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Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War

The Trials of John Merryman

Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

224 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / 13 halftones

ebook available

Civil War

  Hardcover / 9780807142141 / November 2011
  Paperback / 9780807143469 / November 2011

In the spring of 1861, Union military authorities arrested Maryland farmer John Merryman on charges of treason against the United States for burning railroad bridges around Baltimore in an effort to prevent northern soldiers from reaching the capital. From his prison cell at Fort McHenry, Merryman petitioned Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney for release through a writ of habeas corpus. Taney issued the writ, but President Abraham Lincoln ignored it. In mid-July Merryman was released, only to be indicted for treason in a Baltimore federal court. His case, however, never went to trial and federal prosecutors finally dismissed it in 1867.

In Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War, Jonathan White reveals how the arrest and prosecution of this little-known Baltimore farmer had a lasting impact on the Lincoln administration and Congress as they struggled to develop policies to deal with both northern traitors and southern rebels. His work exposes several perennially controversial legal and constitutional issues in American history, including the nature and extent of presidential war powers, the development of national policies for dealing with disloyalty and treason, and the protection of civil liberties in wartime.

JONATHAN W. WHITE is assistant professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and the author of Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman.


Praise for Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War

“Most illuminating is White’s description of how critics and victims of Lincoln’s enforcement politics used the courts to attack what they saw as assaults on liberty. . . . This is an important book, and not only for legal and constitutional historians and historians of the Civil War. It is an object lesson in the way that ordinary litigation has been used to obstruct and affect public policy—beyond the great cases that constitute our constitutional law.”—Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“White has written a vivid and impressively researched account particularly noteworthy for its scrupulous reliance on primary sources. He even uncovers a previously unpublished letter by Merryman explaining his actions.”—Journal of American History

“A novel perspective on one of the most controversial cases in American constitutional law. . . . Based on research in court records and other original sources, White’s book is clearly written and presents considerable historical information not generally available. I highly recommend it for both academic and general readers.”—Journal of Southern History

“Focused, concise, eminently readable, and worthy of attention.”—Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

“Both timely and interesting. . . . White packs a lot into this short, well-researched volume. Legal scholars will appreciate how he uses Merryman’s case as a way of understanding the timely problem of prosecuting those who act against the state. At the same time, Merryman’s misadventures provide an easy introduction into the drama occurring within Maryland at the dawn of the Civil War. White’s clear, concise writing should appeal to the general public and to college-level courses.”—Maryland Historical Magazine

“From unpublished court records, Jonathan White has unearthed valuable new information on Lincoln and civil liberties. Instead of focusing narrowly on the thrice-familiar case of Ex parte Merryman, White also examines John Merryman’s life and trials and is thus able to shed a bright light on Lincoln’s understanding of the war powers and the pardoning power; on the ineptitude of Congress when it legislated on the right of habeas corpus; and on the inability of civil courts to deal with treason in wartime. Indeed, the author shows how traitors were able to use those courts to undermine the war effort. White’s highly original book is a timely and significant contribution to the literature on both civil liberties during wartime and on the Lincoln administration.”—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

“The case which became Ex parte Merryman has long been well-known but poorly understood, especially from the viewpoint of John Merryman. Here, however, is the antidote to that misunderstanding. Jonathan White’s short and pungent narrative and study of Ex parte Merryman teems with abundant new findings and sharp analysis. It will be a joy to both the general reader and to the specialists in Civil War history and American law.”—Allen C. Guelzo, author of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America

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