The United States Constitution

A forum for discussing the meaning of the United States Constitution for our political process.

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Location: Middleton, Massachusetts, United States

I am concerned about the direction of the United States economy and politics, and about our declining influence in the world. I feel we are losing our moral and ethical bearings.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Lincoln Suspends Habeas Corpus

Does the President, citing National Security, have the right to ignore the Constitution? Lincoln did this very thing in 1861. One paragraph in Article 1 Section 9 (Powers reserved for the Congress) of the Constitution states:

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.
President Lincoln, in 1861, after the Confederate bombarding of Fort Sumter, SC, asked the Governor of Maryland for troops against the Confederates. A unit of troops was prevented by a crowd from transferring trains in Baltimore. John Merryman, an officer in the Maryland cavalry, demolished a bridge to prevent federal troop movements.

Lincoln asked the Maryland Attorney General to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus in Maryland. His general, Winfield Scott, imprisoned Merryman in Fort McHenry. Merryman complained, asking to be released.

Thus Lincoln, in the earliest days of the Civil War, violated the Constitution by suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus - even though only Congress could do it. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, where Justice Taney ruled that Lincoln's action was unconstitutional. The case is a famous constitutional law called Ex Parte Merryman.

There's an interesting lecture about this case, as well as other constitutional oddities of the Civil War, called The War of Northern Agression. Steve Pratt, a well known lecturer on the Constitution, also explores little known aspects of the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation (no slaves were freed by it), and others.

You can subscribe to Steve Pratt's lectures


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