A Letter to Grover Cleveland (1886)

Now, sir, since you may be disposed to deny that such is the real character of the government, I propose to prove it, by evidences so numerous and conclusive that you cannot dispute them.

My proposition, then, is, that there is not a single natural, human right, that the government of the United States recognizes as inviolable; that there is not a single natural, human right, that it hesitates to trample under foot, whenever it thinks it can promote its own interests by doing so.

The proofs of this proposition are so numerous, that only a few of the most important can here be enumerated.

  1. The government does not even recognize a man’s natural right to his own life. If it have need of him, for the maintenance of its power, it takes him, against his will (conscripts him), and puts him before the cannon’s mouth, to be blown in pieces, as if he were a mere senseless thing, having no more rights than if he were a shell, a canister, or a torpedo. It considers him simply as so much senseless war material, to be consumed, expended, and destroyed for the maintenance of its power. It no more recognizes his right to have anything to say in the matter, than if he were but so much weight of powder or ball. It does not recognize him at all as a human being, having any rights whatever of his own, but only as an instrument, a weapon, or a machine, to be used in killing other men.
  2. The government not only denies a man’s right, as a moral human being, to have any will, any judgment, or any conscience of his own, as to whether he himself will be killed in battle, but it equally denies his right to have any will, any judgment, or any conscience of his own, as a moral human being, as to whether he shall be used as a mere weapon for killing other men. If he refuses to kill any, or all, other men, whom it commands him to kill, it takes his own life, as unceremoniously as if he were but a dog.

    Is it possible to conceive of a more complete denial of all a man’s natural, human rights, than is the denial of his right to have any will, judgment, or conscience of his own, either as to his being killed himself, or as to his being used as a mere weapon far killing other men?

  3. But in still another way, than by its conscriptions, the government denies a man’s right to any will, choice, judgment, or conscience of his own, in regard either to being killed himself, or used as a weapon in its hands for killing other people.

    If, in private life, a man enters into a perfectly voluntary agreement to work for another, at some innocent and useful labor, for a day, a week, a month, or a year, he cannot lawfully be compelled to fulfil that contract; because such compulsion would be an acknowledgment of his right to sell his own liberty. And this is what no one can do.

    This right of personal liberty is inalienable. No man can sell it, or transfer it to another; or give to another any right of arbitrary dominion over him. All contracts for such a purpose are absurd and void contracts, that no man can rightfully be compelled to fulfil.

    But when a deluded or ignorant young man has once been enticed into a contract to kill others, and to take his chances of being killed himself, in the service of the government, for any given number of years, the government holds that such a contract to sell his liberty, his judgment, his conscience, and his life, is a valid and binding contract; and that if he fails to fulfil it, he may rightfully be shot.

All these things prove that the government recognizes no right of the individual, to his own life, or liberty, or to the exercise of his own will, judgment, or conscience, in regard to his killing his fellow-men, or to being killed himself, if the government sees fit to use him as mere war material, in maintaining its arbitrary dominion over other human beings.

Credit: Lysander Spooner, “A Letter to Grover Cleveland,” in the public domain

Lysander Spooner, the provocative abolitionist legal theorist and entrepreneur, was a scholar of the natural law, or “The Science of Justice,” as he called it.