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Lincoln’s Other War-Time Proclamation

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More than 200 years after his birth, on Feb. 12, 1809, and with a movie about him in the Oscar spotlight, Abraham Lincoln remains a source of fascination to Americans, including those in the world of law.

The public can learn more about one of Lincoln’s most enduringly controversial Civil War decisions —  to suspend habeas corpus. Lincoln first suspended habeas corpus in April 1861, amid fears that Maryland would join the rebellion. A full narrative of the habeas dispute and the Supreme Court Chief Justice’s response in the opinion Ex Parte Merryman is available on the Federal Judicial Center website.

Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln carefully weighed which limits on liberties were necessary to maintain the Union. He considered the legal authority for suspending habeas secondary to his obligation “to preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution. There were many who disagreed with that position.

The Federal Judicial Center’s website covers the opinion, the legal questions raised by Lincoln’s decision, legal arguments, and more. Learn about the opinion, read about popular media response at the time, or conduct your own classroom debate on the suspension of habeas corpus.