The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

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The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties

Author: Mark E. Neely, Jr.
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: 1991
Pages: 304
Cover Price: $ 39.99

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Abraham Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator, but he was also the only president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. In fact, Lincoln’s record on the Constitution and civil liberties has fueled more than a century of debate—from charges that he singled out Democrats for harrassment to his depiction as an absolute dictator. Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history wades straight into the controversy, exploring the whole range of Lincoln’s constitutional polices, as well as showing just who was jailed and why.    

According to Neely, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was a well-intentioned response to a flood tide of unforeseen events: the direct threat to Washington as Maryland flirted with secession, disintegrating public order in the border states, contraband trade with the South, corruption among army contractors, and the outcry against the first military draft in U.S. history. Drawing on letters from prisoners, records from military courts and federal prisons, as well as memoirs and archives, Neely paints a vivid picture of how Lincoln responded to these problems, how his policies were actually executed, and the virulent debates that followed. Lincoln emerges from this account with his legendary statesmanship intact—mindful of political realities, prone to temper the sentences of military courts, and more concerned with prosecuting the war effectively than with persecuting his opponents.Neely also explores abuses of power under a regime of martial law: the routine torture of suspected deserters, widespread anti-Semitism among Union generals and officials,and the common practice of seizing civilian hostages. He finds that though the system of justice was flawed, it suffered less from merciless zeal or political partisanship than from inefficiency and the complexities of modern war.

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Background Information

Habeas Corpus is a judicial writ requiring a government that is holding a person to show why they should be allowed to continue to do so. The Draft in the Civil War enabled men of means to buy their way out of military service, and was viewed as unfair by the lower classes.