The Washington Post

John Marszalek: President Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus along the military line between Philadelphia and Annapolis; was it used primarily as a politcal tool to harass and intimidate residents?

Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University

On April 27, 1861 after the mob attack on Union troops in Baltimore, Maryland, Abraham Lincoln issued the order suspending the writ of habeas corpus. He based this statement on his belief that the war powers of the president, particularly since Congress was not in session, gave him such authority. Thus, Lincoln allowed the jailing of individuals without court action.

His motivation was clear. He worried that, since the slave state of Maryland bordered on Washington, D.C., its activities might cause the separation of the capital of the United States from the rest of the nation. That would create fatal danger for the survival of the Union.

The result was controversy which has lasted to the present day. Did Lincoln have the power to order this suspension? Did he set a precedent that later president George W. Bush followed in his activities during the war on terror?

Constitutional scholars and Civil War buffs have weighed in on these questions, debating that the Constitution gave Congress this right not to the president, or holding that, because of the desperate situation in the nation, Lincoln had that power.

Clearly Lincoln acted in response to his heart-felt duty to ensure the survival of the nation. There is no indication he did it to harass or intimidate. The validity of his action might properly be debated, but its purpose was clear: survival not harassment.


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