Lysander Spooner

Lysander Spooner (1808 - 1887) was an American legal theorist of the 19th century.

He was born on a farm in Athol, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1808, and died "at one o'clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, [1887] in his little room at 109 Myrtle Street, 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." -- from Our Nestor Taken From Us by Benjamin Tucker

Later known as an early individualist anarchist, Spooner advocated what he called Natural Law -- or the Science of Justice -- wherein acts of actual coercion against individuals were considered "illegal" but the so-called criminal acts that violated only man-made legislation were not.

His activism began with his career as a lawyer, which itself violated local Massachusetts law. Spooner had studied law under the prominent lawyers and politicians, John Davis and Charles Allen, but he had never attended college. According to the laws of the state, college graduates were required to study with an attorney for three years, while non-graduates were required to do so for five years.

With the encouragement of his legal mentors, Spooner set up his practice in Worcester after only three years, openly defying the courts. He saw the two-year privilege for college graduates as a state-sponsored discrimination against the poor. He argued that such discrimination was "so monstrous a principle as that the rich ought to be protected by law from the competition of the poor." In 1836, the legislature abolished the restriction.

After a disappointing legal career -- for which his radical writing seemed to have kept away potential clients -- and a failed career in real estate speculation in Ohio, Spooner returned to his father's farm in 1840.

Postal rates were notoriously high in the 1840s, and in 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company to contest the U.S. Post Office's monopoly.

As he had done when challenging the rules of the Massachusetts bar, he published a pamphlet entitled, The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails.

(As an advocate of Natural Law Theory and an opponent of government and legislation, Spooner considered the Constitution itself to be unlawful, but he nevertheless used it to argue that the government was breaking its own laws, first in the case of the Postal Monopoly, and later arguing for the Unconstitutionality of Slavery.)

Although Spooner had finally found commercial success with his mail company, legal challenges by the government eventually exhausted his financial resources. He closed up shop without ever having had the opportunity to fully litigate his constitutional claims.

He wrote and published extensively, producing "Natural Law or The Science of Justice" and "The Unconstitutionality of Slavery", but he is best known for the essay "Trial By Jury" which argued for the still-controversial doctrine of "Jury Nullification" according to which, the jury's role in a free society is to try both the facts of an individual case and also the law itself.

Lysander Spooner died in 1887 at the age of 79. He had influenced a generation of abolitionists and anarchists, including Benjamin Tucker who published Spooner's obituary in the journal Liberty.

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