History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Ex parte Merryman and Debates on Civil Liberties During the Civil War
Historical Documents

Roger Taney to Franklin Pierce, June 12, 1861 (excerpt)

Taney’s challenge to President Lincoln brought words of support from former President Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat with political ties to the slaveholding states. The fragility of the Union in the spring of 1861 is evident in this letter in which the sitting Chief Justice of the United States freely acknowledges to a former President that he would prefer the secession of the Southern states to any military effort to preserve the United States.

[Document Source: “Some Papers of Franklin Pierce, 1852–1862,”
American Historical Review, 10 (January 1905): 368.]

Your cordial approbation of my decision in the case of the Habeas Corpus has given me sincere pleasure. In the present state of the public mind inflamed with passion and seeking to accomplish its object by force of arms, I was sensible of the grave responsibility which the case of John Merryman cast upon me. But my duty was plain—and that duty required me to meet the question directly and firmly, without evasion—whatever might be the consequences to myself.

The paroxysm of passion into which the country has suddenly been thrown, appears to me to amount almost to delirium. I hope that it is too violent to last long, and that calmer and more sober thoughts will soon take its place: and that the North, as well as the South, will see that a peaceful separation, with free institutions in each section, is far better than the union of all the present states under a military government, and a reign of terror preceded too by a civil war with all its horrors, and which end as it may will prove ruinous to the victors as well as the vanquished. But at present I grieve to say passion and hate sweep everything before them.


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