while they keep themselves practically concealed…
2. Still another reason why the payment of taxes implies no consent, or pledge, to support the government, is that the taxpayer does not know, and has no means of knowing, who the particular individuals are who compose “the government.” To him “the government” is a myth, an abstraction, an incorporeality, with which he can make no contract, and to which he can give no consent, and make no pledge. He knows it only through its pretended agents. “The government” itself he never sees. He knows indeed, by common report, that certain persons, of a certain age, are permitted to vote; and thus to make themselves parts of, or (if they choose) opponents of, the government, for the time being. But who of them do thus vote, and especially how each one votes (whether so as to aid or oppose the government), he does not know; the voting being all done secretly (by secret ballot). Who, therefore, practically compose “the government,” for the time being, he has no means of knowing. Of course he can make no contract with them, give them no consent, and make them no pledge. Of necessity, therefore, his paying taxes to them implies, on his part, no contract, consent, or pledge to support them – that is, to support “the government,” or the Constitution.
3. Not knowing who the particular individuals are, who call themselves “the government,” the taxpayer does not know whom he pays his taxes to. All he knows is that a man comes to him, representing himself to be the agent of “the government” – that is, the agent of a secret band of robbers and murderers, who have taken to themselves the title of “the government,” and have determined to kill everybody who refuses to give them whatever money they demand. To save his life, he gives up his money to this agent. But as this agent does not make his principals individually known to the taxpayer, the latter, after he has given up his money, knows no more who are “the government” – that is, who were the robbers – than he did before. To say, therefore, that by giving up his money to their agent, he entered into a voluntary contract with them, that he pledges himself to obey them, to support them, and to give them whatever money they should demand of him in the future, is simply ridiculous.
4. All political power, so called, rests practically upon this matter of money. Any number of scoundrels, having money enough to start with, can establish themselves as a “government”; because, with money, they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort more money; and also compel general obedience to their will. It is with government, as Caesar said it was in war, that money and soldiers mutually supported each other; that with money he could hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort money. So these villains, who call themselves governments, well understand that their power rests primarily upon money. With money they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort money. And, when their authority is denied, the first use they always make of money, is to hire soldiers to kill or subdue all who refuse them more money.
For this reason, whoever desires liberty, should understand these vital facts, viz.: 1. That every man who puts money into the hands of a “government” (so called), puts into its hands a sword which will be used against him, to extort more money from him, and also to keep him in subjection to its arbitrary will. 2. That those who will take his money, without his consent, in the first place, will use it for his further robbery and enslavement, if he presumes to resist their demands in the future. 3. That it is a perfect absurdity to suppose that any body of men would ever take a man’s money without his consent, for any such object as they profess to take it for, viz., that of protecting him; for why should they wish to protect him, if he does not wish them to do so?…4. If a man wants “protection,” he is competent to make his own bargains for it; and nobody has any occasion to rob him, in order to “protect” him against his will.
5. That the only security men can have for their political liberty, consists in their keeping their money in their own pockets, until they have assurances, perfectly satisfactory to themselves, that it will be used as they wish it to be used, for their benefit, and not for their injury.
6. That no government, so called, can reasonably be trusted for a moment, or reasonably be supposed to have honest purposes in view, any longer than it depends wholly upon voluntary support…