Lincoln Despotism Unleashed

President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus along the military lines between Philadelphia and Annapolis in April: Was it used primarily as a political tool to harass and intimidate residents?
Commentary by Bragdon Bowling

Originally published in the Washington Post May 31, 2011.

General Sherman was famously quoted that “War is Hell”. Suppression of internal dissent can prove hellish also. Maryland would prove to be the laboratory for many of President Abraham Lincoln’s more draconian policies. Lincoln early on recognized Maryland ’s strategic and political importance and that Maryland could upset everything if she seceded. Washington D.C. would quickly fall upon secession and the loss of the nation’s capitol could jeopardize the entire war. A huge defeat as the war was beginning. Maryland needed to be pacified at any cost.

Lincoln knew he had little public support in Maryland The 1860 election in Maryland provided 0 electoral votes. Lincoln had to surreptitiously travel through Maryland to even reach Washington for his Inauguration. While there were pockets of pro-Union sentiment, Maryland was a Southern state and Baltimore was the epicenter of Confederate passion.

Actual violence occurred on April 19 when hordes of Confederate sympathizers clashed with Massachusetts troops at the Pratt Street Station. Lincoln acted quickly by instituting a system of arbitrary arrests and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Nearly any form of political dissent would be treated as treasonous. A system of military tribunals without normal constitutional protections was instituted. Warrantless arrests and indefinite prison terms were now the norm. This was done despite the fact that the Constitution is quite specific in that Article 1 Section 9 provides that only Congress can suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions resulted in the famed federal case of Ex Parte Merryman whereby Chief Justice Taney rebuked Lincoln and called his actions illegal. Arrogantly, Lincoln ignored the decision and even had an arrest warrant issued for the Chief Justice. These actions served to quiet the judiciary who feared for their own liberty and that Lincoln would cause a total collapse of our constitutional system.




By suspending habeas corpus, Lincoln opened the floodgates of despotism, allowing soldiers and policemen to roam the streets and arrest anyone they didn’t like. This later included members of the Maryland General Assembly. On September 12 – 13, 51 arrests occurred when the Assembly was preparing to debate potential secession and the legislators were sent to Ft. McHenry . Lincoln had successfully destroyed the democratic process in Maryland . Among those joining the lawmakers at Ft. McHenry was the Mayor of Baltimore, the Police Chief and Marshall of Baltimore , and, on the anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner, Frank Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key.

As the war continued, Lincoln added to a growing despotic bag of tricks. Nationally, press freedom was abridged by closing nearly 300 newspapers and imprisoning dissident editors. It is estimated that nearly 20000 people were imprisoned without habeas corpus protection. Elections were often rigged (including Maryland ). Abuse of Southerners became commonplace. Destruction of private property and wholesale burnings of cities brought war to a whole new ghastly meaning, all with the goal of creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among the civilian population.

Lincoln also punished his political opposition. His chief opponent in the North, Clement Vallandigham was arbitrarily arrested and deported to the south. Van Landingham’s offense was strictly as an anti-war critic and leader of the Democratic Party opposition. During Vietnam, one wonders how many sleepless nights Lyndon Johnson lay pondering how he could control and punish his numerous anti-war critics in public, the media and in Congress. Harsh critics such as Robert Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and J. William Fulbright did no more than Vallandigham. The difference was that Johnson refused to take the harsh measures Lincoln thrived on.

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