Lysander Spooner

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Spooner attained his greatest fame as a figure in the abolitionist movement. His most famous work, a book titled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, was published in 1845 to great acclaim among many abolitionists but criticism from others.[citation needed] Spooner's book contributed to a controversy within the abolitionist movement over whether the United States Constitution supported the institution of slavery. The "disunionist" faction, led by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, argued the Constitution legally recognized and enforced the oppression of slaves (as, for example, in the provisions for the capture of fugitive slaves in Article IV, Section 2).[citation needed] They also cited the frequent appeals to Constitutional compromise by Southern politicians, who insisted that protection of the "peculiar institution" was part of the sectional compromise on which the Constitution was based.[citation needed] The disunionists thus argued that keeping the free states in a political union with the slave states made the citizens of the free states complicit in the slave system, and denounced the Constitution as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."[6] More generally, Wendell Phillips disputed Spooner's notion that any unjust law should be held legally void by judges.[7]

Spooner challenged the claim that the text of the Constitution supported slavery.[8] Although he recognized that the Founders had probably not intended to outlaw slavery when writing the Constitution, he argued that only the meaning of the text, not the private intentions of its writers, was enforceable. Spooner used a complex system of legal and natural law arguments in order to show that the clauses usually interpreted as supporting slavery did not, in fact, support it, and that several clauses of the Constitution prohibited the states from establishing slavery under the law.[citation needed] Spooner's arguments were cited by other pro-Constitution abolitionists, such as Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, which adopted it as an official text in its 1848 platform. Frederick Douglass, originally a Garrisonian disunionist, later came to accept the pro-Constitution position, and cited Spooner's arguments to explain his change of mind.[9]

From the publication of this book until 1861, Spooner actively campaigned against slavery.[10] He published subsequent pamphlets on Jury Nullification and other legal defenses for escaped slaves and offered his legal services, often free of charge, to fugitives.[11] In the late 1850s, copies of his book were distributed to members of Congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, a slavery proponent, praised the argument's intellectual rigor and conceded it was the most formidable legal challenge he had seen from the abolitionists to date. In 1858, Spooner circulated a "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery,"[12] calling for the use of guerrilla warfare against slaveholders by black slaves and non-slaveholding free Southerners, with aid from Northern abolitionists. Spooner also participated in an aborted plot to free John Brown after his capture following the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (Harper's Ferry is now part of the state of West Virginia).

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