President Lincoln and Writ of Habeas Corpus

Attack on the Union Lincoln Exhibit

URBANA, Ohio (January 14, 2014) - “Abraham Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” a national traveling exhibit that examines President Lincoln’s use of the Constitution during the Civil War is open to the public on the Urbana University campus beginning Saturday, February 8 and continuing until March 21.  The exhibit and associated programs are free and open to the public.  The exhibit can be viewed in the campus library, 579 College Way, Urbana.


As current events about government eavesdropping generate the current national discussion, this exhibit demonstrates that government interference with civil liberties took place during the American Civil War as well.  President Lincoln claimed extraordinary powers in order to control dissension during the Civil War. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus; the provision in the Constitution that protects citizens against arbitrary arrests. No president had done it before and no president has done it since. 


Lincoln refused to back down.  “I think the time not unlikely,” he said “when I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.” By 1863, thousands of civilians had been detained, mostly suspected draft dodgers and deserters, and Confederate sympathizers in the Border States and the South.  As military arrests mounted, some Americans wondered if their constitutional liberties were being lost.  For these actions, Lincoln was denounced as a tyrant by his political foes.


President Lincoln also confronted issues related to freedom of the press.  Editors of some “rebel sympathizing” newspapers were given warnings while others were arrested.  Lincoln did permit attacks against himself, being described by opponents as a “despot,” “pirate,” and an “ignoramus.”  Generally the newspapers or editors he objected to were supporting desertion from the Northern troops.  Lincoln’s approach was generally to try to prevent such publications rather than to punish those who published the opinions. By 1863, Lincoln realized that trying to suppress newspaper critics had backfired and he changed his instructions to Union commanders. 


Visitors to the exhibit can learn how Lincoln struggled throughout the war to find the appropriate balance between national security and individual rights.  The exhibit is on display in the University library, located at 579 College Way, Urbana and can be viewed during regular library hours:  Monday – Thursday 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 12 noon – 4 p.m.; and Sunday 7 – 10 p.m. from February 8 – March 21, 2014.  The library and exhibit will observe the following spring break hours during the week of Monday, March 8 to Friday, March 14, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. For details about the exhibit hours and associated programs, see the website:

Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War, a traveling exhibition for libraries, was organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. The traveling exhibition has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.   Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War is based on an exhibition of the same name developed by the National Constitution Center.





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