Ex Parte Merryman

Chief Justice Taney (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In Lincoln’s Constitution (Chicago, 2003), Daniel Farber distinguishes Ex Parte Merryman (1861) as the most influential case concerning the suspension of individual rights during the Civil War. According to Farber, Merryman showcased Chief Justice Taney as Lincoln’s rival and “vehement critic of Lincoln’s use of executive power” (119).

In his discussion of Merryman, Farber identifies the question of presidential power, particularly Lincoln’s authority over constitutional law and the rulings of the Supreme Court as the most important aspects of the case. In addition, he clearly points out Taney’s dislike for Lincoln and their tense relationship. Farber notes that “Taney’s cramped view of presidential power was extreme,” (119) but also recognizes Lincoln’s actions as controversial. Farber uses Merryman as an example of the negative reactions to Lincoln revoking the writ of habeas corpus, as he saw it as the most disputed use of executive power.

Merryman came to the Supreme Court in 1861 when John Merryman was arrested for treachery in Maryland. He was accused of destroying bridges and assisting the confederate troops, and was taken into custody without an opportunity for a trial. Appealing to Taney, the Chief Justice ordered him to come to court, but the marshal refused his appearance, claiming to follow Lincoln’s order against habeas corpus. Taney expressed his fury in an opinion outlining his thoughts on why Lincoln’s actions were unconstitutional and beyond his authority as president. Taney was particularly upset that Lincoln felt entitled to ignore his decision as Chief Justice to bring Merryman to court.

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, described as “that old Jacksonian” (119) by Farber, emerged as one of the most important people involved in the Merryman case. Continually opposed to Lincoln’s politics including the Emancipation Proclamation, Taney looked for ways to show his disapproval of the president. Merryman was another opportunity for Taney to express his distaste for the Lincoln (ANB). There are several books available in the library on this Dickinson graduate including Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (Houghton Mifflin, 1965) by H. Walker Lewis, and Life of Roger Brooke Taney: Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (Williams & Wilkins, 1922) by Bernard Christian Steiner, however none of these are very recent. Taney’s opinion on Merryman is also accessible in the library.

Though Farber touches on the tense relationship between Lincoln and Taney, he focuses mostly on whether Lincoln had the constitutional right to block habeas corpus while recent historians have explored their conflicting personal issues, and how this case brought them into an even greater rivalry.

Georgetown Law professor, Arthur T. Downey examines the friction between Taney and Lincoln in “The Conflict between the Chief Justice and the Chief Executive: Ex Parte Merryman” (America: History and Life). In his article he offers details of the case, the people of the case, Lincoln and Taney’s reactions, and the overall significance of the case. His article is helpful in understanding both sides of the argument, and the reasoning behind Taney and Lincoln’s opposing positions.

A widely reviewed and recent book, and also available in the library, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers (Simon & Schuster, 2006) by James F. Simon, a law Professor at NYU, covers their political clashing starting with Dred Scott in 1857. Simon’s work offers the most informative and recent work on Taney’s life. Brian McGinty’s Lincoln and the Court (Harvard, 2009) also explores the reasons for the contention between Taney and Lincoln.

Though John Merryman lends his name to this monumental case, he is not that important to understanding its significance. There is little information on him other than the details pertinent to the case, which is available in most sources discussing Merryman. For necessary background, the Federal Judicial Center website supplies a short biography on him.

There are countless sources on Abraham Lincoln. Some most germane to this case include the ones already mentioned and William H. Rehnquist’s All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime (Random House, 2000). As a chief justice, Rehnquist offers an interesting view on Lincoln’s presidential power and the Supreme Court. The Dickinson library also provides many sources on Lincoln, his life, presidency, and his behavior during the Civil War.

Farber’s presentation of Merryman is a starting point explaining how Taney thought Lincoln acted unconstitutionally by suspending habeas corpus. By supplementing Farber’s views with information on Chief Justice Chaney and President Lincoln, a historically complicated and distasteful relationship becomes clear.

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