Lysander Spooner on government surveillance

Put yourself in the 1830s-1840s United States. What was the most disruptive, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian activity going on at the time? Abolitionist, anti-slavery advocacy, organized nationally through written correspondence. These rabble-rousers threatened to upset the social, cultural, and economic balance of a young nation. Who cares about pesky considerations like the morality of slavery? In that mindset, then-President and authoritarian poster-boy Andrew Jackson urged Congress to pass laws allowing federal government surveillance of mail and the prohibition of sending “incendiary” material through the mail.

Historian Phil Magness points out that the abolitionist activist (and noted libertarian anarchist) Lysander Spooner wrote passionately to oppose such surveillance and censorship:

If this power, so absolute over its own mails, were also an exclusive one over all mails, it would be incomparably the most tyrannical, if not the only purely tyrannical feature of the government. The other despotic powers, such as those of unlimited taxation, and unlimited military establishments, may be perverted to purposes of oppression. Yet it was necessary that the powers should be entrusted to the government, for the defence of the nation. But an exclusive and unqualified power over the transmission of intelligence, has no such apology. It has no adaptation to facilitate any thing but the operations of tyranny. It has no aspect whatever, that is favourable either to the liberty or the interests of the people. It is a power that is impossible to be exercised at all, without being exerted unjustifiably. The very maintenance of the exclusive principle involves a tyranny, and a destruction of individual rights, that are now, and ever must be, felt through every ramification of society. The power is already exerted to the great obstruction of commercial intelligence, and nearly to the destruction of all social correspondence, except among the wealthy. But that we are accustomed to such fetters, we would not submit to them for a moment.

To what further extent of tyranny and mischief, this power, in the future growth of the country, may be exerted, we cannot foresee. But the only absolute constitutional guaranty, that the people have against all these evils and dangers, is to be found in the principle, that they have the right, at pleasure, to establish mails of their own. And if the people should now surrender this principle, they would thereby prove that their minds are most happily adapted to the degradation of slavery.

Sadly, I think Spooner would see a lot that he would recognize today.

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3 thoughts on “Lysander Spooner on government surveillance

  1. Spooner said so much more than that…BUt what I always like to say to people, is that if people were complaining about loss of liberty 180 years ago….just think how much freedom has truly been taken away. The people (sheeple) “living” nowadays, would have shivered themselves to death with all the work they would have had to do in the good old days.
    I want to say, “I wonder what men like Spooner, Paine, Jefferson, would say about the state of the world now…But i guess all we have to do is look to what they were saying back then to get a clue.
    Sad.
    Thanks for the enlightening post.

  2. Actually, this Spoonerism is better suited to questioning the Private Express Statutes of our own day–which effectively prohibit competition with the USPS.

    As to what Andrew Jackson was trying to do; mostly it was in recognition of the passions excited by the abolitionists. Especially in light of the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia. Abolitionists were very unpopular in the North, as well as the South–William Lloyd Garrison barely escaped lynching in Massachusetts–for the reason that ending slavery precipitously created a heartbreaking dilemma. One recognized by anti-slavery advocates John Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke and others.

    Thomas Sowell, in ‘The Real History of Slavery’ (in Black Rednecks and White Liberals–p.141) does the best job explicating that problem, of which I’m aware.

  3. Yes, Spooner is deep and interesting and sadly unknown and underappreciated today. Patrick, I think you know that Spooner was a postal entrepreneur, and that Congress passed a bill authorizing the federal monopoly on first class mail to create the USPS, so your comment is apt. But it’s also apt to point out that whether paper or digital, power over communication and abusing the ability to access messages is common to both eras.

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