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. All 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. [1] It is this emphasis on ‘self-propriety’ or ‘individual sovereignty’ which links the various components of the libertarian tradition which we will be examining here.
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 another.

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. [2]

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.”[3]

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. [4]
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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.”[11] Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alcott’s friends in the Boston area were largely responsible for financing Alcott’s trip to England.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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 demeanor.[16]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.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.”[19]
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 withdrawal from society and venture into a new community of the regenerate at Fruitlands.”[20]
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 afternoon, ….[21]

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 Universe’.”[22]

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.”[23]

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.[24]
“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.[25]

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.[26]
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.[27]
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’.”[28] 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.[29]

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 man.[30]
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.[31] 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.[32]
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![33]

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.”[34]

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.[35] 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.”[36]
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.”[37] 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 death.[38]
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.”[39]

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.[40] 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?”[41]
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 resolution:

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.”[42] 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 their lives.”[43]
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.[44]
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 human society.”[45]

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.[46]

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.[47]

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.”[48] 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.[49] Even after Fruitlands disbanded, both Emerson and Thoreau helped look after Lane’s pecuniary interests in this country.[50]
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.[51] 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.[52] 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.[53] 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.[54] 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 reasoned.[55]

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’.”[56] 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.[57] Lane shared a similar sentiment for he declared that “our reforms must begin within ourselves.”[58] 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.”[59]

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.”[60]
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.[61]

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 by non-resistance.[62]

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”.[63] 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.”[64] 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 background.

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.”[65] 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 anarchists.

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.”[66]

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?[67] 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.”[68]
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.[69]

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.[70]

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 proponents.”[71]
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.[72]

Libertarian Themes

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.”[73] The same could have equally been said of Charles Lane.
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[74] 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.”[75]

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”.
41. Perry, pp. 81-84; Garrison, II, 236; The Liberator, October 11, 1839, p. 164, “First Annual Meeting of the New England Non-Resistance Society”.
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 Fruitlands.
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

[ Intro ] – [ 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 1950.

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, pp. 113.

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 Society, 1845.

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 & Co., 1847.

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), pp. 173-190.

William Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760-1848, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

[ Intro ] – [ I ] – [ II ] – [ III ] – [ IV ] – [ V ] – [ VI ] – [ VII ]

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