Law and History Review


Seeing the Light: Lysander Spooner's Increasingly Popular Constitutionalism

Helen J. Knowles 

On Tuesday July 4, 1854, it was hot and humid at Harmony Grove; “the heat of the weather…was extreme.” But this did not deter a large audience from gathering at this location in Framingham, Massachusetts. This was the spot upon which many of them had assembled, under the organization of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, for the past 8 years. They came by crowded railroad cars (from Boston, Milford, and Worcester), and by horse and carriage from many other surrounding towns, eager to hear speeches by prominent members of the antislavery community. William Lloyd Garrison was not the first to speak, but his actions were the most memorable. Addressing the audience, Garrison held up, and systematically burned, three documents: a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act; a copy of a recent court decision that ordered the free state of Massachusetts to use its facilities to assist in the capture of fugitive slaves; and a copy of the United States Constitution. This was no mere symbolic act; it conveyed an important part of the Garrisonian argument. Namely, that the Constitution was “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.”


Helen J. Knowles is a visiting assistant professor of government at Skidmore College <>. A much earlier version of this article was presented at the “John Brown Remembered: 150th Anniversary of the Raid on Harpers Ferry” conference held in Harpers Ferry, WV, October 2009. I am grateful for the comments I received on that occasion from John McKivigan, and to the feedback from my fellow panelists Glen Crothers, Kristen Epps, and Matt Jennings. This article has since benefited immensely from the exceptionally helpful and constructive comments provided by the three anonymous readers for this journal. They pushed me to consider the popular constitutionalism implications of Lysander Spooner's legal thought, and its relationship to Robert Cover's famous arguments in Justice Accused. In doing so they brought to my attention some crucial aspects of Spooner's work and its place in the history of antislavery constitutionalism. A very special debt of gratitude is also owed to John L. Larson and Michael A. Morrison, who invited me to participate in the month-long National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) seminar, in Philadelphia during the summer of 2011, on the subject of “The Early American Republic and the Problem of Governance.” From John and Mike, two excellent seminar leaders, and the other wonderful participants (Patrick Bottiger, Melissa Bullard, Chris Childers, Tom Cox, Andrew Fagal, Scott King-Owen, Albrecht Koschnik, Gabe Loiacono, Dan Mandell, Patrick Peel, Andy Schocket, Nora Pat Small, Sarah Swedberg, and John Van Atta) I gained a newfound appreciation for, and a far more nuanced understanding of, the material contained in this article. It was their intellectual inspiration that pushed me to revise this article. The errors remain, of course, my responsibility. I am grateful to the staffs of the American Antiquarian Society, Berea College Special Collections & Archives (especially Shannon Wilson), the Rare Books Department of the Boston Public Library (especially Kim Reynolds), the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room of the Library of Congress, for their excellent research assistance. This research was made possible by funding from the American Historical Association (Littleton-Griswold Research Grant) and the American Political Science Association (Small Research Grant).