Revoking Civil Liberties: Lincoln's Constitutional Dilemma

His suspension of habeas corpus is part of what some consider the "dark side" of his presidency.

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln


When Lincoln wrote these words, though, some historians argue, he may not have realized just how far things had gone in Missouri. Martial law was declared early in the war in the frontier state, which sent thousands of men to fight for both sides of the Civil War. With the population sharply divided on the issue of slavery, the state was riddled throughout the war by hundreds of small skirmishes, many of them involving neighbors fighting neighbors and guerrilla bands torching farms and crops.

The military government, meanwhile, struggled to maintain order. Nearly half of the military trials conducted in the Union during the war took place in Missouri—nine times as many as in Kentucky or Maryland, two other volatile border states. In 1863, after one particularly brutal massacre in which rebel guerrillas slaughtered more than a hundred pro-Union civilians in Lawrence, Kan., the local Army commander evicted 20,000 civilians from border counties in Missouri, some of whom, he believed, may have been sheltering the rebels. It was, writes Mark Neely, a professor of history at Penn State University, in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, "the most drastic displacement of population of its kind in the whole Civil War."

Lincoln was certainly aware of the measures being taken in his administration's name, but it was only after the 1864 elections that he felt he could do something about them. Lincoln had tried to persuade the military commander in the area to consider ending martial law earlier in the war, but he had been rebuffed. "The peace of the State rests on military power," the officer had replied. "To relinquish this power would be dangerous."

As the war began to wind down and the threat of Confederate invasion dwindled, Lincoln decided to try again. In the fall of 1864, after he had won re-election, Lincoln appealed to the general in control of the state to repeal martial law. "Please gather information," he wrote, "and consider whether an appeal to the people there to go to their homes, and let one another alone . . . may not allow you to withdraw the troops."

What Lincoln didn't realize, scholars say, was just how much the fierce fighting in Missouri had hardened attitudes there—and how much the leaders of Lincoln's own party had grown accustomed to the status quo.

The first signs of trouble appeared in the state's election results. More than 165,000 Missourians had voted in the 1860 presidential election, with only 17,000 voters supporting Lincoln. But four years later, Lincoln had received 70 percent of just over 100,000 votes cast. The question, of course, was not just how Lincoln had grown so popular, but what had happened to the rest of the voters. "Essentially," writes Neely, "much of the Democratic Party in the electorate in Missouri, likely a majority, had disappeared."

Neely, for one, believes Lincoln probably understood what had happened: The state's Republicans had used their newfound war powers not just to shut down newspapers and arrest those they considered disloyal but to intimidate and disenfranchise the Democrats, many of whom supported slavery and some of whom were sympathetic to the Confederacy. The Republicans, in other words, reigned supreme in Missouri. They had the Army at their backs, and they liked it that way. "What Lincoln had attempted to guard against in his internal security policy had come to pass," writes Neely.

Lincoln's appeal to end martial law fell on deaf ears. "Allow me to assure you," replied Gen. Grenville Dodge, the newly appointed military commander in the area, when he received Lincoln's suggestion that martial law be repealed, "that the course you proposed would be protested against by the State authorities, the legislature, the [constitutional] convention and by nearly every undoubtedly loyal man in North Missouri."

Stymied, Lincoln turned, instead, to the state's new governor, Thomas Fletcher. "It seems that there is now no organized force of the enemy in Missouri and yet that destruction of property and life is rampant every where," Lincoln wrote. "Is not the cure for this within easy reach of the people themselves? It cannot but be that every man, not naturally a robber or cut-throat, would gladly put an end to this state of things." Lincoln asked Fletcher to call for neighborhood meetings so preparations could be made to end martial law. "At such meetings," Lincoln said, hopefully, "old friendships will cross the memory; and honor and Christian Charity will come in to help."