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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Civil Liberties During Wartime

Despite Lincoln's reelection, there were many in the North, especially from the Democratic Party, who opposed his administration and the war and who even sympathized with the Confederacy. At the time, these people were referred to as "copperheads," after the poisonous snake. In Congress, copperheads led by Clement Vallandigham called for negotiating an end to the war and a reunion with the South. Outside of Congress, copperheads opposed the war in public demonstrations. Search on copperhead for correspondence about the group's activities including riots in New York state and Charleston, Illinois.

In the election of 1862, Vallandigham lost his seat in Congress, but he continued to speak out against the Lincoln administration and the war. On May 1, 1863, Vallandigham spoke to a large audience at a Democratic rally in Mount Vernon, Ohio. He denounced the war as "wicked, cruel, and unnecessary," and spoke against the draft law.

Four days later, federal soldiers came to Vallandigham's house in the middle of the night to arrest him. When he refused to let them in, they broke down the doors and removed him by force. They took him by a special train to another town where he was imprisoned without being charged with any specific crime. He wasn't permitted to see a judge, but was brought before eight army officers who declared him guilty of disloyal statements against the government.

On September 24, 1862, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus, which made this unconventional, military arrest of Vallandigham possible. The writ of habeas corpus protects Americans' civil liberties by requiring the government to bring a prisoner before a judge to prove that there is a just cause for holding the prisoner. According to a provision in the Constitution, however, Lincoln suspended this right during the war in order to apprehend Confederate spies and sympathizers who performed acts of disloyalty against the government. Such acts included interfering with military enlistment, resisting the draft, and speaking against the war or the government in newspapers or in public. Finally, the proclamation also meant that prisoners would be tried and punished by military courts instead of by a jury.

Vallandigham and his lawyers contested his arrest by submitting a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to the U. S. Court for the Southern District of Ohio. But Judge Humphrey Leavitt denied Vallandigham's request and upheld the military arrest and trial. Vallandigham's supporters appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear the case. Search on Vallandigham for materials related to the copperhead leader's disloyal activities, arrest, and trial. Search on habeas corpus for reactions to Lincoln's proclamation as well as Lincoln's response to a letter from Democratic leaders questioning Lincoln's policy.

  • How does Lincoln defend his suspension of habeas corpus in his letter to the Democratic leaders? Do you find his arguments compelling? Why or why not?
  • How else could Lincoln have dealt with disloyalty?
  • Do you agree with Lincoln that his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was in line with the Constitution?
  • Do you think that the suspension of habeas corpus to arrest Vallandigham was appropriate? How else could the government have dealt with Vallandigham?
  • What is the danger of public speech against the government?
  • What is the danger of allowing a government to suppress free speech, to make arrests without proving just cause, and to try a prisoner in a military court?
  • Do you agree that the danger of disloyal speech during wartime warrants the suppression of free speech?
  • Are there other kinds of situations that warrant the suppression of free speech?
  • Why might it be important for the people to be able to criticize its government during a time of war?
  • What is the rationale for suspending the requirement to prove just cause and to provide a trial by jury during wartime?

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration, the U.S. Justice Department, and Congress have created laws and regulations, including the Patriot Act, to help the government combat terrorism. Among other things, these regulations allow the government to perform searches without warrants and to detain people indefinitely without formally charging them. What are the similarities and differences between these measures and Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus? Do you think that public attitudes towards civil liberties have changed significantly since Lincoln's time?