November 20, 2018 Reading Time: 2 minutes

Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) is primarily remembered today as a sharp-witted legal theorist who penned a number of influential attacks on the institution of slavery in the decades preceding the American Civil War. An uncompromising logician, his preferred means of argument entailed taking an agreeable premise—usually from the common law or observed convention—and methodically developing it to an unwavering extreme, intended to tease out uncomfortable truths it revealed about societal hypocrisies and injustices. He was a self-professed enemy of political authority, although he operated within its own turf of the legal system. His most famous works in his lifetime deployed the U.S. Constitution against its own most notorious clauses, effectively arguing that the continued tolerance of slavery under constitutional auspices would render the document—and the government based upon it—void. After the Civil War he extended this reasoning to the concept of government more generally, using strict legal literalism to cast doubt upon the social contractarianism and any constitution that ostensibly rested upon its assumptions.

In presenting these two “lost” treatises, I seek neither to endorse nor refute Spooner’s conclusions, but rather to offer them as an insight into the mind of one of America’s most original and provocative thinkers. Although reflective of his own lifetime, his arguments carry fascinating parallels to our own grappling with competitive currencies and banking. By making them available again after more than a century in seclusion, it is my hope that they will both further our historical understanding of the time in which they were written and offer relevant insights to the evolution of economic ideas in the present day.


Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phillip W. Magness works at the Independent Institute. He was formerly the Senior Research Faculty and F.A. Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College. Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains an active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. His work has appeared in scholarly outlets including the Journal of Political Economy, the Economic Journal, Economic Inquiry, and the Journal of Business Ethics. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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