Seth Barrett Tillman

Ex Parte Merryman: Myth, History, and Scholarship

Military Law Review 481 2016

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in LawNew Books in Military HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network April 4, 2017 Ian J. Drake

Seth Barrett Tillman has written “Ex Parte Merryman: Myth, History and Scholarship,” an article about the famous case that is popularly thought to demonstrate...

Seth Barrett Tillman has written “Ex Parte Merryman: Myth, History and Scholarship,” an article about the famous case that is popularly thought to demonstrate a conflict between the President and the federal courts during the American Civil War. Tillman’s article is an effort to revise the standard historical understanding of the case called Ex Parte Merryman. In the spring of 1861, just as the hostilities had begun in the Civil War, famously issued an order to the U.S. Army granting army officials discretion to suspend the writ of habeas corpus if resistance or treasonous activity were encountered in Union territory. That spring, as soldiers poured into the Washington, D.C. area through Maryland, the Army was confronted with popular protests and violence by civilians. One suspect was John Merryman, a young man from a prominent Maryland family. Merryman hired lawyers to seek his release via the traditional method of asking the federal courts for an order to release Merryman pending his trial. However, Merryman was not initially released and was confined in Ft. McHenry, a military base near the port of Baltimore. The traditional account of the case portrays Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney as heroically seeking to vindicate the rights of a civilian prisoner wrongly held by the military and Lincoln as defying an order to comply with the Constitution.

In this podcast Professor Tillman, a lecturer in the Department of Law at Maynooth University in County Kildare, Ireland, discusses his arguments that the traditional account of the Merryman case is built upon multiple myths. If Tillman’s view of the case is correct, it holds the potential for overturning our understanding of this important period in constitutional history and civil-military relations.


Ian J. Drake is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University. His scholarly interests include American legal and constitutional history and political theory.
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