An Examination of Ex Parte Merryman
Copyright 1994, Patrick S. Poole
At the beginning of the darkest period in American History, Lt. John Merryman of the Baltimore County Horse Guards and a resident of Maryland, not only found himself imprisoned in Baltimore's Fort McHenry, but also the object of the struggle between the newly inaugurated Lincoln Administration and the Supreme Court. This game would pit Lincoln himself against the eminent legal mind of that time, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. The vehicle for the struggle would be Taney's decision in Ex Parte Merryman.
As the fires of Southern Confederacy flamed around the city of Washington, Lincoln decided that a bold step was required to save the Union, even if it lacked historical and constitutional precedent. His decision was to suspend the use of the only common law right enumerated in the Constitution, the Writ of Habeas Corpus (Article I Section 9). This new found power was large, for it would allow citizens to be imprisoned indefinitely. The contest between Lincoln and Taney would concern where this power resided, in the Executive, as Lincoln contended, or in the Legislature, as was the overwhelming view of that day. Added to this problem was this question: If this power was vested with the President, could it be also conferred on his underlings, all the way down to local marshals? This would also play a role, for the suspension of the writ would be delegated by Lincoln to all of his military commanders, and was frequently used by members of Lincoln's Cabinet to imprison political (i.e. Democratic) adversaries.
It is my intent to examine the factors that surround the actions of John Merryman and his subsequent arrest by military authorities, then to look at Taney's coherent and masterful decision in the case, and to finally examine Lincoln's reasons for believing he could suspend the writ. In doing this I hope to show that Lincoln's actions were not only unprecedented, but also Taney's...