At least 68 times, actually, though never under the circumstances Flynn has argued for on Newsmax and in the Oval Office.
The Brennan Center for Justice recently catalogued each time martial law — the temporary military takeover of civil functions like law enforcement and courts — has been invoked in U.S. history.
The broadest and perhaps best-known instance is Congress putting all the former Confederate states (except for Tennessee) under martial law during Reconstruction. From 1867 to 1870, radical Republicans controlling Congress imposed a list of requirements on these states for them to be readmitted into the Union, including passing a new state constitution guaranteeing universal male suffrage and ratifying the 14th Amendment.
Interestingly, the only two presidents to ever declare martial law are the two for which Trump has most often expressed admiration: Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Granted, Jackson wasn’t president at the time he did so; he was a general fighting the British in the War of 1812. As British troops approached Louisiana in December 1814, Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans to compel all available men — militias, frontiersmen, pirates and the enslaved — to repel the British. Their victory made him a national hero.
In Lincoln’s case, he first declared a broad martial law not on a specific territory but on all rebels and anyone aiding them, and later on Kentucky, both during the Civil War. The Supreme Court has never clearly ruled whether a president has the authority to declare martial law without congressional approval, the Brennan Center report said.
(During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt also approved a martial law order in the territory of Hawaii, though the actual declaring authorities were Gov. J.B. Poindexter and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short.)
Martial law has more frequently been declared by governors and for reasons unrelated to war. About 40 percent of the time — 29 of the 68 instances covered by the report — martial law has been invoked to combat labor disputes.
For example, Colorado Gov. James Peabody declared martial law in several counties throughout 1903 and 1904 during the so-called Colorado labors wars. These were some of the most violent conflicts between miners and mine owners in American history, with the state government and National Guard mostly siding with the mine owners. The main issue they were fighting over was the eight-hour workday.
Sometimes, these governors would get a little overzealous with their use of martial law. Oklahoma Gov. William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, who served from 1931 to 1935, was said to have declared martial law more than 30 times, though the Brennan Center could find records for only six. He called for martial law to enforce segregation rules, to confront Texas in the so-called Toll Bridge War and to force oil fields to shut down when he thought they were producing too much and depressing prices. The Oklahoma Senate threatened to impeach him for his strong-arm tactics, though they didn’t follow through.
Before there was Federal Emergency Management Agency, martial law was invoked several times for natural disasters, including the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. As many as 10,000 people died, and under martial law, men — most of whom were Black — were forced at bayonet point to dispose of rotting corpses. White supremacists also used it to exert control, executing as many as 50 Black men on trumped-up looting charges, according to Tulane historian Andy Horowitz.
Martial law has been imposed nearly a dozen times to restore order after race rioting and mob lynchings, during a century-long period from the end of the Civil War up to the civil rights movement. There were the anti-Chinese riots in Seattle in 1886, the Longview, Tex., race riot during the “Red Summer” of 1919 and the Tulsa race massacre in 1921.
In 1963, Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes declared martial law in the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge for more than a year, following a tense series of civil rights demonstrations led by Gloria Richardson. While Richardson believed in nonviolence as a “first step,” her aggressive stance often clashed not just with the National Guard, but other civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Richardson, now 98 and living in New York, recently told The Washington Post’s Keith L. Alexander, “We marched until the governor called martial law. That’s when you get their attention. Otherwise, you’re going to keep protesting the same things another 100 years from now.”
That, according to the Brennan Center report, was the last known instance of martial law in the United States.
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