Dr Frasier Crane on the Constitutionality of Slavery
February 11, 2007 4 Comments
I caught a few minutes of a Frasier rerun last night as I waited for my wife to join me for a DVD. Once she was sitting with me and the TV was set to "video" instead of broadcast, I said, "Before I hit ‘play,’ may I quickly try to use a subplot on Frasier to illustrate Lysander Spooner‘s theory of legal interpretation?"
She’s a patient woman. And indulgent. She said yes.
Here’s what I said:
The subplot of the episode I’d just turned off, had Frasier and Roz temporarily out of work as their radio station tried out an all-Salsa format. Frasier is confident the format will fail and that the station will have to hire them back within three months. Roz says she can’t last three months without a job, so Frasier offers to lend her money to carry her over. "It makes me feel good to share my good fortune. Pay me back whenever you like. This money is yours to do with as you please."
But when Daphne later tells Frasier that she saw Roz getting a facial at the spa, Frasier is irritated. He’d lent her the money for her rent and for her baby’s needs. He decides he needs to have a talk with Roz.
That’s all I saw. I don’t know how the episode resolved, but I assume Frasier confronted Roz, who would have said, "You told me the money was mine to spend as I liked!" to which I imagine Frasier would reply, "But I certainly didn’t mean you to spend it on a facial at a spa!"
And right there, it seems to me, we have the essence of Lysander Spooner’s position on contracts in general, and on the Constitution in particular — or rather, we have Frasier affirming what was in the 19th century the generally accepted theory of constitutional interpretation (and is still the position of most "conservatives" or "strict constructionists") and Roz affirming Spooner’s radical minority theory.
Frasier thinks what matters in his verbal contract with Roz is what he intended and what he presumed she understood to be his intentions when he offered her the loan. Roz thinks what matters is what Frasier acutally said — the meaning of his words themselves ("This money is yours to do with as you please") whatever his intentions.
The idea that the words themselves can be taken to have a meaning independent of the intentions of the speaker, is at the heart of Spooner’s argument that the Constitution is an anti-slavery document, despite what were obviously the pro-slavery intentions of the framers.
This position, as obvious and commonsensical as it might seem once it’s spelled out, was definitely a minority position at the time. Conservatives argued that the Constitution sanctioned slavery, and that therefore slavery was legal by contract between the government and the people.
Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison agreed that the Constitution sanctioned slavery, but argued that the Constitution was therefore evil and to be resisted and rejected. (The slaves didn’t sign the contract, after all.)
Spooner, himself a radical abolitionist, thought that Garrison and company were granting too much to the conservatives.
In "No Treason," (section VI, "The Constitution of no Authority") Spooner denies that the Constitution can be taken to be a contract between the government and the citizens. But since its contractual status was, in Spooner’s time, taken to be the basis of its legal authority, Spooner took a for-the-sake-of-argument position of assuming its contractual authority and then subjecting it to the rules of contract law, according to which, the wording of the contract itself is taken to be the meaning of the agreement.
Notice that Spooner’s position is as alien to contemporary constitutional debates as it was 150 years ago. The "two sides" are generally the conservatives versus the progressives — those who want the framers’ intentions strictly adhered to versus those who want the constitution to be "a living document" subject to "modern authority" and all the rest of the statist rationalizations for having no effective limit on the power of central government.
In such debates, libertarians tend to side with conservatives: at least they want some strict limits on government. But Spooner’s position is far more limiting on government and far more radical than the usual meaning of "strict constructionism": it’s not the framers’ intentions that should be strictly adhered to, but rather the principles indicated by their words themselves, whether or not the framers were principled enough to adhere to them.
I assume that Frasier eventually recognized he was in the wrong. The constitutionalists certainly haven’t.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read Spooner’s "Unconstitutionality of Slavery." It’s a very long document. My summary here is based on a talk Tom Woods gave at the Mises Institute, as part of a longer series on those parts of American history we tend not to get taught in school.