Lincoln's Abuse of Presidential Power

Updated on June 11, 2013

Abraham Lincoln is widely recognized as one of the United States’ greatest presidents, and maybe even the greatest president this country has ever experienced. Despite Lincoln’s great accomplishments, though, he was not without faults. Lincoln’s shelving of the basic right of the Writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War was overreaching his presidential power, and was against the principles on which this country was founded.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus is the right of a person to contest their imprisonment in the federal courts. Habeas corpus is a Latin term which means literally “you shall have the body” (Witt 179). This right dates back as far as seventeenth-century England (Witt 179). Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights literally states the Writ of Habeas Corpus, although it is addressed in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 2, which says 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” (Tindall and Shi A60). The right of habeas corpus is clearly assumed by the writers of the Constitution in all other situations. The Constitution does not clearly spell out whether the president has the power to suspend this right, but Lincoln assumed that power during the Civil War.

If a situation exists where the Writ of Habeas Corpus no longer protects the citizens, the government is given more power; this additional power could potentially be abused by those in the government. This abuse of power could include a president or other government official getting rid of their political opponents. Lincoln’s actions of suspending Habeas Corpus could be viewed as a way to remove political opponents. The first instance of this occurred soon after the surrender of Fort Sumter. Eleven states had seceded from the union and several others threatened possibly seceding. Of those, Maryland was the biggest concern. This was because, had Maryland seceded and joined the south, Washington, D.C., would have been completely surrounded and isolated inside of a foreign country. To hold onto Maryland, Abraham Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus and threw Maryland leaders that supported the Confederacy into jail. With the pro-Confederate leaders out of the way, Maryland residents voted Republican in the next election and remained part of the Union. Although Lincoln got a result from this action that preserved the Union, it was against the founding democratic beliefs of this country that people should be able to vote for whomever they choose.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus is central to the individual rights of citizens of this country. Without it, individual citizens could be subject to personal attack from the government and leave them with no way of defending themselves. The United States of America is a country in which the government was created by the people and for the people. Its citizens do not easily sacrifice their individual rights; in fact, United States citizens fought a war for independence because they felt that Great Britain restricted too many of their individual rights. These individuals understood the cost of freedom and were willing to give up some security in order to have more individual rights. Lincoln chose the reverse—to sacrifice individual liberty for the sake of security. Even after Maryland was securely a part of the Union, Lincoln continued to issue presidential orders to punish those who supported the Confederacy. Over 14,000 arrests were made without the Habeas Corpus protection (Tindall and Shi 693). Many of those arrested were pro-Southern individuals known as Copperheads, and Lincoln saw them as a threat to the Union forces in the southern Midwest. Many of these individuals were sent to prison for the remainder of the war. One such prisoner was Lamdin P. Milligan, whose case went to the Supreme Court when he challenged the government’s right to imprison him without the chance to appear in federal court. The court reached a unanimous decision that he had been unlawfully imprisoned (Irons 188). The justice who wrote the majority opinion ruled that the people who tried to speak out against the Union were entitled to as much protection from the Constitution as those who fought to restore it (Irons 189). The rights of the individuals who were imprisoned for the duration of the war were violated, and Lincoln was responsible.

The actions towards citizens that could occur without the protection from the Writ of Habeas Corpus could lack the due process that is normally observed in the courts of the United States judicial system. Normally, citizens are given the right of a trial by jury. The normal procedure in a criminal case includes the assumption that a convicted person is innocent until proven guilty. Without the protection of the Writ of Habeas Corpus, these normal procedures go by the wayside, and the person is considered to be guilty without any recourse.

In a letter to Senator Erastus Corning of New York explaining his actions, Abraham Lincoln himself acknowledged arrests of innocent persons might occur if the writ was suspended (Lincoln 425). In Lincoln’s explanation of the Vallandigham arrest, another Habeas Corpus suspension, other discrepancies in his logic are apparent. Clement Vallandigham was a Copperhead who was arrested for speaking out against the war in a public meeting. Lincoln said that Vallandigham had been trying to prevent troops from being gathered in the north, and encouraged soldiers to desert the army, and that this was the true reason for his arrest, to halt the actions that had a damaging effect on the Union’s army. Lincoln said later that “If Mr. Vallandigham was not damaging the military power of the country, then his arrest was made on mistake of fact, which I would be glad to correct on reasonably satisfactory evidence” (427). A presentation of evidence in court, however, is not possible after Lincoln’s suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus.

Even though Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus silenced his opposition during the Civil War, his actions did not go unnoticed in the courts. In the Milligan case, the Supreme Court concluded that the president did not have the authority to bypass functional civil courts (Witt 179). Justice Davis pointed out in the Milligan case that when Milligan was denied a trial by jury, he was denied one of the guarantees given to him in the sixth amendment (Harrison and Gilbert 68). Davis wrote that “a trial by an established court, assisted by an impartial jury, was the only sure way of protecting the citizen against oppression and wrong” (Harrison and Gilbert 71). To preserve the Union, Lincoln sacrificed some of the basic principles that make this country worth preserving.

Perhaps the most long-lasting effect of Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War was the troubling precedent that is still cited when analyzing the conduct of presidents today. Recent articles analyzing President George W. Bush’s use of power refer back to Lincoln and his suspending the right of Habeas Corpus to achieve his ends (Ford Q4) (Thomas and Klaidman 28). Thomas and Klaidman noted that presidents have frequently sacrificed individual rights in the interest of winning a war (29). This is troubling because the suspension of these rights leaves open the possibility for presidents to abuse their power, which has occurred in the past. Often the public is not aware of the abuses until much later. In addition, the suspension of the specific right of habeas corpus limits the rights of individuals, and it can restrict the right of citizens to due process. These concerns are no less of a concern today than they were in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln pushed the limits of his power when he suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, violating the fundamental principles of the nation he was trying to save.


Harrison, Maureen and Steve Gilbert, Editors. Landmark Decisions of the United States Supreme Court IV. La Jolla, California: Excellent Books, 1994.

Irons, Peter. A People’s History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking, 1999.

Tindall, George Brown and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. Sixth Edition. Volume I. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Habeas Corpus in Time of Rebellion.” The Annals of America. Volume 9. 424-428. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003.

Witt, Elder. The Supreme Court A to Z. Washington D. C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1994.

Ford Steve. “Desperation, with Liberty at Stake.” The News and Observer. Raleigh, North Carolina. Section Q, page 4. January 1, 2006.

Thomas, Evan and Daniel Klaidman. “Full Speed Ahead.” Newsweek. 22-30. January 9, 2006.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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    • profile image

      James E. 

      7 years ago

      Let us not forget our anthem for the man that no one else could be, except the most honest, doing to most honest thing one must have had to do.... "O Captain! My Captain!"

    • profile image

      James E. 

      7 years ago

      ...But it was saved in the him, the one who started it...correct?


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