Speaker sheds light on Lincoln’s actions during Civil War

An event that took place more than 150 years ago still has resonance today, according to Joseph Bellacosa, the keynote speaker at the Wilton Library Association’s annual meeting on Sunday, June 8.

A scholar, jurist and author, Mr. Bellacosa has served the legal profession in many capacities including as a judge, now retired, on the Court of Appeals in New York.

A genial speaker, he focused his remarks Sunday on President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which resulted in the authorized detention of hundreds of people without charges being pressed and no trial.

One of society’s most fundamental protections dating back to the Magna Carta, habeas corpus requires those arrested be brought to court for a judge to hear the charges against them.

Historians have debated whether Lincoln abused his presidential powers with this action since the power to suspend habeas corpus is within the legislative article of the Constitution. Mr. Bellacosa noted Congress was unable to convene, and years later approved the suspension.

Essentially surrounded by hostile troops in the nation’s capital, “Lincoln acted with the hand that was dealt to him,” Mr. Bellacosa said.

His actions did not escape criticism, and Mr. Bellacosa focused on a letter sent May 19, 1863 by Erastus Corning, mayor of Albany, N.Y., co-signed by a cadre of fellow Democrats, saying the president struck “a fatal blow to liberty.” They accused Lincoln of “presidential overreaching” and “presidential war crimes,” among other charges.

Safely ensconced far from the battlefield, these Democrats “did not come to terms with the exigencies of the moment,” Mr. Bellacosa said.

Lincoln replied a few weeks later with a lengthy letter in which he asked, “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”

The president, Mr. Bellacosa said, used the letter to shape public opinion on the matter at a time when hundreds of those arrested were escaping jail by getting orders of habeas corpus. Lincoln wanted to keep them in jail. They included many of those “wily agitators” as well as a number of politicians.

“Nothing is better known to history than that the courts of justice are utterly incompetent in such matters,” Lincoln wrote.

While Mr. Bellacosa was sympathetic to Lincoln’s position, it opened the door to copycatting.

Upon Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson, as president, suspended habeas corpus in the case of Mary Suratt, the widow who owned the house where John Wilkes Booth met with his co-conspirators.

“They took her right to the gallows within hours of Johnson suspending the writ,” Mr. Bellacosa said.

While he took the position that Lincoln acted unconstitutionally, “marginally” because he did not act in concert with Congress, Mr. Bellacosa nevertheless felt our 16th president acted properly “because he was forced, with no choice but to do all he could to save the Union.”

Mr. Bellacosa admires Lincoln, whom he described as “our best president.” He was a “peerless communicator,” outstanding lawyer, and “a marvelous, but all-too-human person as well.”