Document Type

Book Review

Publication Title

The Journal of American History

Publication Date

2012

Abstract

Governments jail people who are perceived as threats. More often than not the governments believe the threats to be genuine and the incarcerations to be legally sound. But governments are sometimes wrong. When a court issues a writ of habeas corpus (also known as the Great Writ of Liberty), it orders jailers to bring a prisoner into court and requires them to persuade a neutral judicial officer of the the Great Writ of Liberty), it orders jailers to bring a prisoner into court and requires them to persuade a neutral judicial officer of the correctness of their legal and factual assertions, or else release the captive.

Unsurprisingly, jailers frequently resist being called to account. Much of the Anglo-American history of the rule of law has been shaped by the resolution of the resulting clashes. One frequently recounted episode is the centerpiece of both books under review. As Union troops rushed to Washington, D.C., in April 1861, many Southern sympathizers violently opposed their passage. The leader of a Maryland cavalry unit, John Merryman, ordered the destruction of several key railroad bridges to prevent additional Northern units from passing through Baltimore. It remains contested to this day whether he did so as an act of hostility or, with the concurrence of the local authorities, in good faith to forestall further violence. In any event, Union military officers considered his actions treasonous, placed him under arrest, and confined him to Fort McHenry.

Comments

Review of The Body of John Merryman: Abraham Lincoln and the Suspension of Habeas Corpus. By Brian McGinty(2011) and Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman. By Jonathan W. White. (2011)

Review is available online.

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