Interviewer: How did the Lincoln administration respond to dissent during the Civil War, and could you comment specifically on Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus?
Eric Foner: Well, as in all other wars, the Lincoln administration sometimes found civil liberties an inconvenience. Lincoln was much more careful and cautious about suspending basic civil liberties than some other wartime presidents have been in our history. But, nonetheless, there were certainly violations of civil liberties during the Civil War.
Habeas corpus—that is, basically, the right, if you're arrested, to have a charge lodged against you and to have a trial—was suspended a number of times during the war by the Lincoln administration. Suspending habeas corpus means you can just round people up, put them in jail, and throw away the key, and that's it. Lincoln did that first in Maryland right at the beginning of the war, but that was a military scene. There were riots in Maryland, there were people blowing up bridges to prevent Union troops from coming through Maryland, to protect Washington D.C., and Lincoln ordered the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus along the railroad line so that people who the military thought were saboteurs could just be rounded up. Later on, Lincoln will suspend the writ of habeas corpus throughout the whole North.
Lincoln was cautious, but nonetheless, certainly there were people arrested who were not a danger to anybody, but who were critics of the administration; probably the most famous case was Congressman Clement Valandingham of Ohio, who, after giving a fiery speech criticizing the Lincoln administration and the war in 1863, was arrested by General Burnside in Ohio. Lincoln didn't specifically order his arrest, but he defended it and justified it. Certain newspapers were suppressed temporarily in the North—the Chicago Times, for example, which criticized the administration strongly. Burnside again suppressed it; Lincoln eventually ordered that the Times be allowed to resume printing. There were arbitrary arrests in the North, but it's worth pointing out, of course, that, generally speaking, the press was free, there was tremendous criticism of the Lincoln administration all through the war.
Lincoln never considered suspending elections, even in 1864, when at one point he thought he was really going to lose, he never thought of canceling the election in order to keep the war going. There were violations, but what's different between Lincoln and some of our more recent presidents is that Lincoln discussed this intelligently and candidly in messages to Congress. He didn't just say, I have the right to do whatever I feel like because I'm the president, or because we're at war. He said, look, here's our dilemma: we have these liberties; on the other hand, the exercise of some of these liberties is endangering the whole structure of government. Do we recognize every single liberty and let the government fall, or do we violate one in order to save the government? Now, there are different answers to that question, but Lincoln at least put it out there as a legitimate point of debate, whereas subsequent or more recent governments have basically just said, look, we're just going to arrest people we don't like and that's tough without any philosophical discussion of what this means in a democracy or in a system of the rule of law.