Date of Award
Larry A. Green, Ph.D.
Williamjames Hull Hoffer, Ph.D.
Dermot Quinn, Ph.D.
Lincoln, habeas corpus, Constitution, Baltimore, Taney, Civil War
In May 1861, President Abraham Lincoln's decision to suspend habeas corpus in Baltimore following an attack on Federal troops as they marched through Baltimore on April 19th to answer Lincoln’s call to defend the Capitol. To complicate matters further, Congress was still in recess, so they could not legislate a solution to the growing insurgency. In order to check these actions, Abraham Lincoln authorized General Scott to suspend Habeas Corpus between Baltimore and Philadelphia. When John Merryman was arrested, detained, and denied habeas corpus, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued an in-chambers decision, Ex Parte Merryman, to voice his belief that Lincoln’s actions violated the Constitution. Conversely, Lincoln answered this critique in his July 4 Address to Congress as he explained that the dire situation in Baltimore required the suspension in order to restore order and “faithfully execute” the laws of the United States. In other words, “military necessity” empowered Lincoln to authorize the suspension of habeas corpus.
The historiography regarding Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas corpus revealed many interpretations regarding how Lincoln understood executive power and how this understanding influenced his decision to suspend habeas corpus. Currently, both Lincoln biographers including David Donald, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Phillip Paludan, as well as works of legal historians including Laura Edwards and William Duker reached consensus regarding one significant reason motivating Lincoln’s decision: military necessity. The sources may not all use the same terminology; however, they each cited the complex and threatening situation in 1861 Maryland as the key factor that motivated Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. Interestingly, many of the works in this segment of the Lincoln canon referenced Lincoln’s understanding of the Constitution in a general sense. They did not offer a nuanced and balanced legal analysis of Lincoln’s Constitutional understanding with regard to the suspension of habeas corpus.
This thesis synthesizes mainstream history's biographical perspective on Lincoln’s presidency and legal history's emphasis on habeas corpus jurisprudence to better understand how Lincoln understood his actions in light of the executive powers granted in the Constitution. Additionally, my work utilized 3 key primary sources that hadn't been fully considered and integrated in previous works. These sources include a letter sent from John Hamilton to Lincoln explaining the Framers’ intent regarding executive power and the government’s Constitutional ability to coerce compliance, Congress’s forgiveness of Andrew Jackson’s fine following his declaration of martial law in the defense of New Orleans, and a letter from Lincoln to Matthew Birchard in which Lincoln recognizes the executive’s ability to suspend habeas corpus: yet his power is checked by the American people.
President Lincoln was indeed Constitutionally empowered to suspend habeas corpus via the doctrine of military necessity. Furthermore, this power stems from the Framers’ intent regarding the powers of executive under the Constitution they created.
McLaughlin, Evan, "Is ‘Military Necessity’ Enough? Lincoln’s Conception of Executive Power in Suspending Habeas Corpus in 1861" (2017). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). 2531.