In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus along the military line between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. This allowed army officers to arrest and indefinitely detain persons who were interfering with military operations in the area. When John Merryman, a wealthy Marylander suspected of burning bridges to prevent the passage of U.S. troops to Washington, was detained in Fort McHenry, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, declared the suspension of habeas corpus unconstitutional and demanded Merryman's immediate release. Lincoln defied Taney’s order, offering his own forceful counter-argument for the constitutionality of his actions. Thus the stage was set for one of the most dramatic personal and legal confrontations the country has ever witnessed.
The Body of John Merryman is the first book-length examination of this much-misunderstood chapter in American history. Brian McGinty captures the tension and uncertainty that surrounded the early months of the Civil War, explaining how Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was first and foremost a military action that only subsequently became a crucial constitutional battle. McGinty's narrative brings to life the personalities that drove this uneasy standoff and expands our understanding of the war as a legal—and not just a military, political, and social—conflict. The Body of John Merryman is an extraordinarily readable book that illuminates the contours of one of the most significant cases in American legal history—a case that continues to resonate in our own time.
An original, comprehensive, and well-written narrative about the first constitutional crisis pitting Abraham Lincoln against Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Anyone interested in American history, the Constitution, and the Civil War will be anxious to read this excellent book.
In 1861, acting through his agents, Abraham Lincoln detained a Marylander named John Merryman (who had waged private war against the federal government), suspended the legal writ of habeas corpus that is ordinarily used to test the validity of detention in court, and then ignored a judicial judgment, issued by Chief Justice Roger Taney, that declared the suspension unconstitutional. In Brian McGinty's engaging treatment of this famous episode, Lincoln comes across as a familiar figure--both thoughtful and decisive, respectful of constitutional law yet aware of the unusual necessities of the time...Many earlier accounts of the Merryman episode, especially by lawyers, have quite understandably put Lincoln front and center. McGinty's account offers a more vivid and rounded picture of the episode by giving Taney's motivations and hypocrisies equal billing; doing so puts Lincoln's actions in an even more favorable light than history already has. Beset by enemies on all sides, Lincoln had also to cope with calculated opposition clothed in judicial robes, and he did so with admirable restraint.
Attorney McGinty presents a more nuanced look at the landmark case, providing a clear explanation of the political situation in western Maryland in 1861, the ramifications of Merryman's actions, and an explanation of the legal thought process Lincoln used in the Merryman case. The author establishes the extent of Merryman's guilt, dissects the shortcomings of Taney's efforts to free Merryman, and defies the imagery of Lincoln as tyrant. Most notably, McGinty explains the difference between Taney's role as a judge in circuit court, where the case played out, and his role within the Supreme Court, which never heard the case. Well written and clearly explained with a minimum of legal terms, this book provides an excellent overview of a momentous legal case.
- 272 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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