Ex parte Merryman

One of the more troubling features of the Civil War is the roughshod way that both the governments of the Union and of the Confederacy tended to treat the civil rights of those who opposed them.  Both Lincoln and Davis suspended the right of habeas corpus during the war.  Habeas corpus, also called the Great Writ, dates back to the reign of Henry II in the Twelfth Century.  It is basically a petition by someone held by a government requesting that a court order, traditionally court orders were called writs, the government to show cause why the individual should continue to be held.  Hence the phrase “petition for a writ of habeas corpus”.  It is an important safeguard against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial, and against wrongful imprisonment due to the rights of the prisoner petitioner having been violated at trial.  It has been regarded as an essential legal safeguard against government tyranny.  This week on Almost Chosen People I will have a series of posts examining the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus North and South.  Today we look at the most famous case to come out of the suspension of the writ, Ex parte Merryman.

Lincoln first suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the onset of the War, initially only between Philadelphia and Washington.  This was aimed at secessionists in Maryland who were viewed as posing a threat to the lines of communication between Washington and the North.  Many Marylanders were arrested after the suspension of the writ and held without trial.  In the case of  Ex Parte Merryman, John Merryman petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus from the Federal district court.  Merryman had been a Third Lieutenant in the Maryland state militia.  He was pro-Confederate and had been involved in burning railroad bridges and cutting telegraph wires under orders from his pro-Confederate superiors in the Maryland militia.  He had been arrested for treason by the Union Army and held without trial.  Chief Justice Roger Taney, pro-Confederate himself, sitting as a Federal circuit court judge for the District of Maryland, ruled that the President had no authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, that power residing in Congress, and that as a result he certainly could not delegate such a power he did not have to the military.  Taney ended his opinion on this ringing and acerbic note:

Yet, under these circumstances, a military officer, stationed in Pennsylvania, without giving any information to the district attorney, and without any application to the judicial authorities, assumes to himself the judicial power in the district of Maryland; undertakes to decide what constitutes the crime of treason or rebellion; what evidence (if indeed he required any) is sufficient to support the accusation and justify the commitment; and commits the party, without a hearing, even before himself, to close custody, in a strongly garrisoned fort, to be there held, it would seem, during the pleasure of those who committed him.

The constitution provides, as I have before said, that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” It declares that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” It provides that the party accused shall be entitled to a speedy trial in a court of justice.

These great and fundamental laws, which congress itself could not suspend, have been disregarded and suspended, like the writ of habeas corpus, by a military order, supported by force of arms. Such is the case now before me, and I can only say that if the authority which the constitution has confided to the judiciary department and judicial officers, may thus, upon any pretext or under any circumstances, be usurped by the military power, at its discretion, the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found.[3]

In such a case, my duty was too plain to be mistaken. I have exercised all the power which the constitution and laws confer upon me, but that power has been resisted by a force too strong for me to overcome. It is possible that the officer who has incurred this grave responsibility may have misunderstood his instructions, and exceeded the authority intended to be given him; I shall, therefore, order all the proceedings in this case, with my opinion, to be filed and recorded in the circuit court of the United States for the district of Maryland, and direct the clerk to transmit a copy, under seal, to the president of the United States. It will then remain for that high officer, in fulfilment of his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” to determine what measures he will take to cause the civil process of the United States to be respected and enforced.
Lincoln ignored the decision and ordered the Army to ignore it.  Merryman was never brought to trial for treason and was released on parole in 1862, rendering his case moot.  After the War he served as state treasurer of Maryland from 1870-1872.  While Merryman was imprisoned, Taney had furniture and home cooked meals brought to his cell.  In gratitude Merryman named one of his sons Roger B. Taney Merryman.
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2 Comments

  1. US citizens may not adequately understand the value and wisdom of our Constitution and code of law. While I think we are over regulated (un-Constitutionslly) our baxic law code is a shining star in world history. The country in which I am a missionary should they declare martial law gives the responsibility to execute arrested individuals on the spot. Remember the photo of the Sourh Vietnamese officer executing his kneeling prisoner? It may have turned the tide in oppostion to the war BUT what that man did was legal (morality be hanged) in his nation as it stood at that time. We have had for a generation now Presidents ruling by executive order when they are stonewalled by congress and we will pay/are paying a tremendous price in loss of personal freedom. All that said, in time of war is it not reasonable that for security sake some level of tyranny may ironically be wise???

    • “BUT what that man did was legal (morality be hanged) in his nation”

      There is an interesting back story to that photograph Dennnis. Go to the link below to read about it:

      http://failuremag.com/feature/article/saigon_execution/


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