Lincoln Defends Suspension of Writ of Habeas Corpus

some provision of one single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizens liberty, that more rogues than honest men practically more of the guilty than the innocent, find shelter under it, should, to a very limited extent, be violated?

Abraham Lincoln in the first draft of his July 4, 1861 address to Congress

Continuing on with our examination of the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the first and second parts of which may be read here and here.

At the outset of the War Congress was not in session and President Lincoln took many steps that were part of the prerogatives of Congress in order to fight the War .  When Congress  met, Lincoln asked for approval of his measures which was given  by Congress.  In his July 4, 1861 message to Congress Lincoln explained to Congress, and to the nation, the reasons why he had taken the measures that he believed were necessary for the preservation of the Union.  Here is the section of the speech that deals with suspension of the writ of habeas corpus:

Soon after the first call for militia it was considered a duty to authorize the Commanding General in proper cases, according to his discretion, to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or, in other words, to arrest and detain without resort to the ordinary processes and forms of law such individuals as he might deem dangerous to the public safety. This authority has purposely been exercised but very sparingly. Nevertheless, the legality and propriety of what has been done under it are questioned, and the attention of the country has been called to the proposition that one who is sworn to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” should not himself violate them. Of course some consideration was given to the questions of power and propriety before this matter was acted upon. The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed were being resisted and failing of execution in nearly one-third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear that by the use of the means necessary to their execution some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizen’s liberty that practically it relieves more of the guilty than of the innocent, should to a very limited extent be violated? To state the question more directly, Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it? But it was not believed that this question was presented. It was not believed that any law was violated. The provision of the Constitution that “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” is equivalent to a provision—is a provision—that such privilege may be suspended when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety does require it. It was decided that we have a case of rebellion and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the privilege of the writ which was authorized to be made. Now it is insisted that Congress, and not the Executive, is vested with this power; but the Constitution itself is silent as to which or who is to exercise the power; and as the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it can not be believed the framers of the instrument intended that in every case the danger should run its course until Congress could be called together, the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion. (more…)

Published in: on December 4, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln Defends Suspension of Writ of Habeas Corpus  
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