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The Suspension of Habeas Corpus: The First One, Lincoln

Info: 1169 words (5 pages) Law Essay
Published: 27th Nov 2020

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Habeas Corpus refers to the writ that gives people liberty to seek evidence or proof when imprisoned, anyone who has heard about the imprisonment contribute. Once the writ of habeas corpus is signed, it is then address to the court for further action. This law is a fundamental tenant of English law and was established in the Constitution with the founders aiming to protect Americans from government abuse. (“Habeas Corpus Definition for Kids” 2) The constitution addresses Habeas Corpus in Article One, Section 9 stating “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”( “U.S. Constitution - Article 1 Section 9” 2) The origin of Habeas Corpus came from the Magna Carta in England found in the Assize of Clarendon act when local officers would address issues by imprisoning people illegally, often without holding a fair trial. The writ of Habeas Corpus was able to abolish such practices. (“Habeas Corpus Definition for Kids” 3) Habeas Corpus doesn’t have as much value in modern day as it did back in the day due to new laws ensuring right of prisoners.

Since the ratification of the constitution, habeas corpus has only been suspended twice, one of the times being “on April 27, 1861, in Maryland and parts of midwestern states by President Abraham Lincoln” (“The Rutherford Institute.” 4). This meant that the government had the right to imprison anyone who they suspected to be a spy/terrorist without needing to show proof or create an arrest case. Many historians believed that Lincoln’s suspension of the right was justified by the constitution in Article 1, Section 9. During Congress, Lincoln defended his ways, against the few people who didn’t think the act was justified, by stating it was essential for survival of the Union. This move by Lincoln was essentially a violation of the United States Constitution, because if one president can do it, that means all of them could find a reason to violate the Constitution. Even though Lincoln was able to convince the large majority that he suspended the writ to protect the Union, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney argued otherwise. The two were not on good terms with each other even before Lincolns inauguration, but Taney made a valid point stating that the Constitution only gave the legislative branch power to suspend the writ, and in no way was the executive branch mentioned. (Bomboy 12)

To maintain public order and safety, Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus essentially giving the government power to arrest anyone with valid reasons. To enforce the suspension Lincoln had Congress on his side, and even though Taney tried to inform the public that the president had no power to suspend the writ, Congress was ultimately able to support Lincoln. At first the suspension was only between Philadelphia and Washington to keep the Maryland railroad lines open but a few months later Lincoln authorized another suspension between New York and Philadelphia. Lincoln enforced these suspension’s multiple times by issuing a proclamation order. (Dueholm par.16)

On May 25, 1861, at 2 a.m. John Merryman was sleeping peacefully in his country house when federal troops entered his home and took him into custody. The farmer from Baltimore County was transported to Fort McHenry and imprisoned under order of the leading officer. An army general had the intuition that John Merryman was an executive that had fire arms and planned to use them hostile to the government. Since there was no authorization for his arrest, a writ of habeas corpus was written up by lawyers and presented to Chief Justice Roger Taney. Soon after Merryman was brought back home. The day after Taney ordered the general to appear in court and explain his reasons but instead the general did not show up and wrote a letter instead explaining that Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. This event led to the public showdown between Lincoln and Taney. (Ragsdale 6)

My opinion of this move by Lincoln was that he believed it was necessary at the time to protect the Union. After civil war tension, Lincoln had to find a way to unify everyone again. He received support from Congress as well as the states to suspend the writ, a few years later congress even passed a law to support Lincolns position giving him full authorization for the suspension. I don’t believe it was necessary to suspend the writ. The founding fathers specifically put it in the constitution because they believed that it was protecting Americans from government abuse. Lincoln used the statement from the constitution that allows suspension of the writ in cases of rebellion or invasion to protect public safety, but when the writ was suspended the Civil War was already over. Circumstances that caused him to enforce the suspension was because Lincoln was scared. There were many people who were wanting him dead and with the suspension that gave him power to quickly remove anyone he believed was a threat to him. Lincoln could have handled this the legal way with a fair trial and not arresting anyone without proper evidence. This would have led to the same results except without the extra tensions formed.

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