In 1843, radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution of the United States, "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." Why? Because it sanctioned slavery, one of the greatest crimes that one person can commit against another. Slavery was thought by abolitionists to be a violation of the natural rights of man so fundamental that, as Lincoln once remarked: "If slavery were not wrong, nothing is wrong." Yet the original U.S. Constitution was widely thought to have sanctioned this crime. Even today, many still believe that, until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude, slavery previously had been constitutional, and for this reason, the original Constitution was deeply flawed.
But in 1845 one man disagreed with the conventional wisdom. That man insisted that slavery was not only a moral abomination; it was also unconstitutional. His name was Lysander Spooner and he defended this position in a book, entitled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. While rejecting his conclusion, Garrison wrote of Spooner's argument: "We admit Mr. Spooner's reasoning to be ingenious--perhaps, as an effort in logic, unanswerable."
Historians of abolitionism know Spooner's name, but lawyers, law professors and their students generally do not. This is a pity. For Lysander Spooner deserves a place of honor among American lawyers, both for the principles for which he stood against the crowd and for the brilliance with which he defended those principles. In this Essay, though the author will be unable to do his analysis complete justice, he wants to describe the method of constitutional interpretation that led Spooner to his conclusion about slavery. In many ways, Spooner's interpretive approach has a very modern ring. In important respects, however, his approach is preferable to those commonly used today and worthy of study for this reason alone.
28 Pacific L.J. 977-1014 (1997)
Scholarly Commons Citation
Barnett, Randy E., "Was Slavery Unconstitutional Before the Thirteenth Amendment? Lysander Spooner’s Theory of Interpretation" (1997). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1238.