Skip to comments.Lincoln's Unconstitutional Suspension of Habeas Corpus - an analysis of an impeachable offense
Posted on 12/29/2002 3:01:54 AM PST by GOPcapitalist
I. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus:
Less than two months after assuming office as President, Abraham Lincoln wrote to General Winfield Scott in a letter unilaterally authorizing him to make arrests in the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus for reason of "public safety" in locations " between the City of Philadelphia and the City of Washington." On May 10, 1861 Lincoln extended this suspension to the state of Florida, again by unilateral proclamation as chief executive. On July 2nd, he again unilaterally extended suspension authority to the military "between the City of New York and the City of Washington." Additional suspensions of the writ were ordered unilaterally by Lincoln through the remainder of the war. The merits of Lincoln's unilateral suspension of habeas corpus have long been debated, but the act itself immediately raises another question of constitutionality. Though Lincoln acted to suspend the writ, nowhere in the United States Constitution does the president have this power and in fact it is given instead to Congress by any plain reading of the document. Lincoln denied this, asserting "Now it is insisted that Congress, and not the Executive, is vested with this power [suspension of habeas corpus]. But the Constitution itself, is silent as to which, or who, is to exercise the power." As any plain reading of the Constitution reveals, this claim is dubious.
Lincoln himself indicated his awareness of the constitutional issue his action raised, and on May 30 wrote to Edward Bates "Will you do the favor to confer with Mr. Johnson and be preparing to present the argument for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus." He presented his argument for unilateral secession to Congress when it arrived back in session on July 4th. The issue has been a point of contention against Lincoln ever since, but also one that his supporters have defended and sought to legitimize. Some have argued that the circumstances of 1861 permitted Lincoln to suspend the writ or that the Constitution is not clear about who may suspend it.
Arguing to this end, Justice William Rehnquist told an Indiana University law school class that "The question of whether only Congress may suspend it has never been authoritatively answered to this day," giving support to Lincoln's action. This statement invites an historical inquiry of what the Constitution says on the habeas corpus matter as well as a reading of its statements in historical context prior to Lincoln's suspension. A thorough examination of that record quickly establishes a slate of historical authorities identifying the Constitution's habeas corpus clause in a way contradictory to Rehnquist's statement and in conflict with Lincoln's actions. In addition the historical evidence indicates that Lincoln not only violated the U.S. Constitution by suspending habeas corpus, but in doing so his behavior was recklessly negligent of the authority of the other branches in the U.S. government and significantly exceeded his own office's vested powers.
II. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus in the U.S. Constitution:
The immediate source of information pertaining to the Constitution's powers of suspension for habeas corpus appears in the document itself. The clause pertaining to habeas corpus appears in Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 and reads simply:
"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."Lincoln asserted this authority permitted him to act unilaterally, claiming on July 4 that "the Constitution itself, is silent as to which, or who, is to exercise the power" of suspending the writ. Even the simplest reading of the Constitution reveals immediately that this is simply not so and that the power to exercise this suspension is given to Congress, not the executive. The clause of suspension appears in Section 9 of the first Article, which clearly identifies itself as pertinent to the legislature. This article's opening sentence goes so far as to assert that the powers contained within it, of which the second clause of Section 9 is one, are specifically legislative:
"All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States"This assertion provides direct textual proof that Lincoln was in error, as in fact the Constitution was anything but silent as to who possessed the suspension authority. Further textual evidence is found throughout Section 9, which lists several limitations on the power of Congress, such as with habeas corpus (which the clause says may only be suspended under rebellion, invasion, or need for public safety). Every other clause of the eight in the section directly identifies itself as a clause applying to the power of Congress. Clauses 1 and 8 mention Congress by name. Clauses 3 and 7 specifically mention the making of "law." Clauses 4 and 5 specifically state restraints on the laying of taxes and duties, which is a power granted to Congress. Clause 6 asserts restrictions upon the regulation of commerce between states, a self evident matter of the national legislature in application. In short, the seven other clauses in Section 9 of Article I indisputably pertain to the powers of Congress. It is therefore absurd to believe that the founding fathers would have inserted a power intended for any branch other than Congress in the middle of Section 9.
III. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus and the Constitution's Framing:
Aside from the Constitution itself, perhaps the strongest source of information about its meaning is found in the documents of the founding fathers who drafted and debated the document. James Madison's extensive notes on the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 provide one of the clearest historical records available about the document's drafting. Not surprisingly, Madison's notes detail the habeas corpus clause's introduction and debate before the convention. Keeping with the indications given in the text itself, the debate clearly indicates that the suspension power was given to Congress. The habeas corpus clause first appeared on August 20th in a set of resolutions put forth by Charles Pickney:
"The privileges and benefit of the writ of Habeas Corpus shall be enjoyed in this Government, in the most expeditious and ample manner; and shall not be suspended by the Legislature, except upon the most urgent and pressing occasions, and for a limited time not exceeding months."Pickney's original resolution specifically places the suspension power with "the Legislature." Upon its entry as a proposal, this resolution was referred to committee for consideration. Madison's notes indicate that on August 28 Gouverner Morris moved to adopt the habeas corpus clause before the convention as a whole, offering the language that exists in the Constitution today. Affirming the textual reading of the document and in conflict with Lincoln's claims, the Constitutional Convention had placed the power with Congress.
Following the convention in 1787, the Constitution went up for ratification before the states. This initiated a prominent ratification debate involving many of the convention's participants in which the document's proponents and opponents argued its merits with intense detail. The writings that were published during ratification are now known to us as the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. Robert Yates, a delegate to the convention arguing on the anti-federalist side, listed some of the Constitution's details including habeas corpus in one of his essays. Affirming the opposite of Lincoln's contention, Yates wrote in Anti-Federalist No. 9, "Brutus," that:
In the same section it is provided, that "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion and invasion, the public safety may require it." This clause limits the power of the legislature to deprive a citizen of the right of habeas corpus, to particular cases viz. those of rebellion and invasion; the reason is plain, because in no other cases can this power be exercised for the general good.Anti-Federalist No. 16 "Federal Farmer," also identifies habeas corpus with the legislature. It's author is believed to have been the name used by Richard Henry Lee of Declaration of Independence fame, though there is some doubt to the exact author:
"The people by adopting the federal constitution, give congress general powers to institute a distinct and new judiciary, new courts, and to regulate all proceedings in them, under the eight limitations mentioned in a former letter; and the further one, that the benefits of the habeas corpus act shall be enjoyed by individuals."In fact, readings of the Constitution which identified the habeas corpus suspension power with the Congress without contention appear throughout the ratification debate. Moving from New York to Massachusetts' ratification process, references to the habeas corpus clause identify it similarly. A delegate to the Massachusetts convention, Judge Francis Dana, addressed the clause while arguing for ratification with John Hancock. Dana's speech is partially recorded, in which he also identifies the suspension power with Congress without second thought or contention:
"The safest and best restriction, therefore, arises from the nature of the cases in which Congress are authorized to exercise that power [of suspending habeas corpus] at all, namely, in those of rebellion or invasion. These are clear and certain terms, facts of public notoriety, and whenever these shall cease to exist, the suspension of the writ must necessarily cease also."While the Constitutional Convention's records and the ratification debates provide clear evidence that the founding fathers extended the suspension power in question to Congress, perhaps the greatest authority on the matter is with one of the greatest of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Reflecting on the Constitution's early days in his 1821 autobiography, Jefferson also placed the suspension power for habeas corpus with the Congress. Jefferson wrote:
"Those respecting the press, religion, & juries, with several others, of great value, were accordingly made; but the Habeas corpus was left to the discretion of Congress, and the amendment against the reeligibility of the President was not proposed by that body."The remarkable consistency among the founding fathers on this issue is clear - contrary to Lincoln's later claims, the Constitutional power to suspend habeas corpus in times of rebellion was extended to the Congress and not the President.
IV. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus as Viewed by Early Constitutional Scholars:
The early 19th century produced two prominent legal commentaries on the United States Constitution by scholars. The first, published in 1826, was William Rawle's A View of the Constitution of the United States of America. Rawle was a distinguished legal advisor and friend of Benjamin Franklin who had also been offered the job of Attorney General by George Washington, though he declined. Rawle's commentary spoke on the issue of suspending habeas corpus in Chapter 10:
"The Constitution seems to have secured this benefit [habeas corpus] to the citizen by the description of the writ, and in an unqualified manner admitting its efficacy, while it declares that it shall not he suspended unless when, in case of rebellion or invasion, the public safety shall require it. This writ is believed to be known only in countries governed by the common law, as it is established in England; but in that country the benefit of it may at any time be withheld by the authority of parliament, whereas we see that in this country it cannot be suspended even in cases of rebellion or invasion, unless the public safety shall require it. Of this necessity the Constitution probably intends, that the legislature of the United States shall be the judges. Charged as they are with the preservation of the United States from both those evils, and superseding the powers of the several states in the prosecution of the measures they may find it expedient to adopt, it seems not unreasonable that this control over the writ of habeas corpus, which ought only to be exercised on extraordinary occasions, should rest with them. It is at any rate certain, that congress, which has authorized the courts and judges of the United States to issue writs of habeas corpus in cases within their jurisdiction, can alone suspend their power"The second prominent legal commentary was offered in the 1833 publication Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Story, a Justice on the United States Supreme Court, was considered one of the most important legal minds of his day. In Book 3, Chapter XXXII, § 1336 Justice Story wrote:
"It would seem, as the power is given to congress to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in cases of rebellion or invasion, that the right to judge, whether exigency had arisen, must exclusively belong to that body."Though he disagreed with Rawles on other issues, the two clearly agreed on who had the power to suspend habeas corpus, and that was Congress.
V. The Court Rules on the Suspension of Habeas Corpus:
In addition to the overwhelming historical evidence against Lincoln's interpretation and actions regarding habeas corpus, the standing precedent of the United States Supreme Court also holds that Congress has the power to suspend the writ. A precedent on the matter was handed down in 1807 by Chief Justice John Marshall. In the case of Ex Parte Bollman and Swartwout Marshall affirmed what had been known without contention by the founding fathers - that the suspension power was given to Congress. His decision read:
"The decision that the individual shall be imprisoned must always precede the application for a writ of habeas corpus, and this writ must always be for the purpose of revising that decision, and therefore appellate in its nature. But this point also is decided in Hamilton's case and in Burford's case. If at any time the public safety should require the suspension of the powers vested by this act in the courts of the United States, it is for the legislature to say so. That question depends on political considerations, on which the legislature is to decide."It is accordingly of little surprise that this precedent was cited in 1861 when Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was challenged in court. In May 1861 federal authorities acting under Lincoln's order arrested John Merryman without charges and imprisoned him in Fort McHenry near Baltimore. Merryman petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus from the judiciary and
his case went before the U.S. Circuit Court in Maryland. Chief Justice Roger Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was serving his circuit capacity in the court, received the case and issued a writ ordering General Cadwalader, the imprisoner, to produce the body of Merryman before his court with a statement of charges for the arrest. Cadwalader refused the writ, informing Taney that Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus. Taney then dispatched a U.S. Marshall ordering him to appear before the court on the matter, to whom entry was refused upon the attempt at delivery. Taney accordingly issued a ruling for the case Ex Parte Merryman in which he affirmed Marshall's precedent and struck down Lincoln's order to suspend habeas corpus as unconstitutional. His ruling declared:
"With such provisions in the constitution, expressed in language too clear to be misunderstood by any one, I can see no ground whatever for supposing that the president, in any emergency, or in any state of things, can authorize the suspension of the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus, or the arrest of a citizen, except in aid of the judicial power. He certainly does not faithfully execute the laws, if he takes upon himself legislative power, by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and the judicial power also, by arresting and imprisoning a person without due process of law."The court's ruling was delivered to Lincoln, informing him of the unconstitutionality of his action as ruled by the Circuit Court. Legally, this left Lincoln with the option of either abiding by the decision or appealing it to the United States Supreme Court. Lincoln did neither, and simply ignored the judiciary's ruling against him. The action violated the constitutional judiciary system which, according to the landmark Marbury v. Madison ruling of 1803, governed Lincoln's actions. John Marshall had ruled in Marbury that "The judicial power of the United States is extended to all cases arising under the constitution."
In addition, Taney implicated Lincoln for extending the his suspension of habeas corpus into the hands of a military authority. This action violated the constitutional system of the judiciary and, as Taney implied, resembled a central grievance against King George III cited in the Declaration of Independence:
"HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power"VI. Arguments for Lincoln's Suspension of Habeas Corpus Analyzed:
ARGUMENT 1: Lincoln offers as an argument that "it cannot be believed the framers of the instrument intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together."
Lincoln's argument here is flawed, as the Constitution extends the power to call Congress back into session, which Lincoln could have done in 1861. Instead he chose not to and Congress remained out of session from early March to the beginning of July. Therefore it was Lincoln who failed in to exercise this constitutional power that prevented Congress from being able to consider the suspension. Meanwhile, as has been shown, the framers indisputably intended the decision to be in Congress' hands.
ARGUMENT 2: Supporters of Lincoln's action offered as an argument that Gen. Andrew Jackson had suspended habeas corpus after the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and was later commended for the act by Congress.
This argument is flawed as well. The existence of an anecdotal case in which an improper authority suspended habeas corpus without consequence does not render the rule void for all other cases. That congress approved of a suspension by an improper authority after the fact does not make it constitutional either because the Constitution prohibits legislation after the occurrence of an act that alters the legal consequences of that act. Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 states that "No...ex post facto Law shall be passed."
ARGUMENT 3: Supporters of Lincoln's action note that Congress passed measures supporting the suspension of habeas corpus after they came back into session in July 1861.
Again this argument does not absolve Lincoln of his action as it functions in an ex post facto manner.
The overwhelming amount of historical evidence clearly contradicts Lincoln's assertion that the Constitution "is silent as to which, or who, is to exercise the power" of suspending habeas corpus. Though legal relativists, loose constructionists, and even some otherwise reliable constitutionalists maintain that Lincoln's action of suspending habeas corpus was without constitutional flaw, the volume of evidence renders such a position insupportable. In addition to the unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus, there remains the issue of the Merryman ruling. Lincoln's action of ignoring this ruling by failing to either abide by it or appeal it to the Supreme Court constitutes a violation of the United States judiciary branch's authority that remains on his record even if one were to hypothetically permit its unlikely reversal had it been appealed. The sum of these actions by Lincoln amount to clear and material violations of the United States Constitution. It is further not unreasonable to conclude that in other times, similar actions by a president of the United States would have been cause for his impeachment and removal from office.
I look for a redux some time in the next couple of years.
When the traitors of the loyal state of Maryland were concocting their grand scheme to hurl the organized power of that state against the government, probably not a handful of them was known to be guilty of any act for which he could ever have been arrested by civil process. And whatever their offenses against the laws might have been, and whatever the fidelity of the courts in that jurisdictlon, the process of civil law would have been far too slow to prevent the consummation of the gigantic treason which would have added another state to the rebellion.... Courts could not have suppressed this unholy work, but the summary imprisonment of those few men saved the state of Maryland to the Union cause.Republicans would later enjoy substantial bipartisan agreement on the necessity of the early arrests in Maryland.
The earliest days of the Lincoln administration taught the president and his cabinet lessons they never forgot. In fact, these days left fiercely indelible marks on them. This was especially true of Seward. in 1864, when the artist Francis B. Carpenter unveiled his huge historical canvas commemorating the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to the cabinet, the secretary of state scoffed at It. He told the artist, at a party given at Gideon Welles's residence, that he had been wrong to choose emancipation as "the great feature of the Administration."
Seward told him [Welles recalled] to go back to the firing on Sumter, or to a much more exciting one than even that, the Sunday following the Baltimore massacre, when the Cabinet assembled or gathered in the Navy Department and, with the vast responsibility that was thrown upon them, met the emergency and its awful consequences, put in force the war power of the government, and issued papers and did acts that might have brought them all to the scaffold.
The first suspension of the writ of habeas corpus occurred the very week after that fateful Sunday cabinet meeting. Gideon Welles, the secretary of the navy, did not care for Seward, but he remembered those days just as the secretary of state did:
Few, comparatively, know or can appreciate the actual condition of things and state of feeling of the members of the Administration In those days. Nearly sixty years of peace had unfitted us for any war, but the most terrible of all wars, a civil one, was upon us, and it had to be met. Congress had adjourned without making any provision for the storm, though aware that it was at hand and soon to burst upon the country. A new administration, scarely acquainted with each other, and differing essentially in the past, was compelled to act, promptly and decisively.
And act they did."
-- "Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberty" by Mark Neely.
And nowhere is it denied the president; the Constitution is silent on presidential power to suspend the Writ.
And no case ever came before the Supreme Court to test the issue during the ACW.
That is your opinion. You are welcome to it.
Of course, it won't do much to establish your objectivity.
"After the battle of New Orleans, and while the fact that the treaty of peace had been concluded, was well known in the city, but before official knowledge had arrived, Gen. Jackson still maintained martial or military law. Now, that it could be said the war was over, the clamor against martial law,, which had existed from the first, grew more furious. Among other things, a Mr. Louiallier published a denunciatory newspaper article. Gen. Jackson arrested him.
A lawyer by the name of Morel procured the United States Judge Hall to issue a writ of hebeus corpus to release Loualier. Gen. Jackson arreted both the lawyer and the judge. A Mr. Holander ventured to say of some part of the mater that "it was a dirty trick." Gen. Jackson arrested him. When the officer undertook to serve the writ Gen. Jackson took it from him, and sent him away with a copy. Holding the judge in custody for a few days, the general sent him beyond the limits of his encampment, and set him at liberty with an order to remain till the ratification of peace should regularly be announced, or until the British should have left the coast.
A day or two elapsed, the ratification of a treaty of peace was regularly announced and the judge and the others were fully liberated. A few days more and the judge called Gen. Jackson into court and fined him $1,000. The general paid the fine, and there the matter rested for nearly thirty years, when Congress refunded principal and interest. The late Senator Douglas then in the House of Representatives, took a leading part in the debates, in which the constitutional question was much discussed. I am not prepared to say whom the journals would show to have voted for the measure.
It may be remarked: First, that we had the same Constitution then as now; secondly, that we then had a case of invasion, and now a case of rebellion; and thirdly, that the permanent right of of the people to Public Discussion, the liberty of speech and the Press, the trial by jury, the law of evidence, and the Habeus Corpus, suffered no detriment whatever by that conduct of Gen. Jackson, or its subsequent approval by the American Congress."
A. Lincoln, 1863
How did you happen to miss this part of the history of habeas corpus?
All this comes down to is GOPcap's opinion 140 years after the fact.
Yawn. You really should learn the central role that intrinsic evaluation plays in judging the merits of an argument. It will help you avoid fallacious non-responses in the future.
As is usually the case, you missed it. It is designated as Argument 2 in section VI.
A law granting ex post facto consent to the circumstances of a previous act is unconstitutional per Article I, Section 9.
William K. Seward thought they worked, too
Again you completely miss the issue. The debate is not over the effectiveness or efficiency of the suspension, but rather its constitutionality. Like it or not, the overwhelming bulk of historical evidence makes it certain that Lincoln's suspension was unconstitutional.
One key point in judging the merits of an arguement is judging the qualifications of the person arguing. Chief Justice Rehnquist has degrees from Stanford and Harvard, as well as 31 years experience on the Supreme Court. You are an unknown. On the one hand the Chief Justice says that the constitutionality of the issue has not yet been definitively decided. On the other hand you claim he's full of it. Let's see...who to believe...Chief Justice or bag of wind...sorry, I still have to go with Chief Justice Rehnquist on this one.
Considering that Article I, Section 1 states the suspension clause to be with the legislature, the logic of consistency within the document of the Constitution entails that it cannot also be with the president. If I have the only apple orchard and give an apple to you but not to Non-Sequitur, Non-Sequitur finds himself without an apple and no ammount of wishing he had that apple will give him one so long as I do not extend it to him. Theoretically he could attempt to steal it from you though, and that is what Lincoln did to congress.
And no case ever came before the Supreme Court to test the issue during the ACW.
Only because Lincoln failed in his constitutional duty to appeal the case dealing with the issue, Ex Parte Merryman. The Declaration of Independence makes the grievous nature of his refusal to appeal it very clear: "HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power"
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