Ex parte Merryman

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Not to be confused with Ex parte Milligan.
Photograph of Roger B. Taney
Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, issued the ruling in ex parte Merryman.

Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (C.C.D. Md. 1861) (No. 9487), is a well-known and controversial [1] U.S. federal court case which arose out of the American Civil War. It was a test of the authority of the President to suspend "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus" under the Constitution's Suspension Clause.[2] U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, sitting as a federal circuit court judge, ruled that the authority to suspend habeas corpus lay with Congress, not the president. President Lincoln ignored the ruling, as did the Army under Lincoln's orders, with the arrest of dissidents, newspaper editors, and elected representatives continuing.


When a person is detained by police or other authority, a court can issue a writ of habeas corpus, compelling the detaining authority either to show proper cause for detaining the person (e.g., by filing criminal charges) or to release the detainee. The court can then remand the prisoner to custody, release them on bail, or release them outright. Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, which enumerates limitations on the power of Congress, says, "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."

In April 1861, actual fighting in the Civil War began. President Lincoln called for the states to provide militia troops to the Federal government to suppress the rebellion. Troops traveled to Washington via Baltimore, Maryland. Anti-War mobs attacked some of them on April 19. It seemed possible that Maryland would attempt to block the passage of troops, cutting off Washington from the rest of the Union. On April 29, the Maryland Legislature voted 53–13 against secession,[3][4] but they also voted not to reopen rail links with the North, and they requested that Lincoln remove the growing numbers of federal troops in Maryland.[5] At this time the legislature seems to have wanted to avoid involvement in a war with its southern neighbors.[6] Executing the Maryland legislature's wishes, Mayor Brown of Baltimore and Governor Hicks of Maryland asked that no more troops cross Maryland, but Lincoln refused.[7] However, for the next few weeks, troops were brought to Washington via Annapolis, avoiding Baltimore. Also on April 19, Lincoln asked Attorney General Edward Bates, for an opinion on the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

The threat to Washington was serious, and Lincoln eventually responded by declaring martial law in Maryland. On April 27, 1861, he told General Winfield Scott (commander-in-chief of the army) that if there was any resistance on the "military line" from Annapolis to Washington, Scott or "the officer in command at the point" was authorized to suspend habeas corpus if necessary. Within a few days, it was found necessary. The suspension was not announced, and Taney stated he had not been informed of it.[8]

Following the Maryland legislature's April 29 directive that Maryland not be used as a passage for troops attacking the South, Governor Hicks had ordered the state militia to demolish several state railroad bridges (Bush River bridge and Gunpowder River bridge). Merryman, a lieutenant in the Maryland State Militia was arrested on May 25 by order of Brigadier General William High Keim, USV, and charged with treason and being a commissioned lieutenant in an organization intending armed hostility toward the government, for his role in destroying these bridge.[9][10][11] Judge Giles in Baltimore issued a writ of habeas corpus. The fort's commander, Major W. W. Morris, wrote in reply,

"At the date of issuing your writ, and for two weeks previous, the city in which you live, and where your court has been held, was entirely under the control of revolutionary authorities. Within that period United States soldiers, while committing no offense, had been perfidiously attacked and inhumanly murdered in your streets; no punishment had been awarded, and I believe, no arrests had been made for these atrocious crimes; supplies of provisions intended for this garrison had been stopped; the intention to capture this fort had been boldly proclaimed; your most public thoroughfares were daily patrolled by large numbers of troops, armed and clothed, at least in part, with articles stolen from the United States; and the Federal flag, while waving over the Federal offices, was cut down by some person wearing the uniform of a Maryland officer. To add to the foregoing, an assemblage elected in defiance of law, but claiming to be the legislative body of your State, and so recognized by the Executive of Maryland, was debating the Federal compact. If all this be not rebellion, I know not what to call it. I certainly regard it as sufficient legal cause for suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus."

Morris also wrote, "If, in an experience of thirty-three years, you have never before known the writ to be disobeyed, it is only because such a contingency in political affairs as the present has never before arisen."[12]

The case[edit]

Merryman's lawyers appealed to Taney to issue the writ. Taney promptly issued a writ of habeas corpus for Merryman demanding that General George Cadwalader, the commander of Fort McHenry, where Merryman was being held, bring Merryman before him the next day. At this time, Supreme Court Justices sat as circuit court judges, as well. Taney decided to issue the writ while sitting as the circuit court judge for the District of Maryland rather than as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His reason, he states, was that it would permit Gen. Cadwalader to answer the writ in Baltimore rather than Washington, D.C., and so not have to leave the limits of his military command.[13]

Cadwalader responded to Taney's order on May 27 by sending a colonel to explain that he had suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Merryman's case. Cadwalader also provided a letter explaining the circumstances of Merryman's arrest, charging him with treason, being illegally in possession of U.S. arms, and advocating "armed hostility against the Government." The letter declared that the public safety was still threatened and that any errors "should be on the side of safety to the country." Because of the seriousness of the charges and the complexity of the issues, Cadwalader requested an extension to reply in order that he could get further instructions from the President. Taney refused the request.[14] Instead, Taney reacted by issuing a writ of attachment for Cadwalader, which ordered a U.S. Marshal to seize him and bring him before the court the following day. The marshal was refused entry into the fort.[13]

In response, Taney ruled that the president can neither suspend habeas corpus nor authorize a military officer to do it, and that military officers cannot arrest people except as ordered by the courts. He noted that, while the marshal had the right to call up the posse comitatus to assist him in seizing Gen. Cadwalader and bringing him before the court, it was probably unwise for him to do so and thus that he would not punish the marshal for failing in his task. He then promised a more lengthy, written ruling within the week and ordered that it be sent to President Lincoln, "in order that he might perform his constitutional duty, to enforce the laws, by securing obedience to the process of the United States."[8]

Taney was politically a partisan Democrat and an opponent of Lincoln. In his written opinion, he raged at length against Lincoln for granting himself easily abused powers. Taney asserted that the president was not authorized to suspend habeas corpus, observing that none of the Kings of England exercised such power.

"These great and fundamental laws, which congress itself could not suspend, have been disregarded and suspended, like the writ of habeas corpus, by a military order, supported by force of arms. Such is the case now before me, and I can only say that if the authority which the constitution has confided to the judiciary department and judicial officers, may thus, upon any pretext or under any circumstances, be usurped by the military power, at its discretion, the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found."[15]

Taney noted in a footnote to the above passage that the United States Declaration of Independence listed making the military power independent of and superior to the civil power as one justification for dissolving political allegiance.[16] The Declaration of Independence states, "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power." [17]



On July 10 Merryman was indicted for treason by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The indictment alleged that in cooperation with 500 armed men Merryman had "most wickedly, maliciously and traitorously" waged war on the United States. He was charged with destroying six railroad bridges and the telegraph lines along the tracks, all with the intent to impede the passage of troops and obstruct vital military communications. Thirteen witness to the actions were listed. Seven other men were indicted along with Merryman. On July 13 he was released pending trial upon the posting $20,000 bail.[18]

The case never came to trial. Since treason was a capital offense, it had to be tried in the circuit court. For Baltimore, this meant that Taney and District Judge William F. Giles would both hear the case. Taney consistently refused to schedule hearings for any of those charged, claiming that he believed they would not receive a fair trial. He also discouraged Judge Giles from hearing the case by himself and resisted efforts to have another Justice replace him (part of his delay was blamed on poor health). As the refusal continued into 1864 Taney wrote to Justice Samuel Nelson that, "I will not place the judicial power in this humiliating position nor consent to degrade and disgrace it, and if the district attorney presses the prosecutions I shall refuse to take them up."[19]

Other Justices[edit]

The rest of the Supreme Court had nothing to do with Merryman, and the other two justices from the South, John Catron and James Moore Wayne, acted as Unionists; for instance, Catron's charge to a Saint Louis grand jury, saying that armed resistance to the federal government was treason, was quoted in the New York Tribune of July 14, 1861.[20] On circuit, Catron closely cooperated with military authorities.[21]

Lincoln's response and actions[edit]

Lincoln disregarded the ruling. Lincoln also got an opinion supporting his suspension from his Attorney General Bates. It formed the basis for Lincoln's July 4 speech to Congress, in which he framed the issue:

The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed were being resisted and failing of execution in nearly one-third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear that by the use of the means necessary to their execution some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizen's liberty that practically it relieves more of the guilty than of the innocent, should to a very limited extent be violated? To state the question more directly, Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it? But it was not believed that this question was presented. It was not believed that any law was violated. The provision of the Constitution 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" is equivalent to a provision--is a provision-that such privilege may be suspended when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety does require it. It was decided that we have a case of rebellion and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the privilege of the writ which was authorized to be made. Now it is insisted that Congress, and not the Executive, is vested with this power; but the Constitution itself is silent as to which or who is to exercise the power; and as the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it can not be believed the framers of the instrument intended that in every case the danger should run its course until Congress could be called together, the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.[22]

After reconvening, Congress failed to pass a bill favored by Lincoln to sanction his habeas corpus suspensions,[23] and several more district and circuit court rulings affirmed Taney's opinion.[24]

In September the army further disregarded the ruling, arresting a sitting U.S. Congressman from Maryland from the opposing party, along with one third of the Maryland General Assembly and expanding the zone within which the writ was suspended.[25] When Lincoln's dismissal of Justice Taney's ruling was criticized in a September editorial by a prominent Baltimore newspaper editor (Frank Key Howard, Francis Scott Key's grandson), he was himself arrested by federal troops without charge or trial. Federal troops imprisoned the newspaper editor in Fort McHenry, which, as he noted, was the same fort where the Star Spangled Banner had been waving "o'er the land of the free" in his grandfather's song.[26] In 1863 Howard wrote about his experience as a political prisoner at Fort McHenry in the book Fourteen Months in the American Bastille;[27] two of the publishers selling the book were then arrested.[28]

In early 1862 Lincoln took a step back from the suspension of habeas corpus controversy. On February 14, he ordered all political prisoners released, with some exceptions (such as the aforementioned newspaper editor), and offered them amnesty for past treason or disloyalty, so long as they did not aid the Confederacy.[29] In March 1862 Congressman Henry May, who had been released in December 1861, introduced a bill requiring the federal government to either indict by grand jury or release all other "political prisoners" still held without habeas.[30] May's bill passed the House in summer 1862, and it would later be included in the 1863 Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, which would require actual indictments for suspected traitors.[31] Seven months later, faced with opposition to his calling up of the militia, Lincoln again suspended habeas corpus, this time through the entire country, and made anyone charged with interfering with the draft, discouraging enlistments, or aiding the Confederacy subject to martial law.[32] In the interim, the controversy continued with several calls made for prosecution of those who acted under Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus; former Secretary of War Simon Cameron had even been arrested in connection with a suit for trespass vi et armis, assault and battery , and false imprisonment.[33]

The passage of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act in March 1863 ended the controversy, at least temporarily, by authorizing presidential suspension of the writ during the civil war, requiring indictment by grand jury, or release, of political prisoners, and indemnifying federal officials who had arrested citizens without habeas in the previous two years.

The Merryman decision is still among the best-known Civil War-era court cases and it is one of Taney's most famous opinions, alongside the Dred Scott case. Its legal argument holding that Congress alone may suspend the writ is noted for reiterating the opinion of John Marshall and the court in Ex parte Bollman and was recently restated by the Supreme Court in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.


  1. ^ McGinty (2011) p. 173. "The decision was controversial on the day it was announced, and it has remained controversial ever since." Neely (2011) p. 65 Quoting Lincoln biographer James G. Randall,"Perhaps no other feature of Union policy was more widely criticized nor more stenuously defended."
  2. ^ William H. Rehnquist, All the Laws But One (New York: Knopf, 1998), 27–39.
  3. ^ Mitchell, p.87
  4. ^ http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/features/articles/articleview.cfm?aid=34
  5. ^ "Teaching American History in Maryland – Documents for the Classroom: Arrest of the Maryland Legislature, 1861". Maryland State Archives. 2005. Archived from the original on January 11, 2008. Retrieved February 6, 2008. 
  6. ^ "Teaching American History in Maryland – Documents for the Classroom: Arrest of the Maryland Legislature, 1861". Maryland State Archives. 2005. Archived from the original on January 11, 2008. Retrieved February 6, 2008. 
  7. ^ "He reminded them that Union soldiers were neither birds who could fly over Maryland nor moles who could burrow underground... "Go home and tell your people that if they do not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely." Simon, James F. (2007). Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 185. ISBN 0-7432-5033-8. 
  8. ^ a b Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144, 148 (C.C.D. Md. 1861).
  9. ^ Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144, 146 (C.C.D. Md. 1861).
  10. ^ Spencer C. Tucker. "American Civil War: The Definitive Encyclopedia" 2013 http://books.google.com/books?id=9dvYAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA1269&hl=en&sa=X&ei=rZF2VP6kOuWQigKu9oCQBw&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&f=false
  11. ^ Paludan, Phillip S. (1994). The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. p. 75. ISBN 0-7006-0671-8. 
  12. ^ Benson John Lossing (1866/1997), Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, Vol. I, Chap. XVIII, "The Capital Secured—Maryland Secessionists Subdued—Contributions by the People", pp. 449-450, [italics in reprint].
  13. ^ a b Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144, 147 (C.C.D. Md. 1861).
  14. ^ McGinty (2011) pp. 85.86
  15. ^ Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144, 152 (C.C.D. Md. 1861).
  16. ^ Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144, 152n3 (C.C.D. Md. 1861).
  17. ^ Jefferson, Thomas. "IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,". National Archives. The National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 22 March 2012. 
  18. ^ McGinty (2011) pp. 154-155
  19. ^ McGinty (2011) pp. 156-158
  20. ^ Don E. Fehrenbacher (1978/2001), the Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, New York: Oxford, Chapter 23, "In the Stream of History", p. 574, and p. 715, n. 16.
  21. ^ "Catron, John", in Webster's American Biographies (1979), Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
  22. ^ July 4th Message to Congress (July 4, 1861) [1]
  23. ^ George Clarke Sellery, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as viewed by Congress (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1907), 11–26.
  24. ^ Rollin C. Hurd, A Treatise on the Right of Personal Liberty and on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, revised with notes by Frank H. Hurd (Albany, 1876), 121n–22n.
  25. ^ http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2001-11-27/features/0111270102_1_habeas-fort-mchenry-lincoln-suspension
  26. ^ Howard, F. K. (Frank Key) (1863). Fourteen Months in American Bastiles. London: H.F. Mackintosh. Retrieved 18 August 2014. 
  27. ^ Howard, F. K. (Frank Key) (1863). Fourteen Months in American Bastiles. London: H.F. Mackintosh. Retrieved 18 August 2014. 
  28. ^ http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2001-11-27/features/0111270102_1_habeas-fort-mchenry-lincoln-suspension
  29. ^ Amnesty to Political or State Prisoners.
  30. ^ Jonathan White, "Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman", LSU Press, 2011. p. 106
  31. ^ Jonathan White, "Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman", LSU Press, 2011. p. 107
  32. ^ Proclamation 94.
  33. ^ George Clarke Sellery, Lincoln's Suspension of Habeas Corpus, 34–51.


  • Brown, George William. Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April 1861 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1887; reprinted by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2001)
  • Fehrenbacher, Don Edward (1978/2001), The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, New York: Oxford, Pulitzer Prize in History.
  • Howard, F. K. (Frank Key) (1863). Fourteen Months in American Bastiles. London: H.F. Mackintosh. Retrieved 18 August 2014. 
  • Hall, Kermit L. (Ed.) (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oxford University Press.
  • Lincoln, Abraham (April 27, 1861). Letter to Winfield Scott. Cited in (1989) Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 237. New York: Library of America. (This is the letter in which Lincoln suspended habeas corpus.)
  • Paludan, Phillip S. (1994). The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0671-8. 
  • Lossing, Benson John (1866/1997), Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
  • McGinty, Brian (2011). The Body of John Merryman. Harvard University Press.
  • Neely, Mark E. Jr. Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Poole, Patrick S. (1994). An Examination of Ex Parte Merryman.
  • Rehnquist, William H. (1998). All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: William Morrow & Co. ISBN 0-688-05142-1. 
  • Rehnquist, William, Chief Justice (1997). Civil Liberty and the Civil War.
  • Taney, Roger B., Chief Justice (1861). Ex parte Merryman. — Note that while Taney is named as Chief Justice, this was not properly a Supreme Court case. [Not an en banc Supreme Court Case. Taney himself notes in the decision that it was "[b]efore the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, at Chambers." In the case itself it's noted that "a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the chief justice of the United States, sitting at chambers" - not as a judge of the Circuit Court. Taney then orders the case to be "filed and recorded in the circuit court of the United States for the district of Maryland". If he was sitting as Circuit judge there would have been no need to order the decision filed in Baltimore.]
  • White, Jonathan W. (2011). Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman. Baton Rouge: LSU Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-8071-4346-9. 

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