What was the impact of the Civil War on civil liberties?

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rj2015 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Discussing this question in a broader historical context is important. The existence of civil liberties requires that people be free to live their lives as they see fit. Prior to and during the Civil War, there were no civil liberties for approximately four million slaves in the Confederate States. This was most famously expressed in the 1857 Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court, when America’s highest judicial institution declared that slaves were a form of private property. To talk about the impact of the Civil War on civil liberties requires consideration to be given to the question of what the contribution of the conflict was to changing this state of affairs. The victory of the Union resulted in the greatest confiscation of private property to that point in history, freeing the slaves. Examples can be cited during the war to show that Lincoln broke with constitutional principles, but it needs to be remembered that from the standpoint of the north, and all progressive forces internationally who backed Lincoln’s struggle, the Confederacy was in violation of the Constitution, which declared everyone to be created equal. From 1863, when Lincoln explicitly declared the abolition of slavery to be a necessary goal in the Emancipation Proclamation, the war had a liberating impact. This was summed up in Lincoln’s famous remark that the conflict was a war “for a new birth of freedom.”

The subsequent policies of racist segregation that persisted until the 1960s and 1970s did not emerge directly out of the war but only following the ending of reconstruction in 1877.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In 1861, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus without congressional approval, as he argued that he was suppressing a domestic rebellion, not fighting a war. This suspension meant that people could no longer be quickly released if their imprisonment was not deemed legal by a court. In April of 1861, a Maryland citizen named John Merryman was jailed for speaking against the Union and for supporting the south, and he tried to raise a group of soldiers to fight for the Confederacy. Merryman asked for a writ of habeas corpus from Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney, who ordered Merryman released. However, the commander of Fort McHenry refused to release Merryman because of Lincoln's order, and, in response, Taney issued his famous decision that only the Congress could suspend the writ of habeas corpus in his opinion Ex Parte Merryman. The Constitution allows habeas corpus rights to be suspended in times of rebellion, but it is unclear whether the President or Congress has the right to suspend these rights.

In 1863, Lincoln imposed martial law across the country with Congressional approval, meaning that he suspended the writ of habeas corpus nationwide. In addition, many people during the war were tried by military tribunals rather than in regular courts. Lincoln argued that such measures were necessary during the Civil War, and many historians argue that such measures were needed to keep the border states in the Union. However, others argue that his actions were a major violation of civil liberties. 


mrkirschner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the great debates in any democracy in crisis is whether individual rights should be sacrificed in exchange for national security. More recently, this became a subject of contention after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Abraham Lincoln was faced with similar rancor for his decisions during the Civil War.  There were actions that Abraham Lincoln took as commander-in-chief that abridged civil liberties of American citizens. The biggest coup during Lincoln's administration was the institution of military tribunals to try citizens. Martial law was also declared.  This means that civil authorities mus cede authority to military institutions.  These actions denied Constitutional protections of due process of law and the rights of trial by jury. His actions were also violations of the constitutional principle of habeas corpus. First Amendment rights of freedoms of the press and speech were also curbed during the Civil War.  These were drastic measures that would be unimaginable by today's standards.  

The stakes were very high for Lincoln. If the North did not win the war, the Constitution would be rendered meaningless. For this reason, Lincoln viewed it as pointless to protect constitutional rights at the expense of winning the war.