Horace Binney and the Writ of Habeas Corpus: A New View

Open Access
Tobe, Jordan Leah
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Mark E Neely Jr., Thesis Supervisor
  • Dr. Michael James Milligan, Honors Advisor
  • Horace Binney
  • Writ of Habeas Corpus
  • Constitutional History
  • Lincoln
  • Suspension of the writ of habeas corpus
  • Civil War
The constitutionality of President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension the writ of habeas corpus during the American Civil War has been widely discussed and debated throughout Civil War history. In this history, the defense of Lincoln’s actions by one prominent Philadelphia lawyer, Horace Binney, usually gets only a brief mention. Somewhere in their quick overviews of Horace Binney’s habeas corpus argument, however, historians have ignored important information. For one thing, Binney’s political and personal background, which has not been widely discussed, lays a noteworthy foundation for his habeas corpus argument. Additionally, Binney’s argument was provoking enough that it elicited dozens of responses from his political opponents, Democratic lawyers. These Democratic responses have been more or less neglected in historiography. This project aims not only to delve deeper into why Binney argued in defense of the president the way that he did, but also to analyze the responses from his Democratic critics. Did these lawyers write in order to promote his broader political agenda? Was Horace Binney advocating for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as an authoritarian move as some historians have suggested? Is it fair to place all of the Democratic critics of Binney into one overarching, conservative, strict constitutionalist category? By examining and analyzing Binney’s argument along with the responses of his critics with party alignment in mind, a new perspective on the habeas corpus debate, and on constitutional debates of the Civil War in general, emerges.