Jefferson Davis and the Suspension of Habeas Corpus

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Continuing on with our examination of the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the first part of which may be read here, we turn to Jefferson Davis and the suspension of habeas corpus in the Confederacy.  The Confederate Constitution provided for the suspension of habeas corpus:

Sec. 9 (3) 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.

On February 27, 1862 the Confederate Congress vested in Davis the power to suspend Habeas Corpus.  On March 1, 1862 Davis used this power, suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus and declaring martial law in a ten-mile radius around the City of Richmond.

Davis would use this power throughout the War, especially in regions where Unionist sentiment was strong, for example in East Tennessee where martial law was imposed and the writ of habeas corpus suspended in 1862.

Confederate habeas corpus commissioners from the beginning of the War had the power outside of the normal judicial system to order the military imprisonment of civilians or to free them, without any involvement by the state or Confederate courts.

As in the North, these measures raised a fair amount of opposition.  Alexander Stephens denounced President Davis as a dictator in 1864 and returned home to Georgia, where he delivered a speech on March 16, 1864 to the Georgia legislature attacking various acts of the Davis administration, including the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Davis was not a dictator, but rather a man at the head of a nation fighting against the odds to establish independence.  Like Lincoln, Davis was forced by circumstances to circumscribe liberties in wartime in hopes that victory would cause the need for such measures to end.


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Donald R. McClarey (1546 Posts)

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