How can we help?

Home > Revision Assistant > Prompt Library > Expansion Pack Library > Lincoln's Suspension of Habeas Corpus

Lincoln's Suspension of Habeas Corpus

Grades 6-8 | Historical Analysis | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1120L-1480L

Learning Standards




Research Abraham Lincoln’s decision to suspend the writs of habeas corpus during the Civil War. First, read the two primary sources provided (excerpts of “Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress July 4, 1861” and “Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in Ex Parte Merryman, 1861”).  Then, examine the primary source image (“Massachusetts Militia Passing through Baltimore”). After analyzing these sources, write an essay that makes a claim about Lincoln’s suspension of the writs of habeas corpus and whether or not it was justified. Be sure to provide evidence from each source to support your ideas and acknowledge any counterclaims.





Source 1

Message to Congress in Special Session, Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1861 (Primary Source)


Abraham Lincoln took over the office of president in March 1861. The following month, Lincoln had to deal with several crises; seven states withdrew from the union, the Battle at Fort Sumter, and the Baltimore Riots, to name a few. As Chief Executive, Lincoln made some major decisions. Among them was to suspend the writs of habeas corpus, which means under special circumstances, citizens could be arrested without being given a trial. Since Congress was not in session at this time, Lincoln called a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861 to explain his actions and reactions to the crises since he took office. The following are excerpts from that message as they pertain to suspending the writs of habeas corpus.


  1. Having been convened on an extraordinary occasion, as authorized by the Constitution, your attention is not called to any ordinary subject of legislation.


  1. 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.


  1. Of course some consideration was given to the questions… The whole of the laws… were being resisted… in nearly one-third of the States. To state the question more directly, are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that [law] 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.


  1. [The Constitution states] 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… 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 cannot be believed the framers… 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.


  1. No more extended argument is now offered; as an opinion, at some length, will probably be presented by the Attorney General. Whether there shall be any legislation upon the subject, and if any, what, is submitted entirely to the better judgment of Congress.


Lincoln, Abraham. Message to Congress in Special Session. July 04, 1861. Available at





Source 2

Excerpts of Chief Justice Roger Taney’s Decision in Ex Parte Merryman, 1861 (Primary Source)


Shortly after President Lincoln’s decision to suspend writs of habeas corpus between Maryland and Pennsylvania, John Merryman was arrested on suspicion of destroying several important bridges as part of the rebellion.  Feeling that he was unlawfully denied the right to a fair trial, Merryman sued the government, eventually resulting in the Supreme Court Case Ex Parte Merryman. Below is an excerpt of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s decision in this landmark case.


  1. John Merryman, of Baltimore county, MD, was arrested, charged with… armed hostility against the Government, with being in communication with the rebels, and with various acts of treason.


  1. While peaceably in his own house, with his family, at two o’clock, on the morning of the 25th of May, 1861, entered an armed force, professing to act under military orders. He was then compelled to rise from his bed, taken into custody, and conveyed to Fort McHenry, where he is imprisoned by the commanding officer, without warrant from any lawful authority.


  1. The case, then, is simply this: A military officer residing in Pennsylvania issues an order to arrest a citizen of Maryland, upon vague and indefinite charges, without any proof, so far as appears…


  1. As the case comes before me, therefore, I understand that the President not only claims the right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus himself, at his discretion, but to also delegate that discretionary power to military officers…


  1. The clause in the Constitution which authorizes the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is in the ninth section of the first article…


  1. This article is devoted to the Legislative Department of the United States, and has not the slightest reference to the Executive Department…


  1. It is the second article of the Constitution that provides for the organization of the Executive Department, and enumerates the powers conferred on it, and prescribes its duties. And if the high power over the liberty of the citizens now claimed was intended to be conferred on the President, it would undoubtedly be found in plain words in this article. But there is not a word in it that can furnish the slightest ground to justify the exercise of the power.


  1. The article begins by declaring that the Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America, to hold his office during the term of four years, and then proceeds to prescribe the mode of election, and to specify in precise and plain words the powers delegated to him and the duties imposed upon him. And the short term for which he is elected, and the narrow limits to which his power is confined, show the jealousy and apprehensions of future danger which the framers of the Constitution felt in relation to that department of the Government…


  1. [The President] is the Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, and of the militia, when called into actual service. But no appropriation for the support of the army can be made by Congress for a longer term than two years so the President cannot use this power for improper purposes...


  1. He is not empowered to arrest anyone charged with an offense against the United States…, nor can he authorize any officer, civil or military, to exercise this power, for the fifth amendment to the Constitution expressly provides that no person “shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”  And even if the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus was suspended by act of Congress…, the sixth amendment provides that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury… and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted with the witnesses against him and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”


  1. …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 privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or arrest a citizen… 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 Government of the United States is one of delegated and limited powers. It derives its existence and authority altogether from the Constitution, and neither of its branches–executive, legislative, or judicial–can exercise any of the powers of government beyond those specified and granted…


R. B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States


Taney, Roger B. Decision in Ex Parte Merryman. April, 1861.





Source 3

Massachusetts Militia Passing Through Baltimore (Primary Source)



Massachusetts Militia passing through Baltimore. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,











Last modified


This page has no custom tags.


(not set)