Front Page Titles (by Subject) VIII. - Address of the Free Constitutionalists to the People of the United States
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VIII. - Lysander Spooner, Address of the Free Constitutionalists to the People of the United States 
Address of the Free Constitutionalists to the People of the United States (Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860).
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Assuming it now to be settled, that the constitution of the United States fixes the status of every person, as a citizen or a slave; and that it does so, “any thing in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding;” let us ascertain what its decision on this point is. To do so, we have only to ascertain by and for whom the constitution of the United States was established. This the instrument itself has explicitly informed us. It declares itself to have been established by “the people of the United States,” for the benefit of “themselves and their posterity.” From this declaration of the constitution itself there can be no appeal. And the instrument is to be interpreted throughout consistently with this declaration. Thus interpreted, it implies that all the then “people of the United States,” with their “posterity,” were to be citizens of the United States, and, as such, to have the benefit and protection of the general government; and consequently that none of them could be lawfully reduced to the condition of property. It also authorizes congress to naturalize all persons of foreign birth, coming into the country, without discriminating between those that may come in voluntarily, and those that may be brought in against their will. It also authorizes Congress “to punish offences against the law of nations;” and thus authorizes the punishment of all attempts to enslave the people of other nations, whether they come here voluntarily, or are brought here by force. It also, without making any discrimination as to persons, authorizes the writ of habeas corpus, which denies the right of property in man. It also requires the United States to “guarantee to every State in the Union a republican form of government;” under which at least all the citizens of the United States, within the State, shall have the protection of the laws. In these various ways, the constitution of the United States, “the supreme law of the land,” has made the principle of property in man impossible anywhere within the United States; and has empowered the general government to maintain that principle, in opposition to any subordinate or State government.
We are aware that the supreme court of the United States, in the Dred Scott case, have asserted that the phrase, “the people of the United States,” did not mean all the people, but only all the white people, of the United States. And they attempt to fortify this opinion by saying that the Declaration of Independence itself did not mean to assert that “all men were created equal,” but only that all white men were created equal. To this view of the case we will, at this time, offer no other answer than this: that, if this famous clause of the Declaration of Independence is to be interpreted according to this opinion of the supreme court, the whole instrument must also be interpreted in accordance with it; and the necessary consequence would then be, that the Declaration of Independence absolved only the white people of the country from their allegiance to the English crown, leaving the black people still subject to that allegiance, and entitled to corresponding protection. Thus Queen Victoria would have now, in our midst, four millions of subjects, whose rights she ought at once to take care of, as she would undoubtedly be very willing to do.
We are also aware, that, although “the idea that there could be property in man” was studiously excluded from the constitution itself, it is nevertheless historically known that an understanding existed, outside of the constitution, among some of the framers, and other politicians of that day, that, if the honest character of the instrument itself should be successful in securing its adoption by the people, these framers and others would then use their influence to give to the instrument an interpretation favorable to the maintenance of slavery. And we are aware that it is now claimed that this outside understanding ought to be substituted, as it hitherto has been, for the instrument itself, and acknowledged as the real constitution, so far as slavery is concerned.
Our answer on this point is,—that this outside understanding could have existed among but a small portion of the whole people; that they dared not incorporate it in the constitution itself; that, instead of being any part of the constitution itself, it was but a traitorous conspiracy against the very constitution, which they, with others, induced the people of the United States to adopt; that it could have had no legal effect or validity, even among those who were actually parties to it; and that we, of this day, would not only be slaves, but idiots, if we were to allow the criminal purposes of these men to be substituted for the constitution; and thus suffer ourselves, in effect, to be governed by a set of dead traitors and tyrants, who no longer have any rights in this world; who, when living, dared put only honest purposes into the constitution; and who, if now living, would deserve to be punished for their treason and their crimes, rather than reverenced as patriots and statesmen, and taken as authority as to the true meaning of the constitution.
The fraudulent interpretation given to the constitution at large, in respect to slavery, has been accomplished mainly by means of the fraudulent interpretation given to the one word “free,” in the clause relative to representation and direct taxation. The conspirators against freedom, with their dupes, have, from the foundation of the government, claimed that this word was used to describe a free person, as distinguished from a slave. Where as it had been used in England for centuries, and in this country from its first settlement, to describe a native or naturalized person, as distinguished from an alien. Thus our colonial charters guaranteed that persons born in the colonies should “be free and natural subjects, as if born in the realm of England.” When the troubles arose between this and the mother country, in regard to taxation, our fathers insisted that they were “free British subjects,” and therefore could not be taxed without their consent. And, up to the Revolution, the words free and freemen, if not the only words used, were the words principally used, to designate native or naturalized persons, as distinguished from aliens.
After the Revolution, the word “free” continued to be used in this political sense, through the country generally. And, at the time the constitution of the United States was adopted, it was so used in the constitution of Georgia, Art. XI.; in the general naturalization law of Georgia, passed Feb. 7, 1785, Sec. 2; in a statute of Georgia, passed Feb. 22, 1785, granting lands to the Count D’Estaing, and making him “a free citizen” of the State; in the constitution of South Carolina, Sec. 13; in a statute of South Carolina, passed March 27, 1787, naturalizing Hugh Alexander Nixon; in the constitution of North Carolina, Sec. 40; in the constitution of Pennsylvania, Sec. 42; in numerous acts of the legislature of Massachusetts, from the year 1784 to 1789, naturalizing the individuals named in them; in the charters of Rhode Island and Connecticut, then continued in force as constitutions; in the Articles of Confederation, Art. IV., Sec. 1; and in the Ordinance of 1787. The statutes and constitutions of several of the States used the words freeman and freemen in a nearly similar, if not in precisely the same, sense.
Usage, therefore,—even the usage of the then strongest slaveholding States themselves—and all legal rules of interpretation applicable to the case—and especially that controlling rule, which requires a meaning favorable to justice, rather than injustice, to be given to the words of all legal instruments whatsoever—required that the word “free,” in the constitutional provision relative to representation and direct taxation, should be understood in this political sense, to distinguish the native and naturalized inhabitants of the country from aliens, and not to distinguish free persons from slaves.
But slavery, which can be maintained only by force and fraud, has hitherto succeeded in palming off upon the country a false interpretation of the word “free.” And it is only by giving a fraudulent meaning to the word “free,” that men have been made to believe that the constitution recognized the legality of slavery. Without the aid of this fraud, the other clauses, now held to refer to slaves, could probably never have had such a meaning fastened upon them; since there is nothing in their language that justifies such a meaning.
If we wish to enjoy any liberty ourselves, or do any thing for the liberation of others, it is time for us to emancipate ourselves from our intellectual and moral bondage to the frauds and crimes of dead slaveholders and their accomplices, and either read and execute our constitution as it is, or tear it in pieces. If the language of our constitution is not to be considered as conveying its true meaning, nor interpreted by the same rules by which all our other legal instruments are interpreted; if it is to be presumed, as it ever heretofore has been, that neither honest men, nor honest motives could have had any part in the formation or adoption of the constitution; but we are to search, outside of the instrument, for the private motives of every robber, kidnapper, hypocrite, scoundrel, and tyrant, who lived at the time it was adopted, and accept those motives, in place of those written in the instrument itself, as the only lawful principles of the government,—if such is the true mode of ascertaining the legal import of written constitutions, the sooner they are all given to the flames, the better it will be for the liberties of mankind, and the better we shall vindicate our own claims to the possession of common honesty and common sense. If we dare not correct the frauds of the past, and interpret our constitution by the same rules by which it ought to have been interpreted from the first,—if, in other words, we dare not decide for ourselves what the true principles of our constitution are, and whether those principles have been obeyed or violated by those appointed to administer it—we are ourselves wretched cowards and slaves, fit to be used as instruments for enslaving each other.
But, independently of the constitution of the United States, we know that slavery has never had any constitutional existence in this country, for these reasons:—
1. The colonial charters, the constitutional law of the colonies, required the legislation of the colonies to “be consonant to reason, and conformable, as nearly as circumstances would allow, to the laws, customs, and rights of the realm of England.” This made slavery illegal up to the time of the Revolution.
2. Of all the State constitutions established and existing in 1787 or 1789, when the constitution of the United States was framed and adopted, not one established or authorized slavery. It was, therefore, impossible that the slavery then existing could have been legal.
3. Even of the statute law of the States, on the subject of slavery, in 1787 and 1789 (admitting such statute law to be, as it really was not, constitutional), none described the persons to be enslaved with such accuracy as that many, if indeed any, individuals could ever have been identified by it as slaves.
On the 19th of August, 1850, Senator Mason, of Virginia, confessed, in the Senate of the United States, that, so far as he knew, slavery had never been established by positive law in a single State in the Union. And in the United States House of Representatives, on the 14th day of March last, Mr. Curry, of Alabama, said,—
“No law, I believe, is found on our statute books authorizing the introduction of slavery; and, if positive precept is essential to the valid existence of slavery, the tenure by which our slaves are held is illegal and uncertain.”
He also, in the same speech, said,—
“It has been frequently stated in congress, that slavery was not introduced into a single British colony by authority of law; and that there is not a statute in any slaveholding State legalizing African slavery, or ‘constituting the original basis and foundation of title to slave property.’ ”
And he made no denial of the truth of this statement.
Thus we have abundant evidence that slavery had never had any legal existence in the country, up to the adoption of the constitution of the United States. And, if it had no legal existence at the time of the adoption of the United States constitution, that constitution necessarily made citizens of all the then people of the United States; for there can be no question that it made citizens of all, unless of such as were then legally held in bondage.
But, even if the constitutions and statute-books of every State had legalized slavery in the most unequivocal manner, the constitution of the United States would nevertheless have given freedom to all; because it made “the people of the United States,” without discrimination, citizens of the United States; and was thenceforth to be “the supreme law of the land,” “any thing” then existing in, as well as ever afterwards to be incorporated into, “the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The adoption of a new constitution is a revolution; and the object of revolutions is to get rid of, and not to perpetuate, old abuses and wrongs. All new constitutions, therefore, should be construed as favorably as possible for the accomplishment of that end. For this reason, in construing the constitution of the United States, no notice can be taken of (with the view of perpetuating) any abuses or crimes tolerated, or even authorized, by the then existing State governments.
What excuse, then, has any one for saying, that, constitutionally speaking, our country is not a free one? free for the whole human race? and especially for all born on the soil?