Precedents

April 27, 1861


Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

After the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter barely five weeks into his presidency, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for active military duty.

On April 19, en route to defend the nation’s capital, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment was attacked by a mob of 20,000 Southern sym­pathizers in Baltimore. Four soldiers and 12 civilians were killed, and scores were injured in what marked the Civil War’s first bloodshed.

With supply lines disrupted and no additional troops arriving, Washington appeared to be cut off from the rest of the North. Congress was not in session, so Lincoln reluctantly assumed the authority to suspend habeas corpus along the rail route between Philadelphia and Washington.

Openly challenged by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Lincoln justified the action as vital to the nation’s immediate survival. Putting his case before Congress on July 4, Lincoln asked rhetorically: “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?”

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