The Unconstitutionality of Slavery

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The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1845) was a pamphlet by American abolitionist Lysander Spooner advocating the view that the U.S. Constitution prohibited slavery. This view was advocated in contrast to that of William Lloyd Garrison who advocated opposing the constitution on the grounds that it supported slavery. In the pamphlet, Spooner shows that none of the state governments of the slave states specifically authorized slavery, that the U.S. Constitution contains several clauses that are contradictory with slavery, that slavery was a violation of natural law, and that the intentions of the Constitutional Convention have no legal bearing on the document they created. Thus, Spooner's position is one that employs original meaning-styled textualism and rejects original intent-styled originalism. This work was a work of sophistry or political strategy which aimed to win support from inconsistently-anti-slavery or "fence-sitting" Northerners whose sympathies were squarely on the side of the Constitution, but who opposed slavery on a mixed and inconsistent basis. (We know this because Spooner himself believed that the Constitution was "of no Authority," as his later essay "No Treason Volume II: The Constitution of No Authority" revealed.) As a strategic approach, it was adopted by Frederick Douglass, who delivered its core message to thousands of Northerners in his speeches and writings. This greatly legitimized the abolitionist message, making it far more effective than it had been under Garrison's more "anarchic" message. Spooner took this course because the abolition of slavery was vastly more morally important to him than the consistent defense of "anti-Constitutionalism." In summary, Spooner saw that, without gaining adherents, slavery could not be abolished, and he saw that adherents could not be gained without (falsely)implying that the Constitution was legitimate and that we should care about what it says. Though this may appear dishonest, it is a consequentialist position that simply acknowledged an important reality: the existing human social and political networks of the time were not morally intelligent enough to choose abolition on their own. They needed to be successfully tricked into doing so from a position of knowledge greater than their own, so Spooner tricked them. Benevolent consequences often rely on the manipulation of uninformed political systems, as noted by Morton Blackwell in his essay The Real Nature of Politics.[1]

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  1. ^ [1] PDF - The Real Nature of Politics

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