Harold Holzer: President Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus along the military lines between Philadelphia and Annapolis in April; was it used primarily as a political tool to harass and intimidate residents?

Lincoln’s controversial decision to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus between Philadelphia and Annapolis 150 years ago can indeed be seen--at least on one level--as political. After all, had the beleaguered president permitted political and press activity to continue as usual between those cities in the weeks after Northern mobilization for war, it is entirely possible that Maryland might have organized a “successful” secession convention, joined the Confederacy, and in the bargain barred desperately-needed federal troops from marching through the state en route to the defense of Washington.

Lincoln firmly believed that Washington’s unique geographic status, as an independent city trapped within hostile Maryland, cried out for special status, and whatever laws were necessary to protect it. As an irritated Lincoln told the Governor and Mayor of Baltimore, “Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are no birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they may do.”

In a larger sense, Lincoln firmly believed that the Constitution and history would validate his order. To Marylanders who objected, he made it clear that he was prepared to err on legal grounds if it meant that doing so might achieve a greater good--that of saving the government itself. As Lincoln told a delegation of Baltimoreans at the White House, “You express great horror of bloodshed, and yet would not lay a straw in the way of those who are organizing in Virginia and elsewhere to capture this city... . There is no Washington in that--no Jackson in that--no manhood nor honor in that.”

Yes, this is politics. But war is also politics, too--when all else fails.

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