Historians won't convict Lincoln for suspension of habeas corpus

Historians in the News

In the history of the United States, there have been only two occasions in which a president has suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a person's right to challenge in court the legality of his imprisonment.

Most recently, on Oct. 17, 2006, President George W. Bush, with the approval of Congress, suspended the right of habeas corpus to persons "determined by the United States" to be terrorists.

While Bush was widely criticized for breaching this fundamental constitutional right, he was not the first president to do so.

The first was Abraham Lincoln....

Perhaps it is too soon for history to judge Bush's action, but historians have reached a verdict on Lincoln's, says Michael Burlingame, the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and the author of "Abraham Lincoln: A Life," which is considered the definitive work on the 16th president.

Historian Mark Neely, for example, "examined the records of thousands of military tribunals and concluded that the Lincoln administration did not abuse the power of suspension by arresting people simply because they criticized his policies," Burlingame says....

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