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

By + More

To Lincoln's surprise, the governor, too, refused him. "It would madden the true men of this State," Fletcher wrote, "to talk to them of reliance on the 'honor' and 'christian charity' of these fiends in human shape."

It was at this moment, historians believe, that Lincoln may have realized how far his civil liberties restrictions had been taken—and how difficult it might prove to restore those liberties. "Governments that assemble these powers tend to be rather reluctant to give them up," says Foner. Particularly, it seems, during a violent, highly personal civil war. "Lincoln had miscalculated. He could not at first believe that liberty could be permanently diminished among the liberty-loving American people," writes Neely. "Missouri proved him wrong."

Lincoln's solution was straightforward: If neither the Army commander in Missouri nor its civilian leaders would agree to end martial law, Lincoln would send in the Army to do it for them.

Only a few months before he was killed, Lincoln decided to send a new general, John Pope, to the state to impose his will. Pope, to his surprise, found the rancor in Missouri went even deeper than Lincoln imagined. In March 1865, a newspaper correspondent in St. Louis reported that many Republicans in Missouri—not just the state's leaders—had come to admire the efficiency of martial law: "So far from being unpopular, it is believed that a large portion of our loyal people are willing to see a provision incorporated in the charter of the city, requiring six months of martial law to be imposed . . . every five years to clean up all the little cases of outraged justice, loose indictments, public corruption and private peculation, which the ordinary courts cannot reach."

Lincoln's envoy pushed back against what he and the president surely recognized as creeping tyranny. Pope reminded the state's leaders that he "fully believed in the capacity of the American people for self-government." In a letter to the governor, Pope said he already had seen "an alarming and fatal tendency among the people . . . to surrender to the military the execution of the laws, and thus to abandon all safeguards against tyranny and oppression." He worried about where this temptation might lead: "Once let the American people abandon themselves to this practice, which indulgence confirms into habit, and their liberties are gone from them forever."

There is little evidence, unfortunately, of what Lincoln thought of these final developments. He was killed only a few weeks later, before martial law was finally repealed in Missouri and before civil liberties could be restored elsewhere in the country. It seems likely, though, that in the waning months of the war, Lincoln learned an important lesson: Civil liberties are much more difficult to restore than to revoke.