Charles Lane: Voluntaryist
by Carl Watner
[ Intro ] -
[ I ] -
[ II ] -
[ III ] -
[ IV ] -
[ V ] -
[ VI ] -
[ VII ]
Charles Lane, author of the letters collected in this book, was a
special sort of libertarian. He was a radical abolitionist of the
voluntaryist persuasion. His Letters on "A Voluntary Political
Government" were written during 1843 for William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator
. They appeared nearly simultaneously in several other abolitionist journals, such as the Herald of Freedom
and the Vermont Telegraph
The letters themselves represent an important part of the libertarian
tradition in America during the first half of the 19th Century.
Nevertheless, no scholar or historian has ever seen fit to properly
ascribe them to this tradition; nor have they ever been reprinted in
their entirety. Hopefully this collection will rescue them from the
near-oblivion into which they have fallen.
This collection of letters demonstrates the historical unity between
three elements of the 19th Century American libertarian tradition:
radical abolitionism, individualist-anarchism, and voluntaryism
three of these themes bear looking at in order to fully appreciate the
significance of Charles Lane and his writings. Historical research into
the antecedents of modern day libertarianism clearly shows that the
English speaking world developed its own libertarian tradition with a
distinctive emphasis on individual self-ownership.  It is this
emphasis on 'self-propriety' or 'individual sovereignty' which links
the various components of the libertarian tradition which we will be
The identification of the self-ownership principle (that each person is
a self-owner and should control his or her own mind and body free of
outside coercive interference) explains why radical abolitionism is an
important part of the libertarian tradition. The abolitionists called
for the immediate and unconditional cessation of slavery because they
saw slavery as man-stealing in its most direct and worst form. Slavery
reflected the theft
of a person's self-ownership rights. The slave was
a chattel with no rights of its own. The most perceptive and active
critics of slavery were those abolitionists who realized that each
human being, man, woman, and child, was invested with sovereignty over
him or her self and that no one should exercise sovereign control over
As the history of the abolitionist movement proves, certain of its
most basic ideas (especially that of self-ownership) had very
anarchistic implications. Most of the early individualist-anarchists
came from abolitionist backgrounds: Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl
Andrews, Lysander Spooner, and Ezra Heywood. Charles Lane, and his
close friend and associate, Amos Bronson Alcott, and other members of
the New England Non-Resistance Society might also be mentioned in this
connection. By opposing unjust and criminal property titles in people
and in land (some of the radical abolitionists called for return of the
plantations to the slaves that worked them) the radical abolitionist
was attacking not only the individual slavemaster, but also the
government that sanctioned and enforced the master's claim. If
governments were allowed to uphold slavery, then governments could
justify any form of criminal oppression. Thus a number of abolitionists
reverted to natural law theory in order to challenge any government
which supported slavery. These radicals realized that if they could
successfully overcome the governmental justifications for slavery, they
could use the same line of natural law reasoning to nullify other forms
of governmental injustice, such as taxation and conscription. No
government that affirmed such injustices could have any legitimacy in
their eyes. 
Abolition and Anarchism
Much of the radical abolitionist opposition to government and
slaveholding centered around the self-ownership principle. Although all
abolitionists called for the extermination of slavery, not all of them
evolved into individualist-anarchists, who advocated abolition of the
State. Even among those abolitionists who were anarchists, we find a
variety of reasons. The natural rights approach was characteristic of
those who became individualist-anarchists.
Such an approach was implicit in Lysander Spooner's attack on slavery. Astute readers of Spooner's The Unconstitutionality of Slavery
(1845) called it the first step towards anarchy. Wendell Phillips
claimed that "Spooner's idea is practical no-governmentalism. It leave
everyone to do 'what is right in his own eyes'." Nathaniel Peabody
Rogers announced that Spooner "not only excludes Slavery, but
citizenship and subject. Excludes Government, and Law itself."
Probably most representative of the anarchist wing of the
abolitionist movement, was William Lloyd Garrison and his followers in
the New England Non-Resistance Society, which was founded in 1838.
These non-resistants came to believe that the Biblical injunctions
against violence meant that Christians had to renounce all
manifestations of force, including government (and of course,
slaveholding). They were above all immediatists in their pacifism as in
their abolitionism. Despite the fact that they saw all acts of
government as coercive, their critique of the State rested mainly on
its support of slavery.
Thus rather than attacking both the North and the South for the evils
of the Civil War, Garrison and the large majority of the non-resistants
supported the North for its attack on slavery. On the other hand, the
individualist-anarchists that emerged after the Civil War criticized
both the North and the South, as governments which forged new chains on
all their citizens. 
Despite their differing reasons for opposing the U.S. government before
the Civil War, the radical abolitionists and the
individualist-anarchists were united in their voluntaryist position,
which was largely characterized by their anti-political stances. The
Garrisonians, for example, were opposed to involvement in politics
(whether it be voting, office-holding, or participating in political
parties). They did not want to lend their personal sanction to the
legitimacy of a government which permitted slavery. Their opposition to
participation in government also stemmed from their concern with how
slavery was to be abolished. To Garrison's way of thinking it was as
bad to work for the abolition of slavery in the wrong way as it was to
work openly for an evil cause. The ends could not justify the means and
up until several years before the Civil War this was the chief
voluntaryist concern of the radical abolitionists. Politics and
politicians were immoral by definition. Political reform could never
spell the end of slavery because politics was force. The anti-political
abolitionists would never vote, even if they could free all the slaves
by the electoral process. Thus Garrison's field of action was that of
moral suasion and not political action. Men must be convinced of the
moral righteousness of the anti-slavery cause because their opinions
can never lastingly be changed by the resort to (political) force.
This anti-political attitude was best exemplified by Henry
David Thoreau in the late 1840's. Thoreau saw voluntaryism as a means,
and end, and an insight as to how political society was organized. In
his essay on "Civil Disobedience", Thoreau concurred with the
anti-political non-resistants that social change must come about
non-violently. This was the means. He united with the anarchists and
with men such as Lane (with whom he was quite friendly) in seeking
after a truly voluntary society based on peaceful inter-action. This
was the end. Thoreau realized that the power of government is highly
dependent upon the cooperation of the people. This was his insight into
the mystery of why people obey. The question of political obedience is
primarily moral since government rests on and is supported by public
opinion. Thoreau said that if we destroy that opinion, government will
fall to the ground. Hence his effort to influence men's opinion by acts
of non-violent resistance to the State.
Charles Lane, along with Thoreau, may be described as a voluntaryist
and we need only look at his letters on 'voluntary' government to see
why. One of the main concerns of the letters is for the establishment
of a truly voluntary society, a society in which no relationships are
marred by inter-personal acts of violence. Lane was associated with the
radical abolitionists from the very start of his contact with people in
the United States. The no-voting theories of the Garrisonians and their
opposition to civil government all greatly affected him. Their
voluntaryist outlook, which emphasized the withdrawal of individual
sanction and the non-participation in the body politic, played an
important part in his life. In order to understand the significance of
these ideas, as practiced and preached by Lane, it will be necessary to
examine the story of his life.
In England and America
Despite the fact that his friend, Bronson Alcott, described Lane as
"the deepest, sharpest intellect I have ever met," little is known
about the first 30 years of Lane's life. He first surfaces in the
early 1830's working in London as a commercial journalist, as editor
and manager of The London Merchantile Price Current.
It was at this time that he met John Pierrepont Greaves, who became the
first major influence in his life. Lane had been greatly interested in
educational questions and had been writing for reform periodicals
during the 1820's. Eventually he became part of the reform circle led
by Greaves (1777-1842). It was through his contact with Greaves that
Lane became acquainted with A. Bronson Alcott. Thus Greaves played a
pivotal part in Lane's career.
Greaves, himself, had been engaged as a merchant until about
the end of the Napoleonic Wars. When he became interested in education
at the age of 40, he left England and travelled to Switzerland to study
with Pestalozzi for 4 years. After Greaves returned to England in 1825,
he became involved with founding the London Infant School and authored
a number of books on teaching and education, which attracted a large
number of followers - among them Charles Lane. Greaves' interest in
spiritual affairs and communal education led him to found an
experimental school at Ham Common, Surrey in 1838. This school, out of
admiration for the American A. Bronson Alcott, was named Alcott House.
Greaves and Alcott shared a mutual admiration for Pestalozzi, whose
ideas Alcott had tried to implement in his own private school in Boston
in the late 1820's. The chief emphasis at Alcott House was on
self-improvement of the young student. The person, rather then the
community, was the important concern.
Greaves was joined by several supporters of the Alcott House: William
Oldham, the manager, Henry Gardiner Wright, the chief teacher, and
Charles Lane. Greaves and Alcott had corresponded as early as 1837.
Lane in turn wrote to Alcott in October 1839. Alcott reciprocated by
sending some works of Emerson, a prospectus of his own Conversations on Christianity, and the Non-Resistant
(the journal of the New England Non-Resistance Society) for November
1839. Out of this correspondence and exchange of ideas, Alcott
gradually conceived of the idea of travelling to England in order to
visit his friends. "After all, the school that Lane and his friends
were conducting had been named Alcott House, and apparently there might
be more persons receptive to Alcott's world view in England than in the
United States." Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alcott's friends in the
Boston area were largely responsible for financing Alcott's trip to
Alcott arrived in England in late May, 1842, but not in time to
meet Greaves who had died in March. On June 7, Alcott met Charles Lane
for the first time and they proceeded to Alcott House, where Lane was
then living. Alcott was enthralled by what he found; the school was a
"most refreshing and happy place", reminiscent of his own Temple School
in Boston, and he found great companionship with Lane, Wright, and
Oldham. Alcott spent much of his time visiting English leaders of the
reform, took part in various conventions and 'conversations', and even
edited one issue of The Healthian,
a journal put out by Lane and Wright. Despite his activities and
new friends in England, Alcott decided to return to America and his
family, but first he obtained promises of his followers in England that
they would accompany him.
Thus it was no suprise that Lane, Lane's son William (then about 13
years old), and Wright returned to Boston with Alcott, landing on
October 21, 1842. The Alcott family had been renting the Hosmer Cottage
in Concord and this is where Alcott and his guests stayed until they
moved to Fruitlands in June 1843. Even before leaving England,
Alcott and Lane had been discussing the establishment of a new utopia,
their new Eden, a place where they might "plant the spirits of
Paradise". They were concerned to break away from the stultifying
complexity and disunity of existing society and go back to a purer,
more harmonious form of living. Their aim, and one of the chief reasons
for returning to America, was to find new principles of organization, a
new structure, in which they might live and work more equitably and
happily. Within a few months of their arrival in Boston, Alcott
wrote of their purposes:
Our purposes, as far as we know them at present, are briefly these: -
First, to obtain the free use of a spot of land adequate by our own
labor to our support; including, of course, a convenient plain house,
and offices, wood-lot, garden, and orchard.
Secondly, to live independently of foreign aids by being sufficiently
elevated to procure all articles for subsistence in the production of
the spot, under a regimen of healthful labor and recreation; with
benignity toward all creatures, human and inferior; with beauty and
refinement in all economics; and the purest charity throughout our
It is clear that this new Eden, or Fruitlands, as the venture came to
be known, partly originated in England. Lane and Alcott were originally
attracted to one another because of their commonly held educational and
dietetic views (both were vegetarians), but they also found their
opposition to existing institutions highly compatible. Lane emphasized
the necessity for inner improvement and the worthlessness of mere
external reform. He summarized his own outlook in July 1842, while
still in England: "We ignore human governments, creeds, and
institutions; we deny the right of any man to dictate laws for our
regulation, or duties for our performance; and declare our allegiance
only to Universal Love, the all-embracing Justice." Since Lane
found conditions in the United States similar to those in England, it
is no wonder that "within a month of his arrival on American soil" he
began advocating overthrow of the American government.
As we shall see, Alcott introduced Lane to many of the most radical
elements then agitating for change in American society. Alcott was the
brother-in-law of Samuel J. May. Both had been among the earliest
supporters of William Lloyd Garrison, and Alcott himself had been a
long time non-resistant. Alcott numbered among his friends, Garrison,
Emerson, Thoreau and many other abolitionists.
Thus it should be no surprise that Lane sprang into immediate action
when Bronson Alcott was arrested on January 17, 1843 for non-payment of
his 1842 Massachusetts poll tax. This agitation against taxes had been
brewing for some time in Concord. As early as 1840, Emerson had noted
in his journal that some neighbor had told him "that he had made up his
mind to pay no more taxes for he had found that he owed nothing to the
Government." Since the poll tax was due the 1st of May, 1842 and
Alcott had not departed for England until May 8, it is clear that
"Alcott's contact with the radical group in England in 1842, therefore,
did not originate his defiance."
Clearly Alcott's attack on taxation pre-dated his acquaintance with
Lane, but in view of Lane's own radicalism (particularly that expressed
in his letters) it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Alcott
was egged on by Lane. Lane himself had decided to pay no taxes in
America and their position was undoubtedly representative "of their
proposed withdrawl from society and venture into a new community of the
regenerate at Fruitlands."
What actually transpired on the arrest of Alcott was that he was held
for a few hours until the tax was paid by Squire Samuel Hoar. Lane's
reaction was preserved in his letter to The Liberator. Both Thoreau and Emerson expressed their reactions to Alcott's bravado. Thoreau in a letter to Emerson wrote:
I suppose they have told you how near Mr. Alcott went to jail, ...
There was a lecture on Peace by a Mr. Spear (ought he not be beaten
into a ploughshare?), the same evening, and, as the gentlemen, Lane and
Alcott, dined at our house while the matter was in suspense, - that is,
while the constable was waiting for his receipt from the jailer, - we
there settled it that we, that is, Lane and myself, perhaps should
agitate the State ... But when, over the audience, I saw our hero's
head moving in the free air of the Universalist church, my fire all
went out, and the State was safe as far as I was concerned. But Lane,
it seems, had cogitated and even written on the matter, in the
Emerson for his part wrote in his Journal for 1843:
Alcott thought he could find as good grounds for quarrel in the State
tax as Socrates did in the edicts of the judges. Then I said, "Be
consistent, and never more put an apple or kernel of corn into your
mouth. Would you feed the Devil? Say boldly: 'I will not any longer
belong to this double-faced equivocating, mixed, jesuitical
Mrs. Alcott noted in her own Journal for January 17, 1843,
that it was a day of some excitement, "As Mr. Alcott had refused to pay
his town tax and they had gone through the form of taking him to jail.
After waiting some time to be committed, he was told it was paid by a
friend. Thus we were spared the affliction of his absence and he the
triumph of suffering for his principles."
The first five months of 1843 must have been a busy time for
both Alcott and Lane. Alcott had been arrested, Lane was writing his
series for The Liberator,
and both were trying to finalize their plans for their new community.
For some time they had been looking for a self-sufficient homestead,
and finally in late May 1843 they decided to buy the Wyman Farm near
Harvard, Massachusetts. In fact, it was the money Lane had accumulated
in England which made the purchase possible. Fruitlands, so called
because fruit was to be the principal staple of daily food, was a farm
of 90 acres (14 of them in wood) with a rough farm house and barn. Lane
purchased the land for $1800 and took a rent-free lease on the
buildings for a year. Emerson, in spite of his reservations about the
practicality of the venture, agreed to serve as trustee for Lane, and
the deed for the property was put in Emerson's name.
"This arrangement seemed particularly satisfying to Lane, since he
opposed the owning of property on principle, and the further he could
remove himself from such activity the better." Lane apparently was of
two minds on the question of property ownership. In a letter written
from Fruitlands in June 1843 on "Property" he claimed that "There seems
to be a growing sense that the great question between right and wrong,
progress and stagnation, ... will be brought to issue practically upon
the justice of holding property." Although he sympathized with
discussions of Fourier's view of society, he saw no advantage accruing
from their adoption: "The freedom
of the earth is what is wanted. And how shall it be secured? It is not
a state of things to be enforced, either by brute power, logical
argument, or scientific allurement. What ever is done towards this
desirable consummation must be of natural growth, it must, as it were,
come of itself." Although common ownership of the earth might do away
with individual accumulation, Lane realized that it would be difficult
"to see how the human being can retain that ceaseless vivacity which
belongs to individuality without running into the spirit of clanship
which is little or no better." As it turned out, Lane and Alcott were
not even capable of running their own self-sufficient farm.
Fruitlands: "The Second Eden"
The primary goal of Fruitlands was the growth of each member of the
community toward full spiritual perfection on earth. "Fruitlands was
true to Alcott's central conviction that all effective and enduring
changes in society must originate, as he said, 'within the individual
and work outwards. The inner being must be first organized. ... hence
reform begins truly with individuals, and is conducted through the
simplest of ministries of families, neighborhoods, fraternities, quite
wide of associations, and institutions'." Alcott believed in decreasing
one's dependency on things of the world; so that by diminishing desires
to the lowest possible level, one would make himself most receptive to
what he called 'the influx of the Spirit'. The experiment at Fruitlands
was a bold attempt to unite two dominant strains of New England
Transcendentalism: radical individualism (of the likes of Emerson and
Thoreau) and the harmonious joining together of all men into one common
fellowship, into a sort of heaven on earth.
On June 1, 1843, the members of the new community left Concord and
proceeded to occupy their new home at Fruitlands. The original group
consisted of Alcott, his wife, Abigail, and their four daughters, Lane
and his son, and two outsiders, Abraham Everett, a cooper, and
Christopher Larned, a merchant's son. A variety of other eccentric
characters were associated with Fruitlands, but the only one who had
any practical farming experience was Joseph Palmer of Leominster.
Palmer, too, had achieved a certain amount of local notoriety because
of his insistence on wearing a beard in an age when they were
ridiculed. Though Fruitlands had its amusing aspects, it was in fact a
sincere and serious effort on the part of several persons who dedicated
their lives towards searching for a nobler way of life.
Life at Fruitlands proceeded much as at the Hosmer Cottage. Crops were
sown, the education of the Alcott children taken in hand. Many visitors
stopped by the farm to see what practicing Transcendentalists looked
like. "Emerson, Thoreau, and Ellery Channing came from Concord";
Theodore Parker, Mrs. Alcott's brother, the Rev. Samuel May, and others
visited. Emerson had his doubts about the eventual success of
Fruitlands; he said in the summer things were all right, but he would
know of their success as they struggled through the coming winter. One
visitor who seems to have perceived the essence of the experiment was
Mrs. Alcott's nephew, Samuel Sewall Greely. Looking back on his visit
many years later, he wrote that "the main belief of the group seemed to
be 'the sacredness of all sentient life - that beast, bird, fish, and
insect had a right to control their individual lives'." Another
episode related by Isaac Hecker (one of the participants at Fruitlands)
shows how seriously Lane felt about his activities:
This afternoon [July 13, 1843] the first load of hay
was put in the barn. Before they put the fork into pitch it on the
floor, Mr. Lane took off his hat, and said he did not take it off
because he revered the barn more than any other place, but because it
was the first fruit they had put in store. He made a few remarks,
saying he did not wish to speak, but he was conscious that others felt
what prompted his words, and it was for a few moments silence, that
holy thought might be awakened on the occasion.
Less serious incidents abound, such as the time Lane and Alcott,
dressed in their country linens and canvas shoes, travelled the
countryside, going as far as New York. On their return they went by
steamer to New Haven. Their money had run out but they promised the
ticket man that they would be quite willing to pay their way by
addressing the passengers and crew with a little conversation in the
saloon. Another time, while they were off on their wanderings, it was
time for the barley to be harvested. Mrs. Alcott, fearing rain, was
forced to bring the barley to shelter without the aid of a single
These events demonstrate the near-impracticality of both Lane and
Alcott and provide one reason why their community was soon to founder.
Emerson once said of Lane that his intentions were noble but that his
hands were indeed too far from his head. Crops which had been
raised were not sufficient to make Fruitlands self-sustaining. Both
Lane and Alcott shunned the use of animal labor to plough the fields.
Furthermore friction developed between Lane and Mrs. Alcott. In short,
Alcott was forced to choose between his family or remaining loyal to
the ideas of community espoused by Lane. After enduring part of a harsh
winter, Lane and his son finally departed from Fruitlands in January
1844, taking up residence at the nearby Shaker community.
Lane undoubtedly was also agitated by his own arrest which had occurred
in mid-December 1843. The news of his arrest was reported in The Liberator under the title: "Governmental Violence".
It may not be uninteresting, though not very pleasing,
to our readers to learn that Charles Lane, who wrote several articles
in our paper, in the early part of the year, respecting Human
Government, has been made to feel the paternity of that power.
Journeying homeward from Boston to Harvard, on Saturday last, in a
state of fatigue and partial sickness from the severity of a climate to
which he is unaccustomed, he was arrested in the stage-house at
Concord, while waiting for the relay of horses. The suitor was the
Government, and the demand was for the poll tax; [due May 1843]
although he had not been a year in the country, on the 1st of May -
although a foreigner, without a right to vote, and 'taxation without
representation' is said to be 'tyranny and ought to be resisted' - he
was with little ceremony made a prisoner, and placed in a secure cell, in company with a felon.
Here he was kept for some hours, until nearly sundown, when he was
informed he might depart; but by what process liberty was allowed, was
unrevealed. How dastardly and oppressive is such an act!
Emerson commented on Lane's arrest in his letter of December 17, 1843 to Margaret Fuller:
"Mr. Lane was here lately again for two or three days
having been arrested for his taxes as he stopped with the Harvard Stage
at the tavern. He declined bringing any friend to answer for him and
was put into jail. Rockwood Hoar heard of it and paid the debt and when
I came home from seeing you in Boston I found him at my house."
Lane left Fruitlands, shortly before the Alcotts departed, and he
remained with the Shakers for about a year and a half, until 1845. Lane
was used to being intimately associated with the world around him, so
it is no wonder that he never became a full-fledged member of the
Shaker community. In October 1845, Lane was in Boston attending the
annual convention of the New England Non-Resistance Society. Lysander
Spooner also attended this convention, but there is no evidence that
the two men knew one another. Sometime during the fall of 1845,
Lane moved to New York City where he was quickly welcomed "into the
various groups of reform" which were active there. He stayed for a time
at the home of Marcus and Rebecca Spring, who were well-known for their
humanitarianism and interest in social reforms. When New York offered
no prospect of a job or a new mode of living, Lane moved onto Boonton,
New Jersey in the spring of 1846. Here he remained for several months.
Boonton was a "hotbed of abolition", a stop on the underground railway,
and the town was "full of committed, earnest citizens, who believed
that reform demanded action, not just words."
Meanwhile, Lane had not forgotten his friends in Concord. By July 1846,
he returned to Concord in an effort to sell Fruitlands. He had probably
been living off the generosity of friends most of the time since he had
left the Shakers. Most of his funds were tied up in his library (which
he had brought from England) and in Fruitlands. In passing, we might
note that it was at this time that Thoreau was imprisoned overnight for
his own failure to pay his 1842 or 1843 poll tax. More than likely,
Lane was in the Concord vicinity when this took place, although there
is no direct evidence of his notice of the event. Finally in August
1846, Joseph Palmer agreed to buy Fruitlands and this permitted Lane to
return to England, somewhat free of pecuniary worries. Oldham had
written him from Alcott House and was anxiously waiting his return.
Lane sailed for England in September 1846, "full of hope that some good
still might be done furthering human progress at Alcott House."
Lane discovered during his four years in America that human nature was
nearly the same everywhere and that the institutions and attitudes he
found on both sides of the Atlantic were equally inimical to his ideas.
Not only had Lane changed during his four years abroad, but
Alcott House had progressed from an experimental school for young
children to a communitarian establishment for adults. Lane maintained a
correspondence with Alcott from England, informing him of the progress
at Alcott House and of his own renewed interest in vegetarianism.
Alcott House eventually met the same fate as Fruitlands, being
abandoned sometime in 1849 because it could not maintain itself
financially. In 1850, Lane married the former matron of Alcott House,
Hannah Bond. He eventually became the father of five more children and
the editor of another mercantile paper, The Public Ledger.
As the years wore on, correspondence between Lane and his American
friends ceased. Finally in 1870, Alcott received a letter from Oldham,
the former business manager of Alcott House, informing him of Lane's
Lane died on January 5, 1870, and he had changed strikingly during his
last 20 years of life. He had left his family well provided for in a
new large house and three of his sons were already self-supporting. "If
Lane had known during the 1840's that at his death the picture
presented to the world of his life and family would so closely resemble
that of a typical prosperous, respectable Victorian household, he would
have been astonished. Yet such are the vagaries of life. Lane had made
his peace with the world and, somewhat like Emerson, had become less
the fiery radical and more the tolerant observer."
The New England Non-Resistance Society
Although we have briefly examined the activities of Amos Bronson
Alcott in their relation to Lane, it will be interesting to look at the
genesis of some of Alcott's own ideas and see how their influence was
reflected in Lane. As we have seen, their original attraction was
chiefly along the lines of diet and education, but they must have found
themselves surprisingly in accord on political matters too. Alcott
was the only well-known Transcendentalist to become involved in the New
England Non-Resistance Society. Alcott had befriended William Lloyd
Garrison in the early 1830's and was probably active in founding the
New England Non-Resistance Society with Garrison in 1838. We know that
Alcott was active in the Society from its inception; he helped revise
its Declaration of Sentiments and plan conventions. He was in
attendance at the first annual meeting held in October 1839. In the
journal of the Society, the Non-Resistant,
for October 1839, he wrote: "I look upon the Non-resistance Society as
an assertion of the right of self-government. Why should I employ a
church to write my creed or a state to govern me? Why not write my own
creed? Why not govern myself?"
One of the major concerns of the Non-Resistance Society probably from
its beginning, was the question of the payment of fines and taxes to
existing governments. At least as early as their second annual meeting
in October 1840, the non-resistants were debating the following
That in payment of taxes and fines to the existing
governments of this or any other country, non-resistants do not thereby
sanction, and are not responsible for, the acts of government.
As one commentator noted, "It is easy to stay away from the polls and
keep out of office [as the non-resistants advocated], but not very easy
to avoid paying taxes and fines." Alcott was probably familiar with
two instances of non-violent resistance to the government, which were
reported on in The Liberator during the early part of 1840.
Charles Stearns and David Cambell were both conscientious objectors to
military training and militia duty. Stearns was imprisoned in Hartford,
Connecticut in January 1840, when he refused to do military duty or pay
the fine for failure to do militia duty. Garrison published a letter
that Stearns wrote from jail to The Liberator
during February 1840. Stearns maintained that it was as wrong to
voluntarily bear arms as it was to voluntarily pay the penalty (which
the state of Connecticut had decreed) for failure to participate in the
militia. Even though Stearns was threatened with life imprisonment, he
believed that it was as wrong to train as it was to pay the fine.
Otherwise he said, why not train for military duty and say I am forced
to do it. That would be the same as paying the fine and saying that was
done contrary to my will. Stearns asked: "Now if a person, believing it
to be sinful to uphold the system, releases himself from it by paying
the fine, does he bear all the testimony against it that his God
requires of him? Has not the time come for christians to come out, and
take a bold stand against such things being considered entirely in
accordance with Christ's percepts and example, even if it costs them
David Cambell's case was also reported in The Liberator.
Cambell was a conscientious objector who repeatedly found himself in
and out of Massachusetts jails. Like Stearns, he deemed "military
training, and the payment of an equivalent for not training,
inconsistent with Christian duty." He asked that the Massachusetts laws
exempting Quakers and Shakers from military duty be extended to include
all conscientious objectors, of whatever faith.
Garrison, for the most part, certainly supported the protests of these
two non-resistants, although he made it quite plain that he saw "no
reason why a military fine may not be paid, as well as any other
exacted by a government based on physical force." "If, in paying a
military fine, you countenance the militia system;" Garrison claimed,
"then, in paying ordinary taxes to government, you sanction its
rightful authority, and are responsible for its acts." But Garrison
asserted this was false reasoning. There was a distinction in his mind
between sanctioning being robbed and submitting to be robbed.
The third annual meeting of the New England Non-Resistance Society in
September 1841 continued the debate on the justice of submitting to
civil government. Alcott was an active participant in the meeting. On
Tuesday, September 21, 1841, the first day of the convention, he
participated in a discussion of a resolution which was unanimously
adopted: "Resolved, that we hail the manifest progress of the
non-resistance doctrine with gratitude to God, and recognize in it
influence against the prevalent and deeply rooted error, a power which
belongs to truth alone." On Tuesday afternoon, William Lloyd Garrison
offered the following resolve: "Resolved that the voluntary payment of
militia fines, by non-resistants, is incompatible with the principles
which they profess." This obviously indicates a shift in thinking on
Garrison's part, as compared to his comments on the Stearns case. The
Liberator reported that Garrison's resolution was discussed by Henry
Clarke Wright and A.B. Alcott until it was time for adjournment. The
following morning, John A. Collins moved to amend the resolution by
substituting for the original, the following version:
Resolved, whereas governments of violence, all with
their murderous machinery, are upheld and sustained by military force
and direct and indirect payment of taxes; therefore, Resolved that it
is a violation of non-resistance principles voluntarily to pay military
fines, mixed taxes, or to purchase taxed goods.
Apparently the convention could come to no firm conclusion on either
the Garrison or Collins resolution, since they were both finally tabled
and not re-considered. Alcott also participated in discussion about
Henry Clarke Wright's resolution "that no man who believes that all war
is wrong, can, without a violation of admitted principle, hold the
office of President or Congressmen of the United States, or vote for
others to hold these offices." This resolution was unanimously adopted
and must have had Alcott's support. Before the convention adjourned,
Alcott discussed and approved a resolution which recognized that
"christian non-resistance consistently practiced, carries with it the
very highest conservative influence which can be brought to bear on
Alcott and Thoreau
Thus it is clear that Alcott had his own desire for civil
disobedience flamed by his association with the non-resistants and that
his ideas must have been well-formulated before he ever departed for
England in the summer of 1842. His membership and participation in the
Society demonstrated why it became a matter of conscience for him to
practice his own form of civil disobedience. The interesting thing
about Alcott and the other abolitionists comprising the Non-Resistance
Society is that he was the only one of them to act out his principles
on the matter of general taxation. Outside of Thoreau and Lane we have
no knowledge of any other protests against taxation on principle. The
general Garrisonian outlook (despite Garrison's sponsorship of the 1841
Resolution) was that tax-paying was not a voluntary act and that
consequently one was not responsible for supporting or sanctioning
government when one pays a tax or a fine. Wendell Phillips declared
that when governments make tax-paying voluntary, he, for one, would
refuse to pay his taxes. Until that time, however, tax-paying was not a
voluntary act and therefore the taxpayer was not responsible in
conscience for what was done with his money.
In October 1851, Alcott observed the similarities between
Lane's articles on "A Voluntary Political Government" and Thoreau's
essay on "Resistance to Civil Government". Alcott wrote in his journal:
These are the earliest statements of man's right to
Self-Rule and consequent independence of the institutions to which he
happens to be born, that I have seen: and have their advantage,
moreover, of having brought the civil code in collision with the
Individual; the Lower Law in conflict with the Higher.
As we have seen, Lane, Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau formed a circle of
friends who were all undoubtedly sympathetic in their libertarian
outlook. Alcott "was Thoreau's chief companion during the years at
Walden." Thoreau struck up a close personal acquaintance with Lane
soon after he arrived in America. It was on of the few friendships
which he ever actively sought. Even after Fruitlands disbanded,
both Emerson and Thoreau helped look after Lane's pecuniary interests
in this country.
Although Thoreau was never a member of the Non-Resistance Society, or
any other abolitionist organization for that matter, he did come from a
family of ardent abolitionists. There is a record of Thoreau and his
brother having debated Alcott on the affirmative side of the question:
"Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?" This took place at
the Concord Lyceum in January 1841. Thoreau was familiar with
William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator
and was highly supportive of Wendell Phillips in a report that appeared
in Garrison's journal. Furthermore, there is explicit evidence that
Thoreau was a reader of the Herald of Freedom and a follower of
Nathaniel Peabody Roger's writings in that paper. Thus it is quite
conceivable that Thoreau had read Lane's letters on voluntary
government either in The Liberator or the Herald of Freedom. In fact, it is likely that Thoreau and Lane personally discussed the issues that were touched on in the letters.
It must be remembered that Thoreau's own arrest and imprisonment were
for the non-payment of his 1842 or 1843 poll tax; not his 1845 or 1846
poll tax. So the sources for Thoreau's resistance must be looked at in
the context of the activities and influence of Alcott and Lane. The
motivations for Thoreau's refusal are uncertain, but Alcott's and
Lane's examples were personally know to Thoreau. Furthermore, the
essay on "Civil Disobedience" was not actually published until 1849 and
it was originally entitled "Resistance to Civil Government". The essay
had previously been delivered as a lecture "on the relation of the
individual to the State - an admirable statement of rights of the
individual to self-government', probably sometime in 1847. Alcott took
great pleasure reporting on Thoreau's talk in his Journal:
His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar's
expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for
refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar's payment of mine when taken to prison
for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered and
It is interesting to note that Alcott's arrest was expunged from
Thoreau's written version. Also the issues of the Mexican War and the
annexation of Texas as a slave state, which play so prominent a part of
the essay, were not germane to the original cause of Thoreau's
resistance to taxation. These issues did not even exist at the time
that Thoreau decided on his protest (some time in 1842 or 1843).
The Individual vs. Political Reform
Another interesting relationship exists between the voluntaryist
ideas about reform that were jointly held by Alcott, Emerson, and
Thoreau. As early as November 1839, we have evidence of Alcott becoming
critical of the Non-Resistance movement because it was becoming "too
political". "In Alcott's view, the movement did not need to be
concerned with the number of its adherents or their position in
society, power, prestige, or followers, but instead by those who like
Jesus, 'speak and act most simply and heartily'." Reform was mostly
a matter of appealing to the conscience, of re-awakening moral
sentiments in the individual. It was not a matter of mass action or
political power. Emerson's ideas about reform were quite similar:
effective improvement can be brought about in human affairs not by
organizations, associations, or legal enactments but only by change in
the individual mind and heart. Lane shared a similar sentiment for
he declared that "our reforms must begin within ourselves." In a
letter written at the close of 1842, Lane pointed out the folly of
expecting institutions to generate a better society or better men: "No;
better men must somehow be found or ma[d]e to constitute a better
society. Society taken at large is never better or worse than the
persons who compose it, for they in fact are it."
These ideas are particularly reminiscent of Thoreau's outlook
in "Civil Disobedience". Here he attacked voting, much as the
non-resistants had, as a moral inanity. Instead of mass political
action, Thoreau advocated direct non-violent confrontation with the
State: "If a 1000 men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that
would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them,
and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This
is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is
possible. If the tax-gatherer or any other public officer, asks me, as
one has done, 'But what shall I do?' my answer is, 'If you really wish
to do anything, resign your office.' When the subject has refused
allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the
revolution is accomplished."
Emerson, too, was certainly influenced by Lane's compositions on
voluntary government. We can see this most forcefully in Emerson's
essay "politics" and "New England Reformers". The essay on "Politics"
was originally a lecture given in Boston during 1839-1840, and it was
extensively revised for publication in 1844, after Lane and Alcott had
both been arrested and after Lane's letters had been published.
Consider the following excerpt (all of which had been revised by
Emerson for publication) from "Politics", in which signs of Charles
Lane's thinking are quite evident:
The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never
been tried. We must not imagine that all things are lapsing into
confusion if every tender protestant be not compelled to bear his part
in certain social conventions; nor doubt that roads can be built,
letters carried, and the fruit of labor secured, when the government of
force is at an end. Are our methods now so excellent that all
competition is hopeless? Could not a nation of friends even devise
better ways? On the other hand, let not the most conservative and timid
fear anything from a premature surrender of the bayonet and the system
of force. For, according to the order of nature, which is quite
superior to our will, it stands thus; there will always be a government
of force where men are selfish; and when they are pure enough to abjure
the code of force they will be wise enough to see how these public ends
of the post-office, of the highway, of commerce and the exchange of
property, of museums and libraries, of institutions of art and science
can be answered.
Emerson's essay on "New England Reformers" was originally a lecture
delivered on March 3, 1844. In it he refers to the progress of dissent:
The country is full of rebellion; .... Hands off! let
there be no control and no interference in the administration of the
affairs of this kingdom of me. ... So the country is frequently
affording solitary examples of resistance to the government, solitary
nullifiers, who throw themselves on their reserved rights; nay, who
have reserved all their rights; who reply to the assessor and to the
clerk of court that they do not know the State, and embarrass the
courts of law by non-juring and the commander-in-chief of the militia
The Letters and the Libertarian Tradition
Let us now turn to a brief analysis of Lane's letters themselves. As we
have seen, they originated in Lane's desire to protest the arrest and
possible imprisonment of Alcott in mid-January 1843. The first letter
to The Liberator
on "State Slavery" (internally dated January 16, 1843) may have even
been prepared in advance of Alcott's actual arrest. In the opening
paragraph we can already see Lane's outlook on government. The State is
nothing but institutionalized violence and Lane uses the criminal
metaphor to describe it. He refers to its "club law, its mere brigand
right to a strong arm, to support guns and bayonets...." He also
introduces his comparison of the Church to the State, an example which
he uses continuously throughout the letters. "Forced" Christianity is
on a par with the coercive State. "Everyone can see that the Church is
wrong when it comes to men with the Bible in one hand, and the sword in
the other." "Is it not equally diabolical for the State to do so?" Here
Lane refers to the fact that Alcott was arrested on the basis of a
general warrant, which treats him already as a "convicted felon"
without benefit of inquiry or trial by jury. Lane explicitly refers to
Alcott's failure to pay his poll tax and his act of going to jail as
"an act of non-resistance". It is strictly an act of conscience and
"does not rest on the plea of poverty".
Lane's second letter to The Liberator (dated January 28, 1843)
was ostensibly sparked by a typographical error which appeared in the
January 16th letter. In that letter, referring to the similarities
between Church and State, Lane had been published as writing: Majority
rule "is only tolerated by public opinion because the fact is not yet
perceived that all the true purposes of the corporate state may as
easily be carried out on the revolutionary principle, as all the true
purposes of the collective church." Of course, Lane's statement makes
much more sense if 'voluntary' were substituted for the word
'revolutionary' in that sentence. Then he would be referring to the
'voluntary principle'. Lane also stresses that although the 'voluntary
principle' is revolutionary in nature, it can only be brought about by
"kind, orderly, and moral means," that are consistent with the end
itself. Reformer and abolitionist that he was, Lane alludes to the
evils of slavery: "colored slavery' is in fact the consequence of a
much larger evil, which Lane calls "government" and "force". "The State
... is at this moment the only serious obstacle to freedom ..." In a
plea for voluntaryism, Lane closes this letter on the following note:
Let the people recollect that it is themselves who
have made and who sustain this dragon [the State] ... Away, then, with
such a delusion! There is no safety for person or property, while a
government by force exists. Let us supersede it by one of charity. Let
us have a voluntary State, as well as a voluntary Church, and we may
possibly then have some claim to the appellation of free men. Till
then, at least, we are slaves.
If Lane had ended his contributions to The Liberator at
this point, his two letters would only be an interesting historical
record of his reaction to Alcott's arrest. However the fact is that
these two letters serve as the introduction to a set of seven letters
which Lane apparently conceived of during February 1843. Before going
on to consider the various themes that lane elaborates on in these
letters, it will be useful to place them in the historical context of
the libertarian tradition.
As we have seen, Alcott, Lane, and the group of radical abolitionists
surrounding William Lloyd Garrison comprise one aspect of the mid-19th
Century American libertarian tradition. Their ideas are in turn
inter-related with the development of individualist-anarchism and
voluntaryism. It is highly significant, especially in view of Lane's
English background and Alcott's visit to England in the summer of 1842,
that young Herbert Spencer began publishing a series of 11 letters in
Edward Miall's Non-Conformist
in June 1842. These letters were entitled "The Proper Sphere of
Government". They demonstrate the similar concerns of Lane and the
young Spencer, who was 22 at the time: "free trade, Church
disestablishment, ..., opposition to war and imperialism, and voluntary
education". Spencer's letters also coincided with the birth of the
voluntaryist movement in England, which was a movement of dissenters
and non-conformists calling for a complete separation of school and
State. One consistent theme found in Spencer's "Proper Sphere of
Government" and in his subsequent works, such as Social Statics,
is his use of the argument for religious freedom. "On a number of
occasions Spencer uses the argument for religious freedom to buttress
his case for freedom in other spheres." For example he argues that
"just as the State has no right to meddle in the 'spiritual health' of
the people, so it has no right to interfere in the physical health
through medical regulation, licensing, and so forth." Similarly, we
find this same theme all throughout Lane's letters, although there is
no direct evidence that Lane was even familiar with the non-conformist
movement in England. Unfortunately, nothing is known of his religious
This argument that 'the voluntary church is the only true
church' (and by analogy, that the only true political organization is
the voluntary state) illustrates the role that voluntaryism has played
in the struggle between Church and State in England during the 17th
Century. During this time, the English Independents were moving towards
a completely voluntaryistic concept of the Church. They considered that
the maintenance of churches by tithes and State support ought to be
done away with. This was no new idea and for a long period there had
been Independents who had realized that this was the logical outcome of
their views on separation of Church and State. For example, a petition
circulated in London in 1647, demanding that "tithes and all other
enforced maintenance may be for ever abolished and nothing in the place
thereof imposed; but that all ministers may be paid only by those who
voluntarily chose them and contract with them for their labors." By
substituting 'taxes' for "tithes" and 'government officials' for
"ministers" we realize how close these early religious dissenters were
to espousing the ideas of a truly voluntary State. People such as Lane
and Spencer merely carried out these arguments to their logical
conclusion. If the Church should be a voluntary organization, why not
the State? If men's spiritual health could be left to the free reign of
voluntary forces, why could not men's physical well-being be left to
the free market? The early advocates of Church-State separation were in
the vanguard of the libertarian tradition because they took one of the
first steps necessary to separate the State from the rest of society.
We may view them as the precursors of the latter-day abolitionists and
The Inner Contradictions of 'Voluntary' Government
In these religious controversies, the term 'voluntaryism' was used
by those who advocated complete separation of Church and State. The
term itself came into common usage during the extensive disputes
between the churchmen and the dissenters in Scotland during the second
decade of the 19th Century. The English non-conformists then adopted
the term in the early 1840's to express their opposition to
Parliamentary interference in schooling, which hitherto had been
unregulated, without even as much as a compulsory attendance law. The
'voluntary educationists' was a religious threat in State control or
regulation of education. They believed that the law of supply and
demand, or the 'voluntary principle' as they termed it, would provide
for the education of the whole English people.
Although Lane used the word 'voluntary' to capture the essence of his
ideas about government, the phrase 'voluntaryism' never caught on in
America. It died out in England after the demise of the agitation
against State education in the 1850's. The term was not popularized
again until the late 1880's and 1890's when Auberon Herbert published
his voluntaryist journal called Free Life.
Auberon Herbert and the group of English individualists he attracted
were the foremost expositors of voluntary taxation and the voluntary
State. Condensed into as few words as possible, their voluntaryist
formula was: "The sovereignty of the individual must remain intact,
except where the individual coerced has aggressed upon the sovereignty
of another unaggressive individual."
The leading voluntary taxationists, such as Herbert and his
associate J. Greevz Fisher, argued that no one should be forced to pay
their taxes (a point that Alcott, Lane and Thoreau had already made).
Thus no one was to be coerced by the State, unless, he or she were
first an invader of another person's body or just property. Failure to
pay one's taxes was not to be treated as a crime. They took the
position that while governments would still retain a monopoly of
control over the army, the courts, and the police, in a given
geographic area, no one could be forced to support such an agency
against their conscientious scruples. This of course would apply as
much to a non-resistant or a pacifist who was against lending his
support to any 'armed' agency as to a tax-resister who opposed
contributions to monopolistic agencies (such as the government) on
principle. The libertarian problem that was never faced by the
proponents of voluntary taxation was: "Would they use force to compel
people not to use a freely competiting defense agency [ a competitor to the existing government] within
the same geographic area? Would people be prevented from purchasing
court services and police protection from private organizations?
Neither Lane nor the latter English voluntary taxationists ever really
answered this problem, although its solution had been outlined as early
as 1849 by a French economist, Gustave de Molinari. Arguing from the
economic point of view, Molinari explained that the prohibition of
competition among defense agencies in a geographic area was in effect a
grant of monopoly power to the existing State. If competition was
beneficial in every sphere of economic activity, why not in the
"production of security" as well? Why not have competing defense
agencies vie for the voluntary patronage of their customers? "Defense
agencies, police, judicial, would compete with one another in the same
uncoerced manner as the producers of any other service on the market.
The price would be lower, the service more efficient."
This discussion points up the inner contradiction in Lane's
terminology: "a voluntary political government". At least two
contemporary observers noted this fact. Nathaniel Peabody Rogers,
editor of the Herald of Freedom asked:
Can government be voluntary? Is it not
compulsory in its nature? Men may regulate themselves, possibly - but
can they govern one another, or rather be governed, voluntarily?
... Can we get along on earth without fetters and handcuffs on? ... I
am sure we can't get along with, for we have tried it.
A. Brooke, president of the Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform, posed a similar question:
C.L. says a great many sensible things in his essays
upon a "voluntary political government," but I am free to confess I do
not exactly comprehend the point to which his lucubrations tend. ... I
claim the right to govern myself, and my rights are certainly infringed
by a compulsory obedience to the dicta of a few as of many, and the
vassalage is not a whit more "voluntary." With my ignorance, the term
"voluntary political government" passes for a solecism. So much of the
truth however is conveyed in these writings, and in so sensible a
manner, that I guess their author holds to the abrogation of all government, save self-government.
If Lane did not consider himself an anarchist, then at least some of
his contemporaries realized that Lane was far down that path by which
one arrives at anarchy. Voluntary government is a contradiction in
terms. Government by definition implies the monopolistic use of force
over a given geographic area. As we have seen, the moment that
governments become voluntarily financed, we face the possibility that
people will decide to purchase their defense services elsewhere (or not
at all, as in the case of the pacifist). Either the existing
governmental monopoly permits this or it does not. If it does, the
existing government may soon have no revenues (and be forced to wither
away for lack of resources) or else simply become a competitor among
those defense service purveyors operating on the market. If the
existing government did not allow competition to spring up, then it
"would no longer function as the voluntary society sought by its
This contradiction points up the two fundamental anarchistic objections
to government. First, governments obtain their revenues by means of
taxation; that is, by compulsory levies. Second, all governments
presume to establish a compulsory monopoly of defense services (police,
courts, army, and law code) over some geographic area. Threats of
force, property confiscation, or imprisonment await one who does not
voluntarily pay his or her taxes. Even if government were voluntarily
financed, their second aggressive feature would still remain.
Individual property owners who would prefer not to subscribe to a
defense service at all or to subscribe to another defense agency would
not be permitted to do so.
Although Lane was not familiar with these late 19th and 20th Century
libertarian arguments, there are many consistent libertarian themes
running through his letters. We have already discussed the comparison
between the voluntary Church and the voluntary State. Much of Lane's
concern is to demonstrate the practicality of voluntary arrangements in
the absence of State coercion. In Letter I he claims that government is
not performing its functions efficiently. No government on earth
secures the safety of person and property. Government punishment of
criminals after the fact accomplishes nothing, Lane points out, as we
well know today, that prisons only serve as the breeding ground for
more crime. Lane says that every service government provides (from
libraries to schools) could be better supplied if left to the free play
of competitive and voluntary forces.
In Letters III and IV Lane explicitly argues for the complete
privatization of such services as: roads, schools, care of the poor,
banks (totally unlicensed), lunatic asylums, mail delivery and all
forms of public works (such as turnpikes, canals, railways). He also
discusses international relations among "voluntary political
governments" and concludes that with the abolition of the custom houses
and tariffs there would be an end to trade wars. If commerce is good,
why shackle it with government restrictions; if commerce is bad, why
try to support it with the governmental apparatus? This argument neatly
summarizes Lane's outlook on a broad range of issues. Since all the
functions of government can be provided competitively and voluntarily,
there remains no pretense for any form of taxation at all. The very
fact that State sponsored activities need coerced support speaks out
against their very existence. The fact that government assistance is
needed to carry them on or sustain them is absolute proof of their
inherent weakness. "If the work is desirable," it will be done; if not,
then it should not be done. (Letter IV)
Lane's most extensive discussion concerns the separation of School and
State and the provision of educational services free of government
interference. This is not surprising, since education was a subject so
close to his own interests both at Alcott House and at Fruitlands. We
must recognize that Lane was quite perceptive when he asserted that
"this mixture of education with politics is only a contrivance to gild
the iron chains by which men are so despotically bound." (Letter III)
Only if men were first trained to accept and obey the State could their
obedience be secured. All the physical might in the world could not
subdue a population of civil disobedients. Referring to his own
homeland, Lane relates that "In some of the most educated countries on
the earth, Scotland and England for instance, the government has seldom
interfered in any way, and then its help has been generally that of the
bear in the boat, which wrecked the passengers." Lane also points out
that no act could be so foul "as sending a man to jail in order to
raise funds for the moral education of children." Compulsory attendance
laws did not exist when Lane was writing, but the State did force all
parents to pay their school taxes. If school attendance could be left
to the discretion of each and every parent, Lane asks, then why could
not the money contributions for schooling be left to the same moral
influence? If parents sent their children to school in the absence of
compulsory attendance laws, was this not proof that they would
voluntarily pay? Lane notes the inefficiency of State schooling,
beginning as it does at age 5 or 6. (He probably thought in line with
Pestalozzi that learning should begin in infancy.) In a note of pique
he declares: "I do not see why the State has not the same right, and
much better arguments, for interfering in individual affairs at an
earlier stage, and either forbidding such unqualified to marry or
passing them through needful previous training. ... If education be
enforced ... let it begin at the beginnings." (Letter III) Lane must
have realized that this was a dangerous argument and one that
totalitarian regimes would use.
Lane demonstrates his knowledge of the classroom and teachers by
asserting that if the doors of the school were flung open to
competition, few of the existing teachers would find students. State
education stifles genius in both teacher and student. In his concluding
remarks, he alludes to the likeness between Church and School:
"Children will find their way to school where love teaches the lessons,
as readily as adults find their way to the church where the voice of
love alone is heard." (Letter III) It is no coincidence then that
Alcott was refused an opportunity to speak before the Teachers'
Institute (a convention of common school teachers) in Boston in 1847.
Alcott wrote in his Journal about Horace Mann, "The Secretary of
Education deemed it unsafe to introduce me to the teachers, and, on
pressing my desire to give them the benefit of my experience as an
educator, I was informed that my political opinions were esteemed
hostile to the existence of the State, and that I could not aid the
cause of popular culture." The same could have equally been said of
In presenting the case for the practicality of voluntarily provided
goods and services, Lane admits that he has ignored the "highest moral
ground". (Letter IV) Nevertheless he realizes that his argument
pertains to all people, whether they be good, bad, or indifferent: "It
behooves us therefore as christians, as philanthropists, aye, even as
selfish beings of any sound discrimination, to turn our backs upon this
forceful and representative system." (Letter VI) Whatever be the
inherent condition of man's nature (whether basically good or evil),
voluntary relations among them are the most moral and the most
productive of peace and prosperity. Either men are sufficiently aware
of their own self-interest so as to take care of themselves and their
property, or they are so far from this (being able to take care for
themselves and their property) that they have no business participating
in the political process called government. In either case, Lane urges
that there is no need for compulsory government. (Letter IV)
Another theme running throughout Lane's letters concerns the
tendency "there is in men to depart in action from the principles they
have laid down in words." (Letter V) This can best be seen in the fact
that slavery existed in the United States when Lane wrote these
letters. A federal constitution with guarantees for security of life
and property and the writ of habeas corpus was a mockery if it
coexisted with slavery. However to Lane, the existence of slavery was
only indicative of a much larger evil which lived in the body politic.
In a discussion of consent, Lane points out that the preamble to the
State Constitution of Massachusetts reads: "The body politic is formed
by a voluntary association of individuals In an argument written
before the heyday of Lysander Spooner, Lane argues that:
All, therefore, on behalf of which I am asserting may
be summed up as the restoration of the primary constitutional
principle. I give no strained or unusual value to the word "voluntary"
on this occasion. Either it means choice, or it means nothing at all.
If it does not assert the free voluntariness of every individual who
comes into "the body politic" it signifies nothing; or at least nothing
which common sense can lay hold of. If the voluntariness is to be
confined to those who have the power, and they are to be at liberty to
force every one into the association, then I must esteem this word
"voluntary" to be a solemn mockery; and the sooner it is erased, and
the term "forced" is put in its stead, the sooner will the words of the
Constitution harmonize with the idea of its framers, and be at one with
the very practice of its supporters. (Letter V)
In one of his opening statements, Lane presents the question, "Why
should we have all this complicated and costly machinery of
government?" (Letter I) In his final letter he summarizes his answer to
this question by saying he has "sought to show what an obstacle to true
progress the State now is, and how easily it could be set aside or
avoided." (Letter VII) Lane's aversion to politics is apparent in many
of his letters and was perfectly compatible with the no-voting and
no-office-holding theories espoused by the radical abolitionists. Lane
implicitly recognizes that governmental control rests on the
acquiescence of the citizenry. What is needed is for reform to begin
with the individual, so that eventually enough people will be aroused
to withdraw their sanction from the State. His anti-political outlook
comes out quite strongly in his remarks about "avoiding the bean" in
Letter III. "What," he asks, "would be the probable consequences of a
total abstinence of the citizens from the ballot box?" Since Lane views
the State and the political system as "one huge defect", he does not
shrink from answering the question. (Letter IV) In fact, Lane urges us
to go "as far as possible from human governments." (Letter V) He
reminds us that for "a season perhaps it is the misfortune of everyone
to fall into this delusion of imagining that human good is to be served
by political means." (Letter VI) Finally in Letter VII, he forthrightly
answers the question: "What are we to do?" His answer: "Do nothing."
Leave the beast alone he says. It cannot be reformed; participation in
politics is evil. "Like all our enemies, State oppression will die of
itself if we meddle not with it" and do not support it. Disown the
government and do not support it with your taxes. Enlighten the
oppressed as to their own self-imposed servitude, but stay away from
the State for it will only contaminate you. The similarity between
Lane's answer and Thoreau's solution is striking: "When the subject has
refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the
revolution is accomplished."
Carl Watner -- February 1982
1. Perry, pp.ix,x, 53 and 166.
2. See Watner, "The Radical Libertarian Tradition in Antislavery Thought".
3. Phillips, "Review", p.10; Rogers, A Collection, p. 333.
4. Perry, Chapter III, "Nonresistant Anarchism and Antislavery"; Brock, p. 594; and Spooner, Vol. I for No Treason.
5. Glick, "Thoreau and Radical Abolitionism", pp. 35, 90; Wiecek, Chapter 10, "The Garrisonian Critique".
6. Bedell, p. 181, citing Hernstadt, p. 70.
7. Cummins, p. 47; Harland, p. 40.
8. Cummins, pp. 17-20; Harland, pp.28-29.
9. Cummins, p. 40.
10. ibid., p. 71.
11. ibid., p. 74.
12. ibid., p. 75.
13. ibid., pp. 76, 78-79; Harland, p. 30.
14. Sanborn, pp. 9, 24.
15. Cummins, p. 85; Stoehr, p. 16.
16. Sears, p. 12.
17. Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, pp. 357, 324, 345; Cummins, p. 36.
18. cited by Stoehr, p. 47.
19. Broderick, p. 622.
20. Stoehr, pp. 47-48.
21. cited by Stoehr, pp. 45-46.
22. cited by Sanborn, p. 48.
23. Shepard, The Journals, pp. 150-151.
24. Harland, p. 45; Cummins, p. 116.
25. Cummins, p. 116; Vermont Telegraph, July 12, 1843, p. 159.
26. Cummins, pp. 113, 170, 163; Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 360.
27. Sanborn, pp. 54-55; Cimmins, pp. 121-123; Watner, "Those Impossible Citizens'", p. 179.
28. Cummins, pp. 127-129.
29. ibid., p. 130.
30. Sears, pp. 114-115.
31. Cummins, p. 278.
32. ibid., pp. 151, 180.
33. The Liberator, December 29, 1843, p. 107. According to Letter VII, Lane knew of the tax.
34. Rusk, Vol. III, p. 230.
35. The Liberator, October 31, 1845, p. 176, "Non-Resistance Anniversary".
36. Cummins, pp. 194-194, 200-201.
37. ibid., pp. 204-207.
38. ibid., pp. 217, 227-228.
39. ibid., pp. 228-230.
40. For example see the letter signed both by Alcott and Lane, titled "The Consociate Family Life".
Perry, pp. 81-84; Garrison, II, 236; The Liberator, October 11, 1839,
p. 164, "First Annual Meeting of the New England Non-Resistance
42. The Liberator, October 30, 1840, p. 176, "Non-Resistance Society".
43. The Liberator, February 14, 1840, p. 4, "Imprisonment for Conscience Sake".
44. The Liberator, February 14, 1840, p. 4, "Military Conscription",
and The Liberator, February 14, 1840, p. 3, "Military Conscription".
45. The Liberator, 1 October 1841, p. 3, "Third Annual Meeting of the New England Non-Resistance Society".
46. Broderick, p. 617; Phillips, Can Abolitionists Vote, pp. 31-32; Glick, "Thoreau and Radical Abolitionism", p. 96.
47. cited by Cummins, pp. 281-282.
48. Bedell, p. 264.
49. Glick, "Thoreau and Radical Abolitionism", pp. 204-206.
50. Cummins, p. 61; Sanborn, p. 41. Thoreau helped sell off some of
Lane's books and Emerson helped collect the installment payments due on
51. Adams, p. 64.
52. Thoreau, The Correspondence, p. 163 appearing in The Liberator, March 28, 1845, p. 51.
53. Meltzer, pp. 27-30; Adams, p. 647; Glick, "Thoreau and the 'Herald of Freedom'," Thoreau, "Herald of Freedom".
54. Broderick, p. 652.
55. Shepard, The Journals, p. 201.
56. Perry, p. 85.
57. Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 263.
58. cited by Cummins, p. 232.
59. Vermont Telegraph, January 11, 1843, p. 65.
60. Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government". p. 200.
61. Emerson, Essays, pp. 219-220. There are other passages, not quoted, which could pertain to Lane.
62. ibid., pp. 255-256. The editor's note on p. 352 is in error, as to when Thoreau was arrested.
63. Smith, p. 56.
64. ibid., p. 58.
65. Clark, p. 374.
66. cited by Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, p. 159.
67. Rothbard, Power and Market, p. 122.
68. ibid., p. 123. Rothbard notes that while the government would cease
to exist, there would be an important necessity for the existence of a
body of absolute law to guide the defense agencies in distinguishing
objectively between defense and invasion.
69. Rogers, "Voluntary Government", p. 19.
70. Vermont Telegraph, August 23, 1843, p. 181.
71. Rothbard, Power and Market, p. 122.
72. Rothbard, "Will Rothbard's Free Market Justice Suffice?", p. 19.
73. Shepard, The Journals, p. 195.
74. Swindler, p. 92. The Massachusetts State Constitution is the oldest
of the original thirteen states. The preamble as cited by Lane is still
part of the State constitution today.
75. Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government", p. 200.
A Voluntary Political Government
Letters From Charles Lane
[ I ] - [ II ] - [ III ] - [ IV ] - [ V ] - [ VI ] - [ VII ]
Raymond Adams, "Thoreau's Sources for 'Resistance to Civil Government'," 42 Studies in Philology (1945), pp. 640-653.
Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1980.
Peter Brock, Pacifism in the United States, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
John C. Broderick, "Thoreau, Alcott, and the Poll Tax," 53 Studies in Philology (1956), pp. 612-626.
Henry W. Clark, History of English Nonconformity, Vol. I, London: Chapman and Hall, 1911.
Roger William Cummins, "The Second Eden: Charles Lane and American
Transcendentalism," A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate
School of the University of Minnesota, 1967.
Frederick Dahlstrand, Amos B. Alcott: An Intellectual Biography, East Brunswick: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, Second Series, Boston: Houghton,
Mifflin and Co. 1903 (being Vol. III of the Centenary edition of The
Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson with a biographical introduction
and notes by Edward Waldo Emerson).
Wendel Phillips Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, Vol. II, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1889.
Wendell Glick, "Thoreau and the Herald of Freedom", 22 New England Quarterly (1949), pp. 193-204.
Wendell Glick, "Thoreau and Radical Abolitionism: A Study of the
Native Background of Thoreau's Social Philosophy," A Dissertation
Submitted to the Graduate School of Northwestern University, February
Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1966.
William Harry Harland, "Bronson Alcott's English Friends,"
(original manuscript at the Fruitlands Museum, Prospect Hill, Harvard,
Mass.; reprinted by Joel Myerson, see entry below.
Herald of Freedom (four reels of microfilm obtained from G. Flint Purdy Library, Wayne State University, Detroit).
Richard L. Hernstadt, ed., The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1969.
Charles Lane, "The Consociate Family Life," The Liberator,
September 22, 1843, p. 152, and Herald of Freedom, September 8, 1843,
Charles Lane, "Personal Purity," Vermont Telegraph, January 11, 1843, p. 65.
Charles Lane, "Property," Vermont Telegraph, July 12, 1843, p. 159.
Charles Lane, "Reform and Reformers," Herald of Freedom, March 3, 1843, p. 5.
Charles Lane, "State Slavery - Imprisonment of A. Bronson Alcott - Dawn of Liberty," The Liberator, January 27, 1843, p. 16.
Charles Lane, "A Voluntary State Government," The Liberator, February 10, 1843, p. 22.
Charles Lane, "A Voluntary Political Government," The Liberator,
March 3, 1843, p. 36; March 24, 1843, p. 48; April 7, 1843, p. 56;
April 28, 1843, p. 68; May 12, 1843, p. 76; May 26, 1843, p. 84; and
June 16, 1843, p. 96. Herald of Freedom, March 10, 1843, p. 9; March
24, 1843, p. 17; April 7, 1843, p. 28; April 28, 1843, p. 37; May 12,
1843, p. 45; May 26, 1843, p. 53; and June 16, 1843, p. 65.
The Liberator, (nine reels of microfilm obtained from G. Flint Purdy Library, Wayne State University, Detroit).
Joel Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and "The Dial," Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.
Joel Myerson, "William Harry Harland's 'Bronson Alcott's English
Friends'," 8 Resources for American Library Study (1978), pp. 24-60.
Milton Meltzer, Thoreau: People, Principles and Politics, New York: Hill & Wang, 1963.
Gustave de Molinari, The Production of Security, New York: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1977, Occasional Paper Series No. 2.
Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of
God in Antislavery Thought, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1973.
Wendell Phillips, Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under
the United States Constitution?, New York, American Anti-Slavery
Wendell Phillips, Review of Lysander Spooner's "Essay on the
Unconstitutionality of Slavery," Boston, Andrews & Prentiss, 1847.
Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, A Collection From the Miscellaneous
Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, Boston: Benj. B. Mussey &
Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, "Voluntary Government," Herald of Freedom, March 24, 1843, p. 19.
Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1962.
Murray Rothbard, Power and Market, Menlo Park: Institute for Humane Studies, 1970.
Murray Rothbard, "Will Rothbard's Free Market Justice Suffice?" Reason (May 1973), pp. 19-25.
Ralph Rusk, ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
F. B. Sanborn, Bronson Alcott at Alcott House, England and fruitlands, New England, Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press, 1908.
Clara Endicott Sears, Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1915.
Odell Shepard, The Journals of Bronson Alcott, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1938.
Odell Shepard, Pedlar's Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1937.
George H. Smith, "On 'The Proper Sphere of Government'," 1 Rampart Individualist (1981), pp. 56-58.
Herbert Spencer, "The Proper Sphere of Government," 1 Rampart Individualist (1981), pp. 59-96.
Lysander Spooner, The Collected Works of Lysander Spooner, Vols. I-IV, Weston: M & S Press, 1971, (Charles Shively, editor).
Taylor Stoehr, Nay-Saying in Concord: Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau, Hamden: Archon Books, 1979.
William F. Swindler, ed., Sources and Documents of United States Constitutions, Vol. 5, Dobbs Ferry: Oceana Publications, 1975.
Henry David Thoreau, The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau,
New York: New York University Press, 1958, (edited by Walter Harding
and Carl Bode).
Henry David Thoreau, "Herald of Freedom," The Dial (April 1844), pp. 507-512.
Henry David Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Aesthetic Papers (1849), pp. 189-211.
Carl Watner, "The Radical Libertarian Tradition in Antislavery Thought," III Journal of Libertarian Studies (1979), pp. 299-329.
Carl Watner, "Those 'Impossible Citizens': Civil Resistants in
19th Century New England," III Journal of Libertarian Studies (1979),
William Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760-1848, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
[ Intro ] -
[ I ] -
[ II ] -
[ III ] -
[ IV ] -
[ V ] -
[ VI ] -
[ VII ]