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Mr. Seward’s Little Bell

• NYT Opinion Pages

“My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen in Ohio. I can touch the bell again, and order the arrest of a citizen in New York. Can the Queen of England, in her dominions, do as much?” William Henry Seward’s boast to Lord Lyons, Britain’s envoy to the United States for much of the Civil War — and a diplomat with whom Lincoln’s secretary of state enjoyed an often fractious relationship — is almost certainly an apocryphal invention of administration critics. But it nevertheless illustrates a higher truth: Seward’s early and aggressive involvement with the wartime suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, one of the most controversial actions of the Lincoln administration.

Though the suspensions are most closely identified with Lincoln himself, it was his secretary of state who was often their most adamant advocate. In late 1861 Seward wrote to a friend, “Let us save the country and then cast ourselves upon the judgment of the people. … The habeas corpus will be suspended anywhere, on its being shown that it is necessary to prevent disorganization or demoralization of the national forces.”

The writ of habeas corpus, the only common-law process included in the United States Constitution, is found in Article I, section 9: “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.” Rooted in 12th-century English law, the writ requires that a prisoner be brought before the court to determine if the government has the right to continue detaining him. In antebellum America, it offered anti-slavery forces an effective means to prevent the return of fugitive slaves to their owners, until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 empowered federal commissioners to help persons seeking their runaways. Salmon Chase, a fervent abolitionist who became Lincoln’s Treasury secretary, had so adeptly employed the habeas corpus writ in his home state of Ohio that he had been dubbed “Attorney General for Runaway Negroes.”


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