Liberty Matters

Spooner on Historical Injustice


One of Spooner’s less-appreciated contributions to political philosophy is his discussion of the problem of historical injustice. That problem concerns what we ought to do now about injustices that occurred in the relatively distant past, but that nevertheless affect people living today. For instance, the enslavement of African-Americans in the United States ended more than 150 years ago. Nevertheless, the effects of that injustice are still felt: both by those who have inherited the wealth unjustly acquired by slave-owners and others who profited from slavery, and by those who have inherited the hardships and poverty of slaves. Similarly, much of the land currently owned by Americans was, at some point in the past, violently or fraudulently seized from Native Americans. As a result, the descendants of those original Native Americans are almost certainly poorer than they otherwise would be, while others who benefitted from that theft are materially better off.
Spooner addressed the problem of historical injustice in one of his last published writings, an 1880 pamphlet entitled, “Revolution: The Only Remedy for the Oppressed Classes of Ireland, England, and Other Parts of the British Empire” (1880).[105] Here, Spooner takes up the so-called “Irish Question” of how to deal with the increasing resistance of the Irish to British occupation and rule. Ireland had been conquered by the Tudors in the 16th century, and in the process of this conquest most of the land in Ireland was seized by the British. Much of this confiscated land was given to British nobles, who rented it to Irish peasants from afar. By the late 19th century many Irish had become increasingly dissatisfied with this arrangement, viewing it as a sort of feudalism and calling for the British to return their stolen lands and leave the country.
In “Revolution,” Spooner comes down squarely on the side of the Irish peasantry against the British nobility. British landlords, Spooner argued, had no just title to the lands they held.
These lands, largely or mostly, were originally taken by the sword, and have ever since been held by the sword. Neither the original robbers, nor any subsequent holders, have ever had any other than a robber’s title to them. And robbery gives no better title to lands than it does to any other property.[106]
Of course, the robberies – like slavery and land-theft in America – occurred long ago, in the distant past. And all of the original parties to the injustice – both the perpetrators and the victims – are dead. But, Spooner argued,
No lapse of time can cure this defect in the original title. Every successive holder not only indorses all the robberies of all his predecessors, but he commits a new one himself by withholding the lands, either from the original and true owners, or from those who, but for his robberies, would have been their legitimate heirs and assigns.[107]
Others, such as Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert had considered this sort of problem before. In his 1851 Social Statics, Spencer took essentially the same position as Spooner, arguing that the mere passage of time is insufficient to convert a wrong into a right.[108] But a little over 40 years later, Spencer claimed that his earlier argument had been based on a mistake. In a letter to the Daily Chronicle, Spencer clarified his position, which he felt had been misinterpreted by the general public and deliberately misused by the English Land Restoration League -- a group which sought the establishment of a universal tax on the unimproved value of land in accordance with the writings of Henry George.
My argument in Social Statics was based upon the untenable assumption that the existing English community had a moral right to the land. They never had anything of the kind. They were robbers all round: Normans robbed Danes and Saxons, Saxons robbed Celts, Celts robbed the aborigines, traces of whose earth-houses we find here and there. Let the English Land Restoration League find the descendants of these last, and restore the land to them. There never was any equity in the matter, and re-establishment of a supposed equity is a dream. The stronger peoples have been land-thieves down to the present hour.[109]
Auberon Herbert took a similarly conservative position, for similar reasons, but the topic remained an intense subject debate among British individualists – see, for instance, this fascinating Symposium on the Land Question edited by J.H. Levy (1890) and featuring contributions from Spencer, Herbert, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, and others.[110]
Spooner, for his part, did not believe that the complexities of historical injustice undermined the Irish case for restitution. The mere fact that we cannot trace the individual descendants of the perpetrators and victims of injustice, he argued, does not shield the present holders of unjustly seized property from liability. Even if we cannot establish precisely who has legitimate title to the lands, we can at least establish that the current titles are illegitimate.
Spooner concludes his pamphlet on a strident note:
The ruling classes in England, from the time the Anglo-Saxons first came there, have been hostes humani generis: enemies of the human race.[111]
Like pirates, these ruling classes are motivated solely by plunder, and wholly indifferent to whom or where they plundered. And so it followed, Spooner claimed, “that they may justly and rightfully be killed, whenever and wherever they are found, and by whoever could kill them.”
If Spooner is right, then his argument has uncomfortable implications for those of us who live in comfort and prosperity today. How much of our own wealth might be traced, if we cared to look, to unjust origins of the sort that Spooner decries? And if it can be, then what should we do about it?
Libertarians are champions of property rights. But not just any property rights will do. Libertarianism’s theory of justice, as Robert Nozick has noted,[112] is an historical one. And that means that the justice of any distribution of property rights depends entirely on how that distribution came about. So, given the bloody and unjust nature of our own history – what does that mean for us?
[105.] No. 1. Revolution: The only Remedy for the Oppressed Classes of Ireland, England, and Other Parts of the British Empire. A Reply to “Dunraven” (Second Edition, n.p., 1880). In, Shorter Works, vol. 2: .
[106.] Spooner, Revolution, </titles/2292#Spooner_1531-02_1366>.
[107.] Spooner, Revolution, </titles/2292#Spooner_1531-02_1367>.
[108.] Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1995), p. 105. Online: </titles/273>.
[109.] Herbert Spencer, “Letter to the Daily Chronicle,” 29 August 1894, in Herbert Spencer and Frederick Verinder, Mr. Herbert Spencer and the Land Restoration League (London: Page and Pratt, 1895), p. 8. See also his discussion of this issue in “The Land Question,” Appendix B to Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics Vol. 2, (Indianapolis IN: Liberty Fund, 1978.) Online: </titles/334#lf0155-02_label_126>.
[110.] A Symposium on the Land Question, ed. Joseph Hiam Levy (London: T. F. Unwin, 1890). Google Books: <>.
[111.] Spooner, Revolution, </titles/2292#Spooner_1531-02_1384>.
[112.] Robert Nozick, Anarchy State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), chapter 7.